An Introduction to L’Aquila, Empty City

An earthquake shook the city of L’Aquila on the night of April 6, 2009. It killed 308 people and injured at least 2000 others. ­­­­­

Initially, in order to facilitate rescue worker access, any survivors who were able to use their own means to leave the city were asked to do so. About 35,000 people—nearly half the city’s population—left the area. The remaining residents, unable to fend for themselves, were housed in emergency tents set up between 3 to 15 miles outside the city limits.

Gradually these tents were replaced by apartment buildings and single-family homes built in a dispersed manner in the countryside surrounding the city. The construction of scattered housing for the L’Aquila residents was accompanied by an official ban on returning to homes within the L’Aquila city limits. Thus, the city was entirely emptied within hours after the earthquake.


Next, as a prelude to the eventual reconstruction of the city, it was decided that the city buildings should be systematically reinforced by elaborate “exoskeletons”—either scaffolding or steel beams running from one building to another. These exoskeletons were constructed with such a high degree of complexity and precision, and of such expensive materials, that their building cost alone absorbed the majority of funds set aside to restore the city. In some cases, it now would be less expensive to destroy certain buildings behind the scaffoldings than to deconstruct the supporting structure itself. The exoskeletons literally prevented L’Aquila residents from accessing their own homes resulting in the decision to evacuate the city and to maintain the population at a distance.

To further the organization of the eventual reconstruction of the city, a classification system was supposed to be drawn up in order to prioritize the reconstruction targets. The categories were to include the ranking of buildings in terms of their relevance in art history and of their importance in the visual unity of the city. Other categories were to be centered on structural or city-planning issues. The budget allocations and response time for each restoration were supposed to be based on these categories. However, the description of each category and the criteria for classification were never clearly defined. No money was ever allocated because no buildings were ever formally classified. Hardly any official restoration work has been carried out to date.


The combination of these two decisions—the evacuation of the city and ban on returning to the city—has left the city in a state of suspended animation. The city is physically present and even largely accessible and potentially functional. However, that which bestows sense and form to the city—life and the temporality that life generates—has disappeared.

To walk the streets of L’Aquila is to be constantly faced with the impossibility of synchronizing the temporality of a human being with the surrounding non-temporality. Instead of offering a complementary experience between the person and his or her town, the encounter between a human being and this city creates rupture, incoherence and absence of meaning. The city is no longer a “part of things”. The inhabitants have become “outhabitants”.

The geographical dispersion of L’Aquila residents and the ban on returning to pre-earthquake habitations “dissolved” not only the city’s society but also the city itself. The fact that the “city” is traditionally and structurally the basic unit of politics in Italy means that the dissolution of the city brings about the annihilation of political space and societal structures. The administrative structures of the city exist, but the space in which they take shape and make sense has disappeared.

If one accepts the premise that politics constitutes, among other things, the art of structuring and sequencing the collective temporality of a society, then the evaporation of L’Aquila’s political sphere and the suspension of time can be considered interdependent and mutually perpetuating. The city is frozen in (or out) of time—and everything is suspended in a motionless state.

As L’Aquila is in a state of suspended animation, much like the absence of molecular movement at 0° Kelvin, its immobility cannot be modified. Any change of status is dependent on the possibility of putting something in motion, but no structure capable of activity exists in L’Aquila. Likewise, the absolute immobility of L’Aquila cannot be objectified but only experienced, because “objectifying” implies the possibility of measurement. And just as it is impossible to measure 0° Kelvin (because that necessitates the use of an instrument that could be colder than absolute zero itself), the measure of L’Aquila’s immobility would necessitate a tool even less mobile than absolute immobility.

I observe the current situation in L’Aquila much like a rabbit, paralyzed by the sight of a serpent. I cannot look away, nor leave, although I know the danger is great—and this danger risks annihilating my posture as an artist.

I traveled to L’Aquila thinking as an artist. In other words, I assumed that my role as an artist would allow me to formulate questions, to initiate debate and to identify different problems in (hopefully) an appropriate and sufficiently intellectualized manner. However my status as an artist should not permit me to formulate any univocal answers nor to propose any solutions to the non-art-related problems encountered, because any such attempt would completely undermine the pertinence and ethical validity of my artistic action, making it null and void. It would make art disappear.

