Friday, October 30, 2015

Autumn Colors Near the Rialto, Today

Not much in the way of actual foliage, but the selection of colors is right... You take what you can get in this intensely human-made city.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Unseen Venice

"The most memorable photos are those not taken."

Someone somewhere must have written the above. Perhaps sometime around the middle of the last century, perhaps in a language other than English. Probably more than one person in one place.

I think of it this morning because of an experience I had Monday evening. I was motoring slowly home down the Grand Canal after picking up our newly repaired cover for our little sandolo-sanpierota boat and right there, suddenly, low and large and yellow-tinted just beside the facade of the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi (aka the Casinò di Venezia)--still below it's roofline, in fact--was the full moon. Or nearly the full moon (one night short, actually). 

It was just 5:30 pm, already dark, but not yet completely: there was a silvery sheen like an evanescent after-image of daylight on everything. The repeated arches and 11 circular windows of the palazzo's facade seemed to mimic the shape of the moon right next door to them, and the palazzo's many pairs of tall electric candlesticks bordering each column of its upper two stories were, for the time being, holding their own against the lunar light.

In other words, a perfectly composed photograph presented itself to me. I could imagine the sense of proximity a telephoto lens would emphasize between the casino facade and the moon, the latter just above the line of Grand Canal palazzi sweeping left to right into the distance toward the Rialto. 

I sat on the back-end of our boat, steering the 6 horsepower outboard engine with my right hand, a small point-and-shoot in my backpack near my feet. It wouldn't be ideal, but if I set the f-stop manually and used the zoom... But there was still (as usual) plenty of traffic on the Grand Canal--the Riva de Biasio stop on one side, the Cannaregio Canal on the other--and short of simply stopping and tying up the boat somewhere with the same perspective (if I could find it), there was no way I could capture an image. 

But capture it for whom? For myself? I was already seeing it all, right there at the moment--whenever I allowed myself not to worry about taking an image. 

For this blog? Yes, of course. But what's the infinitesimally small likelihood in this most photographed of cities that someone--or many ones--haven't already captured an image very much like this one? And better? There are, as I type these words, 127,518 images posted on just the Flickr Venice group page alone--with new ones being added every hour.

These days the old idea that we preserve an experience from obliteration/obscurity/anonymity by photographing it has been turned on its head. Things are no longer, as in the old days, obliterated by the passage of time, fading slowly from sight. No, they're obliterated in the sheer overwhelming excess of the moment. 

The traditional stream or river of Time that was long described as carrying off everything we cherished has nothing on today's tumultuous torrent of the Instantaneous and Now, likely to overwhelm our dear images right before our eyes.

And for all the memory cards we're filling up these days with images and video--and nowhere more than Venice--how many of us will have any of them in two years? In five years?

Indeed, the fear among historians is that in spite of the fact that never in human history have so many people so easily recorded so much, the transient nature of the media and the rapidity of technological change will result in very little of these images surviving--or being viewable (

Whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, technology has burdened all of us with the task of acting as archivists of our own history in a far more complex manner than simply tossing some photos into a box, putting it in a closet, and forgetting about it. 

At least that's one way of looking at it. 

Another has more to do with some points that Susan Sontag made in On Photography. From my numerous but limited interactions with Sontag herself it was hard not to notice a likeness between her and Dostoevsky's character of Ivan Karamazov, who admits to both a love of humanity in the abstract and a repulsion from actual human beings: of whom he can't help but be contemptuous, and to whom he can't help but be rude. At her most provocative, Sontag accuses us shutterbugs of ethical failings. At other times (our "better" moments, I guess) we are, as she writes below, merely cowardly, infantile, and weak-minded:
The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. 
Of course, a camera is not the only way one can defend oneself from experiences, novelties, other people. Knowledge, as Sontag herself must surely have known, or even just the pretense of it, works awfully well, too--and has been doing so since long before photography came along.

