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by Vittoria Martini

Venice, the Biennale and the Bees

On March 4, 2020, the Venice Biennale had been timely in its postponement of the opening date of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, from May to August 2020. I remember—it seems like a lifetime ago—that it had been the first concrete perception of the dramatic reality we were just barely entering. Instead, a few days ago, the news came of the definitive postponement of the Biennale of Architecture to May 2021 and of the 59th International Art Exhibition to April 2022.[1] A piece of news that arrived, among others, among those of European museums that are cautiously reopening these days.  I do not think that it is currently sufficient to "postpone the exhibitions" to allow the public to move the opening date in their agenda, and postpone the trip to Venice as if nothing had happened, if not an annoyance: "I really wanted to go to Venice in September."

The news is very serious because it represents the fatal blow to a city already on its knees, news that has enormous importance for the consequences it causes. The Venice Biennale is not any other institution, but an institution that more than any other should assume its cultural responsibility and "inhabit" this temporal void of sense and production productively. I don't know if the Biennale is already working in this direction, but I know that in any case it is not enough to liquidate things by communicating the postponement of the exhibitions.

On May 2, 2020, a crucial article by Marco Baravalle came out, emblematically titled "On the Biennale's Ruins? Inhabiting the Void, Covering the Distance."[2] I to that text firstly not because my vision coincides with that of the author, rather then it is a precious and precise source of critical information, and finally because it is concretely proactive, coming to propose a title that is not only desirable for a subsequent Biennale, but operational. Even if we come from different scientific backgrounds, I really agree with Baravalle position and reasoning, whose point of view for analysis is that of a researcher specialized in art and activism, my point of view is that of an art historian who for years has used the documents of the Historical Archive of Contemporary Arts (ASAC), to build critical stories, to make the history productive in order to complicate and question the canonical and linear narratives. For me, history is an essential tool for understanding the present and finding concrete references to imagine the future. It is history that produces geography, and I continue to work on the history of the Biennale and Venice because it is continually an example and an archetype for thinking about the function of cultural institutions and the context in which they are located.

Since February 2020, Paolo Baratta has no longer chaired the Biennale: for twenty years, he had led the Venetian institution using a managerial process that renewed it structurally and philosophically.[3] The Baratta presidency covered more or less the entire period following the 1998 reform, and its management led to a surprising increase of production value and self-generated revenues.[4] Dismissing the Biennale Board of Directors, Baratta commented with a concise expression: "Visitors have become our main private partner."[5]

It is important to underline the concrete numbers that the renovation of an institution of culture can produce, but I would like to pay attention here to the non-secondary detail that emerges from those words of departure: I have always had the impression that Paolo Baratta has always drawn inspiration from the history of the Biennale itself, and that many of his choices (or at least of the lexicon) seem to be found in the policies of the Biennale in the ‘70s.

So, reading history with a lens capable of stripping the facts from post-‘68 ideologies, and fifty years later it is possible to do so taking the context for granted, I get to the point by proposing hints of history that I consider more productive and stimulating today than ever.

In 1974, the newly reformed Biennale was described as a "service structure in the global salvation and vivification of the city," and was conceived as the "cultural consciousness" of Venice.[6] The Biennale had become a permanent institution of cultural activities, releasing events from their "festival" and seasonal nature, therefore from the tourism industry, in favor of cultural work on the territory, whose citizens would become the primary public. The Biennale had the principal goal of being an operational and active institution, a protagonist in the re-signification and functionalization of the territory. The whole debate on the renewal of the Biennale of the time was strictly connected to the problem of the social, economic, and political conversion of Venice.

It was Vittorio Gregotti, at the time director of Visual Arts and Architecture, who reiterated how the working method for the future should be a "'study-experience' that from time to time had to be carried out around a given theme," which had a lateral approach to the arts and was composed of the disciplines connected or superimposed on it, constituting specific opportunities for experimentation, and transforming them into operational topics of debate.[7] For Gregotti, on the one hand the exhibitions had to serve to interrogate the function of cultural institutions, on the other they had to achieve the goal of "questioning the same social function of the institutions that register or produce culture, to penetrate and re-signify places of city and territory."[8]

Gregotti's belief was that it was precisely the "common public funding platform" of the Biennale and participation of different nations[9] that would become productive if used to guarantee autonomy and independence, that is, the possibility of developing themes that were not of "commercial" interest, but important for the universal social, political, and cultural debate. These research topics were carried out throughout the year, constantly shared and debated among the participating nations.

