Interview Beatrice Leanza (transcript)

Beatrice Leanza, Creative Director Beijing Design Week
24 July / Opposite House / Beijing
Interview by Neville Mars, Daan Roggeveen and Frances Arnold

D: Let’s start with some facts and figures: how did you come to be in China?

My 12 years of life in China falls into three easy steps: number one – I moved here in 2002 as an Asian art historian with a dissertation thesis on my head that took contemporary art in China as a subject, something that was completely discarded by market and academia back then. I moved here as part of my research. I’d traveled here before but then moved here because I got a chance to work at the CAAW which is the China Art Archives and Warehouse otherwise known as the 艺术文化仓库 (yìshù wénhuà cāngkù) which is the art space that Ai Wei Wei founded in the mid-1990s with Hans van Dijk and Frank Uytterhaegen. I moved here because of that: it was of the few outlets where you could see contemporary art; there were perhaps only three places across all of China that catered to that: Courtyard Gallery, CAAW and ShanghART gallery in Shanghai. BizArt and EastArt started in 1998 or 1999… I found myself in some archival photographs at CAAW of the opening of the exhibition of Zheng GuoGu! Hans van Dijk and Davide Quadrio curated that first show of Biz Art, and I found myself in some pictures of the opening!

I moved here basically because that was my thesis. I stayed at CAAW for three years more or less. I arrived in July and Hans passed away in that year in May. When I got in touch with them… I learnt that he passed, I worked with him only by email. Frank wrote back to me and said ‘if you want to come there’s a place for you’. So that’s what I did. Frank Uytterhaegen, who also passed away last year, he was one of the three founders of CAAW. Hans, Wei Wei, Frank. Hans’ house was the CAAW, he had Wei Wei build the house for him. He also built this large hole that became the CAAW that they’d opened a few years before in different places… it was in the south of Beijing originally and then finally moved to its permanent premises in Caochangdi.

CAAW was exactly what the name says: it was partially an archive, a very personal archive because it was completely handled and managed by Hans. I spent three years, never having met the man in person browsing through his findings, his writings, abridged notes and a very outmoded Access programme of the time that contained the partially-digitalized material information. The archive which is now being digitalized by the Asian Art Archive in HK [was] something that Frank started before he passed as basically sort of donating the entire archive to the AAA.

So that was phase one. I stayed in Beijing, I worked at the space, I got involved with the local community. You know, Wei Wei played the role of cultural impresario with his own following and groupies, and all of that. It was also the moment Wei Wei’s own career began to take off on the international stage [2002 & 2003]. By the mid-90s we were working on his first ever solo show in Europe which was in Gent in Belgium because that’s where Frank was from. So we had this show at the Caermerklooster which was a beautiful space like an old church converted into an art centre and he showed the long beams, the first ever map of China, the big photo portraits… that was his very first European solo show, for the matter probably his first solo ever.

So those years for me were the time I really got embedded into the local community, but those were also the years that 798 also started to raise. I remember this completely muddied area of town, we had printed out maps sent out by Huang Rui and his team indicating Jiuxianqiao Lu and then some blob on a map. Back then of course there weren’t all the gates that you see now. That was when the Tokyo projects opened, the Beijing Tokyo Art Project and literally there was that, Huang Rui’s studio, and a version of At Café which back then was like 20sqm and [basic] lighting. So that was the early years. If you want to define it, it was the early shape of the creative area of Beijing, finding its own character, you know.

So yes, it was the time when 798 and Caochangdi still had this alternative floor for art, but not alternative in the sense of being filled with art galleries and art spaces. It was one of the only [places] left, and you’ll remember this well [Neville], where some of the few outlets and curators of contemporary art could still find home in abandoned – not abandoned, but empty – spaces. So there was still a series of exhibitions and projects that happened over those two to three years.

…wine arrives…

So, yeah, the current ground of UCCA was one of the spaces where they had exhibitions like ‘Convergence’ [September ’05, E116°/ N40°, 798 Dayaolu Workshop] these were all large group shows that the curator Feng Boyi and at some point Yu Hong came to mastermind. Gradually at the same time a few spots in Caochangdi started to appear because for a long time it was only the CAAW, it was really in the middle of nowhere. I mean, I was walking midst bushes when I was coming out of the space at night; it was dark, unlit, and completely underground in that sense. And those were the years when a few spots started to pop out in Caochangdi in the area where now Platform China is, on the same street as CAAW, opposite the police station.

D: Did you have the feeling that you were participating in something promising or that could become big? Did it occur to you that you were contributing to what it has become right now? (11mins)

No. And I say no in such a decisive manner because that was not the projection that anyone involved in the scene at the time really wanted it to be. It was not the moment, it was not the point, nor would it have been the real legacy of that moment and it was true – nothing like that ever happened again and it will not happen again. It’s groundwork. Groundwork you do once. There’s no way to then tear it down. It was literally digging the hole, on which you put the fundaments. I think that everyone was really consciously being carried by events, by the momentum. I think that probably quite on the contrary, people knew it had a shelf life. You know, it had an expiry date.

D: How was that clear? (12”50)

Well even if you read the literature and magazines, the critical literature of that time when it was just raising, people still had that emotional attachment to the making of things, it was clear that there was this larger pattern of change that was starting to emerge. And that was the plan since the very beginning. The good motivation that the artistic community might have had, like gathering itself around this ground actually was very much motivated by finding a fixed abode in the city for itself. This is not a matter of merit, or guilt, that’s not a kind of discriminatory factor in the story, but Huang Rui wanted to have an artistic community there, a platform, but of course probably not [one] so demonized at it came to be, but I think that’s what he wanted.

You know the beginning of 798 – its idea was never to be some kind of retreat, or refuge for starving artists. On the contrary, they were looking for solid walls, for a place to be, safely for once.

D: That happened from a certain year to year – in your perspective what were they? (14”40)

Well it started in ‘03 more or less. 2002 was the year of the first Guangzhou Triennial, that was the year I arrived and started being with Wei Wei. It was the very first edition and everyone was there, even Wei Wei was there – Ai Wei Wei was at the first edition, I’d just started to work with him and he was there with Lu Qing… everyone was at that triennial.. It was clear it was the start of [something] bigger… Huang Rui did the next one, he did the DIAF.

D: Why GZ, not BJ? Was Beijing not the place to do such a thing? (15”50)

The triennial was spearheaded by an institution, by the Guangdong museum of art, you know and it was really the first biennale of any note that could ever be mentioned in China, the first opportunity for the artistic community here to be represented, collectivity. It was the first time in the mainland that that happened. If you’re looking at exhibitions that took contemporary Chinese art as a subject then that was perhaps the States with ‘Inside Out’ [1998, Asia Society / San Francisco MoMA], but that was the first time the collectivity came to be sanitized within the walls of institution at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou. It had also a strong historical backdrop, the biennale [triennial]… that edition was really a survey of art and artistic trends from literally the beginning until that day. You had sections from the ‘80s and the ‘90s, there were sections on photography, video making, it was really a retrospective rather than the lingo of a biennale being this kind of platform for experimentation.

That was 2002, then ‘03 and ‘04 was the rise of 798 and the beginning of this artistic settlement. Literally by ‘04 it was when other galleries started to come in like Continua, a foreign international gallery, of course the Long March space which back then was called the Ten Thousand… that was the time... the ‘triad’ was in place: Phil [Tenari] was at Long March space, I was at CAAW and Jeremy [Wingfield] was at the Courtyard Gallery - – you know, Jing Jing’s [?] boyfriend – and that was what was there. And then by ’04, really the mid-2000s was when the ecology of art spaces started to crop up.

Then I left the CAAW in ‘05 and that came together literally with the very visible market driven course that things have taken. I mean of course, the CAAW was a nonprofit space. All of the commercial work that was done it was because it needed to be sustained somehow. I mean, Frank was partly sustaining it, but he was not running it as a foundation, it had to find a balance. Which, interestingly, I find is an alternative financial formula that lots of spaces are taking in fact in Beijing… there’s all this discussion of what’s the real independence of art spaces in China when spaces are so reliant on sales and the market and commercial input. It’s what informed the later spaces like Platform China, Vitamin Creative Space, I mean, Biz Art – the artistic operations are sustained by an alternative sort of financing model that is generally sales, to mostly foreign collectors and institutions; forms of advising to international interested markets within the art field; or consultancy on large, creative ventures that could vary from commissions of public art, things like that. That’s literally the way in which most of the spaces were sustaining their operation, but CAAW was never really on board in that way, and Wei Wei himself would never have allowed it take that course.

With him and his contributions to it [CAAW] in a way it fading away – there were other more pressing matters, as in cultivating his own career and artistic practice. And in a way, probably the feeble forces that were at play that couldn’t really counter the incoming ones from the market or market interests. So you know, the space, it could not have an afterlife in that environment, that context.

D: You mentioned three steps of your being here… I want to understand the framework (22”30)

It was an historical phase that ended for contemporary art in China for itself…

My personal story goes with the biorhythm of the past decade, so that was the first step. So I left CAAW and I founded this studio – Bao Atelier – together with Jing Jing, an architect and designer who was working with Wei Wei in the architectural studio, that’s how we met. We both felt this disaffection with how things were going. She was working with you [Neville] also. We founded this venture. In a way I was very naïve and ingenious, just moved by a desire for doing things the way they were not yet happening. The fact that we had different backgrounds meant that we could work together in a way that was complementary. We did exhibitions, publications, all sorts of events. It was supposed to be this kind of open platform for others, for other types of creative figures that were not only raising the local context, they were from platforms other than art.

It was the time that Ou Ning started getting louder, there was the Borderline Moving Image Festival that we ran, so there was five or six years of that. We’ve done projects in China and abroad, back in Europe… it was sort of a cell, a lab in and out of China. So I more or less worked as an independent curator, and I was still writing in magazines and stuff.

N: At that time, I remember you coining a term when we speaking on the phone and I thought it hilarious and spot-on: ‘bubblegum ar’t and 798 as a bubble gum art district. Would you say that moment, that sensation, there was an expiration date lingering, was it related to content, to the art getting sweeter for an international market, like bubble gum? [26”]

First of all, don’t quote me on the bubble gum art district, I think you’re making that up, I don’t remember that. But you’re right about the diagnosis: it’s never just the container that shapes the content… I mean there were two forces coming together. And 798 is a completely top-down enterprise. I believe that it is so. Top-down doesn’t meant that it has to be an evil kind of like black hand or dark deus ex machina that nobody knows what it is, or it comes under the disguise of the government or some political party… But it’s always been a top-down enterprise because it was even naively envisioned as a place that would have housed an artistic creative community – that then it was co-opted and completely derailed that’s another story, but it is a top down enterprise. Because 798, that enlarged area, it was by definition already a gated community that had no community if not for the workers that were there. I mean, the moment they evicted that, nothing was there, it was an empty ground.

So we’re not talking about an organic, productive dialogue between communities that gave rise to something else, or to make space for it – that was a vacant space that someone claimed. It was a different kind of urban phenomenon, it’s not the same. I mean, a bottom-up development is Dashilar. Bottom-up meaning that it factors in an element of unpredictability. Nothing could ever come in the way of 798 and its development but through those that invested in it, and they came. You know, 798 had no legacy to make for itself; it had to create for itself an afterlife instead.

