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Dr Nicolas Whybrow

Nicolas Whybrow is Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at Warwick University, UK. His main area of interest is performance and urban space and recent books include Street Scenes: Brecht, Benjamin and Berlin (2005), Art and the City (forthcoming October 2010) and, as editor, Performance and the Contemporary City: an Interdisciplinary Reader (published May 2010). In 2009 he received an Academic Fellowship from Warwick University's Reinvention Centre with funding to undertake a 'performative mapping' of the city of Venice with twenty-four 3rd year undergraduate students taking his module Performance and the Contemporary City. The project was a key factor in his successful nomination for a Warwick Teaching Excellence award in 2010 (see link to the right).


Performing Venice: Questions of a Sinking City

(An in situ interrogation and mapping of the city of Venice using performance)

Photos of signs for 'Calle della Morte' and 'Rio de la Toletta', Venice


Marco Polo: 'You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours'.
Kublai Khan: 'Or the question it asks you'.
- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Reinvention Centre Academic Fellowship funding was allocated to a research project involving the interrogation of the city of Venice using performance-based methods. The aim of the project was to replicate the implied premise of Calvino's 'reciprocal questioning' encompassed in the brief exchange above. Whilst Marco Polo alludes to a multitude of cities in the accounts of his global travels, ultimately it is always Venice that serves as the 'invisible' point of reference and measurement. Calvino's questions were one reason to select Venice in particular as an exploratory site, but there were others too. These related to the city's unique morphology, as one might expect, but also to its repeated identification by theorists as a 'theatrical city', as well as to the highly contemporary instance of its 'sinking'. One of the points of departure for the project as a whole was the tension between the tourist industry, which witnesses a continuous stream of temporary visitors to the city (21 million annually), and the 'leaking' resident population: in March 2008 a permanent digital counter was installed in a shop window near the Rialto Bridge indicating a figure of 60,720. By July it had already dropped by 200. As such the city conveys an impression of sinking: it is known to be doing so literally, whilst figuratively the weight of tourists can be said to be forcing the city down and its citizens to 'jump ship'.

The troubling paradox of Venice is that it is 'a city that provokes curiosity whilst at the same time threatening to permit only repetitions of experience'. Mary McCarthy famously observed of Venice: 'Nothing can be said here (including this statement) that has not been said before'. This is an indictment (perhaps) of the 'tourist experience' on which the city is utterly dependent, but it also throws down a challenge to the visitor: not so much to discover 'another Venice' (which may amount simply to another repetition of the cliché), but rather to take the city and its mythology 'for granted' in a sense, even, as Marco Polo also seems to suggest, to 'ignore' the sheer weight of the city's specificity (as 'exotic', historic place) and go about your business as if you were 'no-where in particular'.

Working in six groups of four, students used Venice as the common location for an investigation that produced 'performative mappings' of the city. These eventually took various forms and were influenced by a range of theories and practices, including those of the Situationists (with their techniques of dérive/drift and détournement/creative hijacking), the wandering figure of the flâneur, Henri Lefebvre's rhythmanalysis, Sophie Calle, lone twin, Blast Theory and graffiti writing. In combination, the performances and installations were intended to form a collective 'explanation' (ex planere = to unfold a map) of a long weekend spent encountering a strange sunny, rain-soaked, flooded labyrinthine city (in November 2009).

The group made use of Warwick University's Palazzo Pesaro-Papafava as the headquarters for this site-based exploration of the city. An 'incident room' was set up at the Palazzo, serving as a daily evidence-gathering and stock-taking point for small investigating teams. Each focused on a particular set of questions and techniques of exploration, spending successive days engaged in a 'collecting' process, some of which involved visual and aural recording technologies. At the end of each day, groups assembled at the Palazzo and exchanged experiences, drew conclusions, filed relevant data online, and prepared exercises for the following day.