31 Mar INSUBORDINART – MARCH ISSUE: The Barena Bianca collective
We reached out to the Venice-based Barena Bianca collective, founded by Pietro Consolandi and Fabio Cavallari, for an in-depth conversation about artivism and ecology. The name of the collective takes inspiration from the typical venetian salt marshes, “barene”, which are essential to the survival of the city, to reflect on the ecological and sociological issues that Venice and the rest of the world share.
Their work, which combines digital art, education and activism with humor and inventiveness, aims at shaking the local and the international community and raising awareness on how climate change is impacting our ecosystems. The anti-mimetic poetic approach, “impossible to ignore”, is the signature of the collective’s work and performances which often happen in public and highly touristic spaces around Venice.
We talked to Pietro who gave us an overview of the latest Barena Bianca’s artworks. Here is what he told us!
The Barena Bianca collective was born in Venice as the brainchild of you and your colleague Fabio Cavallari. While exploring your work, we were particularly struck by the element of urgency that emerges from your mission, this need to make the ecological message that drives your work “impossible to ignore”. What brought the conception of Barena Bianca and why in Venice?
As students in Venice, we already had a fairly developed ecological conscience as well as a history of political activism. But as artists we were looking for a metaphor that would express our existential condition in the natural world, in the ecosystem, including our unwillingness to be waiters all our lives. For example, I was a tour guide and Fabio works as a chef but we wanted to stay in Venice and give something to the city that was not just our “manual” workforce. As many people know, since the 1960s the historic center of Venice has depopulated very quickly: the barene, or salt marshes, of Campalto, which are a muddy ecosystem, have shrunk by 70%, as has the population. While the reasons for the two are obviously not the same, they do converge. The salt marshes have been eroded as a consequence of the decision to dig the Canale dei Petroli, a canal that connects the Adriatic Sea to the port in the Marghera lagoon, causing the water to flow much faster and erode the ecosystem. The decision was taken to increase economic gains, while at the same time the city was emptied of the local population to make room for tourism and the giant cruises. This phenomenon expresses well how a city and its ecosystem can be made unlivable for its inhabitants. The MOSE – standing for Experimental Electromechanical Module is a project intended to protect the city of Venice, Italy, and the Venetian Lagoon from flooding. The salt marshes represented the natural MOSE of Venice because by encompassing the surface of the lagoon they ensured that the storms did not hit so hard and maintained its biodiversity.
With our first work, “Insurrezione Antimimetica Lagunare” (literally, anti-mimetic lagoon insurrection), we used patterns derived from satellite images of the salt marshes to print some t-shirts we wore in the most touristic spots of the city, such as the Ponte dei Sospiri, taking pictures of ourselves in camouflage clothes. We came across as absurd in the eyes of tourists, being, indeed, “impossible to ignore”.
Our work was noticed by the NGO “We are here Venice” who offered to produce our very first series of workshops addressed to children. In the first, children walked in a parade carrying 35 metres of fabric on their heads at the Ponte dell’Accademia and Campo Santo Stefano, a very important tourist area. Starting from the invisibility of the Venetian and the ecosystem by tourists, we decided to adopt this anti-camouflage poetics which is difficult to ignore both by tourists and Venetians because of its bright colours, the use of loud voices without mentioning the involvement of 60 children.
Among the collective’s works, we found particularly interesting the project “How is it there? Here…” which, besides being an interactive map of the challenges that threaten our ecosystem not only in Venice but in different parts of the world such as Brazil or Indonesia, is an actual workshop with a didactic purpose as it is aimed at students. Among other things, the project is part of a broader project, ARTPORT_We are Ocean, promoted by the United Nations, which has a multidisciplinary approach and uses art as its first channel of communication. So we were wondering how you have combined digital art, activism and dissemination and how it will evolve?
The workshop was intended to be on critical geography, which questions the way political geography is conceived that traditionally makes it very difficult to talk about common challenges. And Venice and its citizens are very much affected by this thinking, inclined to say “yes, but it is us who are sinking”, whereas Jakarta, Miami and many other cities are also sinking. With the arrival of Covid-19 it was impossible to continue the workshops in presence so we decided to open it to the world, to our contacts, to our friends. The workshop, re-formatted to function in the situation of the pandemic, is centered around mail art: participants are invited to send a letter to Venice – or from Venice to a chosen place, somewhere else – describing why they care about their place, why they are worried about it, and the hopes and dreams they might have in connection to it, creating a connection between the place where they write from and they write to (ed.).
