[I decided that John Carpenter's Escape From New York and Escape From LA needed to become a trilogy. I decided also that serial fiction is an under-utilized form. Here, then, is a response to both those lacks.]
In 2020, Venice had its best tourist season since 1981. This might appear surprising, given the recent state of affairs. Italy had, over the course of a decade, become increasingly volatile. In the midst of a protracted and severe global financial crisis, just after Greece finally slipped through the grasping fingers of the European Union and into open revolt, filling the world news with the rather indelible image of forty-three riot police trapped inside the Treasury by external barricades and burned alive, the fire fed by reams of worthless promissory notes, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi finally stepped down from office on April 11, 2012.
He did so, however, on the condition of two emergency resolutions. The first was an executive order for his own execution by guillotine in Rome's Piazza Venezia. This was carried out promptly, and the footage left little doubt that after the decapitation, his severed and perma-tanned head still managed to whisper one last dirty pun, as if it had been his final snickering thought as the blade dropped. The second resolution, only revealed to the public after his execution, had been long in the works. It involved the transposition of his personality and memories into an algorithm which was allowed permanent veto power on any bills drafted by Parliament. It showed itself quite willing to do so, as it brought proceedings to an extended halt, and thereby proving that the condition demanded as input by the algorithm – a warehouse full of 16 year old women in their underwear dancing 24 hours a day, their presence registered and analyzed by thermal cameras, motion sensors, and facial recognition software – be ceaselessly maintained.
In a roughly two year period that followed, from the summer of 2012 to the fall of 2014, a dispute raised by a dairy farmer turned into a 6 day general strike and threw Spain for a loop, the Eurovision contest was won by a toddler, Luxemburg was taken in a surprising coup d'etat launched by a Swiss bank, and Greece continued to intensify, as it descended into brutal civil war and was subsequently occupied by IMF-Blackwater forces. It was during this time, referred to as “The Long Pause,” that the EU disbanded, discovered new heights of currency instability, and hastily reformed, having in the meantime conveniently booted out its troublesome southern nations, with the sole exception of Italy. Despite the fact that it showed almost no prospect of a rapid economic turn-around, the political sequence following Berlusconi's mathematicization convinced Merkel and her followers that they simply couldn't do without Rome, the new anchor in the Mediterranean.
After Berlusconi got himself beheaded, a nearly unknown young politician from outside Verona named Alessandro Furbino – known earlier only from his brief spell in prison for “accidentally” killing an Algerian auto mechanic – rose with alarming speed to the top ranks of the far-right Northern League. Elected to national office, he pushed ahead a set of extraordinarily conservative, xenophobic, and isolationist measures. It turned out to be just what the EU wanted, despite the annoyance of Furbino's attempts to always put Italy first in the list of EU nations and his constant empty threats to return to a national currency, known by all to be a leap into the financial void no country would dare take.
All turned out to be very wrong, however, as he took just this step in winter 2018, announcing it during his immediately infamous “A Shot Across the Bow of Europe” speech, which promised, among other things, a “slashing of our sham ties to this odious continent of bankers and pansies,” “a new era of Italian solitude and fortitude,” and, more particularly, a rigorous new coding of regionally specific food, gaining him some accidental and utterly unwanted respect from sustainability movements and “locavores.” And in the hurried space of a few weeks, Italy reverted to the Lira, which – to the surprise of no one – fell drastically against all major world currencies.
However, due to the already imposed near-martial order, Italy managed to maintain a semblance of stability. And combined with the insistence on preserving regional specificity, a new commitment to the upkeep and polishing of monuments and historical sites (with the exception of Napoli, where trash fires, stray dogs, and, in an unconfirmed report, stray dogs who had learned how to set fires had been gaining more than the upper hand of late), the strength of foreign cash against a Lira desperately in need of some inflow, and a sense that it may not be far off before the borders would be closed to any and all visitors, an utterly perfect storm of tourism was created, one that even the increasing lack of disposable income and cheap credit couldn't dampen.
