Interview Philip Tinari

Philip Tinari, director UCCA, 798 Art Zone
24 July 2014 / Time Zone 8
Interview Daan Roggeveen / Neville Mars
Transcript: Frances Arnold

D: Let’s begin with how you arrived here and how you came to be engaged with contemporary art in China

I went to university in the States – Duke – and studied Chinese amongst other things, came here and curated an exhibition as part of my thesis project on contemporary Asian art. I Came here in 2011 one week before 9/11. I came here to study a year of intensive Chinese at Tsinghua but was getting involved in the contemporary art scene during that time. The first exhibition I went to in Beijing was a collection of sculpture by Ai Wei Wei for the very first SOHO development, so that dates me to a very specific moment! It was always that idea of art in an urban context.

After about a year of studies I was looking for a way to stay another year, apply for grad school, be productive and was starting to research contemporary Chinese art. I got know a curator called Feng Boyi over my first year here and would visit artists and shows with him. I remember very vividly calling him in August 2002 and saying, ‘I’m not going to intern in a law firm this year, I want to do something in art, what can I do?’ He invited me meet me the next day outside his office at the Wen Liang [?] building which is right at Taolongqiao [?] which is next door to where I live now in Sanlitun, right there on the third ring road. So I showed up and we got in the car of Sui Jiangguo.

…Neville arrives…

We got in his car and drove what felt like a very long route out to the fringes of city and of course it was to 798. The back story there is that he was really the first artist to have a studio here in ‘98 or ’99, he was then the chair of sculpture department at CAFA. He and had designed a monument to the anti-Japanese war for Lugou qiao, the Marco Polo, bridge outside of Beijing. It was giant statuary, and he needed a big space to make it. The design had been approved by the government and he had to execute. That’s how he first came here, to the space where Tang and Continua are now. Then it kind of snowballed. In 2002 and 2001 you had Li Xianting and Qiu Zhi Jie’s [?] short-lived magazine in the space that later became the basketball courtst that later became Hong Huang’s magazine empire. Robert came exactly to this space, first for the offices of his website. This was the Muslim cafeteria of the compound. He was first here for his office, then the book store. This building and the ways it’s changed is an incredible index of the transformation.

But that summer, 2002, interesting things were happening because of Huang Rui who had just come back from Japan and brought with him the interest of this Tokyo gallery. It was basically one of these Gutai galleries right after the war, but the son of the guy who started it, Tabata [Yukihito] had been in Beijing and saw the ’89 show and had this deep interest in Chinese contemporary. So they put this thing together where they took a lease where part was Huang Rui’s studio and part was the gallery. There still there in that same place.

And that was it. I remember very specifically, they’d asked Feng Boyi to curate the show, and I was 22 years old, I didn’t really have anything to do. I just wanted to learn, so I sort of attached myself to him, translated the catalogue and worked on the editing. That show opened October 12 2002. In a way that was kind of landmark day for 798, because I think 1,000 people showed up at the opening. I remember going in August with him, we went to see the space as it was being renovated, I remember Robert coming along…

The epicenter at the beginning was the corridor kind of in between At Café. That was the beginning, that’s what gives you an original sense. You can access UCCA from there, there was Xu Yong’s space – he got kicked out later, but he was another very early person. There was a short-lived bar – Vibes – that became part of UCCA, we rent out that space to someone else now. They used to have these crazy fetish parties. Then there was that other building over the other side, there was Zhao Bandi and a few other artists there. Then where At Café is – it actually opened about seven or eight months later in Spring of ’03 – but Chen Lingyang was there on the second floor, or Ma Yan was across the way. Zhang Li – the curator – was Chen Lingyang’s boyfriend who was also the manager of the Tokyo Gallery… It was that little tiny cluster. Even to come here [Time Zone 8] felt a little bit peripheral, it was effectively a zone within a zone.

D: Was there a collective notion then? [6”50]

Yes, a small one. I remember taking Erik Eckholm who was the New York Times correspondent at the time here for the first time. He was an amateur photographer and taking all kinds of pictures. He got a story published in the Times in December 2002, I think that was the first foreign report on 798. Already then there was the whole subtext of real estate prices rising, of SOHO in Beijing, that whole narrative was already there...