This was done to make the children understand that they too are part of a global network of solidarity and that the problem of Venice is also the problem of the rest of the world. As Nietzsche once said, Venice is not a city that lives in the past but a warning for the man of the future. The title of the project is in fact the incipit of an ideal letter. The only advantage of Covid-19 is that it allowed us to be in touch with people from the other side of the world. For example, Indonesia is an important country and we had the chance to cooperate with a couple of artists, Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, who invited us to Jakarta for a lesson as part of an urban planning course. The focus was on the so-called murazzi of Venice and its comparison with the huge sea wall under construction in Indonesia, which, if built, will be the largest in the world. In this sense, digital technology amplifies all these aspects and makes it possible to get to the other side of the world.
Speaking of common challenges, every time Venice floods, the New York Times writes an article and the BBC publishes a video; however, other places that aren’t so lucky, like Tuvalu, put a lot of effort into digital but don’t have the charisma of Venice, one of the most famous western cities. If we let Venice sink, what does it mean to mankind? But if we let Tuvalu sink, then what’s the difference?
Your work and the project “How is it there? Here…” is not only an artistic interpretation but also a political statement, a need to raise awareness among the Venetians and citizens towards the themes of sustainability and the safeguarding of the lagoon and the oceans. What has been the feedback from your community on these issues? Do you think that art in general can bring citizenship closer to these themes more effectively than classical tools (e.g., denunciation), or do you think that the multidisciplinary approach is the strength of the project?
Venetians are very strange creatures. They are particularly militant and sensitive because once you get water in your house it is hard to ignore the ecological problem as well as other issues in Venice such as unsustainable tourism. The Venetian citizenship is very active, it is the Italian city with the highest number of civil society organisations per capita, but it is also a closed community. “We Are Here Venice” is an exception and works with a very international and local eye. At the beginning, the aim was to create a network between existing associations, and if we take specific battles such as the “No big ships” movement, for example, we have seen a collective and broad response from the citizens. By working with the young people, we learned a lot as this approach welcomes and includes all points of view. We work extensively with scientists, the National Research Council of Italy, Ocean Space, but also with the so-called “local experts”, for example people who have been hunters for 50 years and who often have in-depth knowledge on certain issues related to Venice and its ecosystem. However, their knowledge is often sidelined because it is not institutionalised, and the same goes for that of the artists. The combination of art and science is often exalted: science does research and art communicates it. In reality, when scientists work with artists, they acquire the freedom to do research in a different way. Hence interdisciplinarity means mixing everything, it’s not like a puzzle.
As far as activism is concerned, classic activism can be done well or it can be done badly. Some projects, those that have been developed within a community, have the possibility of transmitting the message deeper, as opposed to others where the communication is often hasty. For example, in Sant’Erasmo, a well-known artist built a rainwater collection system with her students. The system was made by an artist, not an engineer, and it was then given to a community of farmers who benefited from the project and understood its community meaning. Other artists, on the other hand, have crazy budgets, put on a show and leave without a trace. Anyway, art has a big advantage over other disciplines in the sense that it is easier to do fun things without bureaucratic or time constraints while communicating more effectively than traditional forms.
Climate change and the need for urgent action to fight it back have been on international and global agendas for more than three decades. Given the few agreements and results that have been achieved, what can be expected from governments? From your point of view, is it more up to citizens to raise awareness and mobilise massively or is it the responsibility of governments to act decisively? Do you have an experience with the relevant authorities that has taught you something about this?
In recent years, through Barena Bianca, I have worked a lot on the territory, while as a researcher I have worked more at international level. On a local level, there is always a tendency for the “constituted” power to deny its responsibilities, particularly in Venice. If in the 1940s there were 5 high waters in Venice and in 2010 there were 110, it is not only the fault of climate change but also the fault of the management of the lagoon, which has been criminal. But there is no specific person who is responsible for everything, so it is more convenient to blame climate change. It is true that rising sea levels and global warming do have an influence, but there is also another, specific responsibility that has been ignored. This was evident when we did a performance called “Atensión!”: we crafted hand-made carts bearing some data of various negative trends associated with the Venetian Lagoon with the help of a friend of ours, a “cart driver”, we pushed them around the Biennale area shouting “Atensión!, “Atensión!”. This work was removed by the local police despite the fact that the data came from the municipality’s website (!). There is always very little attention when it comes to action, and a lot of attention when it comes to denying responsibility. There is always a tendency to say that others are responsible (e.g. the Italian government is asking for help from the EU when in fact we should start on all levels at once). Local activism can be extremely effective and must go hand in hand with a responsible political class.
I am quite optimistic about the new generations. The statements of António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, express a lot of concern and are in line with the latest IPCC reports, but the UN itself – as the highest supranational institution – is often struggling to make individual States act against climate change. When it comes to making anti-economic ecological choices, no state exposes itself. It is very difficult to stop doing “business as usual” and then admit that the municipality’s figures are problematic as well as for the EU to force Member States to do what they have to do and get the US to agree with China. What we can try to do is to talk as much as possible about these things and convince as many people as possible that they need to be addressed.