Letter on Venice
Jim Cocola / n+1 mag, USA / 1|4|2011
Often it seems that Venice is a city of ghosts and guests. But ultimately, while one can learn about a city like Venice from the many famous residents and visitors who have left records of their impressions—from Casanova and Vivaldi to Ruskin and Wagner—such learning would be incomplete without a corresponding lesson from the ever dwindling number of contemporary inhabitants (whose number recently dipped below 60,000). In this second category falls Wolfgang Scheppe’s Migropolis, a brilliant two-volume set that describes its analysis of Venice as an “Atlas of a Global Situation.” Scheppe, an artist, designer, and philosopher, produced Migropolis in conjunction with artists and students from a small graduate workshop devoted to the “politics of representation” at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia.
Melding qualitative accounts with quantitative evidence, Migropolis is a seductive book not only for its photographs, but also for its charts, graphs, and maps, which cover a vast range of topics: air passenger traffic, billboards, cargo traffic, cruise ships, the nuances of global investment, the dimensions of human trafficking, and the militarization of the border, among many others. Following the lead of Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas, Scheppe and his charges extend the seminar-cum-case-study into a truly interdisciplinary sphere that should provide a model for works of cultural geography to come. As the recent work on culturomics by Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Leberman Aiden demonstrates, the age of data has arrived. If one cannot depend on humanists to take data into account, one can only hope that more social scientists will make further forays into the humanities.
Data represents in Migropolis, but it does not rule. Juxtaposed with the numbers are suites of photographs devoted to city parks, cosplay, and street vendors, as well as interviews with numerous “case studies” of all ages, occupations, and origins, representing a wide swath of immigrant and tourist Venice. Along the way we meet an Albanian interpreter, an Egyptian pizza maker, a Jordanian kebab shop owner, a Senegalese glassmaker, and a Stateless student, among many others. They are some of the inhabitants—or, at least, some of the commuters—of the city of the poor, which Migropolis distinguishes from the city of the rich. Whereas the eleven nations that send the most tourists to Venice account for 61 percent of world GDP and 47 percent of world oil consumption, the eleven nations that send the most immigrants to Venice account for 1 percent of GDP and 2 percent of oil consumption. Once upon a time, the wealthiest residents of Venice feasted on meat, and the rest of the city fed upon the offal; today the economies are much more thoroughly segregated, and in fact the city of the poor no longer lives in the historic center of Venice at all. For the most part the city of the poor has been removed from the lagoon and on the mainland of the Veneto, stretching from Mestre to Padua and beyond.
As for the dozens of Chinese being serenaded in gondolas? Migropolis teaches us that most of Venice’s—and, indeed, much of Europe’s—Chinese diaspora originates from Wenzhou; reminds us that Venice was the site of the original situationist derive; and returns us to the century-old reverberation of Marinetti’s futurist call for the destruction of the city he decried as “past-loving Venice.” That reverberation is weakly heard today, for Venice seems to be loved in a proportion that is unrivaled by other major urban tourist destinations. While the proportion of inhabitants to visitors is over 20 to 1 in Paris, and just under 10 to 1 in London and New York, it is fast approaching parity in Venice, with the current ratio nearing 5 to 4.
Stat facts are nice, but essays are relatively scarce in Migropolis: in addition to Scheppe’s contribution, there are offerings from Giorgio Agamben, Valeria Burgio, and Angela Vettese. Agamben considers Venice as the representative site of the refugee, which he extrapolates as the default condition of the present moment. In an odd and ultimately empty gesture toward the rehabilitation of city-states along the lines of the Venetian Republic, he makes a pitch for “reciprocal extraterritoriality,” which would seem to be a self-negating proposition. Meanwhile, in identifying Venice as a “Generic City,” 2011 Burgio suggests that Venice is best taken, in the terms of Migropolis, as “a terrain of privileged observation from which one can infer global dynamics and anticipate trends.”
Is it really so? Has Venice become a city that tells us less about itself than it does about everywhere else? Does that make it a city like (or, rather, unlike) any other? Calvino’s Invisible Cities suggested as much, through the person of Marco Polo. But who needs to read? You could always travel to Venice and see for yourself: Carnival has just passed, but the next Biennale is always on the horizon. Of course, you need not take the trouble, for as Henry James famously noted, Venice “of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there.” The corollary must be that of all the cities of the world, Venice is the most difficult to visit upon arrival.