Once in L’Aquila, I realized (with both horror and fascination) that the current state of things there perfectly materializes certain notions that I ponder in my own work: breaches of meaning, porous borders, the blurring of statuses, the posture of the spectator, the individual as a responsible being, who assumes his choices and takes can take a stance.

The fact that L’Aquila has fallen out of time and out of context generates a void or black hole. This non-L’Aquila sucks all meaning out of the surrounding environment. The city is that gigantic rupture of coherence that I try to capture and construct in each of my pieces.

On one hand, I had to be interested by L’Aquila. To be disinterested in L’Aquila would deprive me of a vast treasure trove of data relative to my work. It would deprive me of a physical and mental journey to the core of a space that represents the basic foundations of my work. It would deprive me of the exploration of the materialization of the driving force that maintains my artistic action.

On the other hand, L’Aquila is in an unacceptable state. And this status calls for real change. It appeals to the formulation of an objective—something that I feel should be avoided in an artistic posture. The necessity of identifying a goal runs the risk of transforming anything that I might accomplish in L’Aquila into “social work”, canalizing my thinking towards a univocal “solution” to purely non-art related problems. Art runs the risk of disappearing by its mere presence. And this risk is all the greater in the absence of any societal or historical structures, for the introduction of an artwork in L’Aquila would confer a special status to the work, underlining it as the only thing with a clear meaning and structure. Art would run the risk of filling the void left by the absent social structures and of self-effacing in its own presence.

My hesitation was reinforced as I walked the streets of L’Aquila. I had the overwhelming sensation of being in temporal desynchronization as a living being, faced with the surrounding structures in their out-of-time zone. I felt my inability to integrate myself as a social being in this context, which was bereft of any coherence, of any structures or of any frames of reference. These impossibilities—and the ruptures of sense they created—intrigued me so much that I could not resist wanting to “do something”.

I could attempt to fill the void. However, this first approach would lead me to propose a solution. Or I could attempt to pressure the fault lines to their cracking point and explode the status quo. In this case, I might be able to propose an artistically appropriate gesture. However, this second approach would be extremely difficult to defend from an ethical point of view, given the specific case of L’Aquila and the additional suffering that might be caused to innocent people. In either case, the impact of any work placed in L’Aquila would be rendered null and void in the absence of a public.

The only possible approach in order to infiltrate the situation seemed to begin with the de-dramatization of the relevant vocabulary: I needed to transform the notions of “artwork” and “artistic action” into the simple word “gesture”. This term designates nothing other than the idea that an artist—which I am—makes and produces forms. This term is sufficiently vague that it can be used in connection with L’Aquila without being taken for an attempt at a social or political solution, without it conveying the notion of being in contradiction with the current situation or constituting itself as a potential corrective agent.

I decided that I should carry out my gesture with intense discretion by documenting what I saw, writing in order to outline the stakes and to reinstate the results of my observation.

For now, I have two words with which I can work: gesture and artist. I need to create a tension and interaction between the two. I find myself in an insoluble situation, much like Chuck Jones’ iconic Wile E. Coyote, legs churning and suspended in mid-air above the gaping canyon with the elusive roadrunner just out of reach. Yet this impossible posture seems the only viable approach.



Images, from top: Scaffolding installed in 2009; post-it notes outside a local bar containing messages to the town written by former residents; a renegade knitting installation on public steps- its lack of foot traffic underscores the emptiness of the town; scaffolding holding up much of the oratory of a local aristocratic family- Veit was informed by the owner that it would be less expensive to demolish the building rather than remove the scaffolding; a typical city block in L’Aquila.

Veit Stratmann is a German-born artist who lives in France. His work is often created for public spaces, and responds to locations that are undergoing major change. Follow the making of Veit’s new body of work about L’Aquila throughout TPR’s Failure series, and join us for a visit from the artist in January, 2013.