Interview Robert Bernell

Robert Bernell
Entrepeneur, longtime 798 resident, founder of epic 798 Bookstore Timezone 8, currently owner of bar/restaurant with the same name
25 July 2014
Time Zone 8
Interview Neville Mars / Daan Roggeveen
Transcript Frances Arnold

D: Perhaps you could start with a recap: how, why and when you arrived in China, your moving from the States to here.

Well, I’m originally from Texas and I had a German Math professor who could speak Chinese. For me that was mind boggling. Keep in mind that in Texas, in 1981, I was scoring Math papers for the professor and that was my specialty: I was good at Math. Then I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! You can read this?’ I mean [at the time] Chinese was completely inaccessible, there was nothing accessible about it, and so it was fairly mind-boggling.

So he said, ‘Look, what are you doing this summer?’ So I said, ‘Oh, drinking beer, building roofs, that kind of thing’ – that’s what we did in Texas every summer. He said it was such a waste and signed me up to the Mandarin training center in Taipei in 1981. He said all you’ve got to do is get your old man to pay for your round trip airfare! So that was my first initiation. I spent three months working pretty hard on characters, the language – looking back I knew absolutely nothing, but at the time to be able to write a few characters, or pick up a newspaper and understand at least some of it, it was the tip of an iceberg.

For me it was fascinating, a mystery that hadn’t been truly unraveled, so I pursued it. Two years later, I took on a Chinese language major and then I got my Masters later in Chinese Literature. Of course that’s a very ‘useful’ qualification to have… after graduating I found myself completely unemployable! I graduated from Stanford in ‘88, but a lot happened between those years. I went to Nanjing – my first time in China – in 1985 and there encountered Hans van Dyck, he was in my dormitory, right upstairs. He was going to the Nanjing Art Academy every day and I was going to the Jiangsu Academy of Chinese Painting. There was a critic [there] who was [writing a paper] about Chinese ink painting. In it, he declared the end of ink painting and so I helped him translate that from Chinese into English. I was fascinated by the idea that Chinese painting was coming to an end, the quandary that the culture was in at the time.

For Hans, he was most excited about the experimentation that they were doing, the young artists in the studio. For me, it was more about the theory and the cultural aspect of ink painting and what was happening to ink painting at that particular point in China.

So I went back to Stanford and got my degree and then came out here with Motorola – that was 1991. I graduated in ’89 and then set up a small PR firm with a friend of mine from Stanford. We did technology marketing on a project-by-project basis for Silicon Valley companies. Then I went to Hong Kong to explore the possibilities of developing an office there, and when I approached Motorola they said, ‘We’ll pay you a lot more than you could probably get otherwise, Come and work for us we’ll give you a nice house, expat everything’. So I worked for Motorola in their business development and marketing office. That was ‘91.

D: How did that continue? When did you move on from Motorola?

I worked for Motorola until ‘95 and they sent me to China in 1993 – to Beijing. I was the Senior Operations Manager for the Cellular Infrastructure Group, so I was fairly high, but that was just a reflection of the fact that there were so few people who could communicate and who could at least memorize the technical specifications. I couldn’t have fixed a cellular base station but I memorized the specifications and I could make a good sales pitch and coordinate between engineers to get them come and install systems.

D: And then in ‘95, what happened then?

I was head-hunted by a venture capital company and we invested a lot of money in Unicom, about US$100 million. I was just living the expat life, there was a lot of travel, a lot of drinking, a lot of eating… when I look back I was really fat. When I first came to China, even when I was first at 798 I was still kind of fat. That was a life of excess!

So in 1997 the venture capital company was bought by John Kluge, the fourth richest man in America, and he gave us all a nice handshake, a nice package and I said ‘Great!’

So I was able to do a website called Chinese-Art.com. It was based on ArtNet.com, the German thing. And it got really big, really fast. The idea was to make it big, get an investor and possibly down the road take it public – that’s what they did with ArtNet.com. That’s what bought me here. I had an office of ten people – designers, researchers, translators and we were reporting, maybe 500 pages a month of material on contemporary Chinese art. Then we expanded into traditional art. I got a great PhD student to handle the traditional stuff.

