‘Placing’ Culture in Urban China: Towards a Transdisciplinary Dialogue, UCL, London

On Thursday, I headed to London for the day for the one-day workshop ”Placing’ Culture in Urban China: Towards a Transdisciplinary Dialogue’ (FULL PROGRAMME Placing China) at UCL on Gower Street, London. It aimed to provide a platform for urban geographers, planners, urban artists, cultural scholars, and specialists from other  fields to showcase their latest research and exchange views.

‘As the Chinese city transforms, arts and culture are widely used instruments of regeneration and competitive place promotion, and serve as well in the struggle to upgrade from labour-intensive manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. The distinctive spatial articulations of cultural production in the context of the transitional Chinese city are of critical interest to the ongoing re-theorization of the role of cultural production in the twenty-first century city broadly, and point towards possible urban futures for a country in a dynamic state of cultural redefinition. But arts and culture are not just associated with regeneration; they may also be used to contest the meaning and identity of urban space, politicize questions of belonging, and/or resist the insistent displacement pressures that accompany accelerated urbanization.’

I attended the workshop in relation to my (nearly completed) PhD studies, as one of my chapters regarding the practical outcome of the thesis – ‘The Temporary’ – examines the rise of China’s art museum culture and its influence on artists’ practice, questioning how they are experiencing and representing the nation’s frenetic urban change between Chinese and non-Chinese contexts in the transculture/transcultural space. I certainly came away with so many theoretical strands through which to continue my research (that could be another PhD) so I’m very glad I went.

As always, it was great to see so many familiar faces and to meet new colleagues in the field. By chance, I had the opportunity to talk to Luisa Mengoni and the V&A Shenzhen Shekou team who I have been in conversation with recently. I love it when serendipitous synchronicity moments happen. Often how my life works.

Placing Culture in Urban China

The day began with ‘Learning from China’ by Dr Hyun Bang Shin from London School of Economics. Coming from an interdisciplinary background, not a cultural geographer, he looks into urbanisation of East Asia….issues of the political economy of places, the dichotomy of urbanisation and industrialisation, political economy of territories. He sees urbanisation as the intervention of the state and capital takes places in order to expand the environment. He cited ‘The urban process under capitalism: A framework for analysis’ (1978) by David Harvey as a starting point  – stating capitalism urbanisation process is built on mobilising diverse financial sources, domestic and foreign. Urbanisation and industrialisation in China actually help each other and have since the late 1980s and early 1990s. The unique nature of land ownership in China…urban state-owned versus rural public collectively owned. He went on to speak of the hegemony and politics of displacement, specifically in relation to the city of Shanghai. ”Ruling class overpowering subordinate classes through state domination in the political society AND hegemony construction in civil society’ (Gramsci 1971)…State domination predicated upon violence and coercion…Persuasion and manufacturing consent. He cited “Better city better life” versus “City makes your life happier” (shown below) showing what the city and the process of urbanisation means to the Chinese people….how cultural industrialisation becomes important. He referenced Xi Jinping’s ‘The Chinese Dream’ and posters criticising nail-houses, to encourage them to move as they are seen a nuisance in the neighbourhood. It is about how displacement is effected through both consent and coercion.

Dr Hyun Bang Shin


city-cover-shot Shanghai Expo

Xi Jinping chinese dream

‘The (re)branding of Shanghai: Why Culture matters’ by Kristina Karvelyte, University of Leeds. She began by explaining why the term “rebranding” of Shanghai…Shanghai pursuing a vision to become a cultural metropolis, though positioned more uniquely, it was once already international. The 1930s was the golden age of Shanghai, pearl of Asia, Paris of the East…the government is trying to revoke this past and economise. Government conveniently choses certain aspects of its past to fit with current interests. Kristina looked into the cultural turn in the urban development of Shanghai , the major role that policymakers in Shanghai attach to cultures of display in China. Cultural and creative turn in urban development of the state-centred world city of Shanghai, de-industrialisation accelerated by the government, inter-urban competition for foreign investment and the pursuit for international recognition. She cited Shanghai as ‘TRUSTEE: State as the architect’, and ‘GLOBAL PLAYER: ‘global formats’ of cultural events, lesson-drawing, Creative Cities Network’.

‘The public pomp of a particular social order’ (Williams 1984:3)

‘The ritual symbolisation of nationhood and state and power’ (McGuigan 2004:62)

Cultural policy as display national aggrandisement and economic reductionism.

She had the opinion that art festivals act as a display of the status of the city questioning how is culture used in Shanghai? Culture as promotion (external) – as branding, as Shanghai as global and international with an emphasis on foreign content, Chinese culture is adapted to foreign taste, neglecting local audience. Culture as global node – large-scale international events interlocked as professional networks, censorship and restrictions affect events reputation. She concluded by saying how these global scripts of culture-led urban development is contextualised in response to politico-institutional and socio-economic settings if the place.

‘Yuanshengtai branding, urban soundscapes and everyday music’ by Dr Paul Kendall, University of Westminster. He focussed his talk on the perceived and the conceived space of Lefebvre’s ‘Production of Space’…how one cultural element is attributed to one minority…”to live space”. If we could and see space, and hear the space of branding, what would it sound like? Yuanshengtai music is in branding, the media…local amateur music, music away from external influence…it become acoustic listening…conveying knowledge from one generation to another…playing an acoustic role in the loves of the inhabitants. He compared the making and experience of amateur sounds in China versus the UK.

