by Francesca Barea and Lara Gaeta

Studying art in Venice is different from studying art anywhere else in the world. The city always provides endless food for thought. The ancient buildings are reflected in the water, and you will always come across someone walking along its narrow streets immersed in the city’s  beauty. Many visitors are likely to come from far away and don’t want to feel like tourists, but rather like travellers in a microcosm full of foreigners, offering them bundles of wonder. In Venice, light and water create a unique but delicate, almost fragile environment, in which human action on the territory becomes increasingly complex.

Absorbed in this atmosphere and worried about the present, we had started asking ourselves questions: "How could we reflect more critically on the time we are living in?"; "What can art do to change reality?". It was then that, almost by chance, we discovered the work of the office dealing with sustainability at Ca'Foscari University and were impressed by the type of projects they ran. There, we had the chance to meet students and researchers moving in a direction close to ours and we simply couldn't miss the opportunity to participate in those projects.

Since 2013, the Sustainable Ca’ Foscari Office has been working on projects that connect the world of art and sustainability, involving a variety of players- students, artists, professors and researchers, as well as local and international communities- and helping to increase awareness of global change issues as well as efforts to disseminate scientific knowledge and share solutions and research fields. One of the reasons behind these projects is emphasizing the value of emotional language per se as opposed to typical rational approaches and its role in reaching out to the students and the general public to share and communicate sustainability principles.

In 2017,  the project “Earth-due parole sul futuro” (Earth – a couple of words about the future) curated by the art historian Diego Mantoan, was launched in collaboration with the artists Ornella Ricca and Pietro Spagnoli wanted to promote awareness of sustainable development through dialogue on the past, present and future of our planet. For the creation of the artwork the two artists drew inspiration from the use of ostraka in ancient Greece, and asked scholars and researchers from all over the world to identify two words, namely "exile" (get rid of) and ‘welcome’ (to support) with reference to the wellbeing of Planet Earth. The students too, led by the curator and the project team, engaged in some practical activities around these issues in the university spaces such as study rooms and cafes, encouraging critical thought among Academia and the Venetian community.

In an attempt to get more deeply involved in society and go beyond the borders of academic institutions, four years ago Ca’ Foscari University of Venice connected with the art fair ArtVerona to launch the Sustainable Art Prize in order to foster a greater awareness and encouraging the commitment of the artists through the major global challenges themes. The Prize is awarded to artists active in the promotion of sustainability and entails the commission of a new work involving students, researchers and communities, thus providing a unique opportunity for dialogue between different players. So far the winning projects have reflected on the UN’s sustainable development goals highlighting the most urgent topics in a manifold and fierce debate.

Moreover, the Prize is focused on the urgency required to resolve the conflict between human beings and their natural contexts, thus revealing the perspective of contemporary art, whose aim is generating new questions and reflections on the social, political and ecological issues of the present time.

The artists who won the first edition of Sustainable Art Prize at ArtVerona, in 2017, were Sasha Vinci and Maria Grazia Galesi, the Sicilian artistic duo committed to the territory that plans performances involving the local community on several levels.

A year later the collective together with the curators Diego Mantoan and Paola Tognon realized in Venice, again with the participation of Ca’ Foscari students, a possible “utopia” named (La Repubblica delle Meraviglie) (The Republic of Marvels), a contemporary translation of the Platonic Republic.

La Repubblica delle Meraviglie

The collaboration between Sustainable Ca’ Foscari and the Sicilian artist Sasha Vinci continued successfully the following year, when the Venetian project was transposed into another university context, producing new results.

At the New York University - Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn (New York City), the artist conceived another performance with flowers in May 2019. In this case the topic of a utopian, ideal and sustainable society has been joined by that of inclusion, hospitality and social integration. The event was specially organized during the international conference EDRA50 Brooklyn, devoted to the subject of “Sustainable Urban Environments: Research, Design and Planning for the Next 50 Years”.

A Human Flower Wall was born, a project promoted by Sustainable Ca’ Foscari and curated by Diego Mantoan, with the support of the Humanities and Social Change Center of Venice, the Department of Humanities of Ca' Foscari University of Venice and the Italian gallery aA29 Project Room. The performance consisted in parading through the streets around the university campus with a heavy and high "wall" of flowers, supported by people of every age, gender and nationality. Anyone walking on the street could freely participate by joining the group. The performers also showed signs with slogans typical of political manifestation. Thus the common meaning of the wall has been completely overturned by the artists.

The wall has become the metaphor of unity in diversity (Vinci uses the Latin term “alteritas”), free movement and displacement of people and social change. Finally, human beings can do nothing without an active exchange with nature. We would not know where to start, where to get the inspiration: only our imagination combined with the variety of natural elements can give rise to wonderful and surprising creations instead. We still have time to reconcile our development with nature and the environment. If we trust our creativity, the solutions will be found close to home.

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