First Expedition to Venice for Traces from the Anthropocene Project

Posted on May 2019

First Expedition to Venice was conducted in February 6th-13th 2019 for Traces from the Anthropocene: Working with Soil (2018–2019) project

Finally, after three months of preparations we, Maarit Mäkelä and Riikka Latva-Somppi, start our first trip to Venice to meet with the people that our web of contacts has found us. We also pack our gear; rubber boots and containers for sediment sampling. Ironically, we are on an expedition to a destination where more than thirty million tourists visit each year. All the same, we are constantly learning something new. It feels like being on the verge of discovery as the story formulates through our experiences.

Excerpts from Riikka Latva-Somppi’s research diary:

Thursday February 7th 2019. We start off by travelling to the mainland to discuss collaboration with a local brick factory. They offer us a 1000 kg of clay to work with and firing the work finished work. We are shown around the factory where bricks are still made by hand. In the back yard of the factory, there are various mounds of clay. The scene reminds of a bare view of young mountains in miniature size, impressive yet artificial. We are enchanted by the different colors and compositions the earth offers us.

The back yard of Terreal, SanMarco brick factory

Friday February 8th 2019. Our landlord Nino has offered to take us boating the next morning. He has good news as he comes to pick us up. The news in Venezia Today tells that the dredging of the canals starts in a few days. Even the exact canal in marked. There is a tingling feeling of everything falling in its place. Maybe we will somehow be able to get a sample from the canal. As we cruise the canals with Nino’s blue topeta, the littlest kind of the Venetian boats, Nino tells us about how they used to swim from the shores of Giudecca when he was a young boy and cruise around the canals as teens to meet friends. We see the wells of the last two fishermen in Giudecca island, the former fishermen village. A little farther in the sea rises the outline of Isola Delle Rose, the former Sacca Sessola, an island built from waste now housing one of the finest resorts in Venice.

Isola delle Rose. Photo: Riikka Latva-Somppi

We get off the boat to meet Lorenzo who takes us to meet a high official in the waste department of Veneto. The tense meeting spells out how devastating the situation in Porto Marghera is. It would be both impossible and a serious health risk to actually work with the chemically contaminated and carcinogenic soil of the area. However, we are offered any public data on contamination we can specifically point out from the extensive archives of the waste department. We are taken aback by the level of contamination. If contaminated land is so contaminated that we cannot even sample it, then it must mean, that in an urban or agricultural area all land is contaminated. As we return to the rented flat an email from the local environmental official awaits us. It is the result of over three months of work. The message confirms that our hopes in getting any help to complete our quest from the authorities is in vain. They are frank in saying that the project would be “very time expensive, mind-blowing and it could not lead to a positive result in time”.

Meeting at the Waste Department, Reggione Veneto. photo: Maarit Mäkelä

Saturday February 9th 2019. The next stop of our expedition is the Murano island. Google maps leads us to the uninhabited island behind the glass factories. We collect our first samples in a public area by the sidewalk by the dock. A path takes us to the barren land in the center of the island past the vietato (forbidden)-signs. As we walk we can feel glass crunching under our soles. There are denser areas of glass and construction waste, broken tiles and small bits of concrete covered with soil and rough vegetation in its wintery state. Hay, bushes, small trees and rabbits inhabit the island. The shoreline is a colorful combination of tile, glass, concrete, driftwood and plastic. Sand and stones are a minority there. The seabank reveals the cross section of the island. We leave the land quiet. With small plastic bags filled with soil samples in our backpack we find our way to the vaporetto discussing the relation of the ugly trash of the wasteland and the chemically harmful industrial waste that has leaked to the lagoon.

Sacca San Mattia. Photos: Riikka Latva-Somppi and Maarit Mäkelä

Monday February 11th 2019. Next we have a meeting with our local artist-activist collaborator in Lido. He takes us to see an old military barrack built in 1596 which now serves as the base for the artist activities. The barrack was abandoned in 1999 and nature is moving in to its numerous rooms. Ivy is growing in from the broken windows and mold is building intricate patterns where the ceiling and wall meets. Finally we have good news. His friend owns a boat that is able to navigate in the shallow waters of the lagoon. He can also arrange sediment sampling equipment and agrees to take us sampling when we next come to Venice. For that we need to study the lagoon closely and decide where we want to go. Before we leave our contact wants to show us the old hospital of Lido. The hospital has been empty for a long time. There has been numerous attempts to restore and sell the building, but the land is contaminated and the project has fallen down several times for financial reasons. We go around the fenced property to the beach, find a spot closest to the gates and dig our sample where a passerby has dropped a little blue plastic cross in a chain. Later we find out that the land is contaminated by asbestos.

Taking soil samples in at Lido Hospital. Photo Riikka Latva-Somppi

Tuesday February 12th 2019. In the last day we split as I have managed to set up an interview with two Italian glass specialists to find out more on the contamination around Murano island. We find a table in a noisy café and as I ask if it is ok to record the interview they politely refuse. It is quite a delicate subject they explain. I learn that building the islands in the Venice area followed a common concept. The officials would point a spot in the sea where to dump solid waste. At some point it would be big enough to form a new island. The specialists confirm the glass waste being a minor pollutant compared to the petro-chemical industry. Once glass is melted, the ingredients do not dissolve. There is however a number of raw materials including arsenic, lead and silver, used for the fabrication of glass. We talk about the history of the glass making in Murano, lead in crystal glass, the construction of the artificial islands, archaeological findings, the good fishing in the old days and the cormorants that now inhabit the lagoon. My last destination is the canal in the city that is scheduled to be dredged. Nothing happens there. The canal water is still. A notice of the dredging is posted in a pole by the canal. People need to remove their boats. As I walk along the canal finding my way to each narrow passage that takes me to the water I discover muddy turbulence rising from the bottom of the canal. Nothing or no one causing it is in sight. I take a short video of it and return to meet my colleague who has visited the clay pit of the factory as well as the former clay pit now turned into a bird sanctuary. In the evening we fetch a sample from the part of Giudecca that is built on waste. We return home with our urban soil samples and a preliminary agreement to go sediment sampling in three months.

Canal in Castello. Photo: Riikka Latva-Somppi

Monday March 18th. The samples have been dried, sieved and taken to the chemistry laboratory to ICP-analyses (Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry) that is used for detecting metals in contaminated soil. At last, we get the results. The samples contain levels of heavy metals clearly higher than the threshold values indicated for contaminated soil. Lead, arsenic, zinc, copper and silver are present both in the “clean” land and in the samples from the waste island of Murano. According to the criteria for contaminated soil, the samples are not highly contaminated yet a trace of human action is clearly present.

In this project, we explore the human imprint to the geological environment of the Venice Lagoon with artistic methods combined with chemical analysis. We take local soil, analyze it for anthropogenic contaminants and use it as ceramic material. The evolving research project takes place before and during the Research Pavilion in Venice. The Research Pavilion is open May 9th–August 28th 2019. 

Read more about the project:

Read more about the Research Pavilion #3: