How Like a Reef

“Laguna dal basso”
A Series of Workshops Exploring
Political Biogeomorphology¹

Sonia Levy facilitated by Chiara Famengo
with Alberto Barausse, Stazione Umberto d’Ancona, University of Padova
& the advisory support of Amina Chouaïri  (Università Iuav di Venezia), Louise Carver (Lancaster University) and Pietro Daniel Omodeo(Ca’ Foscari)
Project Description

01. Project Description
02. Methods
03. Participants

1 In our approach, we intentionally avoid compartmentalising geomorphological and hydrological processes from their impact on life, and reciprocally, we avoid disconnecting life from its influence on these processes. The title is inspired by UCSC SEACoast Slow Seminar: Political Geomorphology which took place on April 20th, 2023.

2 Omodeo, Pietro Daniel (2022). Hydrogeological Knowledge from Below: Water Expertise as a Republican Common in Early‐Modern Venice. Berichte Zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 45 (4):538-560.
See also Ingersoll, K. A. (2016). Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Duke University Press.

This project aims to develop fresh insights into the Lagoon's history, agency, and governance by adopting a material and analytical perspective "from below." Although the Lagoon appears well studied and understood, recent hydrological modifications have reshaped the possibilities of life within it. The imposition of top-down governance structures has further exacerbated fragmentations, resulting in a contentious mosaic of institutions and conflicting practices that further disrupt the intricate biogeomorphologies of this locale. These transformations, a combination of waterscapes engineering, environmental alterations, societal changes, and the broader impacts of climate change, have resulted in challenges to understanding an ecosystem significantly altered, sometimes exhibiting perplexing behaviour, suggesting a state of unpredictability and enhanced complexity, compromising Lagoon's lifeways.

Our participatory workshops are designed to employ an "epistemology from below²" acknowledging the Lagoon's dynamic and ever-changing nature. By examining shifting marine environments and emphasising often overlooked ways of knowing and being within the Lagoon, we wish to integrate scientific, local ecological, and artistic knowledge towards non-exploitative relation to watery environments. The initiative actively involves marine scientists studying this fragmented water body alongside Lagoon fishers and local stakeholders, fostering a collaborative learning environment to interpret these aquatic assemblages within their socio-ecological depth. The term "from below" draws inspiration from "History from below," a historiographical approach that prioritises the experiences and perspectives of ordinary and often marginalised people over those in positions of power. Extending this methodology, our project broadens the scope to encompass a more inclusive understanding of historical agents, including the more-than-human worlds, to foreground the socio-ecological dependencies of the Lagoon. How, these workshops will ask, could Lagoon governance be negotiated by implementing diverse perspectives fostering more environmentally just practices?

In our endeavour to explore changes in the Lagoon and their impact on life, we draw from diverse forms of knowledges and experiences, encompassing scientific insights and local ecological perspectives of those who intimately navigate the lagoon daily. Our goal is to create narratives that shed light on the intricate interplay between governance, history, practices and hydrodynamics, geomorphology, and the thresholds that have altered life’s possibilities.

The series of workshops was centred around three main topics: Spatiality, Temporality and Valuation.

Below, each session's focus is outlined.


1 Ait-Touati, Frederique; Arenes, Alexandra; and Gregoire, Axelle. (2022). Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Spatiality delved into the Lagoon's hydrodynamics and geomorphological transformations, examining how these alterations impact life. In this workshop, participants contributed their observations, daily experiences, and local and scientific knowledges about changes in the Lagoon bed and sedimentation process.

Our objective was to grasp the inherent interconnectedness of the Lagoon, exploring the relationships between biotic and abiotic processes, or in other words, understanding how life and space (hydrogeomorphological dynamics) are intimately intertwined1. 

Here, we tried and experiment with how a living thing's milieu is composed of other living things and the outcomes of their past and present metabolic activity, including human activities. Our focus was on contemplating how spaces and places emerge from the interactions among living organisms and abiotic processes. 

Does a revised comprehension of space, no longer perceived as a mere empty setting1 but rather recognised as a critical factor sustaining the liveability for all life on Earth, contribute to improved governance of the Lagoon?

This workshop was led in collaboration with Alberto Barausse, drawing upon his scientific understanding of lagoon dynamics and complexities as well as his curiosity and interest in local ecological knowledge.


3 Donna Haraway describes the thick present as “a tentacular web of troubling relations that matter now.” in Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. See also Neimanis, A. and Walker, R.L. (2014), Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality. Hypatia, 29: 558-575.