D. That was the moment you entered 798?

Well, we ran out of space in the office environment and we didn’t have much money. We were running on my savings basically. So, we were looking for a cheap place with lots of space. I must have looked at about 20 factories around Beijing and that was the idea – all we needed was electricity, an ADSL phone line and some water, that’s all we needed. Of course, China had won the Olympics at the time so there was this whole movement of factories out of Beijing, past the fifth ring road.

So I figured this was the time to find a factory space. So we came to 798 and…

D: What was it like then? When you arrived?

It was very quiet, not a lot was happening. Most of the spaces were in disrepair. There was a consulting agency down the road, he was here. He took a space, painted it white, but really left it as it was and it was beautiful. I thought it was fantastic, exactly what I wanted to do. I kept walking into his office, then I brought Ai Wei Wei and said, ‘Can you help me design it’.

D: How did you know Ai Wei Wei?

Oh, I’d been doing Chinese-Art.com for many years and reporting on everything. He was doing architecture and so I said ‘What shall I do, design-wise?’ He came and said ‘Leave it exactly as it is!’ This was the Muslim canteen. They’d punched a hole through the ceiling and ran a charcoal pipe, and everything was Halal, all the windows were broken, there was oil all over the walls… He said don’t do anything! Leave it exactly as it is! But I said ‘It’s the oil – I can’t deal with the oil’. He said no! There’s a way you can treat it, cover it up, but you’ve got to leave it. He said do a Dan Flavin light about half a meter down from the ceiling - expose the rafters and do a Dan Flavin! That’s all you need to do!

But I couldn’t do it, so I painted the walls! I couldn’t deal with the oil. My accountant at the time was the wife of Cang Xin [is this correct?], the performance artist. If you know performance artists, they don’t do much. I mean for about six months, they drink – a lot – and socialize, and then there’ll be a performance. They’ll do that and drink again for six months. Cang Xin is very good at that. Every night he’d organize artists to go out for Mou Tai and beer and some really cheap street food and I would always tag along. But he’d come here first and pick up Xiao Li [wife, later fashion designer]. There were a lot of artists – Huang Rui, Xu Yong, basically all of the artists that came originally, Cang Xin brought them out.

He would bring people. I’d often be sat in the back, you know, typing and tell them that I’d be along later, that I had to get my work done. Cang Xin and his wife, however, were very crucial. They brought people in and they’d talk to them. Cang Xin’s wife would introduce people, negotiate, get contracts from He Xiao Ming [?], the person who was working for Seven Stars at the time and renting to all of us – on the sly. I mean, it was really a very official/ unofficial kind of relationship. You had to meet Xiao Li and then she’d introduce you to He Xiao Ming who’d then work all of the back channels to get the necessary stamps, but no one higher up knew this was happening at the time.

The money started rolling in and then the people at the top gave him a kind of commendation for his contribution. I mean they had 10,000 people on the dole, unemployed, you couldn’t pay these things, so He Xiao Ming was really doing them a favor by bringing in this much-needed rental income. It wasn’t much, but it was a lot more than they were making at the time.

[Not for the record, but he was certainly taking some money under the table… Remember this was a military factory…]

He got all of the artists in.

D: Was there an agenda do you think?

Nah, it was instant, it was like blitzkrieg. It happened so fast. I signed my contract in December 2001 and I think by April, Huang Rui was in, Xu Yong had signed… The whole back row – all the studios had signed. When was Huang Rui’s opening for BTAP? It was April or May or June… Then that happened and it was all over – suddenly 700 artists from all around Beijing knew about 798 and that it was really cheap and really cool. So before they could rent it out to anyone else, the artists snapped it up. It happened super fast.

D: You’re saying that happened in months? How many moved here?

[In terms of] Studios, not many, I would say 12 or 15 maximum. This is the common misconception: people say that it’s not the same as it used to be, that all the artists have moved out. I mean, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are still here.. [but] not a lot of them. So 12 moved out: it’s not like there was a mass exodus.

