We have to go beyond that culture of modernity which produces events totally detached from the local context and made Venice nothing more than an amusement park for the world of art, cinema and architecture – Christian Costa, one of the founders of the Biennale Urbana [Urban Biennial] 2016 project, talks with Bogna Świątkowska about the possibility of escaping the illusions of the art system going towards the genuine space of the city and about taking possession of the Architecture Biennale 2016.
During the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014 the curator of the Swiss pavilion Hans Ulrich Obrist proposed an interesting idea in order to go beyond the traditional formula of an art exhibition. The pavilion was almost empty, fulfilling for the entire duration of the Biennale mainly the function of archive / living laboratory. Drawing inspiration from the visionary ideas of the Swiss sociologist and art historian Lucius Burckhardt, and British architect Cederic Price, Obrist – together with the curators, intellectuals, architects, artists and students invited to participate in the pavilion – explored the potential of visionary thinking applied to the contemporary urban fabric. You were one of the invited guests, can you tell us what you have accomplished during this fascinating project?

I worked at the Swiss pavilion at the Walking Out Of Contemporary project, conceived and directed by Lorenzo Romito (of the STALKER collective) and inspired by the research of Burckhardt, a design theorist and father of the so-called “strollology” (Spaziergangswissenschaft), a science that has its foundation in walking. According to Burckhardt, solid ideas and solutions for a given space appear as a result of the slow and reflective stroll through the city. Walking Out Of Contemporary was an attempt to escape from a certain culture of modernity that produces things such as a Biennale totally detached from the local context. Venice in its specificity as a place, in fact, is not particularly involved in the dynamics of the Biennale. It’s a mere background, it just fulfill the function of an amusement park for the world of art and architecture. So to see what is really happening in the city – and there are a lot of strange and disturbing things going on – we need to go beyond this rigid formula. It is enough to pass through the city and study its structure and problems. Therefore part of our program consisted in walks with ETH Zurich students through pivotal areas of Venice, as the Lido, for example, where the group of activists gathered around the Marinoni Theatre operates.

The lessons were very important as well. They were held, among others, by Martin Josephy – a former student of Burckhardt, he described the idea of Documenta Urbana in Kassel, also talking about Italian architecture of the ’60s,’70s and ’80s; by Suad Amiry, coordinator of a project of renewal of abandoned buildings in Palestine; by Anna Detheridge, who talked about public art in Italy; and by Michael Obrist, Lieven De Cauter, Pelin Tan and Peter Lang.

The entire project looked to me like a sort of Socratic maieutics. For 10 days the whole group of students, artists, intellectuals, philosophers, critics talked non-stop. It was philosophy in movement, thinking through walking, understanding the world through a body practice.

What problems have you faced in Venice?

Unfortunately Venice is slowly losing all the characteristics and functions of a real city. Today in the historic center live about 60,000 people, which is the 70% less than in 1951. The shops are managed by international companies or foreigners. Any opportunity to acquire a space for commercial purposes, even when this would not be very wise, is pursued mercilessly. An example could be the Santiago Calatrava’s bridge (Constitution Bridge), built without taking into consideration the architectural problems (and solutions) specific of Venice. And next to it there is a very interesting architectural intervention: the second building of the Santa Chiara Hotel, whose original project followed the model of New York mirror skyscrapers, thus being the only building of this kind in the city, completely detached from its surroundings. And things like that happen all the time, especially outside of the historic city. In Mestre, for example, a great controversy broke out following the attempt of the millionaire fashion designer Pierre Cardin, a native of Venice, to build a resort for rich people, so high to be visible from every point of the lagoon, even from Piazza San Marco. And then there is the situation of the Lido, which has many historical buildings, forts or small ports – being the most advanced point of Venice towards the sea. Since many years speculation is attempting to build a strip of hotels and tourist facilities, absolutely not related to the context and, moreover, without any real guarantee of creating new jobs. Just another attempt to expel the local inhabitants from the urban fabric, in order to make Venice even more “tourist-friendly”.
Symptomatic is the fact that, just before the opening of the Venice Biennale 2014, the Mayor was arrested along with more than 30 collaborators, being suspected of fraud in construction investment projects. A demonstration of how deep are the problems of Venice.

This is not just a Venice problem. That’s how it is in the whole Italy, a country that after the World War II was still full of green and whose historical cities were all in pretty good condition. In the ’50s and ’60s the country has been covered with a layer of cement, and since 50 years a daily aggression against any space which can be seized to generate profits is going on and on. Why did they build so many new houses in Italy? Because there are many people who are willing to buy them as an investment, but keeping them empty. So rather than build something for the people who actually live in the city, politicians often prefer to build something that will be useful only to developers and investors.
And to move money.

