Sonia Levy
"We Marry You, O Sea, as a Sign of True and Perpetual Dominion", 2023

Film still, Courtesy of the artist

Two-channel video installation (color and sound)
18 min 12 sec

Commissioned by TBA21–Academy and TBA21 Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary with the support of S+T+ARTS, an initiative by the European Commission, and the European Marine Board’s EMBracing the Ocean artist in residence program, an activity contributing to the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) as well as the local support of the Marine Biology Station Umberto D'Ancona, University of Padova.

The two-channel installation We Marry You, O Sea engages with Venice and its lagoon “from below,” [1] with the aim of focusing attention on the city’s submerged, life-giving, and altered bio-geomorphological processes rather than on its often-recounted political and military histories. Underwater filmmaking opens new ways of knowing the materialities of the Venice Lagoon and exposes a fractured and troubled environment that complicates mainstream historical narratives that start above the water’s surface. By attuning to the ebb and flood of the lagoon, we start sensing the interplay between land and water, life and decay, and the intimate processes shaping this environment. Noticing the kinds of life made possible in this damaged watery space compels us to delve into the ways it has been profoundly transformed.

We Marry You, O Sea, as a Sign of True and Perpetual Dominion takes its title from the words uttered during the Venetian ritual The Marriage of the Sea, which was held annually on Ascension Day between the eleventh and eighteenth century. During the event, the Doge, the patriarch of the Venetian Republic, would wed the lagoon by casting a golden ring into the water, declaring dominance over the sea. The artist reframes Venice’s enduring relationship with its permeating waters by reflecting on this ongoing legacy of quests for mastery over watery environments. How, this work asks, might we imagine different futures for Venice if we begin to experience the lagoon as a lively place populated by manifold ways of living and dying?

In the lagoon, a space requiring continuous modifications for human settlement, wetlands and infrastructures have long been intertwined. Venice’s consolidation as a trading hub and epicenter of naval advancement during the Middle Ages prompted major hydrological engineering to maintain the lagoon’s shallow depths for defense purposes. However, in the twentieth century, harrowing modernization transformed parts of the wetland into petroleum refineries and one of Italy’s largest container terminals as part of an effort to turn the lagoon into an industrial frontier. Urban anthropologist Clara Zanardi has described how these transformations spatialized class divisions in a new way, while also causing irreversible ecological degradation that has profoundly altered the lagoon’s lifeways. 

The film presents these histories of modernization by interweaving rare historical photographs from Venice’s Giacomelli Photographic Archive with submerged perspectives [2] of the present conditions of the lagoon. The historical significance of these photographs is emphasized by the negative black-and-white reversal of the submerged perspectives, connecting past and present and unfolding futures within the lagoon’s contaminated waters. An original score, created by a chorus of human voices and underwater sound recordings, further emphasizes the links between submerged spaces and human domains. The composition captures the lagoon’s pulses and the impact of industries—from aquatic sounds drowned out by boat noises to the rhythmic poundings of industrial activity amid surging tides—as it gestures toward the profound interplay between human activities and the lagoon’s shallows.

The film is accompanied by text from Kanaka academic and fiction writer Karin Amimoto IngersollBecoming Lagoon-Literate—and is accessible online in English and Spanish here.
Underwater Cinematography
Sonia Levy with the help of Sam Smith

Sonia Levy

Sonia Levy and Sam Smith

Underwater Sound Recording
Jez riley French with the help of Pheobe riley Law 
Sonia Levy

Choral Arrangement and Composition
Esmeralda Conde Ruiz

Score recording and mixing
Nick Powell

Researcher and assistant
Chiara Famengo

Scientific Advisors
Heather Anne Swanson
Alberto Barausse
Ifor Duncan

E Ensemble
Renata Adamcova
Vicky Annand
Madeleine Buckley
Emily Charles
Martin Colley
Belén Durán
Alison Furnham
Allan Gardam
Noriko Gregory
William Hammonds
Jane Higginbottom
Henry Milton
Alison Monaghan
Helen Monaghan
Javier Navarro
Tina Vifor
Walney Virgilio
Anne White

With the kind permission of 
SEPOline: a project to apply innovative solutions for artisanal fishing 
(EMFF Veneto region – Measure 1.26 INNOVATION – Beneficiary: Scientific Institute CESTHA, Experimental Center for Habitat Conservation).

Archivio fotografico del Comune di Venezia, Fondo Giacomelli
The Giacomelli Photographic Archive of the Municipality of Venice
(Image no. GN007554, GN005374, GN007454, GPRO0065, GPRO0063, GPRO0069).

Archivio fotografico dell’Ente della Zona Industriale di Porto Marghera
Photographic Archive of Porto Marghera Industrial Zone.
The artist wishes to thank the guidance of Professor Heather Anne Swanson and Alberto Barausse as well as Ifor Duncan.
Many thanks to: María Montero Sierra, Markus Reymann; Meredith Root-Bernstein, Sam Smith and Chiara Famengo; Filippo Picardi, Emily Sepe, Cristina Breggion, Andrea Sambo and Mattia Panin; Matteo Stocco and Giacomo Carraro; Federico Riccato, Riccardo Fiorin,and Giacomo Cipolato; Barbara Vanin, Roberto Ranieri and Michela Ballarin; Gianluca Palma; Federica Cacciatore and Rosella Briscolò Brusà; Angela Pomaro, Irene Guarneri, Fantina Madricardo and Marta Picciulin; Jane Da Mosto; Pietro Daniel Omodeo; Francesco Visentin; Amina Chouaïri; Pietro Consolandi, Miriam Calabrese and Barbara Nardacchione; Paolo Rosso; Hélène Wand-Polak and Albert Levy; Hanna Rullman; and Filip Tydèn.
Sonia Levy's research-led practice considers shifting modes of engagement with more-than-human
 worlds in light of prevailing Earthly precarity. She is a 2021 commissioned artist at Radar Loughborough and Aarhus University. She has exhibited internationally, including shows and screenings at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris; Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris; ICA, London; and BALTIC, Gateshead.
S+T+ARTS is an initiative of the European Commission to foster alliances between science, technology and the arts, in order to cultivate technological innovation centered on human needs and values. 
The pilot project STARTS4Water builds on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 and especially on SDG 5 ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ and SDG14 ‘Life Below Water’.
Magical Fresh & Salty Conversations is TBA21–Academy’s podcast series exploring ecological and magical perspectives on bodies of water.

Listen to the episode, More-than-Human Underwater Filming, featuring the artist and S+T+ARTS resident Sonia Levy in conversation with Erika Balsom, a London-based scholar and critic working on cinema, art, and their intersection. During their S+T+ARTS residency, Sonia Levy and her collaborators, environmental anthropologist Heather Swanson, ecologist Meredith Root Bernstein, and landscape architect Alexandra Arènes, looked at the Venetian Lagoon through the lens of nature-based solutions to mitigate flood risks. What issues arise from Venice’s long history of taming its waterscape? With a shared commitment to noticing more-than-human worlds, the group strived to forge their own understanding of the controversies arising from the lagoon’s water management.
[1] “From below” refers to the idea of history from below, a form of historiography that focuses on the experiences and outlooks of ordinary and often marginalized people rather than those who hold power. See for example  E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Vintage, 1963); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004); and Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).

[2] “Submerged Perspectives: The Arts of Land and Water Defense”, (2020) and “The Extractive Zone” (2017), Macarena Gómez-Barris