VAN September/October 2013: ‘Ten Years Later’ Katie Holten Revisits her Venice Biennale Project

Ulrike Gamper’s samples in the Herbarium, Ca’Foscari University, May 2013



Valerie Connor: This year marks 10 years since we worked together on what became your project Laboratorio della Vigna for the Irish pavilion. Before we start to talk about the current project Laboratorio della Vigna: Ten Years Later, can you outline what the thinking was in 2003?

Katie Holten: The site for the Irish pavilion in 2003 was the Scuola di San Pasquale, a large confraternity building adjacent to the Church of San Francesco della Vigna in a residential part of the city. I tend to work on site and in response to particular situations, so our early conversations focused on the day-to-day realities and context of the space. Significantly, for the duration of the Biennale, the Irish pavilion would continue to function as a regular meeting place for a local community group. We both felt strongly that the site invited a particular kind of engagement – it presented itself as a platform rather than a plinth. Since the Scuola was functioning as an active space, it seemed only natural that I should harness that energy and use the building as a living entity, rather than a dead hall to present an ‘artwork’.

So, I moved to Venice and set up camp in the Scuola. I quickly discovered my neighbours: the nearby student squat of Laboratorio Morion; the environmental science department at Ca’ Foscari University; the hidden vineyard of San Francesco della Vigna; as well as the numerous research organisations studying the lagoon ecosystem. I reached out to all of them; along the way I incorporated elements from some, and the project grew into ‘Laboratorio della Vigna’. Essentially, I created a low-fi research institute where I undertook ecological investigations of the city through walks, conversations, meetings and publications.

VC: And now you’ve gone back and discovered that some of the contributors to your original Biennale project are still there and some have moved away. Is that right?

KH: Yes, I reconnected with some of the people that I worked with 10 years ago. Some had moved on, like Ulrike Gamper, the botanist at Ca’ Foscari. Her replacement is the wonderful Gabriella Buffa who was excited when I got in touch, as she knew Ulrike and the work she’d done. She was thrilled to meet, inviting me into the Herbarium where we explored the collection and found Ulrike’s specimens from 2003 – beautiful pressed weeds.

10 years ago we went on ‘weed walks’ and Ulrike pointed out plants that had moved north with the changing climate. These weeds wouldn’t have been seen in Venice 10 years previously. That sowed the seed for this project. It was always in the back of my mind that the work I did in 2003 needed to be followed up in 2013. As it was an impetus for the project I’d assumed that climate would be a recurring topic in my ‘Ten Years Later’ conversations. Gabriella drew me a graph – beautiful in its simplicity, but chilling. Venice’s climate has fundamentally changed from an Oceanic to a Mediterranean one.

VC: Remember the heat wave in 2003? I’ve said to you that my first impulse with the Scuola was to open the windows, not just the shutters, but literally open the windows to let the light in and of course it let the sound in too. I just listened back to the Audio Arts interview that Bill Furlong did with you in the Scuola, where we hear the sound of the local religious festival outside and music on the air. The interview is recorded at the end of the preview week and he notes that there was no separation between the opening ceremony and the formalities of your exhibition.

KH: Yes, it was very much an organic process. The ‘Laboratorio’ was a site for conversations and potential events rather than exhibiting conclusions. The emphasis was on the local. Should I call it ‘slow art’? We facilitated local filmmakers, writers, students, actors, artists – anyone who wanted to use the space. There was no visible finished ‘artwork’ as it was all in formation. Now, going back to do this project 10 years later, I’ve had colleagues ask where they can see my show. It’s been refreshing to say: “There is no show – it’s about the work itself, rather than the presenting of the work”. It’s often the invisible, or overlooked, that’s so valuable. Back then I made a lot of ‘shadow’ drawings in and around the ‘Laboratorio’. Now I can see that it might have been a way to look at the invisible, what’s not there – the shadow of the thing, rather than the thing itself. Perhaps a way to capture time? Definitely an attempt to harness all that sunshine!

