Dive into the archives.
- My Un-Named Essay
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I spent most of 2011 working on a exhibition for the Gwangju Design Biennale together with Ai Weiwei. At the exhibition opening, working with Weiwei was what most people wanted to talk about, so I wrote an essay about the experience for the Biennale’s catalog. It was written in a rush and I’m still not 100% happy with it, but since the biennale is still running, I think it’s important to put it out there….
Where is Ai Weiwei?
The Making of an Un-Named Exhibition
In August 2010, Ai Weiwei asked if I wanted to curate a section of the Gwangju Design Biennale. It was my first time hearing of the project and the place, and my first ever offer to curate. I accepted immediately.
A 30 minute conversation followed wherein Weiwei briefed me on the virtues of the event, including its big budget (“bigger than Venice!”) and open-minded leadership (“they wouldn’t have asked me to be director if they weren’t willing to take risks”). He talked about the host city (“good food”, “Korea’s democracy movement started there”, “many, many love hotels”) and described the biennale site, a complex of four interconnected galleries containing more than 8000 square meters of exhibition space.
As he talked, I started to worry. The scale of the project seemed huge and the expectations were high. The biennale’s theme, a strong, unclear concept derived from the Tao Te Ching and developed by the biennale’s co-director Seung H-Sang, I found difficult to penetrate. “Design Is Design Is Not Design,” Weiwei explained, was an epigram implying limitless creativity. “It is the end and the beginning,” he said. “For the biennale, we need to show design not as just a final product, but as part of a continuous process.” I scribbled the statement down. I wasn’t sure what do with it, but it seemed to me an anchor point, something solid enough to grab on to, extend out from.
I needed more, so I dropped the pretense of collaborating and reverted to my journalist roots, transforming our meeting into a desperate sort of interview. I prodded Weiwei with questions; I offered suggestions and requested clarifications, I repeated and rephrased his responses. He confirmed or corrected me, but he rejected nothing. It was as if his ambition was endless and capable of absorbing everything. By the end of the meeting, I’d written down dozens of commands (“Explore the reasons for similar activities in design”), analogies (“Exhibition like a body – fat, bone, organs, muscle, skin”), conceptual pairings (“Stephen Hawking + Buddhism”), and seemingly unrelated references (“Beat Generation”, “Big Bang”, “Food”, “Kunstkammer”, “French Almanac”, “KKK/Abu Ghraib/Burqa”).
At the center of the page, repeatedly underlined and surrounded by a cartoon cloud was the most important, least defined phrase of them all – Un-Named Design. This was the title of the section that I would curate. It was one of several sections in the show, but the only one that Ai Weiwei would oversee personally. Most of the points he’d made during our discussion were about Un-Named and when it was over he suggested I write a short statement to declare our intentions. That night I pored over my notes and eventually came up with this:
The Un-Named Design component will explore those facets of the human environment that are not conventionally considered design, yet influence everyday life and the perception of it. The works included in this section will derive from areas of creation where originality, signature, and marketability are not the primary source of value, and where the identity of a product is based on its theoretical force and practical use, rather than its material appearance. Examples from this creative territory range from highly purpose-driven virtual designs for social networks to the low-tech, custom manufacturing of low cost artificial limbs. The goal of this theme is to reframe design as a set of strategic solutions to human needs, rather than an ego-driven pursuit of subjective beauty. It will expand the concept of design beyond the material and show that it is not only about providing more or less useful goods, but also about the modification of human perception in a rapidly changing, interconnected world.
Post in full here.
- FREE AI WEIWEI
On Sunday April 3 my friend and collaborator Ai Weiwei was seized by Beijing police. He has not been seen or heard from since. Weiwei is a brilliant artist, curious thinker, adventurous eater, and courageous defender of freedom of expression. His arrest, which has not been explained or even acknowledgedby the authorities, violates the basic human rights promised him by The Constitutionof the People’s Republic of China. Due to the restricted nature of Chinese media, it is unlikely that many of Weiwei’s fellow citizens will ever hear of his mistreatment. Since his arrest, his name has been stricken from domestic search engines and blogging platforms.