Anyone who travels much, or spends much time in places visited by tourists, is likely to be familiar with the Know-It-All, who at the first sight of a palazzo, for example, will launch into a flood of information (accurate or otherwise) that one can't help but feel is a defense against some kind of actual experience itself. As if he or she must strike out at the sight or experience first, before the sight or experience has a chance to strike him or her. As if, in other words, tourism is a matter of "Kill or be killed."

All of which is a long explanation of why there is no image at the top of this post--though, inevitably, there will be plenty more to come in future posts. I see no inherent virtue in not taking photos, and no inherent vice in doing so. In fact I remember quite clearly and with much fondness one afternoon just after buying my first SLR film camera that I spent alone in Big Sur taking photos, feeling that the camera itself was what spurred me to a new appreciation and attention to a landscape I'd seen before.

Perhaps there's something to be said for someone who shoots a lot of photographs putting the camera or smart phone away for a few hours in Venice, just to see what it feels like to be in such a place without one's old friend and usual way of seeing. Perhaps it's worthwhile for those who never (or almost  never) shoot photos to go out on the hunt for images for a few hours here. Again, just for the sake of seeing what difference it makes in one's own experience of the place.

As both Kant and Freud wrote, the experiences that strike us most profoundly, that leave (as we say) the most lasting impressions upon us, are those we aren't prepared for, that we don't expect, against which we don't (or simply can't) employ our usual filters or modes of understanding. The kinds of surprises that might appear to any one of us around any one of Venice's infinite corners or bends or blind alleys--if we can allow ourselves not to be prepared for them, in whatever way that means for each of us.

UPDATE: 28 November 2015: This article about the Rijksmueum encouraging its visitors to sketch instead of take photos offers a related perspective on the above theme:

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tidying Up At Day's End--and Your Chance to Board an Italian Navy Training Ship

The Italian flag is lowered at the end of the day to the strains of the national anthem
An Italian naval ship has been moored alongside the Riva for the last couple of days during the 10th Regional Seapower Symposium of the Mediterranean and Black Sea held at the Arsenale and attended by representatives of 49 of the world's navies (

Aside from actual cruise ships, this Italian ship is the only thing that has rivaled in size the mega-yachts of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (which was moored around the same spot for over a week last month, and about which you can read more here:, and Roman Abramovich (whose own mega-yacht it's not hard to imagine may be more heavily armed than the Italian navy ship).

For the last three days the past and present of the Italian navy were represented along the Riva, as you can see in the image below. The Palinuro, the three-masted iron-hulled barquentine, launched in 1934 and still in use as a training vessel, will remain here until at least Sunday, and is open to the public according to the schedule below:

Saturday, 24 October and Sunday, October 25:

--from 10 am until noon

--from 3 pm until 6 pm,

--from 9 pm until 11 pm

Though the closer ship above has departed, the three-mast ship in the background (and below) will remain in Venice through the weekend

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Extraordinary Ordinary

I haven't had the time to write the third and last post on Marx at the Biennale and, so, instead, post the above image, snapped the other day on a drab morning in the midst of running errands. It's a route I take on a regular basis, from Campo San Provolo to Campo Santa Maria Formosa, noticing who knows what? Most likely--entirely lost in my own thoughts--very little. This is always a mistake: perhaps anywhere, but especially here.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

How I Came To Be in The Venice Biennale (or, Of Capital Importance?, Part 2)

Two readers of Das Kapital Oratorio rehearse in the unfinished Arena performance area of the Central Pavilion in May

Paradoxically, the fact that I've been at the Biennale so frequently since its opening is precisely what has prevented me from having anything to say about it. Or at least, any inclination to write it down.

When I first got the job of reading Das Kapital in English, I believed the entrance pass that came along with it would give me the chance to repeatedly take in pieces in a way most other people could not. I did one post on the Vernissage back in early May, but otherwise I was so entirely absorbed by preparing for what I was supposed to do on stage that I couldn't really think about anything else at the Biennale.