Huang Rui was the leader of the whole thing, cult the personality of 798, pointing out all the German designs and talking about how he’d always wanted to work here. I went back to the States in ’03 to go to Grad School, but by Spring you already had a critical mass. There was a show the weekend right before SARs was admitted in Beijing and it was supposed to be called ‘Reconstruction 798’. The coined this title but they clashed with the factory people who said you can’t say you’re rebuilding 798, it already exists! So they had to go and tape over the number 798 on all the posters! That’s partly why it was called the Dashanzi art district from ‘03 to ‘06. The 798 name didn’t come back until the government got involved and reclaimed it and rebranded it, but there was this time when you just couldn’t call it that. It was a very Chinese thing to happen.

Even at that point, in spring of ‘03 there was a kind of tenants association that would hold these meetings where people would come together, sit down and discuss problems and issues. It was a real mix of artists, people like Robert, a couple of galleries but not really very many yet, Hong Huang… it was the next year when people like Hou Yong came and took her loft, ……. Or that guy from Microsoft, David Ben Kay, those kind of lofty people… Then you had some magazines: obviously the whole lifestyle and fashion media was developing immensely at the time; before they were in a very primitive spot at the time. By the end of ‘02, Lu Jie had moved in, Li Song Song took a beautiful studio on that corridor which he still has, Chen Wenbo, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu… So summer of ‘03 until fall of ‘03 when the Beijing Biennale happened - it was the only good one, and there was all this offsite stuff happening here. In fact in the UCCA space Rong Rong and Enli had a show there, and there was a Sino-German show there called ‘Left Hand/ Right Hand’. Architecturally speaking, we’re really the jewel in the crown of 798. Just if you look at a plan of 798, which is only from there to At Café, it’s that one mega-block, the rest is something else like 791, 758, 797… The name 798 actually came later, it was first called Joint Factories 718 and then they split it up.

When Zhou Enlai did the opening ceremony this building – this five-storey walk-up – wasn’t here, but the dais was set up right here, facing that way. It was this cluster and then the Pace cluster, and you can see that all the stuff inbetween is kind of shittier…

D: There was a tenants association, people would discuss practical things, but would they also discuss content? [11”15]

The first interpretive framework you had for the cluster at least in terms of an art context is the whole history of art villages in China. Go back to Yuan Ming Yuan in the early ‘90s, the East Village in the mid ‘90s and all that extreme performance art, and then of course Songzhuang, a kind of marginalized artist community on the margins of the city. The fundamental difference [with 798] was that this was the first neo-liberal art district; the first to have foreign money from the very beginning, be it Japanese or American interventions; and it was really the first one where people were here not out some shared artistic ideology but because the space was nice, the rent was cheap, the more instrumental reasons that people generally cluster.

But at least at the beginning there was a critical mass of artists, and it did still feel like it stood for something, if only for art in the abstract. There was a squatter, settlement mentality of not wanting to let go. And of course at that time there was a widely-held idea that it would all be torn down pretty quickly.

D: Did that influence the debate?The content of the art itself, even temporarily? [13”]

I guess it influenced the kinds of exhibitions that got made – there was always this idea of this as if not a free for all, but a haven for art and artistic expression inside the city. I don’t know that it was specific to the level of particular aesthetic programmes, but on the level of art standing for something beyond art then yes, definitely.

Huang Rui from very early on has always been in this cultural revolution mentality vis-à-vis the management, so he would organize artists to not pay their rent, there would always be these things going on that actually very quickly became divisive. You should talk to Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, they lived in their space until very, very recently. I remember talking to them in 2004, the future of 798 didn’t really become clear until 2006 which was when the creative industries discourse had permeated government in China to the extent that you couldn’t get rid of it, and also of course there was the Olympics… That whole period of ‘02 to ‘05 was bottom-up rather than top-down. No one really knew...

I remember Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, came to 798 in 2004. And of course his minders in Beijing city government, in the ministry of foreign affairs were like ‘what? Where’s he going?’ So Beijing city sent a delegation to come and investigate what was going on out here. That Joschka Fischer visit was really important in terms of putting it on the government radar.

I finished my MA in ‘05 and came back in September. I was away for basically two years but I came back between the two years, so I came back in August ’03; and June, July, August of ’04, then came back in September ’05.