4 We draw upon Candace Fujikane, Kanaka Maoli's indigenous epistemology to define "abundance" as regenerative practices, transcending mere material wealth. It entails reciprocal relationships with land and water, community, and culture. Abundance goes beyond economic measures, encompassing the richness of traditions, and the overall vitality of communities and environments.
Fujikane, C. (2021). Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future: Kanaka Maoli and Critical Settler Cartographies in Hawai'i. Duke University Press.

The Venetian Lagoon is characterised by diverse temporal dimensions. Above the water's surface, prominent historical narratives shape the landscape, as exemplified by Venice—a city seemingly frozen in time, serving as a testament to a cultural evolution shaped by the accumulation of wealth through trade and imperialist dominance. 

Beneath the water's surface, submerged realms unveil turbid, ever-changing worlds made by the gravitational pulls of tidal rhythms, intertwined with hydrodynamics reshaped by the impacts of the global political economy. These impacts, including but not limited to dredging shipping channels to accommodate container vessels for international trade, heightened boat traffic due to extractive mass tourism, and the introduction of species for industrial shellfish cultivation and harvesting, all contribute to changes in currents, sedimentation, and overall altering patterns of life. 

Simultaneously, the Lagoon serves as a space of speculation, with numerous imagined and planned future-oriented management projects driven from above. These initiatives often emerge as responses to a perceived adversarial nature against the Lagoon’s flooding, viewed as encroaching on livelihoods and prospects.

This workshop, developed in collaboration with landscape architect Amina Chouaïri and her expertise in the Lagoon's geomorphological politics, will navigate these complexities. In this session, our objective is to examine the normative notion of linear time and its impact on management and Lagoon's futures. Instead, our aim is to comprehend how pasts and futures are intertwined, saturating the lagoon's present conditions. How we will ask, can we cultivate greater attentiveness to the “thick present”3 of the Lagoon? How can we integrate different understandings of histories to shape abundant4 futures?


5 Campling, L., & Colás, A. (2021). Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World. Verso Book.

6 ibid.

7.    In Venetian dialect, "barena" refers to salt marshes which are emerged shoals characteristic of the Lagoon. These areas are only submerged during the highest tides and are typically covered by halophytic vegetation.

In the dominant Western consumerist imaginary, maritime spaces are often considered escapist locations, placeless voids that offer retreats from the land-bound confines of governments, laws, and the past. Simultaneously, watery environments also become physical discharge for the surplus and waste generated by capitalist accumulation5. Notions such as flows and liquidity, defining the domain of trading endeavours, trace their origins to the movement of goods across oceans while drawing on the sea's physical attributes6. Venice's maritime history, integral to its innovations in banking and accountancy, provides a unique lens for exploring these concepts. 

This session explores the historical dynamics between watery ecology and economy, particularly through the lens of fishing legislation and conservation practices, considering their longue-durée evolution up to the current neoliberal politics in the distinctive spaces of the Lagoon. Acknowledging that the seas and the Venetian Lagoon are pivotal sites in the development of both modernity and capitalist economies, we will reflect on the ways such processes are now materially constitutive of these marine environments – expressed through their warmed, stressed, acidified and depleted states.

A growing scientific and political consensus for addressing capitalist development’s contradictions involves the expansion of environmental markets. This strategy attributes economic value to the metabolic properties of ecological relations, viewing them as abstract units of carbon or biodiversity capable of offsetting pollution activities in other areas. However, within this framework, the intricacy of life is often oversimplified, exemplified by the relegation of wetlands and salt marshes, such as the Lagoon’s barenas7, to mere “carbon farms” within the context of climate change solutions. 

This universalising incentive raises questions about the manifold beings, practices, experiences and knowledges that surpass these categorisations yet are fundamental to the sustenance of places. What of the profusion of animals, plants, and algal life within the relational webs of the Lagoon, exceeding and escaping the definitional frames and categories assigned through these measurement techniques that are made by and for development interests? Moreover, in what ways do these economic incentives impact governance and shape conservation practices to come? How does this economic framework affect fishers’ livelihoods, and how do their experiences modulate or influence these dynamics?

Developed in collaboration with human geographer Louise Carver valuation will look at the ongoing process of economically valuing ecosystem functions. It will also explore which other kinds of values also count, for example, those of traditional small-scale fishing practices or ones deemed significant, unique and irreplaceable for other reasons that are particular to the Lagoon and not legible in abstracted forms. In addition, historian of science Pietro Daniel Omodeo will contribute by presenting historical context related to Lagoon management and considerations on the metabolic rift linked with urbanisation processes. We will delve into mediaeval and early modern archives concerning fishing legislation and water management in Venice. This exploration aims to underscore the expertise of fishers in previous understandings of ecological dynamics and their contributions to Lagoon governance.

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