And how does one get such a gig? you may wonder. In my case, I was contacted by a member of the Biennale staff with the unenviable job of rounding up as many fluent speakers of English as possible who might not only be interested in reading Marx in public but also be available for a seven month stretch. Initially, they had only trained actors in mind, but in order to get a large enough pool of applicants they were willing to take video auditions from anyone.

Over 400 people sent in such auditions; the majority of them polyglot actors in their 20s from all around Italy. But being fluent in a language--no matter how fluent you are--doesn't necessarily equip you to deal with Marx in English. Native English speakers struggle with it--and especially with reading it out loud--so imagine how extraordinary are the language skills of those who can manage it whose mother tongue is not English (and who, in most cases, seem to speak at least a couple of other languages besides English).

Based upon the video auditions, the directors of the piece, Isaac Julien and Mark Nash, invited more than two dozen people to audition live in the Teatro Piccolo located within the Arsenale.

I hadn't dared or even thought of auditioning for anything since the fourth grade, when, after my bumbling attempt to secure a very minor role in some small classroom production, the teacher had decided the role could be better filled by a straight-back chair.

More recently, I had done more than 25 public readings after my novel was published in America. But before each and every one of those I'd taken one half of a little pill intended to ease back spasms, which served to blot out the upper register of panic I felt standing in front of even a small audience.

Those pills, however, were long gone, and, moreover, it didn't seem either practical or wise to depend upon them when I might have to read nearly every day--and more than once a day--for seven months. 

I've long loved empty theaters and empty stages, and that's what I reminded myself of when it was time to stand alone on an empty stage in front of an actual professional director--rather than a 4th grade teaching nun--two of whose films I'd seen and liked years ago (http://FRANTZ-FANON, https:///Looking_for_Langston). Even as my heart threw itself around my thoracic cage like a lunatic against the padded walls of a cell, I told myself what a marvelous place to be, up on that stage, beneath the peaked, wood-beamed ceiling of the old Arsenale. There was no place I'd rather be, I told myself. And, besides, I had nothing to lose.

There were three rounds of auditions on that stage--though the directors were so kind about the process that it seemed like you'd already been accepted as part of the project, even as you were still trying out. I was called back a second time, then a third, kind of thinking I'd already gotten the job. This was actually a helpful delusion.

I also benefited from not only being a Native English speaker, but from having some graduate school experience with Marx, and texts even more complicated than Marx. Though the energy we were asked to bring to the reading of the text was different than anything I'd ever had to do with such writings in grad school, and different, in fact, from the way I'd read my own fiction in public.

One day, after I'd finished reading and waited onstage for comments, Mark Nash said, "Well, you clearly seem to understand what you're reading, and that's good. But you give the impression that the prospect of all those pages lying ahead still to be read weighs very heavily upon you."

I thought I'd been reading with an entirely unaccustomed and almost indecorous amount of vigor!

I went home and, though I hate hearing my own voice, recorded myself reading and forced myself to listen. He was right! I became drowsy listening to myself.

By this time in April I'd made the final cut of a dozen readers--four of us Native English speakers. The directors had to return to London and we had a week off before resuming rehearsals. Every day during that break I forced myself to read--basically shout--Marx out loud in the closed bedroom of our apartment into an audio recorder, then played it back for myself. 

My six-year-old son, Sandro, began to mimic me. "AND THE COMMODITY...!" he would bellow. "...USE VALUE AND EXCHANGE VALUE...! LABOR POWER...! THAT IS TO SAY...!"

When I went to his first grade classroom for a meeting with his teachers, at a certain point one of them leaned toward me and asked, dubiously, if it was really true that I was going to be reading Das Kapital by Karl Marx at the Biennale.

It seems Sandro had told them all about it, and, I suspect, had been entertaining his friends with the Marxian phrases he'd picked up through the bedroom wall, delivering them in full comical windbag mode.