D: What was the urge to come back to China? [16”20]

Well, I kind of fought it for a while, I was at Harvard doing a Masters and the summer between the first and second years of the programme I was writing for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing bureau doing a journalistic job, but all my friends were still in the art world so I was out here a lot. When I finished I originally thought perhaps I’d go into the journalistic establishment but things didn’t work out that way. So I was here for a month in September, then I went back to the States for a while. I worked for Sotheby’s briefly, cataloguing their first sale of Chinese art and then came back to Beijing which is when I met Neville.

N: We met at that event at the Guangzhou Triennial at the Millennial Museum. You did an amazing job translating this weird poet… your interpretation was so much more impressive than the original Chinese. It was a long, wordy poem about prostitutes and bikes, wasn’t it? [17”30]

It was taxi drivers… these people who have random encounters in the city…

I was back and forth a lot, but [I decided to stay] late spring ‘06. The Ullens’ took the lease on this space in fall 05… that whole period Huang Rui and Berenice were at the centre of everything. They had their workshop, they did this yearly festival, in ‘03, ‘04, ‘05 and ‘06. By ‘07 he’d been kicked out, they didn’t renew his lease. He was gone.

D: The time frame, the window when things were really cutting edge…[19”10]

You could measure in months not years.

D: When did things start to change?

The first thing was the big 798 sign appearing outside the gate – that was spring ‘06. Then they named places like ‘Originality Square’ (Chuangyi Guangchang), you know, the kinds of names that only the government could come up with. And that was when they implemented the 798 management community

D: What did it look like in ‘06?

It’s hard to remember. They had to do a ton of resurfacing, plumbing, that all happened in the lead-up [to the Olympics?]. By ‘08 you had this little landscaping [low fence thing]. There are still many traces of this – in front of that Northern China Laser Institute or whatever it is down past the parking lot. You suddenly start to see graffiti on the walls, these outward signifiers…

N: Were you aware of the speed as it was happening? [21”]

The first couple of years had this tension that was everywhere. On the one hand it was this artistic enclave and studios and everyone was friends with each other, groups of artists who took studios close to each other, you’d pop round to see each other… very grassroots. And kind of before you had a real big public discourse about it. But it felt very cool – not underground, but ‘insidery’ I guess. The tensions with the factory people with the Seven Star management people – they’re still the bane of our existence at UCCA – those started to heat up. In 2004 they stopped letting cabs in, so you couldn’t get a cab here…

They just hadn’t quite figured out whether it was going to be public or not, or what was really going to happen.

N: For me a pivotal moment was the co-opting of Huang Rui’s art festival, especially the second one which was in progress as it was being taken over. The first was ’05, very minimal and obscure. It was ’06, they came in and shut it down. They heard the buzz and hung banners everywhere saying ‘798’. But he wasn’t allowed to use 798 or Dashanzi [23”]

Yeah, that was very important. I mean, he’s [Huang Rui] a very pivotal figure and then you have for example that first book about 798 with pictures of all the people. That was written in ’03, published in ‘04. Then when they wanted to the second edition in 2007 because they’d sold out of it very quickly, they asked Robert to do it but he did a separate one with the government people which was shitty on every level… but it’s a terrible book, but possibly an interesting artifact.

At the same time – ’04, ‘05 – you had a bunch of new galleries coming in, so you had White Space which was actually German at the beginning, you had Continua… White Space was, like, wow: they had poured concrete floors and clean walls, and Continua was unbelievable, so beautiful. Or Tang in 706, Long March was over there, and then in ‘05 it moved… weirdly, most of the galleries that are here and are important were here already by ‘05 or ‘06 and are kind of still here. There’s this whole myth about all those galleries shutting down after ‘08 but none of them were actually important ones. Pace right before the Olympics –that was the last major thing to open. UCCA was ‘07, Beijing Commune had been in Caochangdi but by ‘06 it was here. There was a beautiful theater that Berenice ran at the South Gate space that they tore down

N: In a matter of months I think? That felt really painful. About that specific moment, do you feel it had a significant impact in how the community was running, how it felt, the fact that the government came in and took over the whole place, hired its own art curator to overarching approach to try to lobby…
[25”40]

Yeah but they never did anything

N: They tried once

But they failed

N: I have this weird sensation that by creating this artificial schism the whole community that was loosely there fell apart…

Yeah, I mean if there was a kind of grassroots artistic thing happening that was driven by artists for more pure, noncommercial reasons and of course that collapsed very quickly. At the same time you had the rise of the Chinese art market. If you think about it ’02, ’03, ‘04 there wasn’t really a market yet, it’s much closer to the ‘90s than it is to today. There weren’t really collectors in China.

