What makes people reach for the camera upon arriving at a place they regard as having at least some measure of sightseeing value? What compels visitors to Venice to stand in front of a gondola, on the Bridge of Sighs, on St. Mark’s Square and take a picture of themselves – or have one taken? Apparently it does not suffice to be at this particular place on this particular day. It is not enough to see, hear, smell that they are here and not somewhere else. No, both need to be confirmed, the individual and the place, and one must symbolically take possession of them. This is so because neither the one nor the other is certain. In the image, in the sign, the two come to themselves and to one another. And this means, above all, that sense certainty is apparently only derived through mediated representations.

St. Mark’s Square, real and reflected

The galleries of the Fondazione Bevilacqua lie in the far corner of St. Mark’s Square, with the entrance hidden in the semi-darkness of the arcade. The venue is currently showing the exhibition “Migropolis. Venice – Atlas of a Global Situation”, created over the course of three years by Wolfgang Scheppe, philosopher at the school of architecture, art and design in Venice (IUAV), in collaboration with his students. And whereas the book of the same name (see SZ from October 8) was a rare example of what can be achieved with the means of photography, graphic design and essays, namely an exhaustive and analytical assessment of an international place of longing under the conditions of a radical, global money-based economy, the exhibition is something else as well: political art.

And more: a demonstration how art can be political and how non-political everything is that commonly gets declared to be political art. It is true that the exhibition contains many (by far not all) photographs that are also found in the book. But the premises are very different. After viewing the exhibits, the visitor leaves the spaces of the foundation and heads out onto St. Mark’s Square – to observe the very scenes he saw in the exhibition: the Senegalese who have spread out their knock-off designer purses on white cloths, the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh offering squishy flour-filled balloons, the Chinese tourists staging pictures of themselves in front of romantic backdrops. And yet the conditions of seeing have changed. The visitor now knows what he is seeing because he just saw the picture (and read the caption). In the doubling of the seen, the gaze reverses direction and is no longer aimed at the image, but back at what was photographed. And the visitor sees everything already familiar to him, but he now sees them anew, with understanding.

This approach could be practiced in all places of symbolic importance. In Venice, however, it encounters ideal circumstances. After all, it is not true that the tourist journeys from one place to another to see something new. In fact, he travels to see what he already knows, and the 21 million people who come this year to stand on Piazza San Marco bring their images of the square along with them (whereupon the self-taken pictures then become evidence of consummated parity). And even the Senegalese immigrant, having overcome the gravest of dangers to reach Venice based on the firm conviction that everyone in Europe is rich and he too can be one of them, knows the city as a mere postcard, as a surprisingly small iconic repertoire of itself. For both groups, Venice is reduced to a few characteristics that await confirmation. Yet the exhibition destroys this fixation. It opens the gaze. It manages to achieve what aesthetic modernism promised but left unfulfilled since its inception a hundred years ago: It shatters patterns of perception.

Wolfgang Scheppe and his team did their utmost to enable such dissolution and disintegration. They affixed their photographs directly onto the wall without any frames. Frames would have elevated them from their environment, made them into works of art and suppressed the surrounding context, whereas the whole point is to rediscover the reality behind the disintegrated patterns. In all their documentary simplicity, however, they function as immediate identity, “quick as a shot” (Friedrich Schelling) and directly conducive to intellectual intuition.

The artifice of data images

Conversely, the graphics documenting travel routes and income levels, border crossings and police measures, economic infrastructure and consumer behavior have been mounted in seemingly simple frames, as an ironic reference to the artifice of such data images. And even the seriality of the photographs, the long image sequences, serve a purpose: By portraying an occurrence over a span of time, they prevent it from becoming independent as an image.

With aesthetic means that recall Guy Debord and the idea of the “Situationists”, employing all artistic genres and techniques to develop revolutionary “force fields”, evidence is thus created – transportable elements of proof possessing all characteristics of authenticity that reveal a condition of the world with seemingly intrinsic efficacy. Or more precisely: they provide the mind with ample food for thought. And then leave it alone, for thinking is something the mind is capable of doing itself.

For this is the affliction of political art such as we know it: from Isa Genzken to Luigi Nono up to Juli Zeh, it exhausts itself in pointing out real or perhaps only putatively intolerable conditions. It considers it sufficient to demonstrate misery – in order to then imploringly, accusingly, demandingly turn to policymakers or the world public and call for conditions to change. Which does not happen, of course, but this does not matter because the good conscience of resistance has long set in.

The political appeal with aesthetic means is hence the opposite of political art, and the surprising newness, the exceptional analytical character of “Migropolis” can be measured in the degree to which the exhibition relies on evidence, so much so that it even forgoes a large part of the explanatory texts compared to the book. At the end, after two or three hours, a visitor has gained a way of seeing, not merely understanding, how money subjugates the city, how the material excess in western countries represents the flip side to poverty in the Third World, how the two dominant migratory movements of the present day, tourism and illegal immigration, are related to one another – and what this city means in light of all of this, including the industrial wasteland on the “terra ferma” that belongs to the globalized metropolis of Venice as the disused industrial expanses in New Jersey belong to Manhattan. For the will to change must be preceded by an awareness of where things stand.

Venice has become a sign, a real abstraction. It has been reduced to a handful of images, with the rest transformed into mere atmosphere. The photographs that tourists record of their own presence in this city are evidence of this metamorphosis, and the gigantic advertising billboards that currently envelop large sections of the Doge’s Palace are proof of the close relationship of the cult of images in advertising and city; in the brand, in the presented appearance that has become a logo, both are embraced. Yet “Migropolis” constitutes a modern example of iconoclasm in guiding the focus from the image back to the depicted, in the stories of immigrants for whom the city is less something to be experienced than to be used, but also in insisting that behind or underneath the “society of spectacle” (Guy Debord) there lies another city, a place that has not yet become an image of itself. Of its beauty, there can be no doubt.

“Migropolis”, Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua, through December 6

At the beginning of the exhibition “Migropolis”, the town sign “Venezia” on the Ponte della Libertà, the sole point of entry to the city by land, was covered over with the banner “Inside Only To Buy”. The banner hung for three days before being removed by the authorities.