The Venice Biennale therefore became an international platform for the critical debate on current affairs that from the visual arts had to invest in other fields of knowledge. For the Biennale, it was essential to work on the crucial issues in the international debate, precisely to propose itself as a place of criticism and research. The proposal was to work on the production of "creative acts" involving artists, operators, and intellectuals at the forefront, without expecting "a new and complete artistic revolution," but activating an international debate.[10] The primary objective was the search for a different relationship with the public, through a different approach using artistic production that would transform the "passive and paying spectator-user" into an "active spectator-user, protagonist, and patron."[11] Cultural issues had taken on a mass dimension during the 1970s and required a different function and social use of institutions, and the Biennale wanted to contribute to this more general democratic perspective of participation.  

The success of these Biennales is evident if you look at the increase in audience numbers that confirmed the need for participation: it seemed that, in order to function, the Biennale needed the physical presence of the actors, artists, and protagonists in constant contact with the public, like in a sort of “continuous happening.”[12]

The Biennale did all of this first by leaving the gates of the historic headquarters of the Giardini, to re-signify not only symbolically, but concretely, a possible different use of the city.[13] The Biennale declared a cultural throughline that ran intertwined with a political project of civil commitment, placing at the center of its research a proposal for a new relationship between culture and society; it led to a complete re-foundation of its function and institutional identity, triggering a system of "unprecedented cultural interests and stimuli" that brought it not only to the center of international interest, but to the vanguard of it.  

During those years, the Biennale became the place where politics was done through culture and vice versa. The presidency of the Biennale translated the autonomy sanctioned by the '73 reform into an "extraterritoriality" that guaranteed the institution’s ability to accept any form of artistic and intellectual expression without censorship. Its international nature was used operationally to propose and discuss uncomfortable topics of political and social relevance, making it an elected place of international debate on cultural topicality.[14]

At the time, they were aware that, apart from an initial experimental period, complete exclusion from the market was not possible, but the Governing Council had understood that the Biennale could no longer be just the place for recording novelties in art, because it could never compete, for example, with documenta on one side or with the Basel art fair on the other. Not being able to compete, it became the exact opposite, that is, a large construction site, a laboratory in which to experiment with the possibilities of a different way of producing culture, of constructing discourses that eventually led to exhibitions that became devices of meaning in their specificity, triggering a more sustainable and virtuous economy.

The Biennale of the period 1974-78 is therefore a case study that is productive today for two reasons. The first is that that period of experimentation, immediately marked as a ‘68 legacy full of ideologies and demagogies, was removed and soon thrown into the forgotten river of the "riflusso" of the early Eighties. In the decade from 1968 to 1978, Italian society changed radically and, after years of engagement, we witnessed a progressive depoliticization of cultural and social issues, and the era began when the common good was no longer at the center but instead individualism,[15] with a return, in the early Eighties, to history and the work of art, displacing experimentation for certainty. This rapid displacement allows us today to consider that example like a diamond in the rough, thanks to our temporal distance.

This leads to the second reason. The context that led to the 1973 reform was that of a city in profound social and functional crisis, a city that has continued to depopulate since the beginning of the 1950s, becoming increasingly a museum-city. The absence of economic and social policies culminated in the flood of 1966, the "fatal blow" that reinforced the struggle to obtain the “Special Law for the Protection of Venice” (1973).[16] Fifty years later, those motivations have become hypertrophic, and apparently there is no way back. Venice arrives at the COVID emergency after an unprecedented flood (November 2019), various accidents involving large cruise ships, so far with no catastrophes, and it is experiencing an emergency situation related to the chemical industries of Marghera and is a city that today has 50,000 scarce inhabitants in the historic center, to serve 30 million tourists a year. Venice is a city that lives on tourism that has never been regulated, a rented city that dies if the tourist is not there; it is the city that will suffer the most globally if one does not intervene with a radical rethinking of its sustainability, and as such it is more likely to die.

It is in this context that I believe that the Biennale should go back to having a "Venice consciousness," assume all its cultural responsibility, which is currently also economic and therefore social, because the mechanism, in place for twenty years now, of a widespread diffusion of its logo that brands the whole urban territory, if on the one hand it rides the contemporary neoliberal economy that fuels non-functional exploitation, on the other, it has created an important branch consisting of specialized operators, artisans, professionals, and a permanent economic fabric that cannot survive without the Biennale. And if the creation of a supply chain linked to the contemporary art market was the hope of its foundation in 1895, it was in a city that had twice the population in a diversified economy in which tourism was still a luxury for the few.