And when they moved out they kept their leases, so they used it as a kind of foothold. When a collector would come over from Holland or somewhere they’d be like ‘Oh, meet me at my studio in 798’. So it was kind of a warehouse space for private showings and late night drinking sessions. And I think at that point, very quickly maybe within a year or 18 months, they were all very wealthy. All the artists had made a lot of money.

And so that’s the other misconception, the other myth – that they moved out because the rent was too high. Not the case! They were number one, very wealthy; and number two, they didn’t forfeit their leases. They kept their leases. But it probably wasn’t a good place to work because there were always people knocking at the door.

D: You mentioned these 12 to 15 studios, but the community was bigger. How did it work?

Well the galleries did shows, much like now. Today is just a larger, amplified version of that particular time. The artists would come and start planning shows. Huang Rui was instrumental in this. In 2004 he did the Dashanzi International Art Festival, but bear in mind that was a year in the planning. Whenever there was a meeting the artists would come and meet with him, there was an office here. Huang Rui and I were working on a book – ‘798: Reflections on Art, Architecture and Society in China’ – that Neville wrote for. I handled the English and Huang Rui handled the Chinese. It was a really important book, it was great. Neville wrote a great piece, also Jonathon Napack, someone who also wrote books for us and is a brilliant writer about contemporary art worldwide. He wrote for ArtForum, Art Review and Art in America regularly. So all of these guys wrote. Huang Rui wrote something…

D: When did you open the bookshop?

Over and over, all of the artists kept saying the same thing to me. We had Chinese-Art.com so all of these people would come in and offer us a lot of materials, 500 pages or so a month. I’d been publishing since 2002, my first book was in 1999 but we’d been publishing officially and funding book publications since 2002.

The artists were unimpressed. With the books. It’s true: they said we know more about contemporary Chinese than you will ever know, Robert. But what we don’t know about is Western art, architecture and design. You’d really be doing us a favor if in the front room where you display your books, if you’d also display publications from around the world. I asked Huang Rui at the time: 600rmb a time is a lot of money, are people really going to buy this? He said absolutely – there’s a long tradition of collecting books in China and if it’s good quality then 600rmb is no problem.

And sure enough, every single book I brought in sold and it evolved into a very large enterprise that I think it was close to Phonics [don’t think this is correct…] book store in Köln in terms of the rollover, the turnover and the number of titles. It got very big, very fast.

N: This is exchange – western culture coming back to China, the bookstore as kind of a hub…

Yes. Every day when you said what did they do when they come to Beijing [collectors?], there was this added attraction that you could go to the bookstore and have a look, a browse around. So before and after meetings for about an hour they’d browse here. They’d bump into each other and chat [artists?]

D: Were you still doing the website at this point?

2002 was the end of the website because number one, we weren’t making money so we switched to books; but number two, in 2002 there was a robbery and the robbers stole all of our computers, including the backup. All my life I’d been trained that you always have to have a backup. So I’d done that – a hard drive on another computer, thinking that viruses would be the end of me, not that someone would come in and steal everything. So to this day there are just remnants of that website which is a real shame because it’s a treasure trove, ten times larger than anything Hans did in documenting Chinese art for five years…

There’s this thing called archive.org and they backed up the entire web and they’ve got bits and pieces but all the links are broken… it’s a real shame.

D: You went from the virtual to the physical: that somehow seems like a strange reversal…

There was a lot of click and mortar talk back then. And keep in mind that 2002 was the year of the bubble. We couldn’t get any money anywhere. Even the galleries that were spending some money on banner advertising stopped that. It was like anathema: you were the enemy of the people if you were running a website at the time.

D: The community here back then – what was the atmosphere? What conversations were happening during those critical months?

N: You being here all the time is a very comfortable entry point for outside people, for people in the west, you’re like a mediator of sorts…

Keep in mind that Chinese contemporary art at the time was still very much underground and I was almost every day expecting a knock on the door saying we’re going to have to close you down. But they were really nice, they’d come and look at the books and say, ‘Look, women and children, other people who might be coming in, take this [book] and put it down here, replace it with this instead’. They were very nice.

