By Dr Nicolas Whybrow
In their chapter in The Hieroglyphics of Space, ‘Venice: Masking the Real’, Curtis and Pajaczkowska succinctly sum up the central, troubling paradox that Venice is ‘a city that provokes curiosity whilst at the same time threatening to permit only repetitions of experience’. Conscious of that, many ‘enlightened tourists’ go there with the stated intention of discovering an ‘alternative Venice’, which always already runs the risk of merely amounting to the next iteration of a cliché, one that arguably takes you away from the city. Henry James’s late-nineteenth century verdict on the place already evokes an image of hackneyed decadence, the writer declaring in his travelogue, Italian Hours, that ‘Venice scarcely exists any more as a city at all [...] only as a battered peep-show and bazaar [...] reduced to earning its living as a curiosity shop’. Moreover, having invoked those other well-worn Jamesian views on Venice, that there was simply ‘nothing left to discover or describe’, and that ‘originality of attitude is impossible’, the art historian and travel writer Mary McCarthy famously went on – mid-twentieth century – to observe this to be the case even of that very view itself: ‘nothing can be said here (including this statement) that has not been said before’. For her ‘there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice’, which, she maintains, ‘is possible with other cities’ [my emphasis]. Venice’s inescapable casting as ‘tourist ville-ain’ points, then, not only to a form of long-standing, mediated inevitability in the visitor’s experience of the city – a narrative of encounter so stereotyped that to reflect upon it as that is already, in itself, to be implicated by it – but also to the importance of recognising that, like it or not, the amorphous tourist presence uniquely constitutes the populace of the city. In that sense, to attempt to talk of a residents-versus-tourists dichotomy is misleading, since the latter represents a form of itinerant population upon which the former is hugely dependent. The way things are – and have been for a while – neither would nor could exist without the other.
With those kinds of tension in mind, a group of 24 final year undergraduate students from Warwick’s School of Theatre and Performance Studies recently undertook – under my direction – to spend a long weekend engaging with the city of Venice with the ultimate aim of producing a studio-based ‘performative cartography’ of their experience of the city back at the University. The University’s base in the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava effectively served as an ‘incident room’: an evidence-gathering, feedback and stock-taking point at the culmination of each day. For the majority of the time, though, the students worked independently in six teams of four on the streets (and canals) of the city, setting out to investigate the possibilities of using performance-based strategies to encounter and document an ‘unknown’ but highly determined urban situation. Each group had devised a particular set of questions and practical methods of exploration in advance of the visit, involving, amongst other features, making use of aural and visual recording technologies, mobile phones, couch surfing sites and, even, crossgender identity disguises. In that regard the brief was straightforward: carry out the pre-planned exercises – modifying them in situ if necessary, in accordance with responses received – bring this data back to Warwick, evaluate how and to what extent pre-set questions had been ‘answered’, and, via means of performance, film, installation, exhibition, creative writing and lecture-demonstration tell the story of the ‘Venice experience’ as a component of a collectively-curated, performed environment.
Curtis and Pajaczkowska’s observation served as one cue in framing the students’ field-work: would it be possible to pursue their curiosities and desires without automatically becoming subject to pre-determined narratives of experience? The challenge the research groups set themselves, then, was premised in a sense on taking the city and its mythology ‘for granted’, even, as the venerable son of Venice and intrepid medieval explorer Marco Polo seems to propose in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, to ‘ignore’ the city’s specificity as exotic, historic place entirely. Marco Polo suggests to the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan: ‘You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours’. To which his interlocutor replies: ‘Or the question it asks you’.
The students’ ‘performed tactics’ varied markedly from group to group, but one principle seemed to be held in common: in one form or another to seek out conversations. In Cities: Re-imagining the Urban, Amin and Thrift define the city as a ‘force-field of passions’, this particular emotion or ‘affect’ being culled from Spinoza, for whom the ‘experience of other bodies can intensify our awareness of our own desires, joys and pains’. The authors identify talk as a key characteristic in the playing out of such ‘urban intensities’. For them the city ‘is a constant cacophony of talk’. But ‘talk has to be seen in a particular way’, namely ‘as a toolkit of utterances which are there for doing things [...] Cities, then, hum with talk which is based on shared conversational contexts in which categories and identities are constantly articulated: local understandings which often very elegantly exploit the possibilities of ordinary talk’. Fittingly, Henry James (again) had already identified late-nineteenth century Venice as ‘emphatically the city of conversation; people talk all over the place’.
For the students the context of Venice lent itself to instigating playful, interactive encounters that they hoped might yield moments of potential insight. As visitors to the city their aim was actively to make something happen. In a sense what they were attempting to institute, therefore, was the touristic experience – their own as well as that of others – as ‘relational performance’: a form of tourism that can be said to be premised on ‘going out of its way’ to engineer subtle situations or scenes. Relational performance reaches out to the site in question – the city of Venice and its population, both resident and itinerant – but its motive is not to do the work of ‘unmasking’ it or exposing its specificity as site – or, indeed, of ‘absorbing’ its various sights – but to perform it into a form of ‘temporary being’. In short, to provoke ‘live moments’ or ‘playful interludes of exchange’ that may not have immediate consequences, but that may at the very least constitute an experience that, in its out-of-the-ordinariness and desire to demand a form of engagement, makes some kind of ‘memorable mark’. If that offers no more than a tantalising glimpse of what the students did, I refer the reader to my two publications listed on page 98. These provide an appraisal of the work in terms of the insights it offered as creative research.
‘Venice’s inescapable casting as ‘tourist ville-ain’ points ... also to the importance of recognising that, like it or not, the amorphous tourist presence uniquely constitutes the populace of the city. In that sense, to attempt to talk of a residents-versustourists dichotomy is misleading, since the latter represents a form of itinerant population upon which the former is hugely dependent ... With those kinds of tension in mind, a group of 24 final year undergraduate students from Warwick’s School of Theatre and Performance Studies recently undertook – under my direction – to spend a long weekend engaging with the city of Venice with the ultimate aim of producing a studio-based ‘performative cartography’ of their experience of the city back at the University.’
Dr Nicolas Whybrow is a Reader in Warwick’s School of Theatre and Performance Studies. His research revolves round site-specific practices, particularly performance’s relationship with the city. In 2009, Warwick’s Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research awarded Nicolas an academic fellowship to carry out a research project with third year students from his department. This involved them embarking on a field trip to Venice to create a psychogeographical mapping of the city. In 2010, he won a Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence, made on the recommendation of both staff and students.
Dr Nicolas Whybrow
School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies
N dot Whybrow at warwick dot ac dot uk