The Biennale must rethink its direct relationship with the city, starting from the place in which it is located, Venice, the city symbolic of the failure of never regulated neo-liberal economic policies that led to the functional emptying of the city, to the irreversible loss of the social fabric of the city with its millenary cosmopolitan history that today also risks losing its status as a world heritage site due to the lack of proper conditions. Venice is the ideal laboratory where the Biennale can experiment with new practices and uses of cultural institutions, "using" the city as a permanent platform. The city is particularly suitable for its being a concrete utopia par excellence: it is an island, and when you are in Venice, "you actually are" only there; yet, it has always been an island that is not isolated because it has always been at the center of the world, historically and today, because it is connected directly with the whole world as a great capital; at the same time, it is the size of a small town, and thus is a place of proximity of bodies, where spacing cannot be implemented as in most other cities.

All this is possible only with a vision and a targeted public investment, only if the Italian government takes the dramatic situation of Venice seriously and  puts it at the top of the virtuous global rethinking of cultural institutions underway, only if it “uses” Venice (and first of all its universities) and the Biennale as an international hub, symbolically and operationally. And if, in 1948, the Biennale was referred to as the "UN of the arts," perhaps it would be appropriate to also ask the participating countries, which have been a constitutional part of the Venetian institution for a century and a half, to assume some responsibility.

To enter the UNESCO blacklist and be discarded because it does not comply with heritage protection protocols is symbolic of the paradox of the total and living city-work of art par excellence. It is a relevant element that needs to be taken into account in order to attest the need and urgency of an ad hoc government intervention with a new law for the safeguard of Venice, with ad hoc laws that finally regulate unsustainable mass tourism and make it virtuous—ad hoc welfare reforms that help increase thethrough social policies, because a city without inhabitants becomes an archaeological site. I stress "ad hoc" because no city works like Venice and has the characteristics of Venice: Venice is exceptional, and this exceptionality must be protected to allow it not to survive as an endangered animal, but in order to continue being the living city and laboratory of the future as it has been for centuries. This path must be taken by the Italian government convinced that the Biennale can truly be used as that institution that it "recognizes [of] pre-eminent national interest," a common good, with all that it means and follows from it and therefore that it can be put to use productively in this global crisis.

On the eve of the proclamation of the reform law in 1972, the Senate promoted a fact-finding survey on the Venice Biennale,[19] "one of the most tormenting and complex problems of Italian cultural policy,"[20] on the initiative of its president: Giovanni Spadolini. The fact-finding survey made it possible to take stock of the situation after years of parliamentary debates and controversies. Browsing the pages of the fact-finding survey today, reading the words of the protagonists of Italian culture of the time, is touching. We perceive how in that delicate historical moment for Italy, the involvement in public affairs was so profound, so passionate: saving the Biennale, relaunching and transforming it was a gamble that interested everyone because it was rooted in the idea that this great public institution of culture was the patrimony of Italian citizens.[21] Saving the Biennale was saving Venice and vice versa.

Today, it is no longer problem of saving or relaunching the Biennale, which we have seen to date growing vertically. The problem today is that there is not even the shadow of a debate on the future of Venice, because the question today is really about saving Venice, with the awareness that the Biennale and Venice are symbiotic organisms.

Due to its local and international nature, the Biennale can become more aware, declaring an ethical commitment that becomes political and militant, inserting itself into an ecology of virtuous institutions that can afford to produce discourses, ideas, experiments, proposals, and all that “intangible heritage” whose essential producers are the artists, the operators, and the participation of the public that leads to the establishment of that global politeia described by Boris Groys.[22] More than ever, the Biennale today should be, following the thought of Homi Bhabha, a civic space par excellence—equidistant from the local and the international—where good use can be made of cosmopolitanism, to create new communities, to create an ideal observatory for an effective discussion globally, and for an ecology of rethinking cultural institutions in the post-COVID era.

All this before Venice becomes a parallel of the metaphor of Einstein's famous saying about what would happen if bees became extinct.

May 21, 2020



The news that the Venice Biennale intends to propose an alternative program to compensate for the impossibility of realizing the 2020 International Architecture Exhibition comes on May 22. This program foresees the setting up of a historical exhibition, "which will see all its artistic disciplines in dialogue together" and will be organized with ASAC materials. This news brings a minimum of comfort compared to the alternative of closing its doors for a year, demonstrates the intent of a work on the territory, of a presence, of a production of culture through history, an involvement of the first public, that is the local one.