I could imagine how a six-year-old spouting Marx might have struck most first grade teachers in America, where the word "socialist" alarms people (and to be merely accused of being one is considered more damning than to be both a proven thief and pathological liar). Child Protective Services would have been summoned. Here, where the Communist party still has public demonstrations--even in the center of conservative Campo Santo Stefano--they seemed more amused than worried.

I thus fulfilled what I suspect is one of the essential duties of a father: providing one's son with a comic subject. But the practice really did help. Any time panic threatened during those opening days of the Biennale (before the general public could enter), when the gulf between the economic equality Marx espoused and extraordinary privilege of the audience (made up of art world insiders: collectors and gallerists and curators and artists and journalists: owners of yachts and palazzi and those who'd been their guests) was at its most extreme and absurd, I'd remind myself of the time I'd spent shouting alone at home, struggling to make sense of and enunciate the text. It always came back to this one-on-one struggle. Yes, I had to look up at times, make some effort to connect with the audience (or at least acknowledge their presence), but it wasn't like I was speaking extemporaneously. I had a path to follow, and had already put in far more time making sense of it than the 30-minutes my co-reader and I would be spending on stage.

But what was the point of it all? some people in the audience would ask after readings. It's a question I never thought I could actually answer for them, on their behalf, as it were. And though I have my own ideas about the piece, I'm not sure, after all, that they're worth going into. At least not here, not now.

NOTE: Part One on the subject of the Das Kapital Oratorio is here:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Of Capital Importance? Marx at the 56th Venice Biennale

An image of the Das Kapital Oratorio taken during the Vernissage

One of the works in this latest edition of the Venice Biennale that has gotten the most attention from critics was created by Karl Marx long ago. It's the Das Kapital Oratorio, conceived by the current Biennale's General Director Okwui Enwezor and directed by Turner Prize-nominated installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien. It's a live 30-minute ongoing reading (in English) of the entirety of Marx's magnum opus, staged three times (as of 15 September, two times) every day in the Arena performance area of the Central Pavilion for the entirety of the Biennale's nearly seven month run.

In his introduction to this Biennale (, Enwezor singled it out as "a core part" of the extensive schedule of live performances running in the large theater space at the very center of the exhibition (beautifully designed by the architect David Adjaye), and critics of all political bents haven't hesitated to take their swings at the piece, which in this day and age, and in such a context, hovers piñata-like at the heart of the show--just as Enwezor intended.

Some have praised it, others have derided it as an open contradiction at the heart of this international art trade show of the wheeling and dealing 1%, their mega-yachts hitched up along the nearby Riva. "What a yawn," some of them say--with an agitation that belies those very words.

As Aurora Fonda put it in Artribune: "Can you imagine a reading of Marx's Das Kapital at the first Biennale of 1895? Impossible! That it is conceivable today signifies that all revolutionary potential in the text is exhausted. To read Das Kapital at the 2015 Biennale shows that its contents are by now innocuous, and this is the only reason it can be loudly declaimed in I Giardini (dei Biennale)" (my translation from the Italian). 

Why not read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century (published to international acclaim in 2013), another critic asked?

And yet another one, during an afternoon session of the Das Kapital Oratorio in August, actually threatened to disrupt it.

He approached one of the Biennnale technicians at the fringe of the stage and asked what he, the tech, would do if someone walked up onto the stage and interrupted the readers.

The tech--actually the supervisor of all the live performances in the Arena--said he would physically remove that person from the Central Pavilion.

This answer gave the would-be disrupter pause. He decided to clarify his position: the reading was not active enough, he said. What did a reading alone ever accomplish? There had to be physical confrontation, drama. This was the real stuff of revolution.

At least this was as much sense as the Biennale supervisor could make of what the man said. He repeated simply that if the man--an artist himself, it seemed (as his itch to seize the spotlight for himself might have already indicated)--tried to disrupt the performance he would be hauled out of the pavilion.