Weiwei is just the most recent and most prominent subject of a Jasmine-infused crackdown on free expression in the which the government has “criminally detained 26 [now 27] individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention,” according to a report by Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
External pressure is now being applied by foreign ministries and supporters in the cultural world. If your government hasn’t yet spoken up, please contact your local politicians and media and alert them. And please sign the petition currently active on Twitter, a platform near and dear to Weiwei’s heart.
- Guangzhou WanderCam
- My TEDx talk: Me-We
Here’s a presentation I gave a couple months ago as part of an event called TEDxFactory798 in Beijing. It covers a few projects that I’ve done in China and some of the aspirations behind them.
You can see the other presentations from that day here:
Neville Mars – Taming the Beast that is Beijing
Megan & KC Connolly – Bringing Together Art & People
Or, if you’re trapped behind the Great Firewall, watch em on Tudou here.
Here’s a little interview I did with Ai Weiwei for the November/December issue of Flash Art magazine. In stores now, pick it up.
Your installation for the Unilever Commission recently opened at the Tate Turbine Hall in London. That seems to me a very difficult commission, not just because of the prominence of the institution and quality of past recipients, but due to the character of the Turbine Hall itself. How did these aspects affect you?
As you say, the Unilever Commission is a program that’s been running. I’m already the eleventh person invited by the Tate to do this. Of course, you see that those artists go in very different directions in terms of their personal histories, their artistic statements, and their public performance. This is important, because the Unilever Commission really is a public performance, since it’s in a public space that attracts a few million visitors and a lot of media attention. I felt that the work had to have some kind of relation to that condition. It could be a very minimal relation, but still you need to decide what kind of position you want to take. You’re not really trying to prove something to yourself or to challenge, but rather to speak very quietly but certainly about certain elements of life.
It’s really a metaphysical thing, because you present one work to the public, as a statement. It’s very difficult: it’s as if someone asked you to say one word about your life or your ideology. I think most people would say God, but my type of work is mostly about uncertainty. (more…)
- People Republic of Cross-dressing
One of the nicest things about being in Beijing at this point in history is watching the ways that the city processes the huge amounts of new cultural info that enter it each day. On its surface, Beijing’s cultural identity seems pretty fixed. It’s the PRC’s symbolic center, and it needs to look the part. But if you look below the surface, you can see a city passionately seeking out and soaking in new forms of living. A couple years ago I did a series of conversations with people who I thought were at the front of this process. (Here’s one with the owner of Beijing’s first reggae bar (since destroyed) and one with the director of China’s first non-profit art space (since resigned)).
The wonderful web TV series Sexy Beijing has just posted a couple of new episodes examining transgendered life in the capital. They feature Mei Mei, the queen of Beijing`s cross-dressing scene, and a few of her acolytes. Check it out.
Happy Independence Day from Boogie Down Beijing where pro-Americans pop up in unexpected places…. Already had a hot dog and two burgers. Hope you get yours…
- My HK Neighbors
I’ve been living in Central Hong Kong for most of the last two months. An amazing place, but probably the most thoroughly photographed on earth. Here’s my little contribution to that immense body of work – an inventory of the faces I encounter on my way into work everyday.
- Guess who’s not coming to dinner.
Well, Pres O is in Beijing now, and I have confirmation that he will not be attending the dinner party that I had planned in his honor and about which I email and facebook messaged him several times. I guess he’s busy or something. Anyway, amongst the dozen or so articles that China Daily has published in relation to Obama’s first PRC visit, I found this image of a Barack egg etching. It’s done by Kang Yongguo, a craftsman from Liaoning Province and is pretty goddamn amazing imo.
- Launch Sequence
Shameless plug time again…
This Sunday my friend Jiang Jun and I are presenting the book we made earlier this year. It’s called Urban China: Work in Progress, and it is making it rain on you hoes. Check out some more info on it in this post here. Better yet buy it from the publisher here. If you’re in the Beijing area, come through, it’ll be fun.
Date: Sunday, November 15, 2009
Venue: Timezone 8 (798), No 4 Jiu Xian Qiao Rd
Meanwhile, my friends at JDS are releasing a book of their own in the next few weeks.
