SITES, NON-SITES, HYPER-SITES IN THE VENETO REGION
Aim of this project is to analyze, with an innovative theoretical and methodological approach, the intense development of the Veneto region and how it has been concentrated in some points within the territory, showing original characteristics that we have called ‘hyper-sites’.
The fieldwork will therefore concentrate on some of these: the technological districts, that intend to polarize arounf them the high-tech economic development and consequently attract highly specialized workers and professionals; the commercial centers and outlets; the historical cities where local and international tourism concentrate; the ‘theme parks’, growing entertainment attractions.
In the diversity of their characteristics and social functions, these poles are constructing new forms of the territory’s cultural identity that are superimposing themselves and often live side by side with already established identities, deriving from recent and old traditions.
The above mentioned poles of attractions, as the research intends to highlight, are representing new forms of the collective imaginary that is in the process of re-defining the territory in a vision that is partly virtual and condensate meanings and cultural ninentions and re-inventions.
And this is what we mean with ‘hyper-sites’: sort of containers into which can be transferred forms of the imaginary that are elaborated in an ideal bricolage of insights and influences. Here they can show off in the phenomenological reality, taking new visual and social forms that can be transmitted to the subjects that come into contact with them – technicians, consumers, tourists – often expanded and distorted like in mirrors.
The research project brings together several scientific approaches in the social sciences: sociology, cultural anthropology, economics and visual sociology and anthropology.
The very object of the research suggests an extended use of the visual: not only in the sense of photographic and audio-visual recording of the points of interest in the territory and of their subjects, but also as perceptive instruments for the analysis of cultural representations, through the images that the social actors are confronted with and that they themselves create in their ‘home movies’ and snapshots, that the research intends to analyse and discuss in focused interviews with the authors themselves.
Like few other Italian regions, the Veneto has been at the centre of a complex intertwining of economico and soci-cultural dynamics, that have superimposed themselves on a territory already marked by deep environmental transformations as well as by the allocation of human and socio-historical resources. The analysis of the present social impact of these rapid economic and cultural transformations within the local territory, that in its central part has taken the characteristic of a diffused metropolis, needs to be observed from various, integrated points of view. The complexity of a study of his kind requires, on one side, an interdisciplinary research group formed by experts in different fields; on the other, to apply innovative theoretical approaches and
related new methodologies.
The general frame of reference is what Marc Augé has called the “sur-modern” society ( a term that recalls the sur-realism of the Twenties’ century, also of French origin), that indicates the present human condition inthe most developed countries in way less dependent from the past ( the Modern) than the more widely used term ‘post-modern’ seems to suggest. At the same time, the project’s aim is to stimulate a critical analysis in order to consider in many ways obsolete the concept, also introduced by Angé and since then widely used, of ‘non-sites’, as the most typical expression of the surmodern society, characterized by high socio-cultural transformations and diffused economic growth.
Instead, we assume that the present identity of the Veneto is more characterized by the emergente in theterritory of what we have called ‘hyper-sites’. That is, real and/or virtual places where new forms of the collective imaginary is elaborated and shown, to give suggestions for ‘surmodern’ ways of life to be seen, at least visually ‘consumed’, and tested.
In the preliminary phase of the research, we have enucleated three typologies that seem to best express these characters: touristic, technological, consumeristic and entertaining hyper-sites. Some of these are real places, like a supermarket, while others are purely virtual, like the technological districts, or can even be both at the same time, with a showy superimposition of the real and the vistual, like Gardaland.
Unlike the non-sites, that are generally infrastructures appearingas hollow containers, functional but uprooted from the territory where they are posed like a spaceship on the moon, hyper-sites are proposals to the territory and their inhabitants of new lifestyles or, as in the case of the tourists’ spots, as a re-invention of the tradition and a re-enacting of the past. Through these forms of appropriations and re-appropriations of the territory, its human resources, environmental aspects and traditional culture, a new imaginary is built. The hyper-sites are the stages where the imaginary makes its performances: a similated reality that can suggest its transfer from the virtual to the real, the everyday life of the local inhabitants, the journeys of the tourists, the choices of the consumers that will durably influence their lifestyles and home environment. It’s a kind of added value, if only in terms of the imaginary: thet use of an economic terminology should suggest that it is bound to strongly influence, also in economic terms, local identities already rich in traditions and specific forms of social and economic organization. The research aims to investigate these aspects, that seem to be remodeling the soiocultural environment of the region, the social ientities of the loal population and the perception of the visitors.
