Cheaper than Flying: Anthony Schrag walks to Venice

Scotland-based participatory artist Anthony Schrag will spend the next three months walking to Venice, in the process questioning the value of the Venice Biennale

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Jun 2015

With too much pomp and infinite prosecco, the Venice Biennale unleashed its 2015 incarnation at the beginning of last month. Though Scotland’s presentation by Graham Fagen has already been covered with a five-star review online, Scottish art will also be making its way to Venice over the summer in the form of Anthony Schrag. On foot, he’ll be making the artist’s pilgrimage to Venice. With distinct suspicion, he remarks that Venice is thought of as “like Mecca. Every good Muslim must go to Mecca once in their lives; every good artist must got to the Venice Biennale once in their lives.”

Lasting for three months in total, Schrag’s journey has been carefully route-planned to take in several pilgrimage sites. Giving a sense of the scale of his endeavour, his path has also been modified to take account of the curve of the earth. With 450 hours of walking to be completed, Schrag has in front of him a summer of eight hour days of walking at a swift pace. “It’s a blessing. I’m just about to finish my PhD, I’ve got all these questions about my practice, what next, turning forty, and I get to have three months just to think about them.” Then again, he’s “also got the Alps in the way, they’re not going to be warm.”

As well as these broader questions facing Schrag, for this project he sets out to address a more specific question: “What does Venice offer?” This question is particularly relevant for Schrag’s mainly participatory artworks, which in general are not represented in the Biennale. “As with any kind of art,” Schrag describes that participatory art “comes with its own set of languages, its own understanding of aesthetics, power politics, and yet it's not really welcomed into Venice because it’s not considered art.”

It was with these issues in mind that Schrag developed  Lure of the Lost: A Contemporary Pilgrimage, along with Huntly-based Deveron Arts. Schrag is a long term collaborator with the arts organisation and describes them as “kind of rock and roll, because they don’t subscribe to the normal tradition of what art is.” Conventionally speaking, “Art is so much about the production of an object, about the display of those objects and about places.” So it’s particularly impressive to Schrag that 20 years ago, Deveron Arts decided to deviate from these norms.

Schrag describes his relationship with Deveron Arts as “agonistic,” which is also how he describes his and Deveron Art’s relationship to the Biennale in making the Lure of the Lost project. “Agonism” as a concept, Schrag derives from political theorist Chantal Mouffe. He describes it a “A productive conflictive relationship – that’s the kind of relationship I find most proactive.” Proceeding this way does not entail tearing down an institution, but instead “to propose an opposition, to work uncomfortably together, [and] to challenge each other.”

It was in this spirit of this kind of “agonism” that Schrag and Deveron Arts considered a project which they situated entirely within Venice, and which would import Deveron Arts’ locally based ethic to Venice. 'The town is the venue' is the motto for Deveron Arts, who actively engage with their town Huntly, its history and people. For this first proposal, the idea was to engage with the non-transient population of Venice: “The everyday people that live there, that run the shops, and try and actually do something with them.” This was an attempt to cast some doubt on the usual strategy of Biennale exhibitors, who “export an idea that’s fully-formed.”

Taking this outsider approach to the festival further, Schrag will now spend only a few days in Venice itself. Instead, over the course of his 450 hours of walking across Britain, France, the Alps and Italy, he will position himself complicatedly, as he problematises the Venice Biennale’s relationship with its site, but without a fixed site during this time. “I would argue possibly that I aim to have more of a responsibility to the places I actually visit than a lot of the Biennale sites which are there for six months of the year.” Instead, between his eight hour shifts of walking every day, his goal “is to arrive at the place and to meet someone and live in their life and to live as they do in that moment and understand what they do, be limited by their rules and by their places.”

It is also in this final form that the form of the pilgrimage became relevant. Named directly after St Anthony, the patron saint of the lost, Schrag thinks of the trip as “Just going and getting lost.” And as is conventional for the pilgrim, Schrag will take tokens that people give him to Venice, like relics. In particular, Schrag might take with him the acorns of Joseph Beuys’s oak trees in Kassel, first presented as part of Documenta, leaving one in Venice, “making a triangle between two of the biggest art situations in the world and Huntly, Aberdeenshire.”

"I’m challenging the Venice Biennale but it doesn’t know I’m there" – Anthony Schrag

As well as the conceptual demands of the trip, Lure of the Lost is also something of a physical trial. “I’m doing training, and I’m physically up for it. Undoubtedly I will have endless blisters, there will be chafing, it will be painful.” This kind of physically demanding work isn’t new to Schrag, who for a number of years has continued a work entitled Wrestling Artists. “I wrestle artists to figure out who is the better artist.” For example, he lasted 10 seconds before a collective of six (including the national judo champion) brought him down. “There’s a satisfying enjoyment in pushing yourself. You feel good for doing it. I’ve always really enjoyed the physical side of things much more.”

Nevertheless, he does concede that although the physical element of Lure of the Lost is not a worry, “it’s the psychological side that’s more concerning.” He doesn’t plan on spending all of his walking time alone, however. “We are inviting people to walk along but basically they have to understand that I have a certain speed to keep up. I can’t dawdle.” Schrag and Deveron Arts hope that some of the people he meets on his way to Venice will join him in the final six to eight hours of the journey, rather than staging an arrival performance. Instead, “We’re all part of this entering Venice.”

As well as a physical and psychological trial, Schrag believes “It’s a trial for Venice as well.” He likens it to his project last year, when he invaded Iceland. Since Iceland currently doesn’t have an army, Schrag tried invading the country to see if anyone would stop him. “I was having this war with a country that didn’t know I was having a war against it.” This is just the same for Schrag with Lure of the Lost, “I’m challenging the Venice Biennale, and asking all these questions about it. But it doesn’t know I’m there.”

Here’s hoping Schrag will fare as well against the Biennale as he did in Iceland. “I planted my flag at the parliament, no one stopped me. I am actually the supreme ruler of Iceland, by the way.”

Anthony will leave Huntly on June 14 and walk through Edinburgh on 20 Jun To help him with funds towards his supplies and equipment, he has launched a crowdfunding campaign at: