Tuesday, July 4, 2023
In Venice with Marco Baravalle of S.a.L.E. Docks -- Part Two
Assembly of the "Biennalocene" in Venice
While in Venice this spring I spoke with Marco Baravalle, a principal in the autonomous art space S.a.L.E. Docks. He told me about the place and its politics, part of the wave of “Occupy”-era commonsing from over a decade ago. In this second part of the interview, Marco discusses the network of social centers of the northeast of which S.a.L.E. is a part; the new governance of Italy by a fascist-descended political party; the resistance to giant cruise ships entering Venice; the relationship of S.a.L.E. Docks to the Biennale; the "Dark Matter" exhibition of 2018, and much more.
Marco and his colleagues are on to other things now. For this biennale summer season, S.a.L.E. Docks has launched a program of discussions and assemblies about precarious labor in the cultural sector.
The "Assemblea di Biennalocene" [#biennalocene] strikes against “the idea of not being able to say no to iniquitous working conditions [because of] the feeling that there is always someone ready to take our place, even in worse conditions…. So let's break isolation, get organized, let's make sure that the other person isn't the one who replaces me, but the one who supports me, stands by me.”
Marco Baravalle and his Milan colleague Emanuele Braga were just in Lisbon to talk about the manifesto of a Universal Basic Income. That’s what they are doing now…
But in this second part of our April interview we talked about the project of the S.a.L.E. Docks itself.
AWM: You said, “Sale survived for 15 years because we are part of a city and regional network of other occupied spaces”. How does this kind of solidarity protection work?
MB: It’s more than a solidarity. We are an actual organization, where each social center has its own autonomy, but the general political line that we follow is discussed in an assembly of each social center which gather more or less once a week. And it has been such for many years now. Maybe we have a few differences, but this is our great strength, this network of social centers. It’s closer than a network, it’s not that loose. It’s called Centri Sociali Del Nord Est, Northeastern social centers. And it puts together, it includes six or seven social centers from six or seven cities in Veneto, and beyond Veneto, one in Trentino.
AWM: There have been many attempts to organize social centers in Spain. But the organization fades away, and when the right wing comes to power in a city, they start to pick them off. This is what happened in Madrid, they started to close them, and there wasn’t a strong coordinated resistance; only isolated demonstrations by those affected.
MB: I don’t know what will happen here. I don’t want to lie. We are very united, but the situation in Italy sucks. The political atmosphere is very bad. We have signals that in some of the cities the municipality wants to evict social centers. We will try to be together, and this has been working for the last 20 years. We didn’t have any evictions. No matter what political color was in charge, either nationally or locally, we were able to defend our spaces. That’s why Sale is still there. The mayor of Venice was a right wing mayor, very conservative, an entrepreneur and ultra-neoliberal. So far he didn’t really try to evict us, not because the Sale Docks collective is so strong per se, but because he knows that if he wants to evict Sale Docks he will have to deal with Morion, with Rivolta, he will have to deal with different situations. He will be met with resistance. And that is something we are still able to put on the ground. I think that this municipality is not ready to pay this political price. I don’t know if it’s going to be like this forever. Things are getting worse on a general level. So we expect, for example, new attacks from the institutions. We expect new attacks from street fascists. Because it’s unfortunate – it’s their time. We are sort of resilient, but the wind is not blowing our way. But so far this unity helps us. We have social centers in Venice, in Marghera, which is part of the Venetian mainland, in Padova, in Vicenza, in Schio, in Trento, and each social center has its own satellite projects. So maybe like a boxing gym, for example, or a beautiful space in Vicenza, Caracol Olol Jackson in honor of a comrade who died too young. They have a peoples’ hospital with doctors volunteering, from dentists to psychologists. They have an osteria, a popular restaurant. They have run a great food bank during the pandemic for mainly migrant families who could not provide food for their kids.
AWM: That is returning to the Leoncavallo social service provision idea.
MB: But all over Italy, one of the few positive things about the pandemic was that it fueled a great wave of mutual aid, which is older than Leoncavallo. It has its roots in 19th century workers mutualism structures. Here in Venice we organized during the pandemic groups which went to buy food for elderly people who could not go out, or financial aid for families who were struggling because they lost their jobs. Or even online help for students – especially women, who were burdened with all this reproductive labor during the pandemic. And this happened all over Italy. This was a great thing to see happen, and it was mainly carried out by social centers, self-organized groups. This was another thing in which social centers were involved. As well, Morion has been involved with the Comitato No Navi (No Big Ships Committee) since it was founded in 2012. [This is the campaign to keep giant cruise ships out of Venice.]
AWM: I got a flag to send to Brooklyn, the Interference Archive. [It was delivered in May].
MB: Fantastic. Since then it was really the place, the engine of the committee. The committee is much larger than simply radical activists. It includes young and old people, people from different classes, from different political orientations, but the energy, the propulsion of the committee really came from Morion and the group of Morion.
AWM: I wanted to roll back to the questions around art. Morion seems to be very much embedded in its role as a center of nightlife. It’s a beautiful space. It’s perfect for that. Wandering around we passed a tiny little hole in the wall which says, “This is the only nightclub in Venice”, somewhere around Dorsoduro. That’s clearly not true. Morion is clearly the nightclub of Venice. With a very strong group of young women, they were all getting ready for Friday night when we passed by. And also Sale Docks, it’s a contemporary art space. It’s beautifully fixtured. There’s such a clear role for these places. Among the different social centers in Madrid there are some that are historically self-isolating, preserving their subculture. There are others that seem better integrated into their neighborhoods. Historically some social centers in Madrid have had close relations with institutions. The Laboratorio okupas 1, 2 and 3 inspired the program of the institutional Casa Encendida, as an exhibition of their history now acknowledges. On the other hand, La Ingobernable was evicted as soon as the right wing too over city government. And the institution with which it had the closest relation, as well as geographical proximity was dissolved. The Medialab Prado building, purpose-built for them, is now a redundant museum of historic art, one of many such useless, moribund institutions in Madrid. That question about the relation between institutions and occupied social centers, resistant spaces which understand themselves as resistant to neoliberal market models and top-down institutional governance – that relation with normative cultural institutions is important. In the SqEK research group we talked about institutionalization like it was a dirty word. But sometimes occupations become normative art institutions, like the Shedhalle in Zurich, Metelkova in Llubjana.
I was reading Pierpaolo Mudu, an academic who was involved in the Roman social center movement, and he writes that one thing social centers do in Italy is stand in opposition to mega-events. Like the No TAV movement against the high-speed railway, for example, with which the Catanian centers are deeply involved. And this gives the centers and their activism an international presence, and resonance. So Sale Docks in relation to the Venice Biennale is in a really key analogous position. You did the “Dark Matter Games”.
MB: With Gregory Sholette.
AWM: This project spoke to the issue of labor – the “dark matter” of the artworld. I discussed that essay with Greg when he started it. I was studying artists collectives for my PhD. I looked to the studies of Pierre Bourdieu, Lawrence Alloway, Howard Becker, and before that Alois Riegl, at the field of cultural production to analyze more broadly rather than only to look at the super stars. They of course are market investments. You don’t want them to fail. It’s like a bank failure if suddenly Warhol or Basquiat or Jasper Johns plummets in value. These artists must hold their value. And the “dark matter”, which Greg Sholette analyzes is like the general economy, that is everybody working. In the Accademia [museum of classic Venetian art] here in Venice they have stuck videos about all the people who maintain the artwork, restore it and so forth. All these people are the “dark matter” of classic art in museums.
MB: First of all Sale is not against the Biennale. The Biennale is an important part of what Venice is. It helps Venice from falling into provincialism, into localism. The problem with the Biennale is that it has been neoliberalizing itself a lot, at least from the ‘90s onwards. The Biennale is not something that is helping Venice develop its own art scene. It contributes to a model of Venice as simply a touristic city, as a place where people come and consume culture, in this case contemporary art, and then they go away. This leaves nothing in terms of cultural aliveness in Venice, and then the scheme repeats itself year after year after year. It also helps real estate rent to parasite on art. In the Biennale period there are hundreds of exhibitions all around the city. These exhibitions are maybe very radical in content, but they all pay the rent to big real estate owners of the city. Big and small. Art in Venice is a real synonym of rent; it’s all a synonym of renting. Many in Venice present themselves as art operators, but if you look closer what they do is basically renting out spaces.
AWM: One of the top hits on the internet for the Banksy mural in Venice is from a real estate company that says, ‘Hey! It’s our palace that he painted on that is for sale!’
MB: Exactly. The Biennale is a machine which favors real estate rent a lot in Venice. The other problem is the amount of precarious labor involved in the Biennale where you meet all the shades of unpaid, black, gray [market] labor.
AWM: This is not a source of local jobs?
