Swim #21, The Thames, Truss’s Island to Chertsey Bridge

This felt very much like the last longer swim before winter sets in. We met at Chersey Mead car park, in the way that these swims often happen. When you are the first one there, having arrived in a car park otherwise non-descript, not on your patch, it feels a bit shady. Waiting for people to arrive. Today Juliet and Hywel are swimming the six or so kilometers. They show, we greet, we get changed, we shuttle up to Truss’s Island.  Truss's Island is hardly an island, but has an important place in the history of River Thames navigation. Charles Truss had the great privilege of having this little parcel of land in the Thames named after him. He was Clerk of Works to the Worshipful Committee of Thames Navigation of the Corporation of the City of London in 1774. His task was to regulate the River. As those who swim the Thames regularly know, the River is not to be tamed easily. A powerful beast, open to flooding then as now. In the mid-sixteen hundreds, the Thames downstream of London was packed, like the traffic jams in present-day central London. The traffic upstream of London too – increasing exponentially into the seventeenth century. Flooding, the great disruptor left new shoals and washed away river banks and property, filling the river with big lumps of stuff dangerous to people and boats, making it difficult to navigate. To Truss we owe the systematic modernisation of locks, from the earlier flash lock variety, along the lower Thames. By extension, we can thank Truss in part for the lower Thames landscape we can see and enjoy now.

 

Swim #22 Lido di Venezia

Since I am including the Lido in my list of permissible places to do ‘65@65’, the opportunity to do ‘65@65’ at the world’s very first lido was not to be missed. Pauline was coming to Venice to row. I was her drag-along. I could only slow her down, as ballast. Lovely to have time, share breakfast and dinner at the start and the end of the day, things get serious when the call of the Venetian rowing comes, usually by 9am, then oars and forclas at the ready, it is time for serious physical work and pleasure to begin. My intention on this trip – to go to the Venice Biennale, and hopefully swim. The lido called me on the first night. Yes there was dinner, but yes there was the lido, and the sun setting and the moon rising. ‘Save me pudding’ I said, and to the river / lagoon sea bus / vaporetto I went. The sun going down, the sea becoming a very Venice / Turner sky, every Venice sunset cliché played out on the boat ride. Every cliché justified when seen in real life. But the idea of real life is problematic in a crumbly disintegrating and marvellous chalk and pink and grey and blue way – what you see is wonderful while at the same time sad, decaying. Life and death again. Death in Venice – the book, by Thomas Mann, the movie of the book, directed by Visconti, both set on the Lido de Venezia. All in mind as the boat berthed at the Lido. My plan was not to die, nor to contract the plague, or cholera, or any of the diseases known to have ravaged the city. I was here to swim.

And swim I did. A short walk across what seems to be the main street of the lido, lined with expensive shops, cheap as chip shops, pizza and ice cream to go, some decent looking restaurants and art nouveau hotels and houses. To the Lido – a wide beach stretching for miles, and more hotels, top of the range for the 1920s, not so much now. The once fabulous Hotel De Bains, is boarded up, not so fabulous now. It will be turned into luxury apartments; Thomas Mann stayed regularly, and made the Des Bains the setting for Death In Venice. What will happen to all the art nouveau in this building? Not a question I can answer; water calls. A short walk along the Marconi Waterfront (named after a famous electric Italian – did he stay there too? Don’t know) to a nicely appointed jetty / waterbreak, after walking over a sand bank (artificial, maintained to protect against the tidal surges, especially in Springtime). Spring time surges bring our last visit to Venice to mind – last Springtime, indeed. The striking image I have is of being in the Gran Caffe Lavena, where Wagner liked to hang out when in Venice. Aperol spritz time – people in fine clothes and wearing gum boots to protect their clothes from the 3 inches of water that covered the marbel floor of very finely decorated café. Doesn’t seem right to me. The sand bank was maybe 5 high, and I would guess it did the job, at least for now.

Some history - in 1177, the Treaty of Venice was signed here between Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander the Third here, after Fredericks’ Lombard League was defeated by the Holy Roman Empire in 1176 – ‘don’t mess with Catholicism’ I thought. The Lombards got on with the Pope at the First Crusade (1095-1099), but fell out after the second (11045 to 1149). How The lido must have seemed then, I cannot imagine. Venice was an important port of call and billeting place for the crusades, and crusaders in their thousands camped at the lido. Again, a far cry from the playground of the leisure classes of the early twentieth century. The rise of the leisure classes and their ready money was a prime reason for developing the Lido as a playground for adults (and their children, if they had them). The first sea bathing facility was established here in 1857, the first in the world. The lido soon became "The Lido", a term for a beach resort much more broadly, but especially in the United Kingdom.

Lots of fun things have happened at the Venice Lido, and to some extent still do – the Venice Film Festival, for example. It is still a place to visit from the main island of Venice, but also a place where many Venetians live. Hence the really good river / lagoon sea bus / vapereto service. I was at the jetty, changing, talking to people, in a rush, ‘mustn’t miss the twilight / twi-night’. I love the twilight for swimming, for me it is very special, where ever I might be, swimming. This was a very special twi-night, the best time to swim out, as the sun was setting and moon rising, swimming not just in water but in Venice light. Very special, Venice twi-night swim. Very privileged to be here. Doing 65@65 has again taken me somewhere I would perhaps not have striven to go to, and the outcome has been a very special evening indeed.

