“O Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls
Are level with the waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!” — Lord Byron
“Nature is a hanging judge.” — Anonymous
“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” — Albert Camus
For those of us who have made attempts to decipher what exactly fallibilism is, some degrees of dissatisfaction have been felt. If we are to think or say anything that we believe might turn out to be false, should we then deny that “one plus one equals two” is therefore false? Of course, if we are to undertake a skeptical view, then doubt shall have its rightful place. The same can be applied to the inseparability of the cause and effect of habit and emotion: while habit is usually seen as a controlled response to a difficult situation, emotion is often taken as a disturbance from the failure of habit. Some of us may even come to a consensus that affecting a change of habits does not require willpower but rather an intelligent, responsive inquiry into relevant conditions, be they psychological, sociological, political, or economic.
Having arrived in Venice just a few days after the second worst acqua alta since 1966, most of us experienced a mixture of high anxiety and calmness as we—half of the Rail’s team—anticipated our sense of duty: to return to the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti (the site of our Collateral Event of this year’s Venice Biennale) to welcome our extraordinary friends—the artist Paolo Canevari, Parthenia Viol Consort (with Rosamund Morley, Beverly Au, Lisa Terry, Lawrence Lipnik, and Sherezade Panthaki), Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Tomas Vu—all of whom gave their most memorable performances at our closing reception on November 23, as well as to oversee the de-installation process afterwards. We all felt this time we knew the city more intimately than ever before. Walking in high boots to work in the morning, breathing in the moisture in the air, observing local Venetians going about their business as we passed by storefronts where proprietors were still pushing out the last bit of water or drying up the floors, we, too, felt their mixture of high anxiety and calmness for perhaps a complete and total different reason. For us visitors the illusion of safety in the aftermath of this acqua alta, infused with the feeling of the sublime—relating partly to wonder, and partly to fear—is indelibly amplified. In some instances we even feel our pain (which is also associated with the feeling of the sublime) disappear due to either our purpose of the feeling of being noble or the object of our feeling being cradled with sympathy. There we were dining several nights at a couple well-known restaurants, which were sardine-packed with visitors and tourists alike. They came in complete preparation: not only for the taste of local cuisines but, with their high boots, for the thrill of having a dining experience while water slowly rose under their feet. The local Venetians, including those who were serving us at the restaurants, are deeply aware of the fragility of their city, even in knowing it was built from the very beginning to be harmonious with nature, not against it. Most in fact believe the destructive measure began with the excavation of deep canals in the 1960s to accommodate oil tankers entering the industrial area which have irreparably harmed the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem. Adding to the Venetians’ growing skepticism, the so-called Mose system (mobile barriers at the lagoon’s inlets of Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia, the three gates of the coastal cordon), which began in 2003 by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport to protect the city from high tides from the Adriatic Sea, is still unfinished after 16 long years with a cost of nearly 5.5 billion euros in public funds, for it’s been plagued by corruption and hasn’t been operational in 2 years.
In spite of the high anxiety and calmness that pervaded all of us, native Venetians, visitors, and tourists, the closing reception of our Collateral Event was a festive human affair. There was a definitive communal sense of solidarity where all components—human, ecology, art, and nature—seemed to harmoniously coexist. Our commitment in curating this ongoing series of exhibits under the Rail Curatorial Projects’ banner Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy has never been as profoundly life-affirming as this testament of human perseverance and compassion. We must mobilize all of the creative communities that exist around the disciplines of the arts, the humanities, and the sciences, as well as our few enlightened politicians and businesspeople. It’s our only chance to achieve what John Dewey referred to as “warranted assertibility”—the status a proposition gains when it is warranted through the ongoing, self-correcting processes of inquiry, or at least creating a climate of possibility through and by our own collective action. We believe people will rise to this urgent cause. To echo Benjamin Franklin’s words, “There are three sorts of people in the world: those who are immovable, people who don’t get it; there are people who are movable, people who see the need for change and are prepared to listen to it; and there are people who move, people who make things happen.” We’re the people who belong to the latter.
Happy holidays with love, peace, and courage,
Phong Bui & the Rail
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the resilient spirit of the people of Venice, and our good friend, the remarkable Warren Niesłuchowski, whose life and work as one unified, nomadic existence was a unique work of art in itself. He shall be missed.