This extended exchange was taking place between the two seated figures about 8 yards away from me, in the first row of seats just off to my right. It was quite audible, if not comprehensible, and I was surprised that Giovanni the technician, of all people, would be carrying on a conversation at this time.

You see, I was on the stage reading Das Kapital while this talk unfolded--approaching the end of the allotted pages for that particular session--with no idea that my co-reader and I were in any danger of having company.

As it turned out, we finished our reading before the young artist could make up his mind to interfere.

Generally, however, in the more than four months my fellow readers and I have read Das Kapital, (having finished all three volumes once, and now well into our second go-round), nothing so dramatic is even threatened. People pass through as we read on their way to other galleries. Some stop and sit down for a few minutes. Some stay longer. Some few stay for the entire 30 minutes. As a reader, those are the ones you wonder about. Especially if you find one or two persevering as you read through what might be called the less scintillating parts of Marx's work such as:

"The commodities in which the 2,000c is embodied can be broken down, as far as their value goes, into:

1. 1,333 1/3c + 333 1/3v + 83 1/3s = 2,000c; similarly the 500v into..."

And so on: formulas of this kind for pages.

The challenge presented to us readers by the director of the piece is to dramatize even passages like this. Not in the sense of "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?", but in the sense of maintaining a kind of vigorous, animating, engagement with the text even when we can't help but know that to almost every listener who wanders in mid-argument such figures add up to nothing very meaningful.

After all, it's not a lecture that's been constructed to be understood as spoken, but a text intended for the page, whose reading may, moreover, start and/or end abruptly mid-chapter.

But there have been a couple of pleasant surprises when listeners have known exactly what we were reading--and far more about it than we readers do. For example, a pair of professors from the University of California, Berkeley--one of whom had himself read all of Das Kapital four times through and lead discussion groups on it as a graduate student at Yale--who were quite pleased by the project. Though even the 4-time reader of it admitted that he'd had doubts it could be read out loud at all: fearing that there were long passages of the work, especially in Volumes 2 and 3, that would basically refuse to be resurrected from the page and become a viable spoken presence. 

Other listeners have simply asked what's the point of the piece. One, an earnest student from the University of Heidelberg who was writing a piece on the Biennale for a newspaper, just asked me straight out if I thought art could change the world.

And that really is the impossible question--which few art world pros would express or countenance in such a direct fashion--that haunts this Biennale (and obviously rankles some critics). Is it really possible that Enwezor believes that such a reading in such a place can have any effect on anyone or anything? Or does not even he himself actually believe it? And if he does not, then is it, instead, simply an empty or cynical or naïve or fashionable--or insert whatever derogatory adjective your own personal politics provide you with--gesture?

I told the student I honestly had no answer to her question. It was beyond me to even begin to imagine addressing it.

But one thing I've noticed since she asked and I didn't answer is that the thing about a piñata such as this Marx reading is that a person's reaction to it and (in the case of critics) their manner of attack, reveals more about them and their assumptions and ideals than it does about the piñata. 

After more than four months of doing the readings I've come up with certain ideas about some of the things it might be doing, even if I still have no idea about its (or art's in general) ultimate effect. But if I'm going to go into any of those ideas I'll have to do so in another post, as this one's long enough already.   

NOTE: To read more about the Das Kapital Oratorio, and how I came to be in it, visit:


Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Light of Autumn, Yesterday in I Giardini

Yesterday struck me as the first of the year with a distinctly autumn light, with no mix of summer in it, even temporarily. At least it was the first one I've noticed.

Absent were those solid ringing blows delivered by the summer sun, the lagoon all-atremor with its glitter and glare like sound waves from a cymbals' repeated crash.