Yet I still believe that, for the reasons described above, due to the dramatic emergency in Venice, this response is a bit rétro compared to the times that are not "interesting" at all, but dramatic if not tragic. For years, Baratta has continued to emphasize that it is artists who “build worlds”, that the Biennale must "offer artists a place of dialogue as free as possible and to offer visitors an intense encounter with art," "an open gym" where the public can "feel engaged in encounters with works and artists, in discovering directly 'the other person' that the work of art offers," and "almost give thanks to the very existence of art and artists, who offer us with their worlds an expansion of our perspective and the space of our existence."

But where are the artists?

Taking from history means not only choosing what is most convenient, but looking at the totality of the facts. In that historical period that Paolo Baratta has taken as a source of inspiration, the artists, intellectuals, and operators were all at the forefront of a permanent assembly, physically present, producers and participants. They were not an abstraction.

It seems to me that in recent decades the Biennale has been the place for the construction of narratives by curators, rather than artists. I wonder if the Biennale really has the pulse of contemporary artistic practices, if it recognizes not only abstractly and ideally that "trust" towards the effective power and fallout that contemporary artistic practices own, precisely in a vision of expansion of our perspectives; I wonder if it actually recognizes the great professionalism of contemporary artists, and I am not referring here to those "who ,"[23] if they exist.

I'm not going to make a list of the artists I am thinking of right now, but they all went to the central exhibition of the Biennale anyway, generally leaving a fragment of production, sending a work or even installing it, but their voice and presence has not been present in the Biennale for years, and for years it seems to me that they are more those famous "touches of color in the framework that constitutes the exhibition," as Daniel Buren commented in 1972 in another context. And this discussion does not completely concern the national participation where, it seems to me, the possibility given to artists to "create worlds" through their artistic practice is more evident. And here I am referring to visual artists because I work in the field of art, but I wonder: how many “worlds” and what a wonderful debate could be started by putting together the visions of the best international artists, architects, and creators of theater, dance, and cinema?  

The visions of the artists usually come true; their job is precisely to give form to a vision, to concretize it: who more than artists can offer us concrete visions of the future? Rhetoric is not needed now, and "an exhibition" is no longer enough, or rather, it will certainly be necessary to rethink its format.Secondly, the separation of the Biennale from Venice is reconfirmed, and I remain convinced of the symbiosis between the two and that the first will be increasingly ineffective if it doesn’t become a kind of "Venice consciousness" again—the universal city that coagulates all the great challenges of contemporaneity, a productive ground for research and artistic production that can show us future utopian ways and, according to Robert Musil, "Utopia has roughly the same meaning of possibility [...] the present is nothing more than a hypothesis still not overcome."

May 23, 2020

Vittoria Martini is an art historian, PhD. She currently teaches History of exhibitions at Campo, the course for curators run by Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo (Turin) and she collaborates with Naba – Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, (Milano).

In 2005 she curated the historical and archival research for Antoni Muntadas project On Translation: I Giardini (Spanish Pavilion, 51. Venice Biennale), in 2009 she was invited by Thomas Hirschhorn to participate in the project The Bijlmer Spinoza-Festival (Amsterdam, 2 May - 28 June), she was responsible for the publications for Pirelli HangarBicocca (2018), she collaborated with Artissima (2017-2019).

Among her recent publications: Spain. Artistic avant-garde and social reality (1936-1976). Documenting the political reasons at stake behind an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, in “documenta studies” (forthcoming 2020); 1948|1968 The Venice Biennale at its turning, in N. de Haro Garcia, P. Mayayo, J. Carrillo eds. Making Art History in Europe after 1945, Routledge 2020 (with S. Collicelli Cagol).


[1] All other events remain confirmed: the 77th Venice International Film Festival directed by Alberto Barbera from September 2nd to 12th; the 48th International Theatre Festival directed by Antonio Latella from September 14th to 24th; the 64th International Festival of Contemporary Music directed by Ivan Fedele, from September 25thto October 4th; the 14th International Festival of Contemporary Dance directed by Marie Chouinard from October 13th to 25th.