I found out later that the Head of the Cultural Office here was the person who gave the stamp of approval for the bookstore. He said they were watching me really carefully [but] we didn’t cross any of their barriers so they let us keep going. That was because of Chen Gang [? Check] of the Chaoyang District government. He told me that Chen Gang, the District Commissary for the Communist Government Secretary would come here plain clothes regularly by himself and just look around. He’d studied in the US, and he was the one who followed it, he was the guy who let it happen. He was the party secretary of the district. It’s was very secret, but if anyone had come to him with a problem he was the guy to say ‘I’m on it, I’m monitoring it carefully’.

The artists were a very close knit group because they were under these pressures, and to see familiar faces was one part of it. A lot of artists don’t like to chat, they’re not the chatting type. I mean, Huang Rui is a brilliant orator, he likes to talk. Cang Xin is great socializer, he can bring out any artist but you’ve got to get [didn’t catch this…] so he didn’t like to talk too much.

But when they came in and they saw these books it was like a candy store to kids who had never had candy before. There was this fascination. They would spend hours and hours looking through each book. Then to support it was almost charitable, rather than what they did in Shanghai when they’d come in and flick through until they’d destroyed the book and then walk out. Here, they’d look through and put in 500rmb and buy a book. They were buying.

D: Presumably their income was also increasing for them…?

Yes, of course. The early part of the art boom, it was already happening 2002 to 2004.

D: At some point people started to move out – how did you observe those changes? Were there critical moments in those years?

Huang Rui’s Dashanzi International Art Festival was absolutely a critical juncture because the night before, Huang Rui called us all together and said here’s the deal: they’re going to cancel it. They’re saying it’s because of fire regulations, crowd control… ‘They’ being the factory. Huang Rui had called a press conference and about 100 media came which was amazing to everybody – that meant there was some support in the government. Otherwise it never would have gotten that far.

Then the factory got really nervous because the media kept saying it’s a disused factory that’s become a new art district, they’d talk about the nascent beginnings of 798, that the factory was on its way out. The factory people thought ‘Wait a minute: I’ve got plans for this place, I’m going to tear it down and make a lot of money, I can’t do that if it’s an art district’.

So that was their modus operandi: saying to Huang Rui, ‘Sorry you can’t do it. So Huang Rui was being investigated by the Public Security Bureau on a regular basis so he got to know these guys, much like the people who came to my bookstore. You get to know them after a while, be friendly with them. So he kind of mentioned to the supervisors that they’re going to shut it down, who then mentioned it to his supervisor who took it back to some very high level people in the Chaoyang District government - at the very highest levels there was some support from this. And so miraculously Huang Rui gets a call and the factory gets a call from the Chaoyang district government saying ‘Don’t worry about traffic control, crowd control and fire control, we’ll send all the police, traffic everything, I’ll take care of it for you. We understand your concerns’ – even though they’re trumped up! And that was it: contemporary art was no longer underground, it was unofficially sanctioned.

That was key, the whole dynamic changed at that point. The collectors started collecting, all the millionaires and billionaires, the auction houses started carrying contemporary art, the whole thing just went insane – artists who were selling for US$100 a canvass started selling for a $100,000 a canvas. Cang Xin, before he sold some of the documentation of his performance art for $500 dollars, he was now able to sell his entire body of work for $500,000, and so over night these guys became huge! They’re buying houses in Wanjing, their wives are buying cars…

D: How did the social level work? Was there a buzz, would you hear prices, was there gossip?

No, no one talked about it. They really needed to have that image of an underground artist working in a bare factory space, fighting against the government for democracy and freedom around the world… because that’s what collectors wanted, there was no talk of money.

They’d start to develop social cliques that were outside of the art world. And I know, from the fact we had a coffee shop that evolved into a restaurant: very few artists came and the whole reason was that conspicuous consumption was completely off-limits. You get together and have a beer outdoors, but if you’re really going to do some conspicuous stuff then you go someplace alone or with your other friends, with the collectors, the museum directors… It was very private, you never saw anyone spending any money.

