L’Aquila, Research Essay #2


I am trying to undo the knot I am finding myself in with L’Aquila.

I am including an image of a protest of the citizens of L’Aquila, having hung their house keys on a construction site barrier as a demonstration against being forbidden to return to their homes and– in my interpretation– as a sign of the difficulty in being able to simply DO something. It is the only protest action I have ever seen that is a gesture of giving up.

This text is the continuation of my reflections initiated in “An Introduction to L’Aquila, Empty City”. This should not be taken as an independent text but rather as the further development and honing of – but also the deviation from – the ideas evoked in the first text. To read more about this project, click here.

1. The freezing of time and the dissolution of political space, which took place in the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila on April 6th 2009, transformed the city into a “non-lieu”. A gaping black hole opened up where the city once was. And that black hole aspirated the meaning and purpose of the city, absorbing any notions of coherence, organization or social structure. As society itself was aspirated, all that is left is a carcass – of urban, architectural and security structures – devoid of life and disconnected from normal temporality. L’Aquila is no longer. All that remains is a “un-city” (I use the expression “un-city” in echo of the German word for vampires and zombies, Untote, which means the “not-dead”).

An “artistic gesture” carried out in this “un-city” would become the only structure capable of indicating the presence of life in a lifeless environment. It would be the only apparatus capable of underlining the passage of time in this city that has fallen out of time. The “artistic gesture” would echo the traces of life and societal structures. Effectively, it would become their replacement. But, by its very nature, an “artistic gesture” cannot replace something and this condition of “replacement” would annihilate any possibility of the “artistic gesture” actually being art.

In other words, any artistic gesture introduced in the “un-city” of L’Aquila is stuck in an indissoluble and paralyzing contradiction. As “art”, it is alive – or at least a trace of life. Yet in the “un-city”, it is lifeless and devoid of justification, dead. Art in L’Aquila would, like the city itself, become a zombie.

2. Not being able to avoid this reasoning, I began to accept that the two words that I chose as a starting point, “gesture” and “artist”, needed rethinking because linking them together made them seem pointless in the zombie-like zone of L’Aquila.

Yet the status of this “un-city” continues to fascinate me, and I feel that I need to keep trying to DO something. I realize that I need to dissolve the link between the terms “gesture” and “art” and then link each word separately to the “un-city” itself. The initial duality becomes a triangulation composed of “gesture”, “art” and “un-city”.

A triangulation does not allow for an artistic gesture in L’Aquila, but it does allow me to differentiate and modulate the relationships between the different components. This triangulation allows me to play with the various starting point combinations and their manifest or tacit presence. At least I can act.

3. For the moment, there seem to be two paths of modulation and potential action:

On one hand, I can carry out an action – make a gesture – in the urban and architectural carcass of the city, specifically in what was its public space. However this gesture must be plausible in its environment. The question of its artistic origin should not be posed.

On the other hand, I can carry out an action that is fully inscribed in the realm of art. However this gesture cannot be carried out in the city’s public spaces due to my issues with responding to L’Aquila’s current state by making art about it.

4. Even if these two possibilities are functionally opposite they are linked by an underlying condition. Neither possibility can be productive if it is capable of contradicting its surrounding or of constituting a corrective element:

  If an action carried out in the public space of L’Aquila has the capacity of correcting or contradicting the surrounding situation then it becomes extraordinary (perhaps even a work of art). It will then lose plausibility.

  If an action carried out outside L’Aquila has the capacity of correcting or contradicting the situation from a distance then it becomes a proposal for solving non-art related problems and loses its status of artwork. It will likewise be nullified.

My current possibilities for action seem to only be potentially productive if they are exclusively attached to the materiality of the city, measuring that which is quantifiable. At the same time, I can operate on the principle that in measuring, my potential actions delimit the field of possibilities and create forms. If these forms are based on measurement, they have a function and cannot be completely devoid of meaning. But this meaning appears, in given context of cause and effect, as a byproduct or a parasitical phenomenon. The notion of “meaning” as parasite may indeed have its place in the “un-city” of L’Aquila. It may even be plausible in its environment. 

Veit’s research continues during a visit to The Project Room on Wednesday February 6 at 6pm. Join us to see what he proposes to do about the empty city of L’Aquila.


Military personnel stand beneath holidays lights in a deserted L’Aquila, December 2012