Art Nouvean at the Lido

I associate the lido idea, at least in the UK, as being part of the turn of the twentieth century and the interest in health and hygiene . It all feels like something of a time gone by, now being reinvigorated, with bright colours, blue, white, in some places nice details like brightly painted doors. And I join the many others that like this very much. The Lido (at Venice) isn't a lido in that sense - it is really a beach. But there is plenty of turn of the twentieth century architecture. There are delightful villas - Kamakura; Mon Plaisir; Gemma; Mirandolina; Hungaria Hotel; and the Excelsior Pharmacy, in Art Nouveau style or with Art Nouveau stylings and fixtures. The Excelsior Pharmacy is nothing in comparison to the Santa Novella pharmacy in Florence, which was opened in the sixteenth century by Dominican friars, but in a building that goes back to the thirteenth century. There are very beautiful fresco'd walls and ceiling to admire, even if the very expensive perfume and soap on sale is of less interest - very much worth a look-in, if you come in to Florence by train. Side-tracked by Florence, for a moment - I don't know if there is good swimming in Florence, something to find out. The Four Seasons at the Hungaria Hotel speak to something very central to open water swimming - the changing air, water, day length, across the year. Its is turning to Autumn here, and while the water is warm, the evening air turns to a slight chill.

Digitising Venice

 

There is absolutely nothing like visiting a place, to get a sense of it. That is both the beauty and the tragedy of Venice – it is cheaper to go now than it ever has been. I watch, no, I can’t avoid watching, the tourists - up to 60,000 per day I am told, against a resident population of the lagoon city of 90,000 – snapping at everything, photo, photo. Tourists coming to Venice want to see it, experience it. Ironically. this has led to a Disnification of Venice, a narrative of the city and its history told according to the nationalist view, or special interest view of the tourist or tour group. I know I am part of it, I am here, taking photos too. With so many photos, the internet is awash with material, information, digital signs of places, structured by the market developers Google, Facebook and the many others But could these millions of photos of Venice be put to a different use than as memory traces, conversation pieces or status markers? I wonder what kind of map would there be of Venice if all the images taken were crowd sourced, location known and mapped. This is certainly possible. St Marks would for sure be the tallest tower block in the world. Maybe it would even reach the moon. Then St Marks Square, as the Central Business District (which it kind of, is), and Santa Maria della Salute, the church across the lagoon from St Marks Square. Rialto Bridge, of course, the biggest bridge in the world, maybe, maybe not. Then the rest of Venice, a sprawling lowland, on this map. What leads me to this thinking is somehow less trivial. Climate change, tidal surges and a sinking Venice make it perhaps the prime candidate for digitisation, systematic visualisation.

 

Venice was the centre of mapping and cartography in the Renaissance – Italo Calvino wrote about Venice as a place where the maps of the lagoon had to be redrawn constantly. Water always finds its way, in nature if not always in culture, and the relationships between earth and water are constantly shifting in Venice. I am made aware of this through Pauline’s rowing in the lagoon – the depths of the lagoon, the boat, river bus  and ship channels are well-marked with strong hard-wooden posts of some uncertain antiquity. But beyond these channel markers, if you want a calm row, the water gets shallow very quickly, scooping up mud sometimes. The Serene Republic needed to understand these relationships to maintain its mercantile and shipping power in the region, so it needed to know how to map. So much like the British Empire much later, when resources were put into controlling and understanding time across the world (establishing longitude allowed mapping for navigation to develop on a global scale), so resources were poured into developing the intellectual property for mapping the lagoon. The economy depended on it –the constant change and the need to discipline it, make it navigable, making it a city which experiences and knows environmental uncertainty and change on a daily basis.

 

Sad to see that the Venice economy now depends on tourism – in bucket-loads, to the point of swamping real life there. Of course it exists, once you get away from the tourist ‘superhighways’ – Rialto to San Marco; Rialto to Ferrovia, etc – but the main daily business of Venice is tourism - to wander, gap, be informed, to eat, and take pictures, lots of them. The millions of photos taken every year are in effect a digitisation of Venice. At the Biennale artist Hito Steyerl has been digitising and using artificial intelligence to create an interactive virtual Venice, past and present. Seyerl’s objects of interest and art-making are very contemporary concerns – the media, or media more generally, how technology is changing the human relationship to each other and to the world, and within that the global circulation of images. We all know Venice, don’t we? Yes but, usually only through Seyerl’s objects of concern. Seyerl’s mapping of Venice is fiction, because everything that humans do involves abstraction, a ‘fictionalisation’ of aspects of the world, focussing on what is of concern to the mapper (mappers have a lot of power, therefore, because they guide our attention to what is to be looked at, and what not to be looked at). The AI she uses is structured in its attention to certain details but not others – the work the AI can do depends on what a human puts into it. It isn’t a physical space that you recreate mentally as you walk in it, engage with it in real life, but a set of relationships that are set up by someone or some people, with their own ideas of what is important to reveal or conceal. A virtual Venice, however interactive, would inevitably be a platformized construction of the city, with emphasis on what the artist or programmer finds important and interesting.