D: So people were earning tons of money yet still sitting and sipping on their Qingdao outside

Yeah, it’s something we all enjoy sitting outside and drinking cold moatai! But the flipside, the candy store to a child, you come across this bottle of Lafite 1971 and it’s got this attraction, you’ve got the money, so you know… And you’ve heard about this three star Michelin restaurant in Temple or wherever so you go there, but you don’t let anyone see you…

D: This was obviously new money, but with a kind of old money attitude

Yeah, the opposite of American nouveau riche where if you’ve got it you spend it and you let everybody know, baby! ‘Robert, what’s the most expensive book you’ve got in the book store?!’ I never had anyone say that to me!

N: After the first Dashanzi International Art Festival, the next year was also pivotal because that’s when they tried again but in the process it was almost taken over and co-opted…

After the success of 2004 the next thing was no artists, you can’t rent to artists. He Xiao Ming, the insider, he was shut down, he was replaced, basically given a demotion for bringing a lot of problems to the factory. So no artists, no foreigners and nothing related to culture. And no taxis, so getting in it was really difficult… for everybody! And then the idea was to get this place to fail so they could get back on track the plans for the electronics city that they had initially.

So the [our] mission at that point really was to save 798 and that was Huang Rui and everyone here. Neville opened an office in the back. Bringing people in was important – Neville introduced Huang Rui to some performance artists in 2005 and they walked in and did this huge walk through… Almost everything Neville and everyone at the time did was ultimately in one way or another to preserve 798.

N: On the one hand we were trying to give as much support as possible, but you’re suggesting that they were trying to make it as unsuccessful as possible. But I also had the feeling that they were trying to enjoy some of the financial success – by co-opting the festival, trying to make a quick buck almost..

When Huang Rui left, that was for that very reason: because Seven Stars said ‘Hey, if you can’t beat them join them’. They said they wanted to do the Dashanzi International Arts Festival with him. It got very convoluted and became a very sensitive problem because the Chaoyang district government was involved as well.

So they set up the cultural office and the first thing they did was say ‘OK, fate has been decided, we’re going to make this into an art district, this is really going to happen’ and so they said to Huang Rui, ‘Hey we’re buddies, we’re on the same side, we’re going to help you’. Of course said Huang Rui, ‘No, I’m doing just fine, thank you’. And they were like, ‘No, Huang Rui, we’re buddies, you’re going to work with us’. So they revoked his lease contract and he left. It was a sad moment, but Huang Rui isn’t one to make concessions. At that point it became official – the art district – and it was run by the cultural office here. The people who had been kind of behind the scenes monitoring everybody set up shop here – ‘it’s still us, but you have to let us manage this now’. That was the second art festival so I think it was 2005 or 2006…

D: [art libraries… sorry, couldn’t hear question!]

Much like Chinese architecture it began as a green field, so all of the museums, the institutions the collectors, everybody wanted an art library. So for us, much like the artists, we were having people calling us up and saying they want one of everything!

And so we’d be shipping a bookstore a month. We were doing an enormous turnover. The artists were still an important part, but the institutions, the big money had stepped in. CAFA’S got an incredible collection. They’d buy two to three copies almost of every single book we brought in. So I knew when I ordered a book from Konig [?] or wherever that I could sell three copies immediately just to them, or to the China Academy… So I was safe, I couldn’t lose, I gave them a library discount and at least I didn’t end up with lots of unsold inventory. If the artists came in early then they could get a copy but they also maybe got the feeling of ‘What it was just here yesterday, Robert, you sold it already?’ I think Konig [?] would have been jealous of my sales up from 2004 to 2008. It was the art boom, so people like Sotheby’s, all the auction houses, the institutions, everybody, all the potential museums, the libraries, everybody wanted an art library. A library of contemporary art. Before it was zero in all of these places in China… it was great.

D: So that was until 2008, the bookstore wasn’t there after that…

Well, in 2008, there was the financial crisis. I’d set up a second book store in Shanghai, but Shanghai is a terrible market. The consumers would come through, flick through everything and walk away. We didn’t sell much, plus I wasn’t there everyday so there was no sense of community – with me. Then the crisis hit, so I pulled out and shut it down and came back here.