Tourism. The Veneto region ranks first in Italy in the number of visitora, with a high percent of foreigners. This is the aspect that shows with highest evidence the power of attraction of an imaginary that knows no limits and that at the same time is more than ever based on what can be ‘known through seeing’, whee the visit is essentially a vision or, most of the time, just a glance. The historical and artistic references are indirect and remote, often just a quote in a guidebook, while the monuments of the historical cities, like open-air museums, run in front of visitors on a tight schedule. What the utilizaion, what the consumption, what the comparisonbetween what is before the eyes and what comes from a previously formed imaginary that has been formed through the most diverse chnnels of the media and spread inside many cultures.
These are the questions the research intends to cope with: People that are the target of the hyper-sites real and virtual offers will be asked to not only orally comment that exposure to the imaginary, but the way they themselves have recorded that experience, in photos and videos.This material, following the permission granted to use it for research purposes, will be analyzed together with the authors, compared with other images, and further studied by the researchers, ading this contribution to their participant observation.
Venice – to take an example –that is now the destination of millions of visitors every year, is not so different from the city that appeared in front of the eyes of visitors centuries ago, the merchants of the East, the Englishmen bound to the Grand Tour, or even the painters inventors of the ‘paysage’.: we have so many traces of their impressions, written and visual. But of how the city is ‘seen’ now we know little, if anything, beyond mere statistics and figures from hotel registers.
Technological districts and parks. Recently, a new social subject has come to life, a virtual reality par excellence indeed: that of the socalled technological districts. A commonly accepted definition of the district is that of “ territorial aggregate of activities of high technological content”. It’s a social institution that in th view of their operators represent an added value to the purely productive activities of the small and medium size industries that are densely scattered in large spots of the region. To this economic power, and the connected professional abilities the districts intend to give impulse by forming a common force and by promoting shared goals. In this sense, the districts could be considered as useful means to cope with the present time challenges of a developed economy by adding to an offer in terms of organiztion and agency between the private and the public sector and among privete enterprises, a wider vision than that of the single firms. Here too, therefore, the imaginary plays its role, compared with the sectorial divisions as a heritage of a more traditional managerial attitude, not so open to share with others the new opportunities in the most advanced technological frontiers. The power of the new technological districts is amplified by the crisis of the traditional districts (the delocalization is physically draining the districts, and comunitarian relationships are becoming meaningless) and by the social change in terms of choices. The combination of the two processes results in a detachment from the territory, both physically and in terms of shared identity.
Changes have consequences also on the other side of economic development, that of economic consumption of environmental and cultural-historical resources. This is equally rich of an interaction between aspects directly bound to a cost-benefits calculation and a conscious elaboration of the relationships with natural and human environment. This results in proposals of environmental sustainability of the economic development that are particularly delicate in an area highly sensitive both culturally and ecologically.
The third aspect taken into consideration by the research, that is strictly bound to the previous two in the Veneto territory is the orientation toward consumption and entertainment. The first one is shown in the large commercial centers. They, too, are hyper-sites, having a strong impact in the domestic imaginary of a post-rural society. The demand for entertainment is attracte by discothèques and theme-parks. Here, the real world tends to imitate the imaginary as it is created and shown by the media, and the protagonists – visitors, consumers, professionals – become actors on a show within reach, where the play is based on the interaction between the real and the virtual, images and the imaginary, all visibly staged observed and memorized. The dream industry is no more he cinema, where the greatest directors created masterpieces inspired to culture and history of the veneto (from Losey to Visconti, and many others). Other channels, local or satellite TVs, and other models are now spreading worldwide in the globalized media market, in advertisement and tourist promotions. Veneto, with Venice at its centre, is always there, maybe more than ever, but its image has changed, for people coming from afar as well as for the residents, in the dreams as well as in everydy’s life.
Starting from an updated analysis of the above-mentioned structural aspects – taking into account quantitative data and studies of regional economics, sociology and cultural anthropology – the research will focus on the emergence of new collective imaginaries characterizing the surmodernity. They will be ways to interpret the transformations taking place in the territory; at the same time they will stimulate reflexivity over the subjective perceptions by the social actors themselves. This kind of study, almost unknown in Italy,is at the forefront of sociological and anthropological studies today, no more confined to empiricism and pure description. Rather, the attention is focused on capturing the signs of meanings’ production and communication, upon which to build a sense of individual and collective identity, as well as orientations toward collective action. And this process finds support and validation in the shared imaginary.
It’s here that the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ Veneto supply is blurring, and its analysis therefore requires an updated methodology. Among these, the research intends to make extensive use of photographic and videographic recording, that have now expanded thanks to digital technology its potential of elaboration and secondary analysis. The long tradition of visual anthropology, side by side with visual sociology gives a solid ground of experiences in various conditions of recording and the following post-production.