Part of it is government co-optation; part of it is neoliberal progression. Now we measure it in terms of quality – how many good galleries are there?

So that’s why things in ‘07 and ‘08 became so commercial. Part of it becoming commercial was actually one of the better trends.

D: At the moment of the increasing art market, was the community dissolved, or did they influence each other? [27”40]

I think the organic community probably dissolved – part of it was due to real estate stress, rent pressures and all that. But part of it also was probably also very clear policy guidelines. I think it stopped being possible to just rent on a very informal level as an individual, I think. I don’t know exactly when, but it’s not like they moved to really make it a place where artists as individuals would want to be.

N: We want to filter out role of art institutes and art galleries – could it be simplified as keeping core values in place and keeping qualities afloat?

That’s true, I think. I always tell people coming to 798 that there’s only really a list of five galleries worth seeing. Five galleries and then us – we’re not a gallery obviously.

N: Low end tourism and high end art living together, it’s very odd… [29”35]

That’s true. I thought your observation that people come here for an urban experience rather than for art is completely true. I mean look around – it’s really about somewhere on a pedestrian scale where you can create an orbit for yourself, punctuate that with a coffee, you can bring a stroller. That’s 100% true, there are not many places in Beijing where that happens. So then it’s about what this place means for high art for the art world. Part of it is like an industry park or incubator, so in addition to these galleries you have quite a number of related fields – art media people have offices here, for example. More importantly it stays very central – it never feels far away, it never feels a difficult place to ask people to come. That’s entirely because of its position in the city. You could draw a radius around it that would encompass CAFA to the west; and that would encompass Caochengdi which is a different urban condition but in the end a similar mix. It would encompass Hei Qiao. When we did the ‘On/Off’ show more than 50% of the work was coming from there which was like not even seven kilometres away. It would encompass CAFA, it would encompass the whole Lido area, it would encompass the Upper East Side which is where many of the more successful artists choose to live. It would encompass huge swaths of Wangjing.

So if you look at where contemporary art happens in Beijing, that’s it. Maybe it goes a little bit south towards Sanlitun or CBD; and there a little kind of indie flourishings inside the second ring road, but the west side of the city is basically that zone. If you compare to Shanghai where you have artistic pockets and clusters dispersed over a wide range of the urban topography, it’s kind of remarkable. Even NAMOC would be the western limit of where things really happen. 798 is the beach-head of contemporary art in the city, it’s the place that stands for art, the place that represents art and the urban imaginary. That’s why it continues to exist.

N: So these two worlds are independent?

They’re irrelevant to each other. These are the kinds of galleries, they don’t sell to walk-in customers; they’re in Basel or Freize system. You look at these five or seven galleries, they’re selling off of JPEGS that they email around the world. It has nothing to do with here. OK, it’s nice when people come and they have a place to go…

N: Is it an ecology? [33”20]

Yes, it’s an urban ecology, you can flick through a city magazine and it will list the places you can go. There’s kind of a middle ground, they’re not consumers of art objects but they’re consumers of culture who would read Time Out and come and see what’s going on. In that way it’s kind of like Chelsea where you do have walk-in clients because it’s NY but…

D: How has the role of UCCA developed in this kind of ecology, this situation?

UCCA started with this arrogant and somewhat unattainable vision of being the leading art museum in Asia. That’s what you read in the early stuff. But then there was this really long period it figuring itself out and pissing off various people in the process, and then coming back to being some version of that original vision, maybe not in all its glory and grandeur but still staying true to some if its core principles. Not selling the work that we show, not renting the space out for exhibitions and putting a lot of effort into cultivating a very broad public for everything that we do both in the city and globally.

