BY Francesca Tarocco in Opinion | 05 APR 24
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The Venice Issue

How Do Venetian Artists Contend with Mass-Tourism?

A look at the artists and activist groups caring for the social ecologies of the city

BY Francesca Tarocco in Opinion | 05 APR 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 242, ‘Mother Tongues

Drawing its title from a 2005 series of neon works by Palermo-based collective Claire Fontaine – appropriated, in turn, from an activist group that creatively opposed racism and xenophobia in early-2000s Turin – ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ will address themes of colonization, migration and diaspora. The titular phrase – stranieri ovunque in Italian – will no doubt sound ironically familiar to local Venetians. Not only are tourists, quite literally, everywhere in Venice, but the unceasing exodus of residents has transformed a city once-famous for its neighbourly conviviality into one of transitory passers-by. In 2023, The Guardian reported that more than half the beds on the island of Venice are currently dedicated to tourists. This progressive displacement of the local population has been encouraged by government bodies permitting the alteration of the urban function of domestic properties and selling off public buildings.

Temporary storage arrangements for the wood from the Mexican National Pavilion, 2022. Courtesy: We Are Here Venice; photograph: Eleonora Sovrani

While this approach has been denounced by artists and other practitioners in many recent iterations of the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, local activists feel that the Biennale Foundation itself isn’t doing enough to address issues surrounding Venice as a lived city, and that it may well be part of the problem. The Biennale, for instance, now permanently occupies a substantial section of the city’s Giardini (public gardens) and most of the Arsenale, a complex of former shipyards and armouries spanning an area of 45 hectares, or about 15 percent of Venice’s total landmass. For years, local residents have criticized these arrangements. In 2012, the state transferred ownership of two-thirds of the Arsenale complex to the municipality. This prompted the formation of Forum Futuro Arsenale (FFA), which to this day is asking for a public consultation space.

In 2022, for instance, the FFA tried to halt the Biennale Foundation’s plans to take over even more of the complex as a permanent site for its historical archives – an initiative that would require EU€20 million in state funds and EU€105 million from Italy’s pandemic recovery fund. However, at the time of writing, development of the historical archives is set to begin in March. On the other hand, the Historical Archive of Contemporary Art (ASAC) is the only component of the Biennale that is permanently open to the public, thus serving as an ideal advocate for the city and a means of preserving the memory both of the event and of its relationship to Venice.

‘Freccia Azzurra’, 2023, Panorama Venezia. Courtesy: Batipai; photograph: Giulia Fassina

Despite hiring several new permanent members of staff over the past 15 years, some lament that the Biennale is still not adequately addressing systemic issues of precarization and poorly paid casual labour. In response to this, local curator and theorist Marco Baravalle of S.a.L.E. Docks – an independent space for research and cultural production located in a former salt store in the heart of Venice – has co-created Biennalocene, an assembly of art workers who have mobilized, per their website, ‘against the precarious and exploitative conditions that characterize the arts sector in our city’. They encourage all cultural institutions to adopt their carefully honed ‘Metropolitan Charter for Cultural Work’ (2023). And, while the Biennale strives to interact meaningfully with schools, universities and other educational institutions – both in Venice and on the mainland – it is also inextricably enmeshed with the tourist industry, avoiding any real attempt to directly criticize over-tourism or to envision alternative scenarios, for instance of degrowth for itself and for Venice.

The dominance of the Biennale-linked economy tends to block other types of productive activity.

‘On the whole, for those of us who live and make art in Venice, particularly the younger ones, the Biennale is somewhat unwieldy,’ Pietro Consolandi tells me. He, along with Fabio Cavallari, founded the art collective Barena Bianca. Their work is pervaded by a strong desire to turn Venice into a more caring, environmentally equitable city. Led by environmental scientist Jane Da Mosto, We Are Here Venice (WahV) is another charismatic local organization dedicated to the conservation of the city and its lagoon. In a report published in 2019, the group noted that ‘the dominance of the Biennale-linked economy tends to block other types of productive activity’, while Da Mosto told me in conversation that ‘the Biennale, as an institution, has quite limited relations with local organizations’. To counter this, WahV puts considerable effort into forming dialogues and collaborations with curators and artists participating in the Biennale: in 2022, for instance, they worked closely with artist Cecilia Vicuña, curator Lee Daehyung and the Chile Pavilion’s curatorial team. They have also collaborated with the multidisciplinary artist Eleonora Sovrani to devise a poignant public poster campaign (2019–ongoing) showing, for example, images of the endangered plants that inhabit the local barene (salt marshes), which have defined Venice’s waterscape for centuries but may soon disappear because of, in part, changes in hydrodynamics.

‘Cinema Galleggiante – Unknown Water’, 2023. Courtesy: Riccardo Banfi and Microclima, Venice

As Sovrani and many other local artists, activists and organizations like the lagoon-focused collective Microclima and Panorama art project remind us: the delicate, multispecies ecosystem that is Venice requires our full attention. Fortunately, the imperative to imagine differently and better is one to which many activists, artists and thinkers, as well as ordinary Venetian citizens, are responding.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘Tourists Everywhere’

Main image: Barena Bianca, Barenawalk, undated. Courtesy: © Barena Bianca

Francesca Tarocco is a writer, professor and director of NICHE Centre of Environmental Humanities at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy.