by Devanshi ShahFeb 20, 2021
As India continues to function within an uncertain lockdown, Europe has slowly started to get back to its daily grind. Italy was potentially one of the first European countries reported to have experienced a brutal first-wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The travel and lockdown restrictions imposed by the country also led to the cancellations or delays in cultural events in Italy, which is a popular tourist destination. Now, as the country steadily reopens, one can see the revival and reactivation of some of these cultural practices. The global cultural map and calendar pivots on specific hubs. This in turn drives numerous associated practices that strategise their year in relation to these events. This also holds true for Venice.
Though it enjoys a degree of safety in its existence as an archipelago in Laguna Veneta (Venice Lagoon), the main island sees a huge influx of day-long tourists as a popular stopover on cruise ships. In addition to this, the annual cultural events, namely the biennale, alternating between art and architecture every other year, draw in thousands of people. As part of Italy’s response to the pandemic, Venice was suddenly empty. While stories of aquatic life coming back to the canals filled our newsfeeds, one wonders what happens to the people living alongside those canals.
As Venice slowly reopens, STIR reached out to a few local businesses and practices about how they intend to recommence, their plans for the future and how they are working through the losses they have incurred.
Murano and The Venice Glass Week
Venice has been a destination for international collectors, both art and design. Murano, one of the islands that make up the archipelago of Venice, is popular for its glassmaking and was severely affected when Italy closed its borders to tourists. Murano’s practice and history that spans close to a thousand years, also inspired the establishment of The Venice Glass Week in 2017, an international festival that celebrates glass.
In an attempt to revitalise and re-ignite the furnaces of Murano, the organising committee of The Venice Glass Week released a joint statement for the upcoming programming slated from September 5-13, 2020: "The fourth edition of The Venice Glass Week will be more sober and more focused on Murano's artistic production, thanks also to a number of new initiatives that the festival is producing directly for the public, which will include audiences from Venice, the Veneto, elsewhere in Italy and beyond". This sentiment is also reflected in the title of this year’s festival #TheHeartOfGlass, placing a special focus on the production of glass, specifically Murano’s, shifting the focus from an international view to a more local one.
Even as they plan for a week of events and programmes, there is no denying that the festival may not play host to an international crowd. Collaborating with several event partners, the festival will still have digital events to continue reaching out to its international audience. Leading up to the September festival is a series of weekly Insta-live broadcasts (@theveniceglassweek) as behind-the-scenes look at the furnaces and ateliers of Murano. During the festival a separate digital programme, titled ‘Conversations on Glass by Apice’, designed specifically for global audience, will stream live on The Venice Glass Week YouTube channel. While the organisation is still finalising the participants and events based on the evolving situation, there have been some interesting additions to manner in which a festival engages with a city. One of that interesting aspects is a non-competitive nighttime race around the furnaces and streets of Murano, over bridges and along the canals.
In an official statement released by the Consorzio Promovetro Murano, there is a clear emphasis on the role of this edition of The Venice Glass Week: “In this difficult moment, the role and mission of The Venice Glass Week seems more vital than ever: to offer a platform of visibility for artistic glass, and at the same time to give a message of solidarity and support to the island of Murano and the city of Venice as a whole.” This festival has also gathered the support of the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro.
Exhibitions and Venice Design Biennial
Founded by curators Francesca Giubilei and Luca Berta, VeniceArtFactory is a production and design house that works with artists, galleries and institutions on a global scale, in a range of services, to bring artistic projects to life. With Venice being the artistic and cultural hub that it is, designers and artists often align their collections and launches to the events in Venice to connect with the diverse audience that descends in the city every year. Giubilei and Berta co-founded the Venice Design Biennial in 2016 as a way to diffuse design exhibitions within the landscape of Venice. While in a conversation with STIR, the duo elaborated on the current situation in the island city and the changes they deem necessary moving forward.
Elaborating the more immediate effects of the Venice Design Biennial being cancelled, Berta said, “While the situation is almost tranquil in Italy right now, we have no art and design travellers from outside the continent. You can feel that something is missing, probably the worst feeling during the lockdown was just going around Venice and not hearing foreign languages. It was very weird to hear only Venetian being spoken on the streets". Giubilei explained further saying, “Obviously the cancellations of the events in Venice included our Venice Design Biennial. An important effect of this delay is in terms of financials, not only for us, but for all the designers we have been in contact with over the past months, who are ready to present their new projects and design products in Venice”. Many of the designers Giubilei and Berta feature work independently and have small workshops and little production support. The possibility to present in Venice during the Architecture Biennale is a huge support. Giubilei best described it as “… a big cultural window, to reach a larger audience, and a great occasion to reach new collectors to present new productions”.
The future, however, sees a change, as part of what Berta referred to as a 'forced stop' as the team reflected and re-evaluated certain parts of their projects. Berta explains, “There is a positive outcome of this, which was having time. This led to us having more time to explore the creative communities that were here. For instance, we are now figuring out how to build a new pillar of Venice Design Biennial. So far, we have done two editions of the international programme, which was to bring international designers to Venice. Now we want to work the other way around. We are building a network of local designers, craftsmen and creators. It is about supporting them with communication to reach out to a larger audience and connect them to other networks. This was actually made possible because of the pause we had. Without this stop we would not have been able to scout or talk to people to think about this new project”.
Even as Venice and the entire Italy continue to prepare for the new normal, the duo concedes that while they can see a little movement, the dialogue is still focused on next year. On the future of their practice, Giubilei says, “It is very difficult to make any predictions about the future. But it is also true that it is necessary to think forward. We are trying to take advantage of this strange year, to revise some of our goals, and to reshape our projects according to our new circumstances. We always try through both our ventures, the Venice Design Biennial and the VeniceArtFactory, to be as international as possible. But the impossibility to travel - for us, the designers and the artist - has given us the opportunity to focus more on our neighbourhood”.
Art and education
Directed by Aurora Fonda and Sandro Pignotti, A plus A is an experimental gallery space nestled within the narrow streets of Venice. The gallery serves as a centre point for The School for Curatorial Studies Venice, and was the official venue for the Slovenian Pavilion between 1998 and 2014. Since 2004, Fonda and Pignotti have been functioning in the dual capacity of educators and curators to students both Italian and international. Having hosted a soft opening in June for their exhibition titled RE- the gallery discussed the changes they saw in the dynamic of their space, specifying “visitors have been reduced and also most of our international collectors have less mobility, therefore the attendees of the shows are mostly Italians”.
When asked to elaborate on the impact of the changes in the global cultural calendar, they reflected on the deviations that they had to incorporate. “We had to re-plan the whole programme as all the shows were based on an international cooperation. For example, we had in one program a swap with a London gallery, and the show by Jesse Darling and Beth Collar”. Fonda and Pignotti also contemplated their curatorial vision, looking closer to home for inspiration. “During the extremely hard Italian lockdown we had a very good response by the Italian artists such as Maddalena Tesser and Giulio Malinverni. The fact we had more time, it gave us the chance to rethink and reshape the programme. Together with the artists we worked on the reopening show at the beginning of June, and now we are structuring a group show for October with a group of women painters such as Paola Angelini and Ella Walker,” say Fonda and Pignotti.
While the gallery’s more experimental curatorial approach allowed a degree of flexibility as they adapted their annual calendar, the same did not apply to their participation in art fairs. “We had to take some strategic decisions and withdraw our participation from international art fairs as most of them have been cancelled or postponed. Also, our attendance to the Italian fairs - Artissima and Miart - have been re-planned for the next year. Apart from that we are now involved in new projects, which require more care and content than ever,” add Fonda and Pignotti.
As is the case with most institutions and educational programmes, the School for Curatorial Studies also adapted to a digital presence. But as it remains an inherent value to study in Venice, the duo outlined their thoughts as: “The digital has some incredible potentialities, but not everything works on this platform. A properly organised curatorial course needs to have studio visits, exhibitions, and of course a lot of personal dialogues and discussion between the students and the tutors. All these things work best in the physical (world). But there are some subjects, which can be developed digitally in the form of workshops or short courses that can offer an extremely stimulating opportunity to research and learn". Having an understanding of the differences in the modes of communication, Fonda and Pignotti elaborated that, “For the next months we are preparing a short online course about the history and the role of the Venice Biennale and one focused around the ownership of knowledge and ethics of practice, by looking more closely at institutional, curatorial and artistic practices”. The long-term courses, however, have been postponed for now.
As one reflects on some of the realities that the Venetian business owners and creators have discussed, there is a sense of an emerging appreciation for the ‘neighbourhood’. It is no longer just about being a confluence of international voices, but also about promoting the native talent. It is an inversion of a performance and practice that goes back to the roots of why some of these festivals and events were conceptualised. At the same time there is a deep understanding within these conversations about the inability to incorporate an in-person dialogue, and continue facilitating interactions over the digital medium. There is a potential to innovate a more open and dynamic system for creative practices.