An interview with Raf Valvola & Gomma
by Christophe Becker
– You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir.
– Yes, I used a machine gun.
The Italian Job, 1969
Children of the Italian anarcho-communist scene, Gomma (Ermanno Guarneri) and Ralf Valvola (Raf Scelsi) founded their own underground magazine in 1987 and named it Decoder after the 1984 movie. Influenced by the programmatic texts of William S. Burroughs, science fiction novels and the rise of computer culture and new technologies, Decoder was soon to become representative of the new activist groups in Europe.
If the word “cyberpunk”—coined by Bruce Bethke—was used by Katie Hafner and John Markoff to designate the hacker milieu1, only the Decoder collective seems to efficiently build a bridge between hackers, the cyberpunk movement and industrial culture, between both reality and fiction.
Decoder, by Klaus Maeck, Muscha, Volker Schäfer and Trini Trimpop, despite its limited audience and commercial failure, was now becoming a cult classic.
Christophe Becker: Do you remember when and where you first saw the movie Decoder by Klaus Maeck, Muscha, Volker Schäfer and Trini Trimpop?
Gomma: We organized the première of the movie in Italy in the courtyard of a squat called Leoncavallo. We projected it in 16mm.
Raf Valvola: It was in 1985.
G.: We knew Decoder from an article in the English fanzine Vague. It was one of the most important punk/post-punk fanzines.
R. V.: The lettering of Vague was quite similar to the lettering of Vogue. The editor in chief was Tom Vague, he came from the post-punk scene in London. He was very involved politically and had a very situationist approach to reality. For instance, he did texts on the Angry Brigades and the bombings by post situationists in London. Vague included material on psychic control, William Burroughs, Decoder… We came from the punk scene. Gomma is a little younger than I am but we come from the same milieu. Around 1985 we thought of producing a counterculture magazine, and decided to name it after Decoder.
C. B.: How important was your meeting with Klaus Maeck? Did you have the opportunity to meet the rest of the crew?
G.: We didn’t meet the actors. I met some people from Einstürzende Neubauten later because of their relationship with Klaus. At the same time I was in touch with Genesis P-Orridge. We sent each other emails. It was around 1998, 1999.
R. V.: We also went to Brighton where there was a [TOPY] temple; this is where we discussed the publication of the Correct Saddist by Terence Sellers 2, we discussed the rights, the illustrations, the collages made by Genesis P-Orridge to publish them together; the book had already been published by Genesis through Temple Press. Sellers was a professional dominatrix in the 1980s. I met Genesis P-Orridge in 1992 in San Francisco, I was there to make contact with the people from Mondo 2000. We were trying to connect the different scenes: the cyberpunks all around the world.
G.: Orridge had the largest archives on William Burroughs in the world.
R. V.: Also considerable Fluxus archives.
G.: By the way, there is this anthology edited by Bruce Sterling some months ago. I do not know if it’s exclusively in the Italian edition but there are some lines on the importance of the Decoder collective for the international cyberpunk scene [Decoder is indeed mentioned by Francesco Guglieri in the Italian edition of Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Revolution, and Evolution, Underland Press, 2019].
R. V.: There were these long texts written by Sterling for the magazine i-D in the early 1990s. He and William Gibson talked about the importance of our group. They called us “anarcho-situationists,” “Italian cyberpunks.” And Burroughs was also significant for the cyberpunk scene, not only for the counter culture aspect but for the building of the BBS network3. Burroughs was one of the few thinkers whose discourse included the electronic revolution. The books Ah Pook Is Here  or The Electronic Revolution [1970/71], as well as the cutup technique with Brion Gysin, this was the bedrock of a new conception of communication that we experimented in the 1980s and 1990s.
G.: In the movie Decoder, there are scenes in which you see Burroughs meddling with recorders, trying to set up new ways to communicate, to build technology and to transform it into something new: this is the way historical hackers handled technology. The character tore computers and transformed them into something else. This is the reason why, in my opinion, Burroughs’ apprehension of technology was later inherited by the cyberpunk scene.
C. B.: If memory serves, Maeck introduced you to Wau Holland and members of the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin.
G.: It was in Hamburg.
R. V.: Yes, in Hamburg.
G.: I went to see Klaus in Hamburg in 1989. Klaus introduced me to Wau Holland, and together we recorded an interview of Holland. Part of it is in Klaus’ new movie that was released some months ago [Alles ist eins. Ausser der 0]. The Chaos Computer Club was very inspirational to us because they weren’t anything like American hackers. They had a European perspective. We became friends with Wau. We invited him three times in Italy. He was a political figure, in a sense. We almost shared the exact same view on technology. American hackers can be mental… They focus on individuality; the European hackers, at least in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were more political. They figured technology was interlocked with companies. The relationship with Wau was easier. We worked with the Chaos Computer Club, we went several times to their congresses in Hamburg in which for the first time we saw hundreds of young people working on computers, they were very creative and politically aware. It was in 1991 or 1992… I admired their open-mindedness. They invited members of the cyberpolice. I saw with my own eyes several policemen talking in public, sharing their position on computing. I was astonished. I asked Wau why they had chosen to invite these people, he said that they were not afraid even though they were convinced the German Federal Intelligence Service had infiltrated the meetings. He wanted to go public. For me, it was a valuable lesson. Me, I was afraid of the police. But it was true: technology involves everyone, every single part of society.
R. V.: An important topic for us was how to put together the world wide web. It was technical as well as political. The position of the Chaos Computer Club was very astute: to avoid the possibility of censorship or of control exerted by the police, they proposed to build the net like a rhizome. It was the first time in the history of the network that someone had a horizontal approach, a neural network without a center. It was an anarchic understanding of the network. They called it Cerberus, after the three-headed dog in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Gomma mentioned the importance of transparency, it was a decisive lesson taught by the Chaos Computer Club, and we tried to abide by it. New questions arose, privacy, for instance, or the technological divide, the question of copyright. It was discussed abundantly during the congresses. They proved it was possible to organize a debate on such issues. We debated with Stefano Rodotà and started studying… Technology, obviously, but philosophy as well, sociology, politics, economy, how technology takes its toll on society. People from the Chaos Computer Club were our role models.
C. B.: Did you have the opportunity to talk about Burroughs? Did they know about him?
R. V.: No. But we had five publications by Burroughs: the first was the translation of Re/Search…
C. B.: You’re talking about Shake Edizioni?
R. V.: Exactly. We founded it in 1988. It still exists [laughs]. The collective existed before that, we had started to work together in 1980 or 1981… The first publication was the translation of the Re/Search issue about Burroughs and Gysin4. I had met [V.] Vale and [Andrea] Juno in San Francisco. Then we did another book with texts by William Burroughs, it was High Risk5, it was an anthology edited by Ira Silverberg—he was William Burroughs’ private secretary. The third book was Il pasto nudo, a comic book drawn by Professor Bad Trip (Gianluca Lerica). Each page was a masterpiece, it was an adaptation of Naked Lunch. We also added an interview of Fernanda Pivano. She was a writer, responsible for bringing the Beat Generation writers and poets to the Italian literary scene in the 1960s, she helped diffuse Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and, of course, William Burroughs. She had massive archives really, with thousands and thousands of photographs of William Burroughs and the Beat Generation. She told us Burroughs was a master of science fiction. He wasn’t a tragical writer—that’s how we commonly considered him in Italy—no…. He was the master of science fiction, and Naked Lunch was science fiction, dystopic, of course. Finally, we had hundreds of t-shirts with the face of William Burroughs as drawn by Professor Bad Trip, many people wore that t-shirt. It was another way of spreading the presence of William Burroughs in the Italian counterculture. Then there was Decoder of course, we took our ideas from Burroughs, he was a constant presence in the magazine, especially during the first year.6
C. B.: You interviewed William Gibson for Decoder #7 (1992) and Bruce Sterling for Decoder #8 (1993)… Did you ever have the opportunity to interview Burroughs?
R. V.: No, never. We met Timothy Leary but not Burroughs [laughs]. In Venice we met Marvin Minsky. We met Terence McKenna. To me, Burroughs was really like a star and seemed impossible to reach.
C. B.: How was it meeting William Gibson?
R. V.: We met him in Linz, Austria, in 1990, it was in September during Ars Electronica. All the new scene was there, from Minsky to McKenna, there was Juno from Re/Search, Gibson, all the cyberpunks. It was a unique occasion.
C. B.: Did Burroughs know about your magazine?
R. V.: I don’t know. Gibson knew about it, I don’t know about Burroughs. But when we worked for Feltrinelli, a big publishing company in Italy, around 1985, we started publishing books regarding the social impact of technology. The name of the series was “Interzone”—after Burroughs, obviously.
C. B.: You seem to have instantly linked Burroughs’ work with the cyberpunk movement, how do you explain this choice? Was it always obvious to you?
G.: It was probably because of our literary roots. For example, when I met J. G. Ballard, I saw that big picture of William Burroughs in his house… I remember, we talked about Burroughs and he confirmed he was, in essence, a science fiction writer. Just like Philip K Dick, another great interpreter of reality.
R. V.: Or Stanislav Lem [laughs].
G.: So I believe it was quite natural.
C. B.: You seem to have immediately made a connection between hackers and cyberpunk, reality and fiction…
R. V.: The protagonists from Gibson’s and Sterling’s novels eventually popped into existence. We were the individuals they had accurately described; we were into technology, we came from the anarcho-communist scene in Italy… We were college students and had the proper intellectual tools, not to mention we were young. When you’re young you blend things quite easily. And we had a collective that constantly talked things over. For example, our magazine Decoder… We started early on Monday and finished at four in the morning—everytime. I was studying philosophy, Gomma political science, another was an expert on network and computers, a fourth was an economist, another one came in from urbanistic and scenographic design, put all this together and you obtain a strange combination. Every Monday we invited experts from other magazines. We did not know how society would turn out, but we knew there was a change going on. We tried to understand what was happening. And we were very broad-minded. We yearned for political transformation.
R. V.: I came from socialist and libertarian groups. And I haven’t changed.
G.: I was more involved with counterculture. I was influenced by the Bolognese scene and people like Bifo (Franco Berardi) who was one of the leaders of the movement in 1977 and a member of Radio Alice before it was closed down by the police. I republished Alice è il diavolo together with Bifo.7 I then got closer to the punk scene, their political course of action was more practical than ideological. We squatted and organized some sorts of collective laboratories to make music, organize concerts or theatre performances, or to produce fanzines. I was into communication; even before computers I was convinced that it was decisive for political action. Then, in the middle of the 80s, we started this place called Helter-Skelter after the song by The Beatles, and Psychic TV. The idea was to create an avant-garde place in Milan, and for a couple of years this place really functioned. We invited the most stimulating performance artists and musicians from all over the world—not for money. For example, we invited Henry Rollins from Black Flag, Étant Donnés from France, we organized a gig for Sonic Youth and projected the movie Decoder. After this, I started working on computers. It was very useful to us and it certainly was one of the triggers that helped us create our magazine. We did not want to make a fanzine but a magazine, and we didn’t have the money. Computers were valuable to create the right typesets ourselves, we could reach professional quality with a very low-budget.
C. B.: You said you both come from the punk scene…
G.: Yes. Me, for sure. I don’t know about Raf.
R. V.: [laughs hard] Yes, I was part of the punk scene but I don’t know if I ever was a punk. It’s more intricate than that.
G.: It was spread all over the country, I’m talking about the 1980s because at the beginning they were too much influenced by the English and hadn’t acquired a real identity. I think 70% of it happened in squats. There were lots of very important bands like Negazione and Indigesti, bands from Turin, Milan, Trieste, Bologna, Rome… There was a band called Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers in Pisa, Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys said they were the best punk hard-core band in the world, it was around 1984.
R. V.: After London, the scene was both German and Italian, with many people involved in squatting.
G.: Squatting was the main characteristic of the Italian scene. People squatted not because they needed shelter. If you don’t squat you pay a rent, you have rules, you must respect the law and so on. It ended up being an obstacle to the creative process. In the 1970s the movement was so strong in Italy, it became a real problem for the music business: people didn’t want to pay to go to a concert. At the same time, a new scene was born creating places where music could be listened to as one pleases. We paid the bands, but nobody else earned any money. We grossed some cash from selling beer—but it was cheap. I got so used to this kind of concerts that even now I have difficulties going to commercial places. I’ve learnt that it’s possible to share culture even if you don’t pay, so I don’t go to bars. This lasted for 10 years, all along the 80s, and it created the so-called “social centers” in Italy.
R. V.: Please consider three elements: the free radios, which were an extremely important experience in Italy at the end of the 70s, then the social squattings influenced by the punk scene, finally the free music performed there. This is our background. This is the substance of TAZ, or temporary autonomous zones. I’m not sure Hakim Bey got the idea from any Italian experience, but we had these temporary autonomous zones. The BBS became the electronic TAZ at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s. The generation from 1977 didn’t want to live through 1968 again, they wanted something new.
C. B.: I seem to recall that you had problems with the police? For the cyberpunk anthology?
G.: We were under surveillance, still we didn’t have actual problems—apart from the paranoia. For instance, we were the subjects of two reports by the secret services. They reckoned we were a menace.
C. B.: Did you have access to these reports?
R. V.: Yes. They were public. They were published by the Parliament, it was in 92, or 93 I think.
G.: Our conversations were probably recorded.
R. V.: [to Gomma] You remember the Pecci Museum?8 The congress about hacking and privacy…? Some fat guy came to me after my speech, he’d been hiding behind a pillar. He told me “Raf, can I talk to you?” He said, “Sorry Raf, but I’m part of the team that kept tabs on your group for two years. I can tell you now that it’s over and we’re going back to Rome. I’m on the same page as the Decoder collective, it was just a job.” I don’t know if he was telling the truth. Gomma, you remember Johnny? His home was raided…? People broke into his house to search his computer.
C. B.: We talked about Burroughs and Gibson, now what about Genesis P-Orridge?
R. V.: I have a souvenir right here. At the time when TOPY was producing these videos, VHS tapes [showing his throat]. You can’t see it anymore but I have a cut. We were watching the videos and I wasn’t feeling so well, I went to the kitchen, feeling woozy… I fainted and broke the window. The glass cut my throat. They took me to the hospital. That was my reaction to the videos. There was blood all around the kitchen. After that we stayed in Hackney. GEN wasn’t there. There was his room with a dentists’ chair. It was creepy. I was always cautious with him.
G.: There was something relating to an aesthetic level, typical of the mid 80s. I loved industrial music and Throbbing Gristle. I loved the rave scene and Psychic TV. I liked his attitude. He/she was an avant-garde artist. His perception of magic was quite riveting as well, it was very similar to Burroughs’. You need magic when you have no other possibility, when you lack power. I appreciated him very much. When my father died in 1995 he wrote me a very intense email. He was close to people and never acted like a star. He never was standoffish.
1. See Katie HAFNER & John MARKOFF, Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1991.
2. The Correct Sadist. The Memoirs of Angel Stern. With Illustrations by Genesis P-Orridge.
3. Or bulletin board system.
4. Re/Search #4/5: William S. Burroughs / Brion Gysin / Throbbing Gristle, San Francisco, RE/Search Publications, 1982.
5. High Risk: An Anthology of Forbidden Writings, with contributions by Bob Flanagan, Kathy Acker, Terence Sellers, William S. Burroughs among others.
6. In addition, Gomma and R. Valvola organized several screenings of Thanksgiving Day (with the voice of William Burroughs), dubbed live by Primo Moroni (1990/94), including at the opening of The international theater festival of Santarcangelo in 1990.
7. Alice è il diavolo. Storia di una radio sovversiva, a book about Radio Alice.
8. Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, in Prato, Tuscany.
Ralf Valvola, Gomma, Clémentine Hougue, Noëlle Batt