Rope Spaces

Within the art world, the Venice Biennale forms a paradigm of curating against which all other temporary exhibitions are measured. While the national pavilions, nestled amongst sun-drenched greenery and viewed through Campari-tinted glasses, accord with the language of pleasure gardens, the Arsenale is a rather different matter. Beneath a dark wooden roof, the Biennale’s curator marches thousands of visitors down a dimly lit parcours, 320 meters in length, along which the artworks or architectural models beat a staccato rhythm of thematic exposition—which even the most discerning of viewers and most experienced of curators find demanding. As Paolo Baratta, the president of the Venice Biennale, says, “My test of the quality of a curator is always the Corderie…you have to make an exhibition that is coherent with that extraordinary space.”

The importance of the Venice Biennale has conflated the manifestation of significant curatorial statements with the use of post-industrial linear exhibition spaces like the Corderie. Yet the building has only been used as a Biennale venue since 1980, when Paolo Portoghesi invited twenty of the world’s most famous architects (including Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown) to design stage-set facades on either sides of a continuous “street”. The Strada Novissima set a precedent—not only for the development of a narrative along a long, straight path, but also for the use of theatrical techniques as a way to deal with large spaces on a limited budget.

Critically, Portoghesi’s decision to hold the exhibition inside the Corderie della Tana (literally, the “rope factories of Tana”) has also bound the Biennale to Venice's heritage of centuries of rope manufacture. Built at the beginning of the 1300s, the Corderie were a unique node of international trade, state regulation, and contract labour within the massive pre-industrial apparatus of the Arsenale, where at the height of production an entire ship could be built in a day by a precisely choreographed team of 2,000 workers. While the Corderie have been cleared of the tools of industry, rope-making continues to be a reference for exhibition-making. Curators speak of the Biennale as made of “many strands and textures”, a “flotilla of proposals…coming to the harbour”, an “extraordinary…machine”. Beyond the metaphor, however, the staging of the Biennale also operates like the industry of rope in its systems and relationships.

The global market
Historically, the Venetian creative spirit represented a unique intertwining of market, military, and culture into a hegemonic force: the Venetian fleet “exchanged goods as eagerly as blows with whomever they encountered”, as the historian William McNeill has observed. At the same time, the Republic also based its power on a divine imperative as the easternmost bastion of Christianity in a globalising world. In 1581, the Roman scholar Francesco Sansovino even claimed that the word “Arsenale” originated in the Latin phrase “Arx Senatus", denoting “the fortress…of the Senate and of our faith against the arms of the Infidel”. In reality, however, Venice had always maintained close ties with non-Christian cultures, and the word “arsenale” actually comes from the Arabic dār-a-inā’a—the house of art or industry.

As a house of industry, the Corderie della Tana initially relied on imported hemp from the Black Sea colony of Tana (present-day Azov) in order to create the rope that reinforced Venice’s international might. Under the premise of “free access to the sea”, and with the Roman Catholic God on their side, the Republic defended its rights to Tana (and thus to trade routes into Russia and the Far East) against both Genoa in the sea and the Tatar armies on land. Until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Venice’s fleet also profited greatly from traffic in exotic luxuries (especially Persian silks) and slaves. But hemp was, above all, the crucial element in “the security of our galleys and ships and similarly of our sailors and capital”, according to the 16th-century Senate.

With the rise of the Biennale, art has taken the place of rope as the common denominator in a new confluence of market, war, and culture. At times, market forces are explicit, from the sales office hosted by the Biennale in the mid-20th century to Rolex’s “national pavilion” in 2016. But the links between military and economic forces were also insinuated by Massmiliano Fuksas in his 2000 exhibition “Less Aesthetic, More Ethics”. Inside the Corderie, where World War I machinery, tanks, and guns were stored until the 1990s, 36 projectors screened footage of global strife in places like Rwanda—a country brutally colonised by Italy’s ally, Belgium, during that very same world war.

In an even closer analogy with the colonial economy of the Corderie, the restoration of the Arsenale is currently being financed through annual rental fees by 19 participating countries (mostly in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia) without national pavilions in the Giardini. Although Baratta has described national self-representation as an anachronistic practice, he gives some countries the right to their own display for a price — such as the $100,000 Chile paid for 350 square metres in 2009. This approach attempts to draw an altruistic relationship between the state-funded exhibition of art and the preservation of local architectural heritage. Yet it maintains a hierarchy in which foreign, particularly non-European, artworks must travel to Venice to be legitimised and enter the art market. As Joseph Brodsky said in Watermark, his 1992 collection of essays on Venice, “money feels synonymous with the future and tries to order it. Hence the wealth of frothy outpourings…about converting the Venetian Arsenale, immortalized by Dante, into the Beaubourg’s spitting—literally—image for storing the most recently discharged phlegm…”

The second parallel between the production of rope and art concerns labour. As the historian Immanuel Wallerstein explained in The Modern World-System, high-quality production in the 16th century was more closely associated with pre-industrial manufacture than with artisanal craftsmanship. Thus, the centrality of rope to the common good of Venice meant that it was fabricated through industrial labour that was also standardised and controlled.