From the press release:
AGENDA is an architecture book that occupies the territory between a monograph, a diary, and a collection of essays, interviews, and conversations. At its most harmless AGENDA is a catalog of 365 days, like a diary or journal: a collective narrative, personal and subjective. It documents the work and thinking of JDS Architects over a specific year marked by crisis, beginning on September 15th, 2008, the day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The form of the book exploits the double meaning of its title, presenting the absurdities of day-to-day architectural practice while also staking our intent.
I contributed a couple things to the book and, although I haven’t seen it completed yet, I know it’s an ambitious project and I’m sure it’s worth picking up.
There will be book launch parties in the following cities:
ROTTERDAM | Friday, 20 November 2009 from 17.00-22.00 / invite only
OSLO | Saturday, 28 November 2009 from 14.00-16.00
@ Holmenkollen Ski Jump – Visitor’s Centre [map] / RSVP
BRUSSELS | Thursday, 3 December 2009 – TBA / check back soon…
NEW YORK CITY | Thursday, 10 December 2009 from 18.00 – 21.00
@ Storefront for Art and Architecture [map] / open to public
Launches in Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona, and London will follow in early 2010.
For more info, click here.
- Adventures in Globalization: Chiney Vibes
A while ago I posted an interview I did with Robin Liao, proprietor of Together Bar, Beijing’s #1 (and only) reggae spot. That conversation focused mainly on the influence of reggae on China, but it’s a little known fact that Chinese people have played a central role as recorders, players, producers, and distributors of reggae music from its earliest days. Here’s some background, swiped from an interesting little piece in China Daily called “Reggae’s Chinese Progenitors” :
The first Chinese reached Jamaica in 1854, when 472 laborers who had been working in appalling conditions on the Panama Canal petitioned the British government to be returned to China, only to find a selected coterie shipped to Jamaica, the closest British colony, where they were contracted to construct a railway line.
In the 20th century, the Chinese Jamaican community was sizeable, but at its peak still made up less than 1 percent of the island’s population.
Nevertheless, Chinese Jamaicans soon formed a mercantile class of shopkeepers, becoming a well-established facet of Jamaican commercial life in the years following World War II, the same period in which a handful of pioneering entrepreneurs changed Jamaica’s musical landscape through sound systems.
These sets of heavily-powered sound equipment would blast American rhythm and blues, Latin tunes and local forms, such as calypso and mento at open-air dance events; one of the first and most popular to emerge in the late 1940s was Tom the Great Sebastian, run by a hardware store proprietor named Tom Wong, whose father was of Chinese origin.
Then, in the mid-1950s, other forward-thinking entrepreneurs, such as Stanley Chin, owner of a radio repair service, kick-started a proper Jamaican music industry by beginning to record local mento and calypso performers.
Among the most important to begin producing then was Vincent “Randy” Chin, a record shop owner whose carpenter father had left Chinese mainland in the 1920s to settle in Jamaica.
Assisted by his wife Patricia, a woman of mixed Chinese and Indian origin, Chin enjoyed spectacular success during the early 1960s with artists such as Lord Creator.
Following from Vincent Chin’s early lead, several other Chinese Jamaicans became prominent figures on the music scene.
During the early 1960s, Leslie Kong and his three brothers operated an ice cream parlor and record shop called Beverley’s, which also had real estate offices attached, but after being approached by singer Jimmy Cliff, Leslie decided to enter record production, scoring instantly with hit recordings by Cliff and Desmond Dekker, though Bob Marley’s debut effort made little impact.
During the late 1960s, Kong enjoyed more hits than any other producer on the island, and after recording an album by Bob Marley and the Wailers was poised to achieve greater glory in 1971 when he unfortunately suffered a fatal heart attack.
Meanwhile, producer and bass player Byron Lee was making waves with a rival recording studio, Dynamic Sounds.
During the early 1970s, Dynamics was the best-equipped recording facility in the Caribbean, leading Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones to record there; like Tom Wong, Lee’s mother was a black Jamaican, but his father came to Jamaica from Hong Kong.
