Homo Urbanus Venetianus, Bêka & Lemoine
Homo Urbanus Venetianus
Bêka & Lemoine, 2020
The city of Venice is sinking, slowly but surely. The high water there is part of the perennial rhythm of nature holding its grip on the people who chose to take refuge in an impossible shelter in the midst of a lagoon. A city built on water, its narrow streets, passageways, and squares painstakingly reclaimed (a genuinely misguiding term) from marshes and mud over the centuries, and, at the same time, a city that claimed its place in the popular imaginary across cultures. It is sinking, and it is hardly news.
So much so that, during a visit, you might find yourself in a hotel lobby with a receptionist, ankle-high in water, patiently waiting for guests that might never arrive, or stumble upon a local at a convenience store, enjoying their afternoon glass of wine, the tide even higher— now up to their knees —indifferently raising a toast to the calamity unfolding all around.
Over the course of their collaboration spanning almost two decades now, Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine have visited dozens of cities across the globe, chronicling the daily life of their inhabitants. The “Homo Urbanus” series offers an insight into the routines and rituals of people living in those places, but there are borders that were never crossed. The films are set in public or publicly accessible spaces, there is little, if any intimacy that we have access: no interiors of peoples’ homes, no backyards, or private gardens. This is neither voyeurism, nor a dispassionate record from a camera. What we are invited to see, instead, are the scenes from city life that many would not feel comfortable to engage with, but would be curious about: what happens when one engages in an exchange with a street vendor peddling their wares to tourists in Bogota, how is it to be part of a group of locals following their exercise routine in a park in Shanghai, and, yes, how does it feel to be in this motionless hotel lobby in Venice, alone with the receptionist who is apparently not going anywhere, and not feeling compelled to say a word.
The city of Venice has currently slightly less than 70.000 registered citizens and, according to the administrative accounts, which also include the mainland, the municipality counts around 260.000 people. By means of comparison: the population of the city of New York in the metropolitan area is currently estimated at around 19 million people, that of London is slightly above 9.5 million as you read it, Paris being just over 11 million, and Berlin at around 3.6 million. This said, the number of tourists visiting the city of Venice annually is estimated at 3.8 million (which is still lower in comparison to the numbers from before the pandemic). Let that sink in (pun intended).
The French historian Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan, who devoted her practice to the history of Venice, described it as a “city perpetually under construction”, as well as said: “whoever writes the history of Venice seems condemned to write the history of its myths”. On the one hand, there is the idea of a constant effort to build and expand, on the other, the myth of a place that is eternal, precisely because it was created against all the odds. Venice was founded by refugees fleeing the invasion of the Germanic tribes in the 6th century, founded and claimed as their own, taking the lagoon, the inaccessibility of those (then) minuscule islands as a blessing. This was foundation of the myth of Venice: a refuge for those who needed it with water that would serve as protection. But around the 15th century, as the colonies turned into a city, the water also turned: from an ally into a threat. The rivers from the north of Italy discharging water into the lagoon became impossible to ignore: bringing mud and silt, and along with them a number of halophilic plants and, eventually mosquitoes. This was the first noted instance when the environment made itself known to the people who chose it to be their home. What followed was a gradual and inevitable symbiosis between those who still insisted to live there, and the conditions that define their lives. From an ally to a threat: with high tides, the movements of oceans and the moon, became part of the daily rhythm of the inhabitants of Venice. But Venice is also home to some of the most esteemed presentations of art and architecture in the world, which is a different kind of dynamics.
Venice is sinking, and according to the recent data about 60% of it is due to human activity and the rest is due to nature’s reaction. But what is “nature”, and what is “natural”, in a place that turned from a refuge amidst the marshes into a tourist attraction. Perhaps it’s the moment to reconsider what we deem “normal” and take a moment before we continue with business as usual, as Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine said it in their recent conversation: “because you know you may be under water”.
because you know
you may be under water