Migropolis. Venice / Atlas of a Global Situation
Thomas Kong / Design Issues published by MIT Press Journals, Vol. 28 #1, USA / 0|1|2012
Migropolis: Venice/Atlas of a Global Situation is an ambitious and expansive two-volume work centered on Venice as the prototypical city confronting the forces of globalization and mobility in the 21st century. Conceived and led by Professor Wolfgang Scheppe, with assistance from his students from the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Venice, the editorial team has meticulously assembled a rich and diverse compilation of maps, diagrams, interviews, photographs, charts and essays to present the interplay and impact of these two phenomena on the city. The multi-faceted nature, scale and gravity of the concerns raised in Migropolis demand that we approach the work with a degree of care and patience. Scheppe aptly titles the two volumes an Atlas, a term that alludes to the enormous responsibility that the Greek god of the same name has to bear in carrying the world on his shoulders. The atlas as a visual condensation of the world into the pages of a book also recalled my early sense of wonder as I imagined other cities, cultures, and landscapes unfolding before me when I held my first world atlas in my hands.
This recognition of the ‘other’ from a distant land, speaking and writing a foreign language, as well as carrying a different tradition and culture from mine came to the fore as I read the interviews, examined the photographs, traced the lines of migration to Venice and the lines of flight of Venice as a brand outwards into the far corners of the globe. In addition, Scheppe and his team were also concerned with a second subject in the work - “an examination of whether there is visual knowledge and whether images have an explanatory potential, and if so, then how” and “its capacity to create knowledge.”1 The photographic images were taken and presented without sentimentality.
I was drawn to the matter-of-fact visual explanation of objects, people and spaces in Venice and the many Venices beyond the city’s geographical limits. The images came across as records of fleeting moments captured in the city, such as the empty corrugated boxes piled up against an advertising stand or a tourist haggling over the price of a bootlegged designer handbag with a street vendor. In an age of visual overload, branding and digital manipulation of the image to seduce and misled, the images in the Atlas were at once informing and redemptive in spirit. This was especially apparent in the Case Studies, where the images took on an unconventional role and became silent partners with the text by offering moments of quietude between the transcribed interviews.
The myriad photographs ranging in scales from overhead views of large industrial complexes to intimate insights of migrants’ homes and their lives portrayed the many diverse facets of the city taken from different perspectives. The shift in scale was particularly effective in situations when a significant point in the narrative needed to be brought to the reader’s attention by a visual crescendo.
For example, in the sub-chapter on The Big Mc Attack, a series of nondescript foreground shots of McDonald franchises turned into an expanded view of Saint Mark’s Square in the summer populated by tourists consuming large amount of fast food and leaving the trash strewn across the ground. On the other hand, the personal stories of struggle to reach Venice as an illegal immigrant, “When the guard at the border asked me to put twenty in my passport, I was really afraid of not being able to pass.”2 the shattering of dreams when confronted by the reality of survival as a non-person, “Many people cry when they get here.”3 and coming to terms with the cultural dislocations, “When we arrive here, we take off our African clothes and put on our European ones. When we go back home, we put our African clothes back on again.”4 were powerful stories that linger in my mind after reading Migropolis. When juxtaposed against the lightness of the responses from tourists to questions posed by Scheppe’s team, “We want to visit the most beautiful places. We want to experience Italian culture and buy some presents.”5 the jarring disconnect and contradictory existences of the flotsam constituencies swept together and co-existing within the bubble of Venice were powerful reminders of the current upheavals across social, cultural, economic, and political spheres brought on by globalization and mobility. The work also foretold of their potential escalations if we remain indifferent. Interestingly, I read Migropolis a few weeks after returning from Singapore. Smacked right underneath the atrium of the ultra modern shopping mall in the downtown were the iconic Venetian canal and gondolas, albeit more streamlined to complement the sleek modern interior. The mall is part of the brand new Marina Bay Sands “integrated resort” aka casino developed by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which also owns the Venetian in Las Vegas and the Venetian Macao in the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, among other casinos. The malleability of spaces and meanings, besides the fluid mobility of goods, capital, information and human beings across porous national boundaries in an age of globalization render a sense of familiarity yet alienation for me when confronted with the replica of the shallow canal and empty gondolas in an hermetically sealed interior environment in Singapore. Scheppe’s work in Migropolis therefore calls to our urgent attention with clarity and force what the perceptive among us sense and recognize with great disconcert as we live our lives in this milieu.
The contents of the two volumes are organized systematically in the form of a Monopoly game board that conveys both territory and economy. It follows the Situationists’s fascination with rules and game theory as revealed in the book. A graphic explanation of the work’s structure and organization can be found in Volume 1 and consists of seven streets that serve as the overarching themes, with chapters and sub-chapters branching off from the streets. A parallel website of the same name (http://www.migropolis.com) extends the life of the print-based media into cyberspace. It is here that I believe the structure and navigation of the website may offer a more dynamic, networked and participatory experience that the book can potentially evolve into. The web-based environment allows readers from different parts of the world to upload, share, and discuss their thoughts on the issues raised and hopefully inspire local actions to mitigate them.
Unlike the Monopoly game board where the actions of throwing the dice and picking up Chance and Community Chest cards take place in the center, the center of the book structure in the graphic representation is empty, either as a black space in the web, which returns you to the home page when one taps on it or simply left blank in the print version. This empty center can either be an abyss or the potential for something unexpected to happen. For me, it is a powerful metaphor for the yet to be written futures of globalized cities. Scheppe and his team have compiled and presented to us overwhelming facts, evidences, stories and a timely caution in Migropolis. However, as Marco Polo reminded the Great Khan in the last page of the well beloved book, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino in how to escape the infernal city, it is up to us, as caretakers of cities to “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the mist of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
1 Wolfgang Scheppe, Migropolis: Venice/Atlas of a Global Situation (Hatje Cantz: Germany, 2010), 1316.
2 Ibid., 69.
3 Ibid., 89.
4 Ibid., 91.
5 Ibid., 81.
6 “Migropolis. Venice/Atlas of a Global Situation,” http://www.migropolis.com (accessed May 2, 1011).
7 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Pan Books Ltd.: London, 1974), 127.