And then there’s the whole positioning and communications aspect of getting it out from the absolute shadow of the founders who to be completely honest have been absurdly generous. We’re talking 80million dollars from the beginning until today on this place and its running. If we all left there would be nothing, it would fall apart. It’s a rented space there’s nothing there. They have a collection, they’ve added to it, they’ve subtracted from it – works have come and gone. It wasn’t clear in the beginning, there was a relation to the foundation, there was no existing model anywhere in China, so in terms of policy of setting something up, there was nothing. In terms of positioning it in 798 they were taking an insane risk because when they took the place and started the renovation it hadn’t really been green lighted by the government as a place.

So it ended at one point for Huang Rui and all those guys, but as much as it’s problematic and it gets worse, we rely on a somewhat larger order, a higher power. It hasn’t been torn down and we haven’t been kicked out in a really cheap way by some renegade landlord.

N: Is there still risk?

Well, we renewed our lease for six years last year. I think it would be very hard for them to kick us out, we get a slightly lower rate than some people but it’s still significant – we pay over a million dollars US a year in rent.

D: One million dollars in rent per year… how many visitors? [37”10]

This year we’re already at about 450,000 and it’s only July. Our target this year is 550,000. Last year we had about 600,000, so I mean going by seasonal dynamics I think we’ll probably hit 750,000 or 800,000 this year. [To put that into perspective] Gallerie Lafayete in Paris, the department store, is 35 million and Guggenheim is one million.

It costs about ten million dollars a year to run UCCA. Between rent, exhibitions, salaries… that number includes some of the overhead of store, like products that are bought in and later sold out, but the operating deficit is about three, which is what the family have to come up with each year. So that means we earn or raise about 7 million dollars a year through various different strategies, none of which include selling the art that we show. It’s the store which is a costly operation – in a good year it nets a million but its overall revenues are much higher, like four or five.

N: Do they own the collection [39”15]

They own a collection, but it’s in Geneva. The portrait of them they own [haning in entrance space, opposite ticket desk]… that’s the only piece that’s on show right now that’s actually owned by the Ullens. Right now we’re doing a big show with some LA artists in the fall and it’s probably a 60 piece show and ten of those pieces are coming from the foundation’s collection which we as a center actually borrow from the foundation. This Hans van Dijk show has about 40 lenders.

D. How big is the collection in Geneva, how many pieces?

It’s been in flux. At its peak, there were 1200 pieces I think it’s down to less than half that now. UCCA opened in 2007, the first few years – like many private museums – there wasn’t really much of a budget in the sense of there’s not really many limits. Then a few years in the founders and funders start to ask themselves: what are we doing here, we’re spending 8 million dollars to run a museum and people are still saying mean things about us – how do we reboot, how to we adjust? So I came in at a really critical moment in that rethinking. That was 2011 right after they decided to sell a bunch of the collection.

N: Is there a curatorial mission? [41”10]

It’s always been this idea of putting Chinese art in an international context and vice versa. We showcase the range of contemporary creativity throughout society. As a secondary mission, our public programs arm cultivates different kinds of conservations around related fields – film, design, there’s an educational aspect, a cultural exchange aspect.

N: Unique role of private museum that public institutions can’t fill?

On some level, I almost resist the idea of us as a private museum – I mean, of course we are, we’re privately owned and operated – but a so-called public museum in China is actually a party museum. We are privately-owned but utterly publicly facing. Who knows what will happen with the Long Museum or the Yuz Museum, but for the moment those are places that are committed to displaying a private collection, whereas we’re essentially a museum without a collection, we’re a Kunsthalle.

I think there’s absolutely a role for what we do. If you think of how we interact with the people who come through the door we’re not trying to convey a particular political ideology, nor are we looking at you as a potential customer, so it’s neither governmental or commercial. In that sense it’s extremely rare. Private museums in China have a huge role to play because they’re tolerated and YET they’re not actively committed to propagating a state discourse.

D: I find it interesting that you say if the people would leave then nothing would be there… [43”50]

We run this place certainly year-to-year, sometimes it even feels month-to-month. There’s no state funding of course, not that we would necessarily want it because of course that would come with a lot of directives, but there’s no endowment, it’s year to year still with pretty significant reliance on the family’s generosity, still in the region of 35% of the annual budget.