D: It’s exciting what you’re saying… everyone else has been saying that it’s bottom-up. But what I sense from you is a construct of a narrative of grassroot artistic community, but that it wasn’t really the case? [29”30]

Yeah, totally, that’s exactly it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not demonizing the intentions of those that came to 798, they did it for the good of their peers, that was a community... I’m not discrediting anyone in that sense, but I think it’s very different from saying 798 raised because there was a vision, a very far-flung vision from these communities thinking that they could in a way… There was no projection at that level.

N: You could argue that that’s more organic, as opposed to something that’s planned as bottom-up and anticipates an ongoing evolution. [31”10]

I think that the people involved were very aware. First of all, where they’re coming from and where they wanted to go. I mean the fact that this place was claimed for this purpose, the good deeds of art, that’s fine, but I don’t think It’s so innocent.

D: Can you give an example – proof that people were calculating, that they had an agenda. [32”]

Ask Huang Rui, he can tell you that himself. When this whole thing started, when he had this opportunity and when he had this plan he reached out to Wei Wei to be part of this.

N: But I think Huang Rui was the one masterminding the whole thing and the so-called grassroots movement was an involuntary part of that. [32”50]

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying – this was not so naïve, this was not artists back in the early ‘80s finding refuge in the Yuan Ming Yuan – that’s grassroots, that is – but 798 was not, it was 2002, the beginning of the 2000s, Huang Rui came back from years spent in Japan and his career in the arts was pretty self-affirming.

He wanted to create a space for that – I’m not picturing Huang Rui as a Belfagor [?] in this situation, on the contrary! Artists followed him and there was this cluster in what they called the 通道[Tōng Dào], this corridor where there is Zhao Bandi’s studio now, this corridor that has all these modular spaces, those were all artists studios, Zhang Xiaotao was there too… [It’s close to] At Café, the small street before that, it does a kind of S-shape and underneath there’s a covered corridor. I remember I did an exhibition there with a bunch of artists actually inside their spaces, inside their studios. Artists would put up solo shows in their own studios. I have posters from back then, all so typical of the time, with pictures of each artist in the show, and also my face there too! [check name…]These were people who wanted to be part of it, but also: what was the alternative?

D: So there was an agenda, but was there also an ideology? [35”45]

That is an ideology. It is in China.

D: So it wasn’t an artistic ideology, or a political one, or a level of engagement or something… it was more square meters to produce art? [36”]

But it is all that you just said. The situation in China was one where I’m not provided with the tools and means to do what I want to do, so I go make them for myself. Let’s not forget it’s been the era of opportunism looming large, but not opportunism as in the lingo of the grafter – or not only that – but the Deng Xiaoping’s proclamation of go and make your self. But the other thing is that this phenomenon it’s not a product of an instantaneous, out-of-the-blue kind of context. The context was conducive to it and that started 15 years before, it started well back into the early ‘90s.

After this whole economic reform started there was also a different political take on how the devolutionary power made into the regional governments more loose [?] This was to set the stage and the possibilities for more flexible endeavors, for example, forms of cultural economy to take place. That was set off back in the early ‘90s so that whole decade made space for this whole set-up to be put in place. It’s not that by the early-2000s China enters the WTO and here we are, the country is ready to accommodate what’s become a global influx or import of all things foreign. I mean, there’s been a process that has prepared China for the coming of that that. That is inclusive of the creation of cultural entrepreneurship that then had set a founding stage during the past decade, inclusive of the artistic world. I’m not saying that these people were aware of and calculating this with such foresight, but clearly they captured an opportunity and blank spaces that could be filled. And plus, what alternative did they have? I mean Yuan Ming Yuan was really the only alternative, and it was back in the ‘80s but not in 2002.

D: I always understood that this idea of artists retreating to villages in the countryside was also because they were haunted after ‘89 so they had to retreat literally from being seen and that atmosphere only changed in the early/mid ‘90s with an increasing art market. [39”]

True. Yes, sure, that’s the process, but that’s why I’m saying that was a form of grass root community, you know. That almost had less to do with propelling some sort of utopian vision of the role of art in contemporary society, it had nothing to do with that. That was pure self preservation. But in the ‘80s it was made with this generous open-ended thirsty drive towards community, the feeling of a larger movement, being part of something. That was about the shaping of things. But the ‘90s was not about that. That was about conservation. Then the 2000s were different again.

N: So are you saying that art villages were under threat and because rents were low there, artists were clustering together, and of course, many of them were bulldozed, often with people still living and working there… Would you say that 798 offered a stability that they couldn’t find elsewhere? It’s a trick question, because this morning we were talking to Phil and a lot of the discussion was about the instability of 798 … so maybe people were finding 798 that safe ground, it was cool enough to be there and stable enough to stay there. [40”45]

Yes, but there were other places were they probably could have found that sort of place but they just didn’t go for it. It probably would have taken more effort [whereas] 798 was an empty compound or quickly becoming that. This is a typical phenomenon of claiming an unclaimed space, and whatever grew out of it, the moment things started being favorable and were looking favorable for that ty type business, the picture changed completely.

That came together with the fact that there was an openness that was ready to circulate these tangible and intangible resources in and out. So the machine wasn’t simply about those who invested in 798, they were not simply on the ground, and at the same time was a larger internationalization of what’s going on. Artists were traveling more, they were starting to enter the larger superstructure of art, the system of contemporary art. So at some point it was no longer even about them or that place itself.