Libraries, institutions, everyone was nervous about the implications of the crash. The art market crashes and goes down about 50%, the institutions, everyone stopped buying. It was a tough time and overnight, sales just plummeted. The restaurant sales were going good, though…

N: Tourism and the mass market started picking up I think

Even today, it’s the same artists that came then that come now. It’s just that back then they were one in three people who came; now they’re one in 3000. In fact, there may be more artists and designers coming today; it’s just that as a percentage of the overall people that come they’re less conspicuous. So that’s the other myth: artists don’t come to 798. They do, you see them constantly. They all come here still, the ideas still happen here.

Jeff Bezos was key [founder of Amazon.com]. When the libraries cut back and I didn’t have that institutional safety net, then I started to accumulate some bad purchases or purchases that I thought were good but the market didn’t. So I started to accumulate inventory, sales went down, inventory went up. Jeff Bezos was providing a much larger selection of books. They’d be slightly more expensive when you consider shipping, but you’ve got a better selection. Traffic [was] a nightmare outside, so sales started going down and they kept going down.

The real culprit was Bezos and the internet. People would come in and start taking pictures. I’m guilty of this: I come in and see a good book, I write down the ISBN and go online and get 15% off. So all of the Chinese book stores were all going bankrupt, across the board – almost no one survived that period.

D: Was it the end of an era? This was an anchor in the community at that period of time. When did you finally close the bookshop?

The Japanese restaurant was up and running in April 2012. So 2011. End of 2011 we ripped it out. We started it in 2003 and closed it in 2011.

D: You still own this place – are you also still involved in the community?

I work as an art consultant. Recently a collector and I from France, we put together a very large collection of contemporary young artists, emerging artists and so I invested a little bit, he invested a lot. We were very early, about a year before the Ullens center did their show ‘On/Off’ about contemporary emerging artists and we already had about 50 to 60% of those in our collection. So I’m keeping tabs on the younger artists, and they come here for coffee, drinks, no conspicuous consumption – it’s very much new money/ old money – [even though] since the Ullens thing they all became very wealthy overnight.

When I took the collector round, it was 20,000 or 30,000 [dollars? Rmb?] for huge installations… Now those things are at least ten times – even 50 times – what we were buying them for.

N: Where’s the production happening? It’s always been limited here, where is it now?

Hei Qiao is where we went for lots of the younger artists. There’s a fairly large compound in Hei Qiao that’s a gated warehouse area and then there’s still some in Huan Tie, where else? Still those areas.

N: What’s the relationship between those satellites? The artist villages?

I don’t know, if this is the driver they have to stay close. And you know when these collectors come in, this French collector for example, I’ll say ‘I’ve done some studio visits let’s go and see these artists’ and he’d say ‘I’ve heard about another artist, let’s go and see him’. So I’d ask when he has time – this afternoon? So it’s important that they’re nearby. If they’re across town then they just have to wait til next time!

D: Everyone had a role in this community, but then it dissolved – or does it still exist somehow?

All of the functions of the community have been taken over by the cultural office. The artists still come and congregate and there’s still this informal fabric that holds together a larger community, but it’s a good point that you make: it’s no longer DIY.

N: Has that impacted the community? Is it something we need to consider when we think about the future?

I think we all came to this same conclusion as this guy at Oxford University – I think he was a Geography major – and he wrote a paper on 798 that I thought was really good. His name is Edward Yang. He came to the conclusion that all art [ RECORDING CUTS OUT…presume he’s talking about art districts? ] the birth is [at] dilapidated, disused large industrial spaces that have been vacated for whatever reasons in cities. [They then] become an art district; the real estate agents, the developers and the money moves in; the rents go up; the artists find a new place; and then like Williamsberg, Tribeca or wherever it becomes a chic, designer cultural district. This happens over and over, endlessly.

The ultimate culprit here is something that China had never faced before. In the olden days it was the ideology, the communist government kept shutting it down and trying to kill contemporary art, or were very ambivalent about contemporary art, I should say. But commercialism and money never really came into play. But this is the dynamic force behind the trajectories of all art districts, all around the world. Commercialism is a much more powerful and disruptive force than anything ideological or government or political could ever be. So in that regard it’s kind of a microcosm of society at large.

As the government retrenches and the economy takes over, it takes on a life of its own. And so Edward’s conclusion was that this was probably the first time in history that a government – especially a very centralized, very powerful government – has intervened on behalf of an art district and at the very least, they’ve prolonged the life of the art district, and prolonged the death, so saying it’s most likely going to die. Possibly they’re going to make it sustainable over a long period of time, but it’s a new kind of hybrid: a political-slash-art kind of thing. I thought it was an interesting take on the situation. I mean, we avoided death because the office came in and took over all of these things.

There’s a quota on the number of restaurants now, there’s a quota on the number of these stalls and they’re constantly trying to kick the Tibetans out, but this is a very sensitive racial minority issue, so they can’t get rid of them. During the day there’s no food stalls, but of course, come six o’clock when it’s closing time for the government offices, the streets are littered with food stalls and things like that. And so, it’s an interesting dynamic. They’ll only rent to galleries or arts related spaces. Now the definition of this … each person has they’re own definition. [As far as I’m concerned] there’s just five – it’s Continua, Tang, Long March, Commune, Pace and [????/1”02”35], but everything else is just living room art. [At the meetings] they say ’Robert, Art is very subjective and we’re very happy to hear your opinion but we happen to feel that ours is more inclusive, more open than that’. And then you’re like, ‘Shit, They just took the moral high ground on me! It’s true, I’m being closed minded, this is terrible!’ And there’s nothing you can say.

N: Many of the perceptions we had about 798 are really demystifying in the way you’re describing it. How do you see what’s happening in 751, how does it relate to what’s happening in 798?

Muffin break, busy, waitresses rushing around. Diabetes – “all of those nights with the artists, it completely destroyed my pancreas”.

I’m such a naïve, everyone is so naïve about power. You know this commercial building that they’re building here in the parking lot? So, here’s the deal: I still don’t know the exact story; I’m still trying to piece together various pieces of it based on conversations with various people. The factory chairman, Mr. Wang, he comes here a lot. He told me he’s putting together a master plan and developing the areas around, but he’s got to keep this, preserve the art district. Those were his words. This is what he’s been tasked with, but he doesn’t necessarily want to...

Meanwhile, they’ve had the cultural district here which is the government. So Wang comes in and says, so you’ve been publishing recently? And I said, ‘Yeah, I did the Ma YanSong pocket book. He’s fantastic’. He says he’s never met Ma YanSong, so I offer to introduce them. They hit it off, and so Ma Yansong’s office gave him a plan for 798 – a master plan – and I don’t know how much further they went, but shortly after they transformed that parking lot into a video wall. You see the hand of a designer for the first time in 798.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the art committee is called to a meeting, an emergency meeting. Before the meeting, Wang’s office says ‘Robert we want you to say that you agree, that you like it. They’re going to submit the plan for this building and I want you to say that you like it’. They called everyone else on the committee and told them to say the same thing. I said, ‘Sure – it’s great to have an art commerce space, anything related to art is great... [And besides, you’ll cancel my lease otherwise – that’s definitely off the record, please!]

And so we went to the meeting and it was a 100% set up. The meeting was called by the cultural office which is the government. They asked us what we think and we all voted yes, but there were certain questions that several people had. For instance, art galleries are commercial spaces, why do we need a large commercial space? Wouldn’t it would be nice if it was a public space? There were questions. That was all the government needed to delay it indefinitely. They said that there were certain caveats to work through with the building.

So construction came to a screeching halt and nothing has happened since.

N: Is that the one that Ma Yansong designed?

No, Ma Yansong was involved in the process but there were three or four offices involved. [There was] definitely a lot of cronyism, friends of friends, government relations…

N: Did one office take charge?