 

Elsewhere in Italy, a month or so ago, in Bologna, linked to this thought, Pauline and I went to see a virtual Vivaldi exhibition – could learn something, we thought. Claudio is obsessed by Vivaldi, has been all his life, has wall-to-wall Vivaldi CDs, works you never knew exisited, operas you never knew he wrote, because the Vivaldi repertoire in the UK is much edited. We think we know it, but we don’t, like a ‘best of’. But who decides the ‘best of’. An issue not far away from mapping, and the construction of memory. Back to the Vivaldi show in Bologna – this was a digital construction, with a few props, some film, very scripted music, but nothing tangibly of Vivaldi and his physical presence  – no original music scores, no instruments, no Venice. Apologies, Venice was the digitised backdrop to a digital concoction – pleasant, interesting, lightweight with little in the way of music. Later in the year we were to go to Leipzig, and the Bach Museum, where they have a digital archive of everything he ever composed, on tap to the museum-goer – I guess you know which I prefer. But it was a great Vivaldi light show, but one type of constructed experience.

 

What is digesting Venice could be more about creating infrastructure for understanding the city, its history and its politics? The crumbling of Venice is a tragedy that it is impossible to grasp – beyond the buildings, it is impossible to know what you don’t know, and this is truer than ever for written knowledge. The internet has a lot of stuff on it, but is full of big holes, making it something like a Swiss cheese of information. However great the technology platform is, unless it is digital, it doesn’t exist. So a lot of Venice does not exist in the digital world. Venice is digitising its State Archives, fast, faster than anywhere, using AI to make changing antique language legible and available to search on the web globally. This is a joint Venice-Lausanne project called the Venice Time Machine and is advancing machine reading of ancient writing fast. How could machine reading of the Venice city and landscape help us understand cities in the past and how we navigate them now? Venice is crumbling, but the urgency that this creates for using new methods for understanding the past is pushing the foot down on the accelerator pedal of historical research.  Trouble is, we don’t know what we don’t know.

 

Swim #23 Venice Biennale

 

The Venice Biennale is overwhelming, especially day two, at the Arsenale. Day one was at the Giardini, getting off the water bus /vaporetto I looked around for swimmable places. Hyper-real sculpture of bather on a float made it good promising. The lagoon at high tide especially - mental note for later. The water was blue, the sun shone, I wore my new rust-coloured tee shirt, seemed on trend, and appropriate to the decaying location, Venice in general. Was I saying something, making a statement? No, its just a tee-shirt. I was getting into the art-critical frame of mind, anticipating national pavilions and art nationalism, I strode forward. I did not anticipate fog, on this sunny day - fog from the top of the main pavilion, fog as art. This inself is not new - Olafur has used fog as a medium successfully for decades. The fact that I thought of this in all seriousness shows how I was getting into role, striding forward. The fog was conceptual, it turned out, as well as being material, or immaterial, of both. Ten minutes into the Biennale, and things were not what they seemed, what was and what was not what it seemed, was up for grabs. Unless it was all pure thought... You can see the problem - ten minutes in, confusion and uncertainty playing mind-games, with seven hours and fifty minutes to go, including tea break. Talking of which, the cafe was good, not expensive, welcoming even, but far from being an oasis of visual calm - people seemed industrious, even when resting. This was not art as leisure, far from it.

 

The cow on a train track gave some respite (there should always be a cow on a train track -memo to self, bring to mind when under circumstances of circuitous bureaucracy). This is art has purpose. Focusing on art as water, with water, on water was a promising idea, giving a personal thread through a complex maze of current art. Crochet'd coral reefs - check; concrete block with traces of artists struggle with the medium before it set - evocation of getting out at the end of the Dart 10K. The zig-zagging glass line reminiscent of the line of the River Thames, the no-trespassing line which separated art work from art audience, a comment on the state of river swimming in many places - central London, Paris, Krakow. The Cosmo Eggs in the Japanese Pavilion, were just - cosmic - natural boulders on the shore attributed religious meaning. Swimming there would be amazing - memo for the future. The trees growing through the roof of the Scandinavian Pavilion just what I would expect from Scandinavia. There is a water-way through the Biennale site, with a jetty. Swimming here not on, though tempting; at the end of the day I had my Biennale swim, clearing doubt and uncertainty, confusion thrown to the water. As always, water is special and swimming does that, without fail. A swim with the help of a woman from Finland. Can you recognise a swimmer when you see one, even without the obvious props? She was a swimmer; she watched my stuff, and we shared stories of winter-swimming, the perfect sauna, while I dried off on the steps looking across the lagoon. And why Finland does sauna better than anyone else, and a question - 'why not come to Finland for one of your swims?'

 

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