N: So you say an open place, an open plan even, a top-down plan, these are pretty big statements, can you understand it as a convergence of on the one hand these ‘opportunistic’ artists trying to find these new spaces and at the same time indeed a sort of legitimacy of 798 allowing small scale factory workers begin to rent out their space, so literally the very fact that they opened the door. [43”40]

I’m just saying that, if your question… it depends what your question is: if the question is was 798 a product of a molecular constituency coming together to shape something new, then no. Because that requires a dialogue where there’s more than one part involved. That was more a co-opting that happened made of a certain momentum and opportunity provided. I don’t think they were completely aware of it but there was an awareness of the historical context.

N: These two terms touch on the very essence of the magazine, and the way you phrase it is extremely counterintuitive even though in reality it makes total sense, it’s more a nuancing of the process. [45”20]

I always think that when you talk processes, top-down, bottom-up they involve consistencies, there is always a dialogue going from one side to another, with the awareness of the fact that you need to put yourself in [a] dialogue with that other part. So there is some compromise that you have to come down to. There, nothing like that was in place, so that it is not the product of a conscious or… politically-driven or activisitic form of resurgence of an idea or an ideology that was there, scattered and had to be regrouped. So what is left is what we have today.

N: The result of opportunism.

No. 798 – or whatever that number stands for – it has no legacy to build on, it only has an afterlife to take care of. A legacy you can claim, an afterlife you have to create. That’s very different. Of course, 798, that specific context had a history, it had life in it, and it has a history within the larger urban ecology of Beijing. I haven’t seen in ten years anything really addressing that. And the spin off of that is what you’re witnessing now within the larger confines of the core 798, 751 and all of these spaces.

D: But in hindsight… Have those couple of years in which there was a true art community in 798... didn’t they leave traces?

But it wasn’t in 798. People who acted in 798 – it was me, Hans, people who were active in the artistic milleu of those years, they were not residing at 798. I mean, there were artists who had studios; they were not really living there by the way. So it’s sort of like, by way of a strange definition, it was like a temporary community. The people involved in the art, were not willingly corralling around 798 because taking over 798 as a space was ever the point. It was corralling energies around one place because then it could become a place of reference for everyone who wanted to come in. But that’s different from really dealing with the spatiality of 798 or being willing to raise that area into some sort of…

D: I’m not talking about the area, I mean traces in terms of how people think, or curate art, or education – other thinking around producing contemporary art in China. [50”]

I think it did in a way, for a few years, I really think it defined the way [direction?] artistic practices understood themselves to be aimed. It was the point that by not having a fixed container, what we’d now call a white cube, you still work with that kind of spatiality, a lot of curatorial endeavors and what happened in these unhoused buildings or in yet-to-be-opened larger complexes and therefore the whole trend of exhibitions that started happening, in this soon to be luxurious compounds à la SOHO, etc, that was the twisting touch of evil, that then was carried by the necessity for all of these figures in the contemporary art field, producers, curators, critics artists to really make themselves sustainable. There were that couple of years when you had exhibitions that were sponsored or funded by real estate companies and SOHO of course opened the ground literally for it by having the first collection of public art installed in the first SOHO, the SOHO in Xien Tai Xun [?] that actually was curated by Ai Wei Wei. He had public sculptures sprinkled throughout the complex. So that was a couple of years that really saw some sort of a trend, so it did create a little bit of a language, but also because there was a lack of other outlets where things could happen.

D: When did you stop having your own firm? [52”10]

We stopped working two years ago more or less, 2011 or 2012. Now is the third phase, the job that I’m doing now.

N: At a certain point, this realization kicked in that the illusion, the myth that we’re collectively aspiring to is over, the moment is gone. I felt it too – rents went up so I decided I was going to go. Who stayed, who went, what was the driving force at that point when that initial group left… When the myth started to show cracks, when the bubble burst? [52”50]

I think there is a little bit of a generational factor in this whole thing, to this whole story. People that were involved at that time, the people that needed to make their own decisions were also at a moment in life when it was natural to [progress] to the next stage. For the early generation of people – artists in particular – it was about getting into a more professionalized artistic career, getting a bit more instrumentalized by the system. Therefore you had to go and play the game you have to play. For others it was going and filling in the blanks in terms of the places they wanted to get to. It’s really a generational issue. I came here when I was just out of school, so for me it was thrilling to be involved in all these community of people that I researched and wrote about. That was a moment I think when different scenarios were starting to shape up, and it’s really because of this course of professionalization and the so-called big evil of the creative industry, the lingo of the creative industry that started to kick in forever. But the problem is that I think the art field played as a sort of substratum to it. Everything that started to develop or take shape during the mid 2000s, it was really going into much broader, farther directions. I think that also critical discourse needed to acknowledge new forces, new intellectual forces that were hailing from other fields as being equally critical or attentive to their own surroundings, the changes that China was going through.

So that energy, the energy of the so-called outcasts that motivated artists back in decades, the will and desire to find spaces then started being a problem that other kinds of constituencies had, and that was the moment when we founded the studio, it was literally like that. I mean people were working in completely different fields, and there was the first generation of people who started graduating, there was a younger generation of architects, then designers, people who were coming back from their studies abroad, they were sort of starting to come back and try to find that space. Again, economical opportunity was looming large.

D: Now you’re talking about the mid-2000s? But then those people didn’t end up in 798 – so where did they end up then? [57”20]

Yes, 06. [They ended up] anywhere else in the city. That kind of geography is completely different. I think it also comes with the fact that allegedly also as a problematic factor in this is that it didn’t have any legacy to start with and to work with. These are literally individual atoms that were part of a bigger picture but that didn’t really have a kind of centre to gather around, or mission to follow. So it was literally quite individualistic.

