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Venice in Push Process

by Jonathan Walker
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Venice in Push Process by Jonathan Walker
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My novel Push Process is about a postgraduate student in Venice who abandons his historical research in the archive to take photographs of the contemporary city. It includes over fifty black-and-white images I took around the turn of the millennium, when I also visited Venice regularly as an academic researcher.

I’d never been to Venice when I chose to do my PhD on the city’s history in the mid-90s. In fact, I’d never been to Italy before, and I didn’t speak Italian. Studying Venice was therefore a way to hold a gun to my own head – to force myself to expand my horizons – but it was also a pragmatic choice. I knew the archive there was home to millions of documents produced by one of the most sophisticated bureaucracies in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, and that the Venetian nobility – the group I proposed to study – were a famously circumscribed group, who jealously guarded admittance to their ranks. So Venice seemed a more manageable proposition than Naples or Rome (or Bordeaux or Cologne). And it was less of a cliché than writing about Renaissance Florence.

This unromantic logic actually stood me in good stead: I got to discover Venice on my own terms, rather than in light of other people’s fantasies. And this decisively influenced the photographs I later took, which in Push Process are attributed to the book’s protagonist, Richard.

From 1994 until 2005, I spent several months of each year in Venice, even though I was always officially based elsewhere: as a postgraduate student in Cambridge, then as a postdoctoral researcher in Cambridge and Sydney. The normal thing to do as a postdoc is to rewrite your PhD for your first book. I didn’t want to do that: continuing in that mode felt like voluntarily wearing a straitjacket. So in Cambridge and Sydney I wrote , a book about a seventeenth-century spy whose surveillance reports I’d discovered in the archive. I tried every experiment I could think of to shake up the way I wrote. I started taking photographs as part of this attempt to defamiliarise the idea of history: to pursue analogies between spies, historians and photographers; between the city and the archive. But the photographs quickly outgrew that subsidiary role and became a separate project. A way to challenge even more fundamental preconceptions: for example, my prejudice for the textual over the visual, and for the distant past over the recent.

The history of Venice doesn’t stop with the fall of the republic in 1797. As Richard says in Push Process,

It isn’t finished yet. It’s a work in progress.

And I wanted to photograph that reality: the public housing estates in Cannaregio, Giudecca and Sacca Fisola; the modern port; the shipyards in the northeast corner of the city (or at least their exterior); the ferries at Tronchetto; the bus terminus at Piazzale Roma.

Venice in Push Process by Jonathan Walker

I was particularly interested in the public transport system: an index both of Venice’s awkward attempts to come to terms with modernity and its love-hate relationship with the tourist industry. And of course the bars where I went drinking at night. The novel has scenes set in Café Blue, Caffè dei Frari, Al Postale, Paradiso Perduto, Florian and ‘Da Enzo’. (The last is the only one with a fictionalised name, because the proprietor appears briefly, so it seemed polite to give him a nominal disguise, but it won’t be difficult for anyone familiar with late-night bars in Venice to identify the original.)

Venice in Push Process by Jonathan Walker

What I wasn’t interested in: gondolas, monumental architecture, the Bridge of Sighs. Or rather, these all appear occasionally (the Bridge of Sighs is out of focus for its one guest spot), but they’re not the real subjects of the images.

Richard’s experiences in the novel are similar to my own.

If you kept to the main streets in Venice, the routes trod out by millions of feet, the city felt welcoming – like it was posing for the camera – and no one bothered you except other tourists. But there was a different city, made up of areas demolished, redeveloped, then abandoned again. A city of derelict factories, half-empty warehouses and offices – a city behind spiked gates and walls with barbed wire on top. On the map, these areas often showed as blank, but as soon as you stepped close to their borders, then, at that precise moment, as if by magic, a sullen security guard unfamiliar with the concept of public space appeared.

Venice in Push Process by Jonathan Walker

After Pistols! Treason! Murder! came out in 2007, I felt I had nowhere to go as a historian. It made more sense to switch to fiction, where experimentation was more welcome (at least in theory). My first novel came out in 2010 (set in a fantasy version of Venice) – eventually I formalised the change in direction with a second doctorate in creative writing. But it took me a long time to figure out what to with my photographs: that is, how to turn them into a story.

Push Process is about encountering both Venice and photography for the first time, using each to understand the other. It’s about learning to see what’s really there, what’s staring you in the face if only you can suspend your preconceptions about what you expect to see.

Most attempts to depict Venice refuse to acknowledge the contemporary, or decry its presence, and many visitors dream of finding an ‘unspoilt’ corner of the city in which they are the only alien presence – the only tourist chosen to enter Shangri-La and carry evidence of pure Venetian culture back to the wider world. I wanted to start by acknowledging and insisting upon the absurdity of this dream. There is no unspoilt corner of Venice untouched by the contemporary world, but it was precisely the evidence of this contamination that interested me.

My best friend in Venice was a sculptor studying at the art academy, and without his example, I’d never have picked up a camera. So Push Process is dedicated to all the friends I made in the city: the main characters are English, Dutch, Danish and Italian. Most of these friends were outsiders like me: architecture students, fellow researchers in the archive. One reason I decided to change the focus of my historical research to spies is that they too were often outsiders in Venice, members of an international community of diplomats, couriers and merchants. So I make no claim to show Venice from a Venetian point of view. Instead, I show the international city I experienced – but that’s always been a part of Venice’s identity.

I visited and lived in Venice as a citizen of the EU, and at the end of the novel, when Richard contemplates moving to Europe permanently, someone says to him,

What’s stopping you?

I intended this line to have an ironic charge: the freedom of movement Richard takes for granted has now been lost for British people.

Venice changed my life. It became for me a gateway to the larger worlds of art and history. My imagination has fed on it ever since (three of my four books are set in the city, or a version of it). But the best tribute we can pay to the city is not to prostrate ourselves before its spectacle. Instead, I tried to ‘pick up the past and put it to use’, as one of the characters in Push Process says. Because that’s the only way to imagine a future.

Here’s a short introduction to some of the photographs included in the novel:

 

Jonathan Walker is the author of Push Process, now available from Ortac Press.

All photos copyright the author and used with permission.

We previously reviewed Jonathan Walker’s novel The Angels of L19, and he wrote about some of the inspiration for the story here.


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