Venice Readymade

10 August 2009

For my project at the Biennale a team of men will sell fake designer bags on the streets of Venice. Fifty performers will appear each night,  dispatching in different directions through the city without discernible pattern or plan. The cast will comprise a group of African men – immigrants legal or otherwise, whose diverse stories of arrival, struggle and (dis)incorporation into the social, economic and political structures of Southern Europe sketch out an unspoken background for the work. Each of the performers will carry up to 30 bags looped on their arms as they walk, the luggage (bearing logos Gucci, YSL, Prada, Armani, Guess, Moschino etc) forming great harvest bundles of gold and black, sea blues and deep sea greens.

At agreed locations in the city each performer will place his collection of bags on the ground in front of him, arranging the combination of handbags, clutch bags, purses, shoulder bags, small luggage and holdalls into some temporary installation on the paving slabs, never shouting for business but simply standing once the bags are laid out and waiting calmly. Sometimes in particular places a few performers will congregate for a while; at the end of the Campo San Stefano for example or in the Campo San Angelo a small group will stand or sit together against a particular wall, not far from a drinking fountain, always keeping in sight the bags set out some distance in front of them.

In a process of pedestrian ebb and flow my work will explore the movements of this mass mobile sales-team, their trajectories in the streets of Venice and their animation of urban space, marking both the city's paths and at the same time evoking its shadow economy, whose replica goods shadow those of the daytime stores, a night-time mirror, echo or distortion of the Capitalist real. Later in the evening the performers will take different routes to disperse in the city again – standing still in new places for special solo scenes on its bridges or on its street-corners or else waiting in narrow crowded alleyways alone, with ten or so bags each, like strangely burdened statues, caught out of place in the press and pull of the night-time throngs.

The performers will project a sense of calm, still, self-composure which will mark them out from the restless tourist throng as much as the colour of their skin, so different from that of the mainly Caucasian visitors to the city. Looked at from any kind of remove the project's bag sellers will seem to have stepped in sideways from another reality or universe, which indeed, in many ways, they will have, both as immigrants and as artworks inhabiting the everyday.

At intervals through each night the performers will act as though they fear some invisible threat, most likely the imminent arrival of the police – looking around, gathering their bags and sometimes moving on, not hurriedly but shifting place in any case with a particular urgency and purpose, vanishing to the narrower side streets only to reappear some short while later, to stand with their goods again in new locations, like ghosts compelled always to return. Building on the above, a few times each night,  the 50 performers will run together from one part of the island to another, forming a wave of human and knock-off designer goods that builds and ripples from square to to square, corner to corner; a stampede that gathers up new runners and their wares as it passes through street after street, building past the pace of a decent jog, getting faster and faster. The men will always run in silence, though, only the sound of their feet and their breathing impacting the ambience of the city as they move through it.

Somewhat retrospective

9 August 2009
Gondola Prow

Somewhat retrospective, thanks to near-zero internet the last ten days.


There are two theories about Venice. One is that the people you see on the gondolas are the dead, transported though the narrow streets on the dark green waters to take a last glimpse of life on earth. Lain back in each others arms they are gazing up at the buildings from their mobile sarcophogi, hoping to catch a last glimpse of some loved one on a sunlit bridge or to see some relative or friend disappearing down a shadowed alley. All day their boats are heading this way and that on this kind of idle farewell tour, steered in an out of the sun and circulated by those cheery but absent-eyed stripy-topped guys, angels of death, all day until the time is come and the gondolas head out en masse, out of the maze of the city and towards the islands of the dead, where they’ll give up their passengers to the darkness. Yesterday, as the sun began to sink I saw two gondolas full of dead Japanese guys, heading out of the canals towards the open water, in a strangely excited state, mutually photographing each other in all directions, cameras pointing from one boat to the other with much gesticulation, shouts, laughter and calls for attention, then turns and more gesticulations to photograph the inhabitants of their own boats, as if each, photographing the photographers whilst themselves being photographed, were somehow determined to catch the final moment of their departure.

The other theory is that those of us walking on the islands of Venice are the dead, and that the people in the gondolas are living, tourists in fact, come here for daytrips to see what our echo of a life is like. Up here on the land we are going about our business (which is not much), walking here and there, eating in the cafes, sweating, laughing, talking, going through what we might think of as an echo of our former lives, staged here in this this endless ruined filmset, with its endlessly interrupted and incomplete tangle of streets. All day the tourists gawp at us, staring up to see again and again how lifelike, and yet how strange we dead are. All day they drift past on the gondolas, going through the dark passages of the canals, taking photographs as best they can of the liminal space we inhabit, capturing at 8 or 9 or even 12 megapixels our  glorious decay and that of our dead city, and at night they retreat, heading off to safer places, the mainland, home.

My copy of Nabakov meanwhile, used these days as much as a weapon as it as a reading book, accumulates mosquito blood.

In X’s apartment I develop a new way of killing the mosquitos that lurk each night on the ceiling, a method that involves launching the book, face upwards, in sudden vertical movement all the way to the ceiling. It’s a joy like lift off at Houston to see the book thundering directly upwards to smash into an insect on the white plaster high above with a satisfying thump. The upstairs neighbors must love this too, esp when I am dancing around in glee at my (too rare) latenight success. I imagine this would be a strange death though. Sensing nothing perhaps, or only feeling the terminal updraft, or else glimpsing a dark rectangle, ominous, mysterious, headed at high speed, perhaps turning mosquito head slightly to make out the looming words of the title Speak, Memory before sudden oblivion.