N: Would you say they had their own world, their own identity these kind of satellites? [58”30]

Yes, but of course, that was the moment when these kind of alternative other geographies started to surface so you had all these series of projects and events around music and alternative sound art and then you had the design crowd who started to surface… Ou Ning… These are latecomers into the game. For example I think that now the real driving intellectual force in China comes from architecture, I think that the real potentially provocateurs or those that really should come up with their own conscience and own role into the making of a position, or a case for, or contextualizing the changes that China is going through comes from that professional group of people. Art never had that force, it never had felt it had that mission, and it will never have that power.

D: Is that a bit cynical / N: Maybe the grass is greener on the other side? / D: Do you say the opposite thing to artists?! It’s sad that you say art is powerless in that sense…[1 hour]

But it is. This is what I believe, this is also why I got involved in what I’m doing now, because I see the true potential of what I’m doing now and the forces that is sort of trying to corral, a real agent of change. I think that art here has completely exhausted its own chances.

N: Some might say bubble gum art…

D: In a way it’s also sad. The fact that you say that art is powerless and exhausted, was it always like this, was it always like this, even in the heyday of 798, let’s say 02 to 06 [1”01”45]

N: When did it happen, what was the pivotal moment?

Even at the time it was just a game for a limited number of insiders. The game that was played in the early heydays of 798 was just for a niche of people. It was important to of course solidify a common front for people that wanted to understand, give an interpretation of their own times. So yes, for sure it was a genuine expression of what was going on. I’m not saying that it never had a force – it did – but I don’t think it had a force for a change, I don’t think it could impact the public realm, that’s for sure.

D: But what Wei Wei is doing has impacted, and he’s perhaps one of the people who has impacted to the maximum tries to give impact to what he’s doing.

But Wei Wei is voicing his own perception and opinions

D: But that’s what art is about isn’t it?

Yes, but it’s one man in what? You can’t make one case for art having the power to change things.

N: Very early on he was completely adverse to being part of 798, he never wanted to enter the area. [1”03”43]

Wei Wei never participated in any collective or public appearance or manifestation of what the art world was doing at the time. I mean, he was barely coming to the openings of CAAW! He would come at the very beginning at around 2pm when we started openings at 3, he would come early, see the thing up and then leave. At the CAAW! I mean, of course there were exceptions, and of course, his house was always filled with people. He created other temporal contexts for that dialogue to happen but it was and has always been an insiders game. If anything, yes it’s true, the power of art has changed something. It has changed a big lot of the city that was the home of workers and factories into a Disneyland.

I mean, you can walk in and out of 798 and have nothing left of you.

N: There are still some five or six decent galleries that bring content at an international level...

It really depends on what you mean by defining impact, how far you want the echo to reach and what is the weight of public impact. If public impact is changing the mind of one person, I agree, it can be enough. Public impact, I’m not sure. It’s impact for sure, but public impact? It’s something else. Again, of course there are exceptions, and it’s very chivalry [?] what the UCCA and Ullens are doing and I’m behind these ventures. But I think there was a gap quite early on when the destiny of 798 got completely out of the hands of those who thought they could do something truly with it.

D: When was that moment? [1”06”40]

I think pretty much in the beginning when the management of 798 took over at the level of incoming spaces, galleries, etc.

N: And taking over the festival

Yes, true. And that was ‘04 or ‘05 I think. The last edition of the DIAF, the transinternational art festival that really mattered was ‘04/ ‘05, so it was back then.

D: This brings us to your work now, the impact of what events can do, and maybe that also relates to the public impact. How can events like Dashanzi International Art Festival, how could they impact public ideas back then and do you see a continuous line to what you’re doing in Dashilar and how it can change a community [1”08”00]

I think the Dashanzi art festival was literally the last pump that they were trying to give to the area, to still make it an artistic endeavor, owned by the artistic crowd. That was really the last attempt to claim ownership of the spaces by the artistic community but it was clearly taken over by much larger and imposing forces. Sadly, I don’t really think it left any legacy in that sense. It was momentous and it was visceral at moments and anyone that invested in it was completely in it, was convinced and was engaged. But it didn’t create any legacy.

D: We had this club in Amsterdam called the Roxy which I never visited actually I think it was happening in the ‘90s then it burned down in ‘99 and it was the place for fashionable people to go, the best DJs in the world, the best to party in Amsterdam basically. Then the place burned down and there was nothing left at all apart from memories, there was no legacy at all. It feels like this a little bit, is it comparable?

Yes, I think so. It’s totally a reflective nostalgia.

N: Nostalgia is a legacy, it’s actually a very powerful legacy.

Yes but it’s a longing. It’s always just reproducing the vestige of something that was. It never goes beyond the memory. It creates a reflective phenomenon that’s always consumed on the debris of something leaved, of something that happened before. It’s never a projective force: it’s always either reflective or restorative. It always longs on itself. Nostalgia means the desire to go home. So there is nothing productive in it.

N: I really like this way of looking at this moment the way you put it – initially it was a sort of rescue operation the Dashanzi International Art Festival to kind of kick-start that art community and because its initial success, after the co-opting of the entire area, really an ironic, brutal twist of fate. But I need to remind everyone that we have a serious agenda for these interviews. This was setting the stage. What we should be discussing is your role, your ambitions in your current role and how that relates to the larger ambition of China producing these kinds of creative industries, and when they launched that term in 2006 that was very much in correlation with the end of this kind of whole phenomenon. But we should shift gears a little bit towards the current and the future. The magazine is focused on the creative industries in China and how they could be nurtured, what are the tools, you are the one that has introduced new tools, new mechanisms, new ways of thinking about collaborations that could initiate these creative industries. Describe what you found when you entered this position – was it how we say in Dutch a ‘ready made bed’ or was it a messy bed that you had to forge your own tools, form your own niches, etc? [1”11”22]

Seriously! That’s not a punctual question! Suffice to say, I had an armory. I didn’t come to this as a total naïf [?]. I think the people who asked me to get involved knew that I was able to deal with the context and I came in after the second year, so pretty much the event had kind of a shape. It had a clear sort of positioning.

N: How did you find the shape of BJDW to be when you landed this job? [1”14”30]

BJDW had a very clear mission for itself as a venture. It’s the only event dedicated to design in China, in the city. And pretty much it was the only one when it came into being. So the task was pretty simple. How to make it and keep it relevant is a whole other story. The event launched in 2011, it was a novelty the first year, it was an excitement for anyone who wanted to learn and know about design in China, what’s happening in this industry, this world. The second year it made a comeback, it was welcomed whole-heartedly. The third year you have to make something out of it. And it has to be more relevant for the context than for those who expect it to be relevant for the context. So that job that switch is that moment is where I came in.

D: To make it relevant?

Yes. And I mean what happened in the first two years it was, I think, outstanding in the way they really blended it in the context, in Beijing, in the city. It was very clear and it was clear at the level of this is a governmental initiative. Design Week is backed up by the municipality of Beijing and three ministries: culture, education, science and technology so that gives you the DNA of the venture. It’s a not for profit venture, it’s not a commercial enterprise that is attempting to appropriate existing models, successful models that might hail from other realities. But then how to you make it relevant, how do you keep it a venture that really is dedicated to the field of design which was completely unnamed until 2011 more or less when it was coined the name shì jì, to actually signify design in a way that we understand it in the western world. It speaks of things other than art.

So when I came in the event was established at the level of having a structure, of having quite solid stake holders and the fact that the government is involved in this venture is pivotal to its success. I don’t want to venture into definitions about art or design, or the differences between the two disciplines, it’s already quite complex even individuating what design is nowadays. So that was the other challenge: if you want to be relevant out of a city like Beijing, a grand city, a capital city, and a city with its own legacy to live up to, then how do you interact and move within this universe by both creating the right context and right place for the locals to plug in and how to make it relevant within a larger, global – horrible word – discussion of what design is and what design does, for the 21st century? Which, by the way, are very relevant questions for contexts like these. So what I find thrilling, literally, in this enterprise is the fact that by being such a public event, an event that needs to live up to the expectations of the impact that it really has on all of the stakeholders in the field, it can be the industry, meaning producers, manufacturers, designers, architects, planners, urbanists, schools, future professionals who want to get into the field… Here you can open up the whole like history of the demographics of design students who are actually enrolling into universities which in Beijing alone might be Beijing or CAFA they double every year. So clearly design is seen as something very practical, hands on tooling for picking your own place within society or finding your own place within the market place.

But the point is then how do you negotiate, how to leverage the function and meaning of design at large within contemporary times. So Design Week, not being a for-profit venture, not a fair like we know many others to be, and acting in a field or context where there are no preconceived structures where everyone sort of has been operating in their own realm – be it educational, the market place, manufacturing – where all of these counterparts have not really been put in dialogue. So what Design Week does at large is to create a sort of dialogical space for all of these stake holders to come together and what it does exceptionally is really to mediate this top-down and bottom-up forces that truly can give meaning to the makings of design.

So this is a very endangered location in a certain way, because this mediating position it’s not one that BJDW makes because of political directives. I mean we are a governmental enterprise but we are an independent team, I mean the team that manages BJDW is completely independent. We are sort of a branch or a state-owned company which is Geng Hua [?] so we stay under that, but we do basically shape and implement the larger political directives into concrete solid outcomes. So we become this middle ground where all of these counterparts come together and the fact that we are shaped as an event which truly grows organically with the city and with the consistencies and with the spatial context of the city very much speaks of what we are doing.

D: You mention organic growth – but at the same time there is an agenda and a clear vision of what you want to achieve. Is this not a top-down venture? Is it truly organic growth do you think? [1”22”40]

Structurally it is. Beijing Design Week in itself is a construct of both: of top-down and bottom-up. It can not be considered a top-down venture because we do not execute directives as they are imposed. If you give me poetic license, it’s really about implementing potential directives. So Design Week doesn’t exist up here or down there, it exists in the middle. And I think that where the public impacts come it really is in this mediating exercise. So mediation, what it really means, putting together elements and counterparts that never had a dialogue before… It’s also a way to give a definition to what it is to work with design nowadays. So if we were trying to establish a model we would have been obsolete at the moment we tried to define it. So I mean organic growth at the level where the past three years, and it will be again with this fourth edition this year, Design Week as an organism has changed shape. It’s never really relied on the establishment or success of the comfort zone of its previous incarnations. It’s really this adaptive form of agency that I think lends us the longevity potential.

N: If you’re trying to work without a fixed format like that what kind of problems do you encounter? Trying to implement a non-profit model in a context that is really not adapted to non-profit model - people in China have been opportunistic and that’s market driven… [1”25”40[

That’s why you have to be a shape-shifter, that’s why you have to be able to not to change the subject of the conversation but the model and the format. And that process carries those that are engaging with it. So if we’re saying, as many other design weeks do, choose a model: either they are this trading ground, a very obvious fixed format – you buy square meters, you come in I provide you an audience I provide you a platform either B to B, B to C, you choose your semantics. It’s very targeted, it has targeted audiences generally ranging from two or three maximum and the third being media.

Or you are an event dedicated to the discursive life of what design is, what it does, etc, etc. But that means you’re always making it an insiders affair. You can rely on that model, you can perpetuate yourself in that way, but if you’re trying to actually turn yourself into a machine that truly conveys change and makes change possible then you need to be able to adapt, you need to be transformative. And we are talking about government, general public, insiders of the field from industry, we’re talking about institutions, the general public – Beijingers – audiences at large. This adaptiveness requires a lot of energy and attentiveness to where to actually… I mean, don’t get me wrong, adaptiveness doesn’t mean change of heart. Adaptiveness is not about changing agendas or serving other people’s agendas.

N: It’s important, as we’re trying to consider these models for the creative industries across different urban areas this is one of the main questions: if you have a state initiative like BJDW how do you break free from the mold that usually IN China comes with that? Being able to set your own agenda which is going to crucial if you want to be a shape-shifter as you put it, was it already an open platform when you entered or did you have to define your own freedoms…?[1”28”50]

No, what I find challenging with Design Week is actually nurturing people’s commitment. Everyone is very much driven into this game of a) make a living with what they’re doing, and being engaged with that. What is challenging with Design Week is sort of focusing people’s attention onto what it can do for a common good. So even though we are shape-shifters in that sense we can be adaptive because we are establishing longer term basis of cooperation with the realities and contexts that we work with.

So there is this double take on it: we can afford being quick and sort of like responsive because we set common goals with the people that we’re working with, it’s setting an agenda that’s farsighted and also slowly weaving or shaping other connections to it, weaving this web. The network is not there, it’s not in place, we need to make the network. So with all of these counterparts you sort of shape long-lasting, farsighted goals and you can afford this adaptiveness, so I’m not saying this is easy. There’s a lot of struggles involved, but then if you talk about bottom-up enterprises, this is a bottom-up enterprise. Bottom-up doesn’t mean outcasts or discarded communities or constituencies. Bottom-up really is about a conversational sort of business.

D: This afternoon we talked to Phil and at a certain point we concluded that UCCA is like a Kunsthalle in that it doesn’t have its own space, its own collection, so the only thing is people, basically. I see a similarity here with the network you talk about, there’s nothing tangible, it’s all hanging in the air. [1”32”20]

But this is the crucial difference. It’s because art didn’t create a legacy for itself and a network to start from on top of which the contemporary and the now can build on. So what Design Week does now it’s actually creating this network, these spaces and the fundaments for it. So, you need to have that in place. Of course the business, the context of design, it has a lifespan that’s very different from that of contemporary art here…

D: Is that also not a big problem. We’re talking about ten years ago as if it’s like a prehistory… [1”33”30]

This is why I tell you that this is the biggest challenge that we’re having, it is a little bit different… the way that we’re trying to drive the people involved in this large system of design, the system at large, is about really getting them involved into the matter of factness of what they can do and what they should do or really questioning their action and their position and their contribution and their responsibility within the context of the city, of contemporary life. You can do that because design is much more embedded within the concrete fact of the ordinary. I’m talking really of design at large; I’m not just talking about product making. We really do very little of that in a way.

So the effort is in creating, shaping the sort of syntax of the conversation. What happened in art is that that language, that common language, an open language that could have involved different audiences was never created because it always stayed an insiders’ affair.

D: OK, being a devils advocate: Is this not a classic critique on art, that it’s not relevant, that its elitist. I mean you could say art is never popular and when it is, perhaps that’s the moment you should start questioning it. [1”35”35]

There are a lot of artistic practices that have taken their own life – let’s start with the genealogy of institutional critique that went from there into being interventionist ventures that spanned the commercial and cooperate sphere, that’s an affair from the ‘70s down through public art, or…

N: But what about the public. I’m thinking of you operating as a government institute – are you facing criticism while building this network from people who consider you either a mouthpiece as a worst scenario, or simply having an agenda that isn’t open for discussion? When you try to build all these connections, do people experience that as dealing with a government entity, or do they see it as this loose fit ambition growing between individuals?

I think it’s very mixed, it’s both. Our success, what defines a successful enterprise so far, it’s always refracted by the picture at the end of the day that we get from the higher hands, of our public soul, the public figure. Meaning that we could be a very successful enterprise even just being a private enterprise. Meaning we run it as an independent event, you do it, you have customers, audiences, etc, people who come in and pay for a ticket, and you generally judge the success of things like that.

We are completely free: no one needs to pay a cent to be part of BJDW, no one needs to pay a fee, no one has to pay to access the platform, but for the relevance of the contribution they make to the platform. So again, it is quite laborious because at the end of the day is a one-to-one, person-to-person kind of system, so that’s why we do have different outlets for different kinds of conversations to happen. Yes, we need to satisfy the public at large, the very general public, as well as insiders of the system. So we have a lot of areas, of mouths [?] to take care of, but at the end of the day, we remain meaningful as far as people keep on questioning our role. So yes, we indeed have this refraining mechanism – and don’t forget, us being a public venture and partly governmentally-funded – the government provides us with fund but this is just enough to run our daily operations, anything we do, any new initiative that we want to launch we have to find ways to sustain it. So we just passed the three years benchmark which means we have passed the start up phase. In any good enterprise, if you pass that mark then it means you are ready to move on your own. So for now we have been sort of, we’re still persona grata in terms of the larger Beijing political agenda, but it really depends… we drive it, we set the goal, we define our mission, our role, what we can do. And then it’s completely our responsibility if we fail in delivering it.

N: There’s a very beautiful concurrency with the non-profit style of UCCA. Let’s talk about Dashilar, how these kind of ventures shape the city – bottom-up development, creative industries, how do you do it? [1”41”00]

In pain… that’s how we do it! No, don’t quote me like that!

N: This is at the heart of this particular magazine. I don’t want to let’s say brush over the most interesting parts. You’ve initiated a moment in Dashilar with some other people that we followed as well that have ingredients in terms of ways of operating that I think we will need as tools for not only 798 but for creative industries around China. In a nutshell – summary – what happened with DSL, how did it start?