So I mean when we think about the endgame, we think about the institution. We’ve done things like implement a patrons’ council – we have 25 who contribute every year on a rather significant level. Could you move to a system where you changed around the governance structure where you had a core group of five or six people giving at a much more significant level that replaced the family’s contribution? And then you kept on with your earned income stream – the store, venue hire. This is another thing that makes us different from other places – we never do shows for hire. We have specific spaces in the museum where you can do a press conference, where you can even do events like TED or TEDx, a spaces where people to other things that aren’t connected to the UCCA brand.

We’re pretty clear about what’s our own public program – they’re the events that appear on posters, on our website. But between at the end of the year when people have budgets to blow and foot traffic is very low because it’s cold to leave the great hall empty for a month and have a string of fashion shows or whatever it is, that’s an important source of revenue. You find a model where you’re not compromising the core, where you’re constantly experimenting, where you ratchet things up and if it costs a little too much in terms of legitimacy then you go back. Or maybe something’s taking up too much staff time… It’s a precarious balance, it’s a high wire.

For all this talk of a museum boom in China, so few of them have sustainable models so it feels meaningful to keep this place going. We’re pioneering one set of possibilities that could be relevant to others in the future, and I think that was in a weird way part of the mission. There was a very promethean idea of bringing this model to the people, inspiring that, actually it’s kind of happened. I think we’ve created a set of experiences and knowledge that’s applicable.

D: I find it extremely exciting what you say about there being no collection, no building – all you have is people and ideas [47”30]

It’s like owning a mental space.

N: Things get even more ephemeral when you consider are on loose sand…

Yes, and yet at the same time, being in 798 is 100% essential to the whole thing because if we weren’t here no one would come, we’d have no where near the same visitor numbers.

N: It works both ways: without UCCA you’d have to question what’s left of 798.

The thing about Today Art Museum – it’s a rental hall – the thing about renting space for shows, it’s not that you have no curatorial position, it’s also because if someone else is paying you for the space then they’re going to become very short, so it just becomes a string of openings. As opposed to a show that’s up for a few months, that you programme around, that permeates into the city and that people have a chance to hear about it and come to see.

The recent show was a great example – the Ai Wei Wei incident. It meant that people heard about it and came along. Of course, that also touches on all kinds of political restrictions too…

The Today Art Museum gets 50,000 people per year, so get more than ten times the visitors. The Minsheng Museum, back when it was good, when Tie Hai was there (but then after it fell apart.) For a while it was comparable with UCCA, slightly smaller place, less of an ambitious public program but still very solid. I think their best year was 38 or 45 [thousands, visitor figures]. These numbers are not made up: we really do have closer to a million people. I don’t know what the visitor figures for 798 are, I think they’re around 3 million, that’s what the management committee says but I don’t know how they calculate that. The first part of the battle is convincing people that you’re not on the peripheral – geographically – and we don’t have to do that. Every cab driver in the city knows where 798 is.

D: Nev was based here and I was visiting Beijing. It was 2005 and we didn’t know each other so I called him up and said can I come to visit your studio. He said ‘yeah, could do, but it’s totally outside of the city, you’ll have a hard time reaching it and once you’re here you’ll never find it’. Basically don’t bother coming here!

N: Cabs didn’t know where it was… that was an issue but times have changed. I’m keen to try to figure out the relationship between 798 and UCCA. There’s a mutual benefit. You say it’s nice to be here, I say 798 wouldn’t be what it is without UCCA and some of the other big guys. That’s important as we think about the future of 798, the quality the right tenants bring in and how they can support the entire area.

I agree, and I don’t think it’s about scale either. We’re at a certain scale as a product of a certain moment and we fight really hard to keep that scale. But you could have an institution that’s just one room that’s also really high level. Quality is all that matters, it’s the only thing. If there was some way to subsidize that a bit… I’m thinking of something on the scale of some of the so-called alternative spaces in New York. You see it a little bit here with galleries like Magicians’ Space. But being a gallery is still different from being an institution. If there has to be a red line, it’s are you or are you not actively engaged in selling works of art. For me the answer is no. I mean, you can sell things around works of art, patronships, ads in an art magazines… but you’re not selling the objects.

