If around 7.00 am you find yourself wandering around the strip of land outside the Giardini or the Arsenale in Venice and you romantically look at the lagoon, you may be able to see two small boats quietly and silently dragging in the water a giant paper boat.
This is actually not a proper imbarcation, but Vik Muniz's "Lampedusa", a floating installation to prompt people to think about migrant drownings in the Mediterranean.
The boat - left floating beside the super yachts and gigantic cruise ships - has a wooden substructure covered in scaled-up newspaper articles that recount the tragic fate of thousands of people leaving their countries and finding death in the sea.
Some tourists will probably just photograph the boat thinking its cute and fun; others will instead ponder about the deaths in the Mediterranean. Yet, the installation made me think also about something else, the death of the press.
You may argue this is by now an old statement, considering how in these last few years the digital world influenced, transformed and radically changed the way information and news are written and disseminated. But the press days at the Venice Biennale always manage to strengthen your impression that - if you are a journalist - you are standing on the Titanic or the Costa Concordia (well, the latter would be more pertinent for the Venice Biennale as Alexander Ponomarev's installation for the Antartic Pavilion looks at the Concordia disaster...).
There may be thousands of journalists registered at the Biennale press days, but, while queueing up to enter the Giardini (with ID card/Passport in your hand to prove your identity...), access the toilets or buy a bottle of water, you inevitably end up meeting gallerists, artists, curators, poseurs, fashionistas and other assorted elements that somehow managed to get in (mind you, maybe there are hidden categories for the Press Preview days that I'm not aware of, like "C*nt*sh Celebrity" or "Flamboyant Fashionista"). In a nutshell, it becomes a colourful display of wealth, luxury and pretentiousness with quite a few rather bizarre characters who pretend of being journalists, but who are just interested in a free tote bag (disturbing dialogue I heard outside the Korean Pavilion: Middle-aged lady in respectful clothes: (after finishing writing down her name on the press contact sheet): ….and can I have a bag, please? Woman at the Press desk: I'm sorry, but we finished them yesterday. Middle-aged lady in respectful clothes: Oh come on, I don't believe you! I won't accept such an answer...).
This year in between Orlan and her implants, Eva & Adele pretty in pink and gold sequins to launch a new Swatch & Art watch released during the Biennale, and Rosita Missoni (who was actually humbly and silently walking around the Arsenale on her own), we also had Kanye West, who, apart from being a musician and a fashion designer, probably thinks he is also an artist and therefore deserves to get in for free (or maybe he was just trying to find people to sign that ridiculous petition posted a year ago on Change.org that asks to choose West as the next Biennale director).
West was accompanied by this year's Biennale director Okwui Enwezor in a guided tour and was followed around by Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia. The thing is, West is very welcome to Venice, especially if he wants to buy art rather than maybe try and spot a space to display his own art in two years' time, but he would be even more welcome if he went to see the event with millions of ordinary people who pay the ticket to get in (and if he thinks his celebrity status would cause disruptions and wouldn't allow him mingling with the crowds, he can still disguise himself, after all they sell lots of masks in Venice - even though they are not the sort of designer masks à la Margiela that he likes - or keep in mind that many areas are dimly lit or even completely dark in the case of audiovisual installations and therefore nobody would even see him...).
The press in this circus is totally irrelevant (this year journalists weren't even given a press pass, but printed out the invitation they were sent by email): many press officers from the most important pavilions organise interviews only with the main publications they like/they consider worthy of speaking to the artists they represent; if you ask the press officers at a pavilion's entrance to organise for you at the last minute an interview with an artist, you are asked who you're writing for because if you're not relevant enough you don't exist for them (even though if you speak to the artist directly he or she will probably be keen to speak to you...), and I have seen cases in which young artists stated they were too busy talking to gallerists to schedule interviews with the press.
A good plan for the press to get noticed would be to buy a Made in China Venetian "bauta" mask from a stall: while you would erase your identity, at least somebody would think you are a walking installation trying to interact with the public and they would even stop to take pictures or talk to you.
Some members of the press seem to have been reduced to report about trivial events: though bombarded with art for 24 hours, rather than giving a quick preview of what was on at the Biennale, local paper Il Gazzettino focused in the Thursday morning edition on a gossipy piece of news about 10 people falling into the water when a jetty collapsed in front of the Fondazione Prada building on the previous night, during a Prada party. According to the paper, the Prada organisers were investigating what had happened but reassured that the people involved in the accident were not on the guest list. Phew, what a relief (otherwise they would have had to provide maybe dry and new clothes?).
In an art event that has become more or less a backdrop for selfies (the selfie stick has now replaced the kitsch plastic gondola as the number one tourist gadget/Venetian souvenir), I thought that the will of the press to educate, explore and inform had disappeared. So I was pleasantly surprised to meet a group of people involved in an art and media event entitled Press Room.
Inspired by the structures and activities of the Venice Biennale press room, the project questioned through conceptual briefs and artistic acts, the construction and dissemination of information.
Curators, journalists and writers presented their briefs during the three press days inside the foyer of the Cinema Rossini and a team of artist-investigators and journalists responded to them.
Organisers were so kind to let me join at the last minute yesterday morning with two short briefs. My first brief was inspired by the main theme of the 56th International Art Exhibition - All the World's Futures - and asked people to foresee the future of journalism.
Many journalists are indeed "compiling" news rather than writing them or simply rewriting press releases, so it is legitimate to wonder if in future they will turn into curators or PR officers. Seeing also that some journalists are asked to write about specific products in return for money or advertising space, another option would be for journalists to turn into marketing experts or merchants (well, after all style.com will soon be absorbed by vogue.com and turned into an e-commerce site...).
My second brief had more to do with the colonisation of spaces I mentioned in a previous post, and basically moved from local examples such as Renzo Rosso investing in the restoration of the Rialto bridge in return for using it as advertising space (at the moment there is an advert on the bridge announcing a Marni installation during the Biennale) and solicited people to react to the concept of branded spaces and art projects sponsored by big brands, asking them to ponder about art, museum and restoration projects involving fashion houses, labels and brands and wonder if they are genuine examples of modern patronage or clever ways to strengthen a brand's identity on the market.
Press Room was a surprising event that has left me with a final question: is the press still useful or has it become redundantly useless (especially in huge events such as the Venice Biennale in which no member of the press has the time, energy and money to properly see everything on display)? I do have the impression that the latter is true, and I'm currently considering of reinventing myself and turn into a stand up comedian. What would my first show be about? It would be a darkly ironic performance piece about the press and media in general, the dissemination of news, monumental art events, vapid celebrities and the cult of wealth and luxury. If I can't write about them for any established publications because I offend big names with my words, I may as well make ordinary people laugh about such themes and celebrities in a proper venue.
The Venice Art Biennale is on until 22nd November 2015. As all the obnoxious celebrities of the world converged there during the Press Preview days, you can be sure you will be able to wander around the pavilions and installations completely undisturbed.
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