It was also a way to comprehend larger processes like the planet spinning on its axis. The geologic – a profound sense of it – was not in my consciousness 10 years ago like it is today. My work is included in a book called Making The Geologic Now that catalogues this recent awareness; the notion of the Anthropocene has been formalised.

VC: What’s the significance to you of 10 years later?

KH: 10 years… a decade. In the grand scheme of things, it’s such a tiny amount of time, but we’ve affected things so profoundly that now natural processes that used to happen very slowly are taking place in the blink of an eye. Our comprehension of time changes as we get older. When I was 20 my understanding of 10 years was profoundly different to how I experience a decade today. Some events seem like they happened a lifetime ago, while others feel like they were just yesterday. 10 years ago the Iraq war started, Lost in Translation was released, Arctic sea ice began to melt at unprecedented levels, Nina Simone and Johnny Cash died, the Human Genome was sequenced, SARS emerged, Saddam Hussein was captured, the iPhone was still four years away, Hurricane Katrina was two years away …

Examining ‘time’ itself provided further impetus for my project. James Gleick, the writer, was a collaborator in 2003. Back then he’d just published Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Last year he came for a studio visit with a copy of his new book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. We hoped to meet in Venice to chat about these bookends: time, information-overload, and everything in between. But time wasn’t on our side and instead it became a short email conversation: “I’m trying not to think too hard about the passing of time right now. Or rather I’m thinking about it all the time.”

VC: Do you think Venice has changed since you made ‘Laboratorio della Vigna’? And has your work changed?

KH: Venice is timeless, but of course there have been changes, all intrinsically linked to Gabriella’s graph: more tourists, larger cruise ships, summer wellies. You might remember that I was an admirer of the ombra? Well, now I’ve discovered the joy of navigating the city with my new osteria map. I was enchanted to recently learn something new about the evolution of the city. It’s made up of over 100 little islands; what I didn’t know is that they were originally isolated communities surrounded by water – the bridges came later. I’ve always been fascinated by systems that intertwine natural and man-made structures. 10 years ago I explored this in a series of booklets for the ‘Laboratorio’. The largest example of a Venetian ‘hyperobject’ is the MOSE, an underwater floodgate system supposedly capable of the impossible: protecting Venice from future floods. Construction began in 2003. It’s still unfinished.

As for me, my work continues to follow the same tangential paths. The obvious change has been moving to New York. After Venice I was lucky to be awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which enabled me to undertake research in NYC for a year, which got extended to a second year. Suddenly it’s nine years later and I’m still there.

VC: When I joined you in Venice for a few days in May, the people we met were exceptionally hospitable and generous with their time and advice. What do you think people respond to when you contact them, taking the most recent trip as an example?

KH: Yes, I met wonderful people in Venice. That’s generally my experience wherever I go. People respond warmly to my curiosity and naïve questions. I suppose it’s human nature – if someone expresses interest in you, or something that you care passionately about, then you open up. I happened to rent the former studio of a beautiful woman called Mariateresa Sartori. We realised that our interests overlap, so we did studio visits. Meri has also made work about the mechanisms of the city. In one piece, she collaborated with a physicist who studies how people move around urban space. Venice is an exceptional city as there’s no motor traffic. The physicist tracked how pedestrians navigate space by mapping their paths, in real time, through San Marco. Meri made drawings from the data. There are uncanny similarities to drawings that I’ve made! She introduced me to her friends, including local artists Maria Morganti and Elisabetta di Maggio. It’s humbling to visit people in their homes and be given so much – conversation, coffee, food, wine – when all I have to give in return is another question. There was a real sense of curiosity and excitement that I was coming back 10 years later to revisit the city through the lens of my own project for the biennale. It was the first time they’d met anyone who had done that.

VC: Generally anyone hearing about your return to the city has been impressed that you have returned to reconnect and continue with the work you began while taking part in the biennale. What’s the outcome of the project going to be?

KH: I’m not sure yet what the best way to present my findings is. I might have to return to Venice.


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