D: On the one hand it’s crazy that your most lucrative source of income, selling – you don’t do it…[53”50]

I think that on the level of the family, there’s probably an arithmetic that happens over dinner of what it means to be involved in Chinese contemporary art. If you do the math, then the overall investment in UCCA versus the overall earnings from sales of art works they collected, it probably works out. It’s also not as if they couldn’t have earned what they earned if they hadn’t done this.

N: How could you begin to create a climate that’s attractive to these kinds of institutes? Some might argue that the hype is over and that 798 is already past its prime.

I think a renewal is urgent, I think it could very quickly further disintegrate.

N: Is it past its prime?

Well, this comes back to the question of whether it’s an urban trend or a real cultural institution in itself. I mean is the Met or the MoMA past its prime? I mean, Soho is past its prime, or rather it’s transformed into something for people from New Jersey as opposed to artists…

D: So is 798 for the New Jersey people of China or is it… [57”]

Yes. The other thing we can’t forget is that we’re getting the subway like 500m away from here next year. That’s going to be a game changer that could increase our visitor numbers in the region of 50% It’s still not the easiest place to get to for those people who aren’t driving cars, and who aren’t taking taxis. It’s going to be massive actually. I find it interesting that you could drive along the street outside and simply not realize that you’re in front of the art district. Isn’t that weird? It’s like it’s from another time. It’s the same as it was ten years ago where as here has gone through six cycles or so. I mean you even have the same few restaurants. You have all these unified signs that were put up before ‘08, before that they were whatever they were. Now they’re just broken plastic signs with made up names of a store that just sells potatoes...

In the neighborhood you have WBP [?], that Minsheng thing that was supposed to happen but didn’t, you have that whole Indigo East scenario down there. Across from the Lido there’s the Yanxiang hotel [?] that used to be a key Chinese hotel that’s been torn down … they’ve built a new hotel, the land is owned by Beijing Tourism Group or whatever. It’s a new hotel brand called Muo which is a six star Ming minimalist concept. The first one is in Beijing then they’re going to build them in Rome, Paris and London for Chinese. Isn’t that amazing? It opens next year.

This whole area transforms but then the pedestrian perimeter of 798 doesn’t. There’s also a whole sort of tech thing going on back there… And you also can’t forget… Get a map of Beijing from the ‘50s or ‘60s and you see this area basically from here down to Indigo and it was like an orange. It was already a special administrative region in the city that was basically a tech zone before there was such an idea. That’s why if you drive down Jiuxianqiao Lu [?] you see all these monstrous, beautiful Soviet industrial buildings like the Jiao Wei Hua Dong [?], and a lot of early, very primitive dengwei [?] housing over to the east. There’s even a movie theater in one of those compounds that they use for period film shoots because it feels like an auditorium from the early days of the Peoples Republic. I mention this because that was the time that Beijing started the second ring so you had miles and miles of countryside between here and the city and this was already industrial. The Dashanzi traffic circle that stopped being a circle in ‘07 or ’08, where the subway will go, that traffic circle was kind of the marker that you half way from the city to the airport. Where that overpass is, that was the airport road, it kept going out. Even going back 50 years it was somehow a key location to the city.

N: Richness you describe, diversity of programming, functions. Is it acknowledged now? That could means heavy-handed proposal again? They’re working quite hard on the north side. As we understood, the success of that is refreshing and easy for them, but the complexity of 798 is bogging them down…That’s what we’re working on. For UCCA or even you personally, what could the area be doing better, to make it more comfortable?

Well, it’s kind of ridiculous that we’re not a little bit subsided rent wise, or controlled or able to… We had to fight so hard just to renew for six years with a five percent increase after three. I mean, why shouldn’t we be able to have a 20 year lease? I feel like we’ve good faith proven that we’re contributing. But the land decision makers and the ideology decision makers are not the same people and that’s the core. That’s the tension around so many problems.