Yes, of course. The political class constantly repeats that these new investments have the objective of creating new jobs, but often it is just speculation. And in Venice, visited by 20 million tourists every year – and they could easily be two or three times more – such practices are even more frequent.

On the other hand, the administration’s behaviour arouses the resistance of the people. You mentioned a small island – Poveglia – that has been saved thanks to the action of ordinary citizens, who started a fundraising to try to acquire it with their shares. And in Venice there are many other groups of resistance and systematic work on such topics.

It must be said that Venetians are moderate people and have some problems with the resistance without compromises. As for Poveglia, it is not yet known if the battle has been won. The auction was won by an individual for half a million euros, but the State said it’s not enough – also considered that a decent apartment, in the center of Venice, can cost up to a few millions euro. It must, however, be emphasized how quick was the reaction. Thousands of people from all over the world gave their 99 euros to acquire the island for 99 years, in order to preserve it as a common good accessible to anybody.

In addition to these initiatives, in Venice there are several committees that defend and handle specific spaces, such as the aforementioned Teatro Marinoni Bene Comune [Marinoni Theatre Common Good] group. This group occupies the Marinoni Theatre, which is part of the hospital-sanatorium Ospedale al Mare [Hospital at the Sea] complex. The history of this place, founded in the ‘30s of XX century, is amazing. The purpose of the theatre was to help patients to heal more effectively, already foreshadowing the idea of art therapy. In each pavilion it was decided to install an antenna to give access to theater and music to all the patients. The theater was closed in 1975 and the entire complex was abandoned in recent years. The Teatro Marinoni Bene Comune group occupied this space to invite artists, intellectuals, musicians from all over the world to come to Venice, at Lido, to have lectures, concerts, workshops, performances, residencies, music festivals and so on. Almost every day there is something going on. This group is also a sort of hub of several committees – mostly formed by architects or people of Lido – which know the history of their places. They see them change for the worse every day, and that is why they try to propose different cultural and economic models for them. This is not, therefore, some kind of backward-looking or nostalgically ideological occupation, but an attempt to show that there are other economic, political and cultural models of using what already exists.
And what is the model they propose?

First of all, they show how badly politics manages these places, as they often have been destroyed without a real reason. The point is to show how a certain “value added”, resulting from historical, artistic, environmental context, has been dispersed. Various locations in Italy have great symbolic and economic value derived from their history. Too often, however, the political class, not being able to grasp its genius loci, wastes such “aesthetic surplus”. That’s how these places become “docile” (according to the model outlined by my public art project Spazi Docili [Docile Spaces], based on the ideas of M. Foucault) in regard to the possibility to take control and speculate over them. It is very important to emphasize that these processes last for years and are often carried out by different people of the administration, who are to perform the same functions over the course of time. That’s why, for of my research, I use the term “Power”, as it is understood by Foucault: not as a specific person or institution, but as a disciplining apparatus. Similarly it happens today with the economic Power: it is by now made up of purely abstract mechanisms that operate independently of human beings and dominate even over company owners and managers.
The entire “Bienniale Urbana” program – which is not limited to this year’s event, but aims at the next edition of the Architecture Biennale – is based on the reflections about the city of Kassel made by Lucius Burckhardt in the ‘70s , the so-called “Documenta Urbana”. Can you explain to our readers what it was, and also tell us your plans for the future – that is, this year’s “Walking Out Of Contemporary” is just the first step in a process that will lead in two years to “Biennale Urbana”?

Burckhardt suggested the idea of a field research, as a section of Documenta, involving some parts of the city of Kassel, to be used as a starting point for an analysis of the general state of the contemporary city.

For many years the Venice Biennale followed in the footsteps of the 2014 edition’s curator, Rem Koolhaas. To be finally able to move forward and go beyond him, it makes no sense to look for another similar character. It is time to conceive something new, some different model of research and intervention in the cities. And in this perspective Documenta Urbana looks incredibly current.

For this reason STALKER, Teatro Marinoni and Spazi Docili [Docile Spaces] decided to propose this model in Venice. Our goal is to focus on aesthetic practices that analyse contemporary cities and look for new kinds of solutions to their problems.

Working with international partners – universities, foundations, museums, architecture or public art projects, etc. – we want, on the one hand, them to show the Venetians the situation of their cities and their methods of intervention; and, on the other hand, we want them to understand in what manner their problems occur in Venice as well and / or how they were addressed.

