The Atlas of a Globalized World A visual demonstration of the present
Thomas Steinfeld / Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany / 8|10|2009
When the English writer and art historian John Ruskin compiled his thoughts and observations about Venice in 1851 in the monumental work “The Stones of Venice”, there was one thought that most struck his contemporaries: his clear preference for Byzantine and Gothic art over the architecture of the Renaissance.
The latter represented conventio and symmetry, he declared, while the former stood for strength, fidelity and spirituality. Needless to say, the illusory nature of this art and technique did not escape his notice: At best ten centimetres thick, the marble facades are a mere shell concealing the profane, raw and unhewn.
The nature of a society and how it views and addresses itself, John Ruskin wrote, can be recognized in these façades. They arose after an oligarchy of the hereditary nobility took hold in Venice toward the end of the thirteen century, excluding the great majority of the population from all politics, amassing all power, splendour and glory for itself alone – and becoming manifested in architectural ornamentation that was as powerful as it was false.
John Ruskin was the first scholar to come up with the idea of reading a city and investigating how society is embodied in its buildings, in its streets and in its public squares. Others subsequently took up this notion, and even re-applied it to Venice.
Such as the philosopher Georg Simmel, who at the beginning of the twentieth century saw in Venice “a merely lifeless stage set, the mendacious beauty of the mask”.
Yet then the thought got lost, and as more years went by and as Venice developed into one of the biggest focal points of international tourism, the more the façade took on a life of its own: as a living monument of a unique historical constellation that is preserved on a scale like no other relic in the world. The German philosopher, curator and creative director Wolfgang Scheppe, who teaches at the school of architecture, art and design in Venice (IUAV), has now put out a book that measures up to John Ruskin’s “Stones of Venice” and not just in terms of size.
Together with assistants and students from his class on the “Politics of Representation” he spent three years creating a documentation that seems to capture almost all the cultural, social, political and economic developments in the city, in thousands of photographs, in essays and interviews, in statistics and motion profiles, in graphs and diagrams.
“Migropolis” is the name of the book; and it bears its subtitle with good cause: “Venice - Atlas of a Global Situation” (Hatje/Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2009. 1344 pages, 68 euros). For it is precisely this: an atlas of globalization, which recharts a city of world renown.
For “The Stones of Venice”, John Ruskin visited eight hundred churches in order to meticulously record their construction and art.Wolfgang Scheppe and his team performed a similar feat for contemporary Venice. And what emerges is not art history, but a current picture of a city that is global in the truest sense of the word, criss-crossed by countless channels, as it were, occupied by the flows of money, power and people that make up the present state of the world, as seen in the counterfeited Louis Vuitton handbags, the Moldavian housecleaner, the Chinese tourist and the illegal immigrant from Senegal.
It is also seen in the cruise ships and souvenir shops, in the idle industrial zones of Mestre and the Coca-Cola vending machines that the beverage company sought to install all over the city through a specially negotiated contract with the municipal government.
John Ruskin used a ladder to inspect the unworked hidden side of the tomb for the doge Andrea Vendramin. Something similar transpires in Wolfgang Scheppe’s work: One looks behind the façade, sees the falsehood and is instantly impregnated – and not only against the “ignorant sentimentalism” (Georg Simmel) of the admiration for Venice. For instance, what about the advertisements, starting with the gigantic billboards imposed on the buildings of St. Mark’s Square and filtering down to the posters on the public garbage bins, which transform all of Venice into a display surface?
For the largest placards, a monthly fee of seventy thousand euros has to be paid to the company that administers the real and potential advertising spaces on behalf of the city while ten small posters go for two euros each (subject to a long-term contract). And this vast business only works because of the masses of tourists that circulate through Venice can be treated as a commercially exploitable public, whereby the finite space of this “centro storico” and the resulting total presence and inevitability of advertising disproportionately increases its economic value.
“Migropolis” documents the number and size of billboards on a map in numerous variations and records their impact and economic significance in an accompanying commentary. How about the cruise ships that drop anchor at Venice? The largest hotel in the city offers 85 guestrooms, while a ship offers up to several thousand cabins.
At the same time, when the passengers go ashore they spend more money in the shops and with the street hawkers than travellers who arrive by other means: The short stay in such a symbolically loaded place has to be symbolically validated through the likewise symbolically inflated purchase of a symbolically valuable object (the – perhaps fake – bag from Louis Vuitton, the necklace from Chopard, the glasses from Armani).
Hundreds of such stories are told in this work, and each one leaves the reader with a profound sense of unease, the distressing concern that it should not be happening like this but happen like this it does. “Migropolis” is an eye-opener. Hence the many images.
In New York, an average of 251 people live on a thousand square metres. In respect to the same area, the city receives 27 visitors per day. In Paris, the proportion is nine visitors to 205 inhabitants. In Venice: 56 to 75. This quite grotesque ratio between an ever-shrinking inner-city population and an ever-mightier swell of tourists has long defined the city down to each and every brick.
And this is the reason for an expanded “collateral economy”, which makes Venice a central magnet within Europe for (illegal) immigrants.
“They have emigrated in search of work and upon reaching Europe encounter a zone in which work as well as their very existence are forbidden to them,” reads the scholarly, clever and not least, political foreword by Wolfgang Scheppe. “The sole remaining option of an autopoietic market is dependent on passers-by in the public realm. It can only exist in metropolitan centres of tourism.”
As a result, Venice has become a city on the border of Europe, at the junction of the two biggest streams of migrants, the tourists and the immigrants, under radically unequal conditions, at a place of extreme polarization and utmost escalation of the global economy.
Just to cite one example, where do the T-shirts with the colourful logos come from that are sold to visitors on Saint Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge for ten euros apiece? From Bangladesh, for instance, a country that produces many (illegal) immigrants because the native subsistence economy and the global economy mutually preclude one another.
Along these lines, Venice is a “dual city”, one of the globalized metropolises in which a far-reaching, usually ethnically marked social fissure is no longer an expression of some sort of “crisis”, but a necessary and sustained consequence of an economic system.
And as such, contrary to all cultural romanticism, the city must be taken seriously: For Venice may be an inhabitable and accessible monument, connected only by a bridge with the dormitory towns, shopping centres and industrial zones of the “terra ferma”. But doesn’t this separation replicate, in radicalized form, the relationship between an iconic city and urban agglomeration that characterizes every metropolis – except that here it can hark back to nearly a thousand years of history?
One more aspect needs to be mentioned, and it is not the least important point: “Migropolis” is also a work of art, and this is not simply due to the artistic and vivid way of working with photographs and graphic illustrations, with typography and serial figures. It is also not merely due to the fact that the photographs in particular, perhaps because they usually come in the form of photo series, possess a highly revelatory, enlightening, often instantly explanatory impact.
Rather, here it can also be seen as following a tradition that goes back to Guy Debord and the Situationists, to the art projects of a decidedly socio-critical aesthetic avant-garde of the 1950s and 60s, which came down to visualizing historical and social developments.
In addition, the idea of subjecting Venice to such a large-scale “dérive”, a total and analytical description of everyday life, goes back to Guy Debord and “psychogeography”.
With truly astonishing results: the informative, comprehensive and refined quality of this work has seldom been surpassed by contemporary art. In fact, one now ought to set off to view the accompanying and apparently quite differently designed exhibition, which opens on October 8 at the Fondazione Bevilacqua on St. Mark’s Square and will remain on display through December 6.