MB: It’s a very important source of local jobs for some. The economy of the Biennale creates firms that work in transportation, in art handling. But at the same time it is also a machine of precarious labor. It is a seasonal event in which young workers get stuck for a few years, and then they are forced to move away. It’s a city where it’s very difficult to make a stable income, to pay for rent, and so on. These are the points of view from which we criticize the Biennale at Sale Docks. We criticize it when it is a multiplier of precarious labor, and when it is an occasion for real estate frenzy. We do demonstrations, and so forth. The other problem, which is more general, is what does it mean, art in Venice? Venice works as a very prestigious place for rich people or rich private foundations to place their spaces, but there are only very rare cases in which they build a constructive relationship with the city. Art is somehow synonimized with big private capital. So Francois Pinault, big French billionaire, tycoon of luxury industry who came here around 2007-08, and first bought Palazzo Grassi, which was previously owned by Anelli family, founders and owners of Fiat factory. With this post-Fordist substitution Pinault bought Palazzo Grassi, and then invested a few millions of euros in the restoration of Punta della Dogana. The city assigned the space for 99 years. So Pinault, Thyssen Bornemiza –
AWM: Thyssen is here?
MB: Of course. The Ocean Space, which is probably the best space in their relationship with the workers, and with the territory, the city. The workers there are satisfiied with the treatment they get. But again, this Ocean Space, which is dedicated to the relationship between art and water, art and the oceans, art and climate change is directly financed by Francesca Thyssen, by the Thyssen Bornemisza foundation. Or Anish Kapoor, who buys a palazzo in Venice to install a permanent foundation. Or, even worse, the VAC foundation. The VAC foundation is now closed because of the war [in Ukraine], but the VAC foundation has a huge building at Zattere, and it’s owned by Leonid Mikhelson, who is a Russian gas oligarch, CEO of Novatech, and very close to Putin. So Venice is this type of place where all these fuckers, these rich global billionaires come and open their own exhibition spaces. Sometimes of course because they are collectors themselves, and they want to boost the value of the things they buy. Sometimes in the case of Mikhelson they want to do some art-washing, because basically he’s a fossil fascist. So Venice is this type of place. And basically Sale Docks is an attempt at –
AWM: [Shows Peggy Guggenheim’s autobiography] I bought this, I couldn’t resist. She’s kind of the original come to Venice and make a big contemporary art thing.
MB: Exactly, but those who followed were much worse. Or at least, many of them. So Sale Docks wants to be an alternative to this equation art equals money which is very clearly present in Venice. We are a self-managed space. We have our own assembly. We don’t have rigid hierarchies. We have flexible programs. We invite people to join the assembly if they want. For us art is a tool to inquire [into] reality, it’s a tool to criticially intervene within, or to participate in the struggles for the right to the city, etc. So exactly the opposite of the idea which is conveyed by these billionaires.
AWM: I was also curious about the Institute of Radical Imagination, and that network of larger solidarity which is sustained by the Reina Sofia museum. I’ve been puzzling on the question of “new institutionality” since I began working here in Europe in 2009, when I talked to Jesus Carillo. He was vague at that point, and as the years went by it became much more specific. And there ended up to be the conference in Malaga to support the Casa Invisible.
MB: “Picasso and the Ciudad Monstro”.
AWM: And I saw also Charles Esche whose institution was very important in early social practice participating in events at Sale Docks.
MB: The Institute of Radical Imagination was an idea that I think comes from the Reina Sofia museum. I was involved since the beginning more than five years ago. The idea was to create a hybrid network between these official institutions, museums like Reina Sofia, and other museums belonging to the network of the Internationale, and social centers around Europe, and dissident scholars or artists, mainly in the Euro-Mediterranean zone, although including Chto Delat in Russia, which is a collective of Russian dissidents now exiled in Berlin since the beginning of the war. And I’d say that is now beginning to work. It is an important tool to break the barriers that separate serious art, high art and activism. Through this strange even asymmetrical alliances with big institutions such as Reina Sofia, we are able to penetrate the institutional field of art and play our little struggle for hegemony there. And we get recognition from institutions. This is another valuable protection for a space such as Sale Docks, to be put on the map of international art spaces. It is also like a very interesting group of people. It creates the ground for common collaborations which otherwise would be difficult to make happen. It is a good ground for collective discussion and collective projects such as Art for UBI [Art for Universal Basic Income], or art for radical ecologies. So these are all results of the IRI. And without this permanent or continuative ground for collaboration these projects would have never seen the light.
Part one of the interview with Marco Baravalle is here: http://occuprop.blogspot.com/2023/04/in-venice-with-marco-baravalle-of-sale.html
"Art for UBI" is part of the German pavilion of the architecture biennale in Venice this year, part of the series "Peforming Architecture"
In 2015 Marco described the S.a.L.E. Docks project succinctly to the Creative Time Summit audience.
2018 "Dark Matter Games" catalogue PDF