While the arsenalotti (master shipbuilders) were an elite class who could gain privilege in civic life by associating with wealthy families and high-ranking officials, the filacanevi (rope-makers) had to work by different rules. They were rather independent subcontractors in a forced “putting out” system, paid for making rope but unable to personally own the materials or tools of production. Raw hemp was provided by private importers or shipowners, who owned the material throughout its transformation inside the Arsenale. At the same time, the rope-makers were micromanaged at every step of the process. After 1328, the entire chain of production—hackling, sorting, grading, and twisting—could only be performed in the Corderie under supervision. Each spinner had to mark his rope with a uniquely coloured thread or face severe penalties. In the case of the heavy hawsers used to tow ships, the strands had to be individually examined by an official inspector before the rope-makers could twist them together.

In his Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, Galileo once observed of the Arsenale that, amongst all its labourers, “there must be some…who, on account of their superiority over other artisans, we call ‘first rank men’.” He made a distinction between the unreflective worker, whose applied knowledge is based on repetition, and the intelligent manager, whose ideas can be “proven in a rigid manner from fundamental principles.” To this day, that hierarchy remains intact. Artists and architects, like the arsenalotti or the rope inspectors, may not be independently wealthy or powerful, but they can use their ideas and expertise to gain favour amongst the upper classes. By participating in the Biennale, their work becomes more valuable. However, that increase in value is not shared with the people who materialised those ideas. The Strada Novissima is known for its celebrity architects, not the people who built it—workers from Rome's Cinecittà film studios, whose knowledge made it possible to finish the exhibition with limited time and budget. In 1991, on the other hand, Francesco Dal Co solved the budget problem by bringing in international students: they received “a small amount of money”, and “it was mandatory for them to participate in everything. It was really a great experience and some of them now are famous architects!” (He doesn’t name them, however.)

Recent exhibitions have invoked the concept of labour more critically. As art historian Claire Bishop has explained in her analysis of relational aesthetics, the 2001 work 133 Persons Paid to Have their Hair Dyed Blond by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra revolved around the mostly immigrant vendors who sell counterfeit designer goods and trinkets on the streets of Venice. Both inside the Arsenale and around the whole island, the participants in the piece performed a dual form of work, both as artworks in themselves and as undocumented workers who coexist with the tourist economy. In 2015, Enwezor’s show presented an enormous bell by artist Hiwa K, cast from battlefield waste left by the Iran-Iraq wars. It recalls the Marangona, the largest bell in the Campanile di San Marco, which rang the beginning and end of the working day and thus regulated the lives in the Arsenale.

Admiral and curator
The third parallel between the industries of rope and art emerges in the figure of the leader: once the admiral; now the curator. In both cases, this leader must be both a visionary and a pragmatist. The Admiral had to have extensive experience at sea, though his real responsibilities were more tedious—maintaining the inventory of ropes, hawsers, and sails or checking the rope for quality, length and thickness. Centuries later, many curators still describe their work in terms of banal details of inventories and budgets. Kurt Foster complains that he had to pay several thousand euros of his own money to print panels about the Guggenheim Bilbao when the 2004 Biennale went over budget. Meanwhile, Aaron Betsky, the curator of the 2008 Biennale, attributes his success to the fact that, as a non-architect, he was more aware of practical limitations, such as the cost of bringing a container from Mestre to the Biennale grounds.

At the same time, the curator is expected to convey a certain gravitas that justifies placing so much importance on a single person. The smallest details of the exhibition must be subjected to their curatorial forcefield. In 2002, Deyan Sudjic simultaneously “showed how the world was going to be” and “did some very boring things with the exhibition design like insist on the same graphic style throughout”. Inevitably, the totalitarian grip of the curator shifts the focus from the individual artwork to the total exhibition. Hundreds of years ago, the Admiral’s supremacy rested in his ability to bring together the work of thousands of diverse craftsmen. Today, according to Fuksas, “an exhibition, a biennale, is an artwork”, thus reducing the individual displays to the constituent parts of a unified whole.

The reactivation of the Corderie has woven the Biennale, as a contemporary cultural platform, into the specific logic, system, architecture, and social structure that characterised the production of rope for nearly half a millennium. To some extent, that context has heightened the tension between the Biennial as an aesthetic-spiritual “place of pilgrimage” versus a spectacular “factory of marvels” (as the Arsenale was once called). The Biennale and its stewards are probably reluctant to acknowledge the undercurrent of liquid capital and hidden labour, because they fear it would compromise the cultural cachet of the exhibition. It is therefore up to the mass of nameless art workers and architects—like many in the Renaissance Arsenale, “an immigrant and an itinerant labor force”—to recognise the transformative potential of the Biennale as a gathering of diverse expertises, energies, interpretations, and conversations; as a twisting-together of manifold strands.

This text is indebted to the research of Frederic Chapin Lane, as well as to the interviews with Paolo Baratta, Massimiliano Fuksas, Francesco dal Co, Kurt Foster, and Deyan Sudjic conducted by Aaron Levy and William Menking and published in Architecture on Display (London: Architectural Association Publications, 2010).