[2] Marco Baravalle, "On the Biennale's Ruins? Inhabiting the Void, Covering the Distance," Institute of Radical Imagination, May 2, 2020, accessed May 21, 2020,  https://instituteofradicalimagination.org/2020/05/02/on-the-biennales-ruins-inhabiting-the-void-covering-the-distance-by-marco-baravalle/.

[3] As of February 2020, the new president is the film producer Roberto Cicutto.

[4] By examining the data referring to the last three to four years, it is found that the total production value has increased by 45%. In particular, the increase in self-generated revenues contributed to this total, growing by 125% to cover a value equal to approximately 60% of total costs. If the examination is extended to the entire period following the great reform of 1998, it is found that the self-generated revenues, which in the first year after the reform did not exceed €3.5 million, increased to €27 million, see https://www.labiennale.org/it/news/comunicato-cda-del-4-febbraio-2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cfr. “Piano quadriennale di massima delle attività e delle manifestazioni (1974-1977),” in La Biennale di Venezia. Annuario 1975 – Eventi 1974 (Venice: La Biennale di Venezia, 1975), 61.

[7] Ibid., 271.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Convegno internazionale sulla nuova Biennale, 30-31 maggio 1975, unità 296, Trascrizioni convegno, Fondo storico, Serie arti visive, ASAC, p. 17.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Piano quadriennale di massima.”

[12] Umberto Eco, “Venezia continua,” Corriere della sera, December 6, 1974. Umberto Eco was one of the protagonists of the new Biennale. Since 1974, as a member of the Commission for Information and Mass Media, Eco has followed the entire trajectory of the four-year period closely.

[13] In addition to the use of the city's fields, for a concrete example I refer to an open event on the theme: “Venice and the Stucky Mill,” in “Documents relating to the competition on the Stucky Mill as an urban redevelopment field in Venice,” unità 300, Stucky, Fondo storico, Serie arti visive, ASAC, and the story of the rescue from the destruction of the Salt Warehouses at the Zattere, see G. D. Romanelli, “Scheda sui ‘Saloni’ alle Zattere,” in Biennale di Venezia. Annuario 1975, 848-851.

[14] I am referring here to the program “Libertà al Cile” (1974), to the general theme of the “environment” in 1976 and 1978, to the exhibition Spain 1936-1976. Vanguardia artistica y realidad social (1976), and to the program on the cultural dissent in the Eastern countries (1977). In general, the fil rouge was the democratic and antifascist position of the institution.

[15] Guido Crainz, Il paese mancato. Dal miracolo economico agli anni ottanta (Rome: Donzelli, 2005), 566.

[16] cfr. Bruno Zevi, “Gli orfani di Venezia,” L’Espresso, October 13, 1968. “From 1951 to 1966 the population has decreased to the point that [...] jobs exceed the available workforce: in five years 55,000 have left. [...] The building fabric decays when a city is abandoned [...] Furthermore, the municipality has never planned any provision for the renovation of the historic center [...]." Camilla Cederna, “Addio Venezia,” L’Espresso, August 25, 1968. The flood of 1966 was a “fatal blow” for Venice, if we think that there was still no law for the protection and financing of cultural heritage (the Special Law for the Safeguard of Venice was enacted in 1973). Italy was not yet divided into regions and could not count on specific funds. The Ministry of Cultural Heritage was created in 1974, at the behest of Giovanni Spadolini.

[17] See: https://www.onuitalia.com/venice-was-in-danger-but-was-saved-from-unesco-blacklist/.

[18] I refer here to Mariana Mazzucato’s economic theories brilliantly expressed in The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (London:Anthem Press, 2013).

[19] According to Article 48 of the Senate Regulations, the fact-finding survey allows the commissions set up to "acquire news, information and documentation" in the matters within their competence. Article 48 entitled Inquiries of the Senate Regulations. For Spadolini, the fact-finding survey was a "linking tool between culture and the political class, two worlds that do not have many connections between them," in Giovanni Spadolini, Epilogo per la Biennale. Discorso sulla legge per lo statuto della Biennale pronunciato in Senato il 25 luglio 1973 (Rome: Bardi, 1973), 4.

[20] Spadolini, Epilogo per la Biennale, 3.

[21] Senato della Repubblica, VI Legislatura, Indagini conoscitive, 1° Ordinamento della ‘Biennale’ di Venezia, 2° Resoconto stenografico, September 22, 1972.

[22] Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” e-flux 2 (2009), last accessed May 21, 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/02/68504/politics-of-installation/.

[23] Quotation from the Italian Prime Minister’s speech on May 14, 2020.

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini