In May 2019, I travelled to Venice where I participated in a collaboration with artists Patrick Pound and Jondi Keane working on the Venetian Blind art project – developed by Public Art Commission at Deakin University and co-curated by David Cross and Cameron Bishop. Both a public art event and an exhibition, six projects were commissioned (one per month) over the duration of the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures exhibition from 8 May to 25 November 2019, in conjunction with the 58th Venice Biennale.
The project title ‘Venetian Blind’ is a wordplay on the famous Venetian object but also the nature of the the project – none of the participating artists had any foreknowledge of the specific artistic brief (or ‘provocation’) we would encounter and be required to respond to – as each of the six provocations was inscribed upon a ‘blind’ suspended in the gallery, unfurled individually at the beginning of each month only then to reveal each new provocation.
Each of the six provocations was individually researched and devised by the curators for the teams to engage with a unique aspect of Venetian history and focused on specific locations across the city, in order for each team make a site-based or performative intervention. Documentation of each intervention was then exhibited in the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures gallery space in the Palazzo Bembo, Venice.
Our provocation was ‘The Spacer’ and this was our challenge:
“To interrogate ‘The Spacer’ as an object/symbol/architectural device/or folly. Develop a project that considers labyrinthine systems and the ways in which Venetian planning and engineering have waged a continual battle with unfettered development and entropy throughout its history.
“Calle Toscana in San Polo is a very narrow street off one of the main passageways linking Rialto Bridge with the station. Named for the community of Tuscan émigrés who lived in the immediate area, the street is remarkable for an architectural feature that is perched curiously and perhaps precariously one and a half floors above street level. A small piece of Istrian stone, almost rectangular in shape, is wedged between the two buildings. While difficult to read from below, the stone has an inscription together with the coat of arms of the Gradenigo’s, a hugely influential family of the Venetian patriarchate since the 9th century.
“This insertion is peculiar for a number of reasons. It has no obvious architectural purpose, nor is it inherently decorative, and it is located well above eye level making it difficult to read. This elusive object that floats unconvincingly in space is neither sculpture not building but a distanciador (or in English a ‘spacer’). It is effectively an instrument of planning that enforced (literally) a sanctioned distance between buildings. Located in the Rialto district, which a thousand years ago was a veritable hotspot of development in Venice, the spacer operated as a counter-point to medieval systems policing a building code that sought to push back against unfettered development. Somehow, both classical and modern in look and purpose, the spacer highlighted a simple if effective means by which Venetian planners could exercise control and ensure reasonable levels of natural light and ease of passage for residents and merchants alike.
“What is delightful about this early weapon of organised planning (a shot across the byzantine bow) is that it is still there, floating dangerously above you as you pass under it mostly unawares. it profoundly – if elliptically – speaks to Venetian values, specifically how commerce and a holistic civic ethos were carefully, if forcefully, calibrated. And yet, like modernist sculpture it seems elegant, reductive, and manages to deny its weight and flat in space, half a millennium or more before Tatlin’s Corner Counter-Relief. For whatever reason – chance, the laziness of builders, or the power of the Gradenigo family – it is still asserting an arcane separation that cannot be infringed upon by the vagueness of climate, shifting sands or unscrupulous developers.”