D: That was clear in first workshop – there are people who want to nurture and build on legacy and people who want to increase FAR (sqm) of real estate. [1”03”30]

People talk about [the fact] that it’s overly commercialized, but it’s commercialized in such a cheap way. I mean if non profit art spaces aren’t going to make it … We’ve talked to the Goethe Institute people about bringing their programming arm here, and I think they finally figured out how to do it, but it took them forever. That would be to me exactly the kind of programme that you want to green light immediately. I mean, they’re politically kosher [!], it’s not a huge liability, it’s clearly funded and it shouldn’t be a risk for anyone. But it’s been really hard for them and they’ve been trying for so long.

It comes down to the same thing, of trying to deal with these managers, the Seven Star people. Even high end retail would be better than some of stuff we have here now, like concept flagship stores – like the Balenciaga or Comme Des Garcons store in SOHO. When Nike was here that was kind of cool. I’m not anti-commercial, you just don’t want to see shitty trinket shops everywhere.

N: Big brands associated more with selling out as an area. As opposed to little fluffy shops. Some students of CAFA did a survey and this messy quality is a reason to come here too for lots of people – to buy trinkets, cheap coffee.

Yeah, I mean look around – there’s no Starbucks – the rent conditions, the lease don’t pass muster with any kind of international, big corporate entity. That’s interesting, it’s as if there’s a trade barrier that keeps out big capital, big business. It’s a downfall and a salvation. Many cities would love to have an area that wasn’t so permeable [to that] but it comes down to legal protections that creates this fence. No one would come here. We do because we’re masochists but even like McDonalds you’re not going to come. They’ll stay at the gate, never come inside.

But what you don’t then have is the same independent retailers thriving inside a space that’s created. That’s a bigger problem. Compare it to the Hong Kong where land is if not overvalued than hypervalued. You look at a project like the central police station and the kinds discussions that are going into making something that feels design- or art-driven that’s going to require very controversial subsidies to make happen. You wouldn’t need that here. If you had independent businesses that were profitable enough… I don’t know, you look at absolute capitalist requirements, and they’re just not as high.

D: During the critical years of 798, what influence did it have on Chinese contemporary art? [1”09”15]

A few individual exhibitions may have left a footprint but this is not the way to think about it, I think it’s more the idea of a cluster of artists occupying physical space. Artists and art entities participated critically in the discursive establishment of a public sphere or public context for contemporary art in China. Basically the bigger meta-transition is from experimental art in the basement to contemporary art in full view, which is to say from a group of insiders who all know each other to a cultural sector that’s part of a bigger ecology. I think that 798 was really fundamental in that – not just in Beijing but also in all of China. I mean take M50 in Shanghai – M50 is the 798 of Shanghai. It’s not necessarily that the artists wanted this for themselves, but they were given this space and they claimed it and it allowed art to become visible, more public.

N: I love this idea of a trade barrier almost curating what’s here…

Why is there no Starbucks? Honestly some days you just want a coffee of which the quality you can be certain, I know it seems a strange thing to say. We have peripheral spaces in the hallway and our people at certain points have tried to talk to [Starbucks? Coffee chains?], not that we’d necessarily want it, but they say no we’re not coming!

N: Ways to reintroduce production here…

You know what could be sustainable and viable economically here and perhaps profitable? A big co-working space.

N Wouldn’t that need to be curated as well? Who would do that?

I don’t know, you could bring those people – Xin Dan Wei from Shanghai. I think that’s the kind of thing that could happen. You need someone to get in front of the government and say it should me [to curate] because they don’t have anyone better. But I agree: there should be more production here. I’m not even talking about making oil paintings let alone having a kiln or something. It would be nice to upgrade the internet infrastructure, that seems like the kind of thing a government could do.

N: Basic infrastructure, maybe shared resources…

The parking barriers were probably a good thing… everyone complained at first but it was getting to a critical point where we just getting completely overtaken by cars.

In the overall context of the city, it’s not a bad place. I don’t mind being here. It’s not exciting [as a place to work] but this is great: there’s a bunch of people here for a reason other than to do what they do every single day, and there’s an urbanism around that and that’s already pretty special in China. And they’re not worshiping some falsified version of history – they may not know exactly why they’re here, but the word contemporary probably has something to do with it. Even if you have tour groups it’s still different from standing in front of West Lake in Hangzhou or the Forbidden City or somewhere, [here] there’s something of the future.

Posted by Daan Roggeveen / 36.3 months ago / 1560 hits

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