The story started ten years ago. We cooperated with the governmental developer and the local district authorities with is Xicheng district. This has happened since the beginning of BJDW. They had a vision, they had a desire to implement a different take, a different scheme of development of revitalization for the area that could survive on the side of the whole problem of the [check: 1”44”00] in other parts of the city that proved completely unsuccessful. So this already started many years ago. The role of BJDW was that of basically of bringing in visions, the visions of a professional crowd that could literally help them implement this scheme that they had set for themselves.

Of course in the beginning for an event like Design Week it was the thrill of being in an old part of town. What we have solidified from last year is to create this long term perspective. So if you really want to emplace change or to slowly get into that human-driven process of transformation then you really need to set your goals a little bit farther up. An event per se can’t do much for an area, you don’t achieve anything in one week, you can’t just parachute things in and think that they’re going to enlighten people with your presence there. So, instead we formalized a slightly clearer agenda it was very punctual, well defined interventions, contributions that could be made either around critical issues that interested the areas which mostly could be subsumed underneath the architectural preservation and conservation and then the whole agenda of serving… The implementation of programs or projects that could basically help the local resident community make a transition into formally better living conditions.

So it’s a very pragmatic contribution the one that we’re making. What we provided was the methodology and the vision for it. So they did have, in a way, a goal, they just didn’t have the instruments and the goals to achieve it and this is what we provided: a methodology, in a way the format… In a way Dashilar is kind of conversational piece, what is going on: this is completely it. The counterpart… what we are doing with the local counterparts there is to shape these environments, so involving the local community, the local residents – the historic community there with all of its background, the legacy that it’s carrying forward – together with others that are [offering] a degree of responsibility as professionals towards the life and sort of the preservation of a living environment like Dashilar.

So what BJDW can bring is not only a degree of awareness to the context and reality of Dashilar, as by the way, an historical district that BJDW didn’t really have to do anything for. Dashilar has been there for 600 years, we didn’t have to make it up! But I think it created actually a specific place and moment and, if you want, a target for all of these conversations and issues of heritage and conservation of preservations, of community participation that had no other platform or ground to really be addressed. So the point was in a way creating a target space for all for all these issues to have a confluence so Dashilar is a very specific case of course, and it’s very unique in Beijing and I think unique at large in many big cities in China. But there was no political agenda behind making Dashilar, or the case of Dashilar as how we’re talking about it now… We sort of made an agenda for Dashilar. The agenda for this case came about because of this collaboration.

D: What I perceive is that this grassroots development, you really invented an agenda for this area and then you implemented it? [1”49”40]

Yes, and it slowly filtered up and it matched certain larger expectations.

D: But is this not post-rationalizing it?

We are in the middle of it, so there’s no post-rationalizing it. This is different. We are not talking about a conservation with a sort of projected, reengineered kind of past. The past is there, and very vocal about itself.

D: Is there an end vision that you’re projecting? In five years time where do you want to be, what’s the agenda for 2020?

I don’t think the agenda for BJDW is about making one for Dashilar. Design Week is a tool-making process; it’s not about creating products. We are not creating an agenda for Dashilar; we’re advising what course it could take. But at the end of the day I cannot set the tone of this conservation because it’s not just about those who involved in making the agenda of design.

D: Is this a role that events should have? An event that influences the city, that is to say, the biggest lasting legacy that humans have? [1”51”45]

I agree: we’re doing something exceptional. Or we are attempting to…

N: You’re succeeding, we’re here in the midst of it.

Yes, we are successful. That is why I think that models don’t work, they cannot work, they wouldn’t work anywhere.

N: What kind of tools?

I think that here in China we’re really starting from groundwork. I think simply said it’s… it’s to give a meaning, or shape to the role that design can play, at large, in the city and in contemporary society. Be that of furnishing homes or making better public environments for citizens or questioning the way professionals partake in shaping a voice and an intellectual stance for a city like Beijing.

This is another crucial element and this is something I faced when I was working on the exhibition for the Venice Biennale. We were asked why are you doing this, what is the aim of the show, what is the show communicating? And the point was we were not making up an exhibition that was a representation of something; it was purely presentational, purely gathering a set of case studies, at the end of the day, that spoke by of the status of what’s going on in Beijing.

So the thing is, if you were asked, what projection is coming out of the contemporary context of a city like Beijing – you know, big – [of] what predicaments does Beijing speak [of] contemporary lines? It’s an interesting conundrum. Can you make a synthesis of this reality, of what this as a case study is producing, is partaking in a larger global conversation of the shape of future urban contexts? Who are the people who are advocating their voices into it, what are they saying? What are the responses to the very specific challenges that these contexts are posing to these various disciplines?

The exhibition in Venice tried to use a very specific case study to show how minimal interactions are fundamental in shaping this intellectualism. [] What I mean is it is about… What also stays within the pocket of BJDW is actually really tiny, small-scale forms of interaction with the context. It’s really about the small scale, it’s not about grand receipt [?], Design Week is not a stage for design to put on its best outfit, it’s really the backstage, it’s the rehearsal of design. It’s the making and questioning…

D: How did you perceive this year’s Venice main exhibition or theme, the idea of fundamentals? [1”56”50]

I enjoyed it very much. First time I felt I was not at a Biennale. People were civilized, there was no kind of distractions, or forced derailings from the real matter of the whole thing. So this completely self-submissive attitude à la Rem completely worked fantastically. I totally enjoyed it.

For that matter, I think the Chinese participations which were three this year – us, Monica & Bert and the Chinese pavilion, they complemented each other perfectly. If you look at these three exhibitions to make a case, a presentation of what is going on in China nowadays, they are perfect, the perfect three chapters of a little manual of the contemporary. I think that China was at its best at this year’s biennale.

Posted by Daan Roggeveen / 34.6 months ago / 1364 hits

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