Instead, even at noon (as in the image above), the light had a powdery quality, as if sifted from my maternal grandmother's rasping tin sifter, sighing its flour upon home-made ravioli, before she sliced the extensive street-grid sprawl of them on her dining room table into smaller neighborhoods--each ravioli like an apartment building bounded by rectilinear streets--then layered them with wax paper into white square boxes for refrigeration.

Autumn in Venice is the season of such hazy blue light, and such memories: the natural setting for the approaching All Souls Day.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Mis-Step on the Path to Venetian-ness: Il Trofeo del Nonno

All photos by Jen
Last Sunday Sandro took an important step on the path to becoming Venetian with his participation in a regatta of full-sized sailboats in the lagoon. Or, rather, he would have, had he not declared after the event was over that he never wanted to set foot on a sailboat again.

He'd actually been on this particular sailboat before. It belongs to the grandfather of one of his close friends and he'd quite happily, for example, scrubbed its deck while it motored around the lagoon one summer day. He's mad for physical labor, loves to work. So much so, that the bike club he had this past summer with the neighborhood kids has recently morphed into what is essentially a "carting club". Meaning that he and his friends go around to local neighborhood businesses with his own real hand truck (a post on this cherished possession here: and a variety of ersatz carts (luggage carts, a scooter or two) and collect cardboard boxes to haul around. How he's managed to inspire in older kids his own enthusiasm for such activity is beyond me.

But, in any case, while he'd been on this large sailboat before, he'd never been on it while it was under sail. Nor, much less, in the heat of a regatta.

Now, this wasn't a regatta with a venerable tradition; not one that the city can market to tourists and pimp out to advertisers--though, if they hear about it, they'll probably try. It was simply Il Trofeo del Nonno, created this year by a Venetian nonno (or grandfather), which took its name from the requirement that while the crew could consist of anyone, each boat had to be piloted by a grandfather or grandmother and include at least one child. There would be an awards ceremony afterwards, but it was all supposed to be--in keeping with its family theme and the number of kids on each boat (Sandro was one of five kids on his particular sailboat under the age of 9)--about fun, not winning.

But the sun was shining last Sunday, the wind was blowing hard, and among the adult crews of the various boats it seemed that old habits honed in years of competition kicked in.

For all the beauty of the day and the bracing sound of the sails above, it was terrifying. That's the report I got from both Jen and Sandro. Where was I? I had work to do and missed the whole thing.

The boat, they said, was basically horizontal, the sails practically dipping into the lagoon. Capsizing was, it seemed to them both, inevitable and imminent. For much of the race--from near the Armenian monastery island to Alberoni and back again--Sandro remained curled into the "Duck-and-cover" modified fetal position that American kids were trained to assume beneath their desks during the 1950s in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.

So: "Never again," he declared when he arrived home. After the race was over, everyone had assured both Sandro and Jen that the boats were weighted in such a way that they'd never tip over.

This was the kind of information that might have been useful to pass along before the race began.

But Sandro had had all he wanted of sailboats under sail.

I reminded him that Venetian work boats used to use sails. Reminded him of the old fisherman I met in the North Lagoon who 40 years ago was still going out in a heavy caorlina (now used in 6-person rowing races) for 15 days at a time around the lagoon using nothing but a sail and oars.

"I would use oars," Sandro said.

And, furthermore, he added, I could forget about him going out with me in our own little sandolo sanpierota when (or if) I learn to use its single sail! He had no doubt that that light, little flat-bottomed thing could definitely capsize! (And he was right about that, as a Venetian had told me how miserable, and costly, it is when that actually happens and you lose the individual custom-sized wood panels that cover the ribs in the bottom of your boat and you must have them all remade again.)

In the last couple of days, after being approached by the owner of the sailboat about making a very slow leisurely voyage on it under sail (no racing), Sandro has seemed inclined to give it another try. But he's remained adamant about never risking a trip in our own little flat-bottomed boat under its own lone small sail. Which shows he probably has more sense than his father.