Yes, it was a Chinese office that I’ve never heard of before. There were three and they recommended this one and all thirty of us raised our hands and said it was a good one. But just by asking a question, that was all the office needed. I asked a question as well – I’m such an idiot, so naïve! I should have just shut the fuck up and said ‘yeah, everything’s great’.

D: The government needed the questions? As a tool to stop construction? But the factory wanted to push forward?

Yes, and the reason I know that – and this is again very sensitive, don’t quote me on this – the government office people came in and I asked how the building’s going. They tell me they didn’t get the necessary approvals, and that they only found out about the building after they’d already put everything up, they tried to pull a fast one [the factory?]. And if you’re a government bureaucrat, that’s a definite no-no.

So they shut them down. Until you come on your hands on knees begging, then nothing’s going to happen. And that’s all it boiled down to, the commercial interest of the factory: the more rental footage they have the more income they get. They’d own the building. And then the government which is trying to manage the future development of this place and maintain power so they don’t become just a rubber stamp, some bystander, they hit and all of a sudden everything comes to a screeching halt. So behind the scenes, there are meetings happening – or not happening – as to the future of 798

D: Wow, so all that happened right at the center of the district…

It’s so ugly! We always wondered, Why is this happening? Later on we discovered it was this pure power struggle. We’d thought it was lack of political will to keep this an art district: some people are saying it’s becoming commercial, that we should tear it down and build it how they want it to be. We all got very paranoid until we discovered it was a case of power versus commerce, butting heads.

But 751 is a beautiful design, everyone loves it, but it lacks a soul.

N: There’s no nitty gritty activity…

That 3D tank – I can’t believe they allowed that to happen. And all those beautiful, really nice buildings they put up fake brick facades…

N: Our understanding is that this is one of the models for 798 – cleaner, more open, fewer tenants, less hassle – a mall, effectively.

Certainly it’d be less hassle. I mean there’s no foot traffic back there so they don’t have to fight with the Tibetans, the street vendors and the hawkers – no one goes back there!

N: And I think Audi always pays on time, they’re very…[reliable?]

Yes, plus there’s about 500 Germans back there now. That space in the front is going to accommodate 1500 more. You know that cool place, the Laundry [?] at the entrance? They tore it all down but kept the shell, they kept the shape. It’s going to be kind of cool. [South entrance of 791, aluminum façade]. Audi and Volkswagen are making this a major hub for design

D: Also, it’s a full circle because the Germans set up this whole thing in the 50s…

For us as a restaurant this is also quite interesting. The equivalent of Norton – the anti-virus software – is 360 in China, and their headquarters is at the door of 798. Then you have Audi and Volkswagen at the back, these guys have got a lot of money. So I’d say 70% of our lunch business is corporate now. It used to be that we’d have 50% occupancy and of that, 50 – 70 % would be art community. Now the art community is still here, but they’re embedded. It’s a full house every day. So we’ve got to put together our menus so everything can be done in an hour.

[Did I miss something here? This seems a bit random…]

We’re doing a series – Yanis Kolenis [?], Jonas Meckes [?], Liu Xiaodong, Ma YanSong. We’re interested in getting more designers. It was really easy to do, seven or eight interviews edited down… They’re paying for themselves, and our biggest customer is Ma Yangsong himself. He comes in and buys 200 or so.

N: Which direction are we heading?

I think it comes back to Edward Yang’s PhD thesis. It’s whose going to win in this power versus commerce struggle. There’s no precedent for commerce failing. The government in China is extraordinarily powerful, so commerce has never come up against an adversary like the Chinese government but… I don’t know [what will happen]. Maybe they’ll be able to sustain it

N: If that struggle continues, that balance becomes very precious, the circle can also become status quo…

It produces energy in a strange way. I’m a big fan of Neville’s ‘Chinese Dream’. The salient point I took from it was that the future’s being created here in China and it’s a future that the world has never seen before, that there are new forms and structures that have come out of this dynamic of commerce and power that could be enlightening. They could help, they could contribute to a better form than the existing birth, life, death trajectory around the world. It could be cool… and certainly fun the watch.

Posted by Daan Roggeveen / 34.6 months ago / 1464 hits

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