In detail, the research will follow the below-mentioned schedule:
° Socio-economic survey of the Souhern and Eastern Veneto, acquiring updated indexes of the territory (production, consumption, demographic flows etc.);
° Semi-structured interviews to people of diffeent age-sets that come into contact with the hyper-sites (historical cities, amusement parks, discos etc.);
° Interviews to privileged testimonies in different positions in institutions involved in hyper-sites: public administrators, Italian and foreign writers and visual artists, tourist operators etc.;
° Analysis of how the imaginary is created by the media and of the perception by the subjects to whom the programmes dealingg with the Veneto are directed;
° Home movies and souvenir-photos shot by tourists: cross-analysis;
° Photo and video recording of specific situations: the ‘non-sites’ and their invasion of the territory; visibility of the ‘hyper-sites’ and their recognition; loss of territorial identity and marginalization; the new virtual icons; the media, mediators of belongingness.
° Data analysis, interviews, post-production of recorded images;
° Return to the field for a second encounter with people and situations and, where possible, second encounter with people interviewed.
Besides these direct research activities there will be an intense activity of preparation and elaboration of the findings (meetings among the researchers, reports, papers, editing of the images, editing of written and multimedia material). Finally, the results of the research will be presented in meetings and symposia at the local, national and international scale.
Following Ulf Hannerz, cotemporary societies are crossed by inter-relations of three cultural dimensions: ideas and ways of thinking; forms of expressions, that is the different ways in which meaning is made acccessible to the senses and becomes public; social distribution, i. e. how the inventory of meanings and meaningful external forms
is diffused amomg the population and in social relationships. Growing complexity in contemporary societies has emphasized the last two aspects, showing that their dynamics feeds continuously new forms of cultural representations and forms of social relationships. How Hannerz suggests, “it is possible that complexity in the distribution and in expressions plays a fundamental role in fueling the complexity in the sphere of meanings” (1998, p. 15). This perspective reverses the traditional approach of sociological analysis as well as of any observation of social behaviour, that follows a ‘descent’ line from the first of the above-mentioned dimensions, to then observe the applications in collective expressions and actions. The theoretical approach suggested by Hannerz has proved to be particularly appropriate where attention is drawn to social expressions that seem to take significant forms in their very phenomenological appearance,, i. e. where the ‘mise en scène’ of collective representations is validated at the surface of things, instead than derive from “ideas and ways of thinking” as shared manifstations. It follows that it is in sites/non-sites of collectiveaggregation that this social ‘mise en scène’ can condensate meanings andcreate new ones. Obsrvations made in this respect by Marc Augé seem to be illuminating. “ The city exist thanks to the imaginary that arouses and returns, taht she fuels and on which she feeds herself, that she creates and re-creates every moment. If the evolution of this imaginary interests us it is because it has to do at the same time with the city – her constants and her changes – and our relationship with the image, also changing the same way that cities and more in general society change” (1999: p. 96). While we use to consider ‘fictions’ – that we can consider as our own representations of the external world by means of culture, art, ideologies (that is, the field that Hannerz indicates as “ideas and ways of thinking”) as “imaginary transformation of the real”, we re facing today, following Augé, “a situation in which the real is eager to reproduce the fiction” (id. p. 113).
Following this interpretation, for instance, hypermarkets will no more be considered mere containers of durable good offered to the consumer, but as having the function of inviting visitors to adopt innovatives lifestyles, through a direct contact with the stacks of objects and their layout, with little or no interaction with the other visitors with which he is in phisically close contact. This is even more evident in the places for entertainment, like the theme parks, or the tourist spots, where the ‘mise en scène’ of the imaginary finds its ideal set: in the places offered to the sight of the tourists, literery, artistic and cinematographic fictions have offered rich opportunities to build one’s own, elaborated overinterpretations of the real. Here it is shown with particular evidence how th visitor seeks in the real the archetype offered to him by the fiction, that are therefore more real than the real.
In the case of our research ground, the Veneto, one has to stress how, in front of a rich and updated collectiond of socioeconomic data, there is a lack of qualitative data, useful to understand and interpret the cultural constructs that are informing the behaviour of both the residents and the visitors. Following the most recent trends in the social sciences, one should give voice and body to these cultural expressions, that standardized surveys tend to flatten. There is the need to use methods allowing the registration of the often overtly inexpressed and idiosincratic aspects of the single subjects that form the imaginary through which the external world is interpreted and looked at..
For this purpose, an extensive use of images will be made: images of the places and of the subjects interviewed and contacted; but also images taken by the subjects themselves, showing their own imaginary. After a first period of a detached, documentaristic style, visual anthropology and more recently visual sociology have developed a participatory and dialogic method allowing to highlight and communicate immaterial aspects of cultures, thus expanding the reasearch field toward new, stimulating fields of observation and analysis.