It is worth mentioning that Venice invented a large number of urban procedures and structures that we still use nowadays. The archipelago structure imposed (and allowed) the separation of the city functions in specific and separate places. This is one of the origins of contemporary city functional design. Venice, for example, solved the problem of the plague inventing the lazaret: a remote island where the crew of a ship coming from insecure places had to stop for 40 days (quarantine). Each national / cultural group owned a part of the city: the Armenians received an island; the Jews the ghetto – which was also invented in Venice. The civilization of the Venetian Republic has simply exploited the archipelago geography as a functional model. Venice is one of the oldest models of the contemporary city.

In addition to this, at the moment this is probably the only city in the world where you can find so many singularities: a unique city and culture; a huge amount of interesting situations such as Ospedale al Mare and Teatro Marinoni, Hotel des Bains, forts, barracks and abandoned islands; a political class that in recent months went to jail almost entirely; a global-scale intervention of environmental modification (the MOSE system); the status of capital of the world of art and culture because of the Biennale. All these factors delineate an excellent model to analyse, certainly much more interesting than any additional Biennale – where each country shows some maquettes and the same old story goes on and on.

Teatro Marinoni worked for years to unite all committees, associations, institutions, formal and informal groups operating at the Lido and in the entire lagoon and to make them work jointly. These are partners from all sectors, not just from the world of culture. Using this net, we will also operate as mediators for artists and architects who want to work in the lagoon having an authentic contact with the places and people of Venice, instead of those fake relationships with the territory the art world loves to brag about.

In the following months we will test the first collaborations and the general Biennale Urbana model through explorations of the Lido, workshops, interventions. During the next Art Biennale (2015) we will show the results of this year’s work, in view of the Architecture Biennale (2016).

We closely observed how passing through these troubled places, watching them, experiencing them directly, is something deeply instructive and useful for those who come from cultures distant from Italian or Mediterranean ethos. In Venice and Lido lies a huge potential for change.


Let’s talk for a moment about your previous projects. Why did you decide to focus on public art?

Because it forces you to explore and continually redefine the concept of “public”. In contemporary cities the boundaries between public, common, state, private are shifting all the time, and that is why the study of these processes is both interesting and useful.
And who do you think is more visible in the public space? For example where you live, in Naples, a unique place in many ways, both artists as politicians seem to be invisible. The city seems to self-regulate and operate according to its own logic, which goes beyond the rational.

Yes, Naples is a very specific city. Its inhabitants, accustomed for years to its structure, ceased to pay attention to it. Working on several projects also in Sicily, in Florence or Rome, etc., it is difficult to avoid the thought that Italy does not really exist – local identity in this country is much stronger than the national one. Therefore when in Florence the artist Fabrizio Ajello and I conceived and founded the Spazi Docili [Docile Spaces] project, we wanted to verify whether the interpretative and operational models discovered on the field could also effectively be applied to other contexts. And it is so indeed: we confirmed it in several countries. The only thing which is needed is them to be connected, even faintly, to the western market economy, which imposes a common political-aesthetic context.

Spazi Docili [Docile Spaces] originated from an attempt to apply to space the M. Foucault’s theory of “docile bodies”. Unfortunately, the concept of “docile space” works perfectly, even too well. And Florence is the ideal city to explore the interaction between Power and art system and the embarrassing use of aesthetic languages by politicians.

We focus on spaces which, for some reason, have been “betrayed” by local Power, which is not able to understand their complexity and therefore does not have the slightest clue about what to do with them. These places could be ruins or brand new, the relevant factor is that they are detached from their history and from their functions. The waste of its own territory says a lot about Power. This is why we are interested in creating operational models able to generate positive effects in other countries and contexts as well.

Regarding the media I use in such analyses and interventions, I focus on installation, video and performance, usually with great attention to sound. And my favorite medium for the analysis of the “desert of the real” is photography – analogue and digital – through which I gather materials to use in my videos, installations or two-dimensional works.


Notes na 6 tygodni, n.95, October-November 2014

Christian Costa – visual artist, lives and works in Naples and Warsaw, where he was born. He wrote about music and visual arts on the Italian magazines Rumore, NextExit, SuccoAcido. Some of his short stories has been illustrated by L.Dalisi, M.Galateo, P.Mezzacapo. In 2002 he founded with them the container artistic group. Since 2005, together with the artist Fabrizio Ajello and the curators Barbara D’Ambrosio and Costanza Meli, he’s working on the Progetto Isole [Islands Project] public art project, based in Palermo. Since 2007 he’s working on the N.EST public art project, curated by Danilo Capasso and focused on the enormous and very diverse eastern part of Naples. In 2008 he conceived and founded, together with the artist Fabrizio Ajello, the public art project Spazi Docili [Docile Spaces], focused on the city of Florence and internationally exhibited. It produced field surveys, public art interventions, workshops, exhibitions, art residencies (organized as curatorial platform), lectures and talks.

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