Although many Chinese Jamaicans are only vaguely aware of their cultural roots, session musicians Geoffrey and Mikey Chung, whose Now Generation band were one of the most popular 1970s outfits, managed to maintain direct links with their Chinese heritage, thanks largely to the efforts of their father.
“My father came to Jamaica in the 1930s and took over his brother’s shop; then, in 1959, I went to Hong Kong for a year and a half with my father and brothers, as it was a Chinese custom that the father bring the children back to the homeland to pick up the Chinese heritage,” Mikey Chung says.
As reggae gained international acclaim during the late 1970s, Herman Chin-Loy’s Aquarius became one of Jamaica’s top studios, but this politically turbulent era had drastic repercussions for the music industry: the 1976 and 1980 general elections involved shocking levels of politically motivated violence, as the socialist-leaning People’s National Party fought pitched battles against the right-wing Jamaica Labor Party.
The result was an exodus of Jamaican businessmen, which saw a gradual curtailment of Chinese Jamaican influence in the island’s music industry. However, the Chinese link to reggae remained strong.
The photo above features Patricia and Randy Chin, owners of VP, a dancehall record label started in Jamaica but now located in the US. The importance of that label of popularizing dancehall is almost impossible to overstate. Luckily, I don’t have to bother, because I found a documentary about it:
The aforementioned, super rockin Leslie Kong makes an unexpected little cameo in this clip of a Toots and the Maytals recording session from The Harder They Come:
It wasn’t all love though down there though. For a while, Kong was at the center of a feud between Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan over Morgan’s decision to leave Buster’s studio for Leslie’s. One artifact of that conflict is this ignorant little song, recorded by Buster in 1963 and ripped from the original 7 inch by Dave of the glorious Dave’s Jukebox blog.
Prince Buster – Black Head Chinee Man
right-click + ‘save link as’ (mac) / ‘save target as’ (windows)
Hate to end this positive post on that sour note though, so here’s a small piece of Leslie Kong’s more important legacy:
The Melodians – By the Rivers of Babylon (produced by Leslie Kong)
- Props to Prop I: PRC
I think it’s ironic that so many of my designy Western friends are so admiring of the propaganda of the past century (Soviet film, Czech posters, American cartoons, Nazi set design…), while being so critical of the propaganda of today. The PRC’s latest exhibition of muscle flexing on the its 60th birthday seemed to freak them out universally. But my feeling is that if it’s OK to separate aesthetics from ideology once a regime has collapsed, we, in our Twitterfied 24-hour news cycle world, should be able to make that cut in real time. Besides, one’s anxiety is another’s pride and my feeling is that all the festively painted weaponry is meant to reassure, not threaten. Here is a collection of beautiful contemporary propaganda from China.
First, the parade in Tiananmen Square to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China – as seen in timelapse and slow-motion. Created by Dan Chung:
The Big Picture also has an amazing feature on the 60th anniversary festivities. Here’s a couple of examples:
You can see the rest here.
Next, another very stylish cliche parade. CCTV Ink TV Commercial – Directed by Niko Tziopanos
Last here are some (sorta) oldie by goodies – Paralympic posters from the Beijing games. Art directed by Zhao Meng:
See the full set here.
Thanks to Dan & Jeru for forwarding the Party line.
- Surfing in the world’s biggest kiddie pool
Image: Next Generation Online
Back in Beijing after a long hiatus in the morally corrupt, ideologically impure West and, as ever, I am extremely unhappy with the state of the Chinese Internet. Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter were blocked even before I left, but since Blogspot and almost all webhosts have been shut down, depriving me of much music among other things. I made a few posts about online censorship when I was working here in 2007*, so I won’t retread that ground. But I think it’s worth sharing the image above, a kind of snap shot of the Great Firewall of China. (Click here to enlarge at the source…) Also, if you’re elsewhere, wish to share our pain, and use Firefox you might want to check out this plug-in that allows you to simulate the Chinese web experience.
*I have to give Net Nanny some props though, she’s vigilant. The post I made when I was here a couple years ago giving tips on how to get around the firewall is now almost totally useless.