Migropolis: Venice/ Atlas of a global Situation
Antonello Frongia / Camera Austria, Nr. 109 / 0|0|2009
In 2006, the eleven countries that contributed most to Venice’s tourism industry earned 61.36 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), while the top eleven countries generating immigration flows towards the city earned only 1.15 per cent of the world’s GDP. Despite steady depopulation, economic decline, and Disneyfication, Venice is a globalised city generating massive streams of people and commodities at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. The fact that we are not normally aware of this economic whirlpool while strolling among the pavilions of the Biennale or perusing a Martin Parr photo- graph of tourists at St. Mark’s Square is at the core of »Migropolis«, a three-year project directed by Wolfgang Scheppe in collaboration with graduate students from the IUAV University in Venice, Faculty of Arts & Design, recently published by Hatje Cantz as a two-volume, 1,400-page »atlas«.
Scheppe, who holds a PhD in Philosophy, has been working for the past fifteen years 22in the field of »pictorial pragmatics and the theory of image acts«, developing largescale projects based upon vast quantities of documentary photographs and statistical data. In 2002 he edited Endcommercial, a book of about 1,000 »degree zero« photographs on New York’s social practices of survival and streetlevel communication, organised along a grid of thirty-two keywords allowing the reader to establish critical connetions between apparently unrelated urban epiphenomena.1 Interestingly, the book does not carry any theoretical explanations regarding the rationale and the results of the investigation: rather, it functions as a surrogate for our everyday experience, at the same time staging and critiquing the urban text as a dense palimpsest of visual fragments occasionally interspersed with the verbal injunctions of advertisement, graffiti, and traffic signage. A chart at the beginning of the book acts as a sort of memory treatise framing specific urban subjects – street vendors, shopping bags, standpipes, et cetera – into interpretive categories such as control, orientation, or »the range of participation«. A similar strategy is deployed in »Migropolis«, a project that charts the global countercurrents of »subsistence-based« immigration and »leisure- based« tourism taking place in a city that is normally considered to be timeless and frozen. Here photographs, statistical data, charts, interviews, newspaper clippings, and essays weave a far more elaborate fabric, mirroring not only the iconography of Venice’s urban practices, but the multilayered discourse positing the city as either mythic labyrinth, political construction, romantic setting, or capitalist mise-en-scène. The book illustrates a wide range of subjects – from cruise- liners and the militarisation of national borders to illegal street vendors and T-shirt labels – while at the same time unveiling the policies, the economy and stereotypes surrounding them, thus turning the »atlas« into a user’s manual of contemporary Venice. As Scheppe remarks in his illuminating prolegomena to the book, »Venice is not limited to having been turned into an image. It is an imaging machine capable of reproducing and spawning derivations of itself with the likes of its theme park siblings« – an idea echoed by a comment made by Lewis Baltz, for whom »Migropolis« »confronts the Debordian quandary: ›the spectacle ‹ can only be critiqued in spectacular terms«.
Overall, »Migropolis« can be seen as both a documentary project in the tradition of Jacob Rijs’s »How the Other Half Lives« – in that it provides previously unknown or undisclosed in- formation on the city’s economy, supported by specific case studies on the life of »invisible men« – and as a conceptual work aiming to deconstruct Venice’s deep-seated ideologies – as perhaps in Allan Sekula’s »Fish Story«. But clearly a project of such import commands the reformulation of previously shared notions of »documentary« and »conceptual« art, requiring new ways of conceiving the artwork itself. The project’s conceptual basis was perhaps most evident on the occasion of the »Migropolis« exhibition at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa (right on St. Mark’s Square) last October, in which one room was devoted to Scheppe’s theory of the »image act« (a notion that he has derived from John Langshaw Austin’s »speech act«). Photographs and information graphics, according to Scheppe, are performative acts that negotiate between the realms of objectivity and subjectivity through a definable set of microdecisions. All of the photographs in »Migropolis« were taken or appropriated according to a binary matrix linking the form of the image and its heuristic function within the project. The aesthetic of »informal« or snapshot photographs, for example, was adopted as »a détournement of the tourist iconography dominating the symbolic construction of Venice«, whereas »formal« views were meant to evoke »planimetric perspectives and the rhetoric of neutrality«. According to this matrix, all decisions regarding the style of the photographs (such as contextual / isolating, documentary / arranged, anonymous / negotiated, etc.) are themselves an »operative critique« of the image of Venice as a globalised, spectacular city.
What makes »Migropolis« an overwhelming visual project, however, is its sheer size. Despite the strict theoretical principles underlying the taking of the photographs and the omnipresent notational system allowing the reader to refer each case study to the larger conceptual framework, the publication is not just a massive catalogue raisonné but a text/image piece in and of itself, creating its own dialectical aesthetic of mapping and disorientation. At points the apparent exhaustiveness of the two volumes gives way to the suspicion that no city can be fully explained or illustrated. While »Migropolis« is explicitly indebted to Situationism and the theory of the dérive, it also seems to shed new light on Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted dictum: »But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.« The dialectic of self-conscious disorientation that is implicit in the visual order of the book takes on new meaning in Giorgio Agamben’s essay, titled »We Refugees«. In it, the Italian philosopher suggests the possibility of a new geopolitical order, in which the abolition of national borders will allow different political communities to share the same physical space »in exodus one into the other, divided from each other by a series of reciprocal extraterritorialities, in which the guiding concept would no longer be the ius of the citizen, but rather the refugium of the individual.« As a whole, »Migropolis« suggests that the present city of tourists and immigrants, deeply divided by political and economic borders, can be transformed into a world city of mutual nomads, sharing a space that is »perforated and topologically deformed«.
1 Endcommercial / Reading the City, edited by Wolfgang Scheppe, Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern 2002.