This storm hit nowhere harder than Venice, which gained a extra push from a particularly lurid and widely read report on global warming that took as its prime example the destruction of Venice beneath the rising seas and fleshed this out with a battery of expensive CGI catastrophe – The ghetto becomes a soggy grotto! – for its prime time special report. In short, one had to come to Venice while there was still something left to come to. And so they did, in droves: American, Dutch, Chinese, German, Argentinian, French, British, Finnish, Japanese, Canadian, Swiss, Thai. Even the infrastructure of a city as utterly dependent on tourist cash as it long had been couldn't handle it. The last of the residents were squeezed out of their apartments, and walls either broken down to form new luxury suites or, more frequently, added, as the combined facts of a desire for a room of one's own and the teeming quantity of those who wanted to experience Venice meant that they packed them in with a rather uncanny echo of Soviet apartments. The poorer and relatively tourist-free zones near Calle Drio ai Magazeni and Calle Sagredo, with their De Chirico minimalism of poured concrete,were transformed into hostels and multi-story gelato shops.
But even this wasn't enough: there simply weren't enough buildings to remodel or take over. “Authentic Venetian” shanty town motels crowded the squares, and new floors were hastily thrown on top of whatever houses had the load-bearing capacity to take it. (The first collapse of one such addition, ungracefully dumping sixty-one primarily German and Malaysian tourists in the midst of brunch onto a piazza six stories below, in a terrible wet crunch of bones and croissants, had almost no effect on their continued construction.) New barges were anchored to the island and stacked with shipping containers hastily retrofitted with tasteful Swedish design and tiny pictures of San Michele hung off-center in polished aluminum frames. The design for the barges was borrowed straight from the Croatian Pavilion in the 2015 Biennale, in which it appeared as a mocking exhibition of yuppie sustainability and salvage fantasies, evidently nailing its mimicry a little too well.
The non-tourist population was reduced to near zero, as waiters, police, and gondola drivers gave up their houses for reasons of turning a decent profit and, more importantly, fleeing from the further horror their city became. (This relative absence of cops provided a unique opportunity taken up by a splinter group of the recently formed Italian Insurrectionary Anarchist Federation, but their attempt to destroy what remained of the high-end retail district was foiled by a rather terrifying spontaneous mob of tourists hell bent on protecting their shopping district who, armed with tripods and water bottles, killed four of the anarchists and drove the rest from the island. The communique that followed the disastrous action was the shortest ever released by the IIAF: “Fuck that place and its visitors. They deserve one another, like a corpse deserves its vultures.”)
The workers who could afford to commute moved further and further from the island and the surrounding ones, crowding into Spinea and Jesolo, as even Murano and Sant'Erasmo become uninhabitable. Many simply gave up on working there. Those who couldn't afford a long commute – the immigrant populations to whom the new xenophobia turned a partially blind eye in recognition that they alone would take up the slack of the nasty work – slept on massive, makeshift rafts, tethered to the island like leaky balloons. The prison became a hotel – though one of the cheaper ones, to be sure. The food got cheaper and worse, although still local. The city gave up on any illusion of waste management, rerouting the sewers and dumping the trash off the sides of the island, such that it was constantly ringed with a reeking, fish-shaped halo of empty bottles, small neon objects that flashed and spun in the air when thrown high with a slingshot, tampons, unfinished squid ink risotto, and a whole lot of fecal matter.
And still they came, in their very responsible sandals and gimmick hats, their massive camera bags strapped like bandoliers over chubby middles, their common smile of those who have nothing to do in an era of decadence but “experience” and document it. They came and walked, iPads held in front of their faces, its architectural recognition software beeping and cooing when the material city aligned with the image offered by Google street view. So they walked, clattering thick into one another, jabbing slippery fingers onto the screens to capture the images, to send them to friends who, it turned out on many occasions, were unbeknownst to them on the island as well, perhaps a few steps behind. The sound of sweaty thighs rubbing against themselves sang a low and constant hush, over the shrieks, babble, and exclamations of the phrase “off the beaten path” spoken in twenty-seven different languages.
Despite all this, it still came as a real surprise to the world when unannounced, on July 8, 2020, the Italian state transformed Venice into a penal colony in the course of a single night, trapping the still-sleeping tourists as prisoners with no escape other than death.