Paul Kendall quotation

Time for the first Q&A session…instigated by Dr Hyun Bang Shin. One theme that appeared through the three talks in the notion of “branding”…one question that came to mind is what does it do? Image as a way of connecting people…how China is trying to produce certain images in its own way on certain scales…how scale become important. China scale different to the municipal scale of Shanghai. How does the branding on different scales come together. In a nationalist drive of China’s development how does Shanghai fit in? Construction of nation-state and nationhood alongside individual city’s identities.

The second session in the morning began with ‘Cultural Production, regeneration and the Chinese City’ by Professor Andy Pratt, City University London. With a truly transdisciplinary background, Andy introduced himself and his practice, stating it is about finding ways to mediate and tell stories through these disciplinary boundaries which both constrain and enable. The problems China faces with respect to cultural industries and the creative city – unique not common – yet common with other places/cities in the world…the sheer scale and size of urban development in such a short time frame, bringing with it a set of problems…issues associated with cultural change, the DNA of cultural through society, exemplified in many Chinese cities very well…cities and citizens and how they get a benefit from cultural production…problem for the cultural economy because it doesn’t take it seriously in global south, China and India…intrinsic issues of culture…social and cultural identity, local identity in their places. “We have been blinded by the hype”. He questioned – what is the challenge?  Creative city discourse promoted in Western developed economies. How do you attract mobile (manufacturing) investment and human capital mobility? There is an assumption that there is an infrastructure of culture. He cited China’s urban challenges as:

  • From ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’ as China’;
  • New cities with no cultural infrastructures – there is a universal lack of this, people without knowledge of culture is an estranged phenomenon that China is trying to acknowledge now;
  • Massive in-migration – cultural diversity, different cultural backgrounds reforging them in the city…cultures made in cities through interactions;
  • Cultural consumption still growing – come 2020, India and China will have the biggest middle classes the world has ever seen, coming with it power…China and the rest of the world will have to deal with this. “Consumer Durables” as another issue;
  • No focus on endogenous urban culture – no focus on the culture made in these cities by these people. They would rather erase it than embrace it;
  • Little focus on cultural production, or cultural ecosystem.

The attraction of urban investment such as the world space promotion and flagship prestige developments. How do you brand a city? Well, most get a “starchitect” and big name behind them. We all want to be a world leader…but everyone else wants to be as well. How do you differentiate yourself? Andy went on to speak of China’s cultural clusters…organic development based on a set of expertise…”top-down developments”. Local authorities have targets, they are expected to produce a certain number of cultural outputs.

There are transdisciplinary approaches to move forward. Be careful of translating notions that are already redundant in the West of China…process of capacity building, there is a structural weakness in China, the social sciences are young in China and happening quickly versus Europe where we have a long tradition…the study of the cultural industries is still so new and even weaker…there is no infrastructure of debate and discourse. There is little understanding of global cultural flows….people, ideas, products. Inter-connectivity but localisation in hubs. We need an interdisciplinary and conceptually informed approach. Recognising the challenges is part of the struggle. Go out and do!

Next was ‘Urban reactivation through the creative industry: outlining a frame for selected contemporary case studies in China’ by Dr Ioanni Delsante, University of Huddersfield. He began by speaking of conservation versus transformation, citing the heritage areas of Shanghai, specifically Xintiandi…how to read the urban landscape amongst the modern and traditional buildings and their interiors that can often conflict with the exterior. The second area he mentioned was 1933 in the North Bund area, Shanghai. There is the box that you refill and change its function…you look at the symbolic meaning of the building…my view on this changed. What was inside of 1933 was just a commercial space…even if the architectural space was impressive, it being the biggest slaughter-house in Asia. The building was preserved yet used for commerce. Is this successful? Or has it just become a brand “1933”? He moved on to cite the development of Tianzifang and M50…seeing M50 as being slightly different as it was developed in a logic similar to real estate development…focussing on a mixture of functions, ideas and spaces to keep the area alive. These kind of spaces need a specific management and planning that we are not used to…the architectural programme is more important than the architecture itself…there is also the space for new architecture. What is us to us? It is to preserve the programme…though this is not always what is meant or done by the designers. The relationship between permanence and temporary is one that should be up for discussion. He is currently working on an exhibition with Shanghai scholars comparing the Shanghai area and Yunnan province.

Dr Ioanni Delsante UCL

The final session of the morning was ‘Sustaining culture: dialectic relationships with urban tourism’ by Dr Rui Su, Middlesex University. Speaking about part of her recent PhD studies, she looked into development of Nanjing city its culture/heritage, urban tourism and dialectic relationships. She spoke of the cultural resources left behind in Nanjing city – Yun Brocade, Paper cutting and Baiju, storytelling approach. You can’t think about a culture without thinking of all the elements and how they interact with each other…within urban culture it is difficult. Other cities in China that are not “global” cities, how do you develop and promote this culture? She went on to specifically cite Nanjing paper cutting (this made my day as you know I facilitate paper cutting workshops…one of my other hats) and its recognition from UNESCO, attracting government support. However, there are three key problems with trying to create this relationship between heritage culture and the people…lack of interest/small market demand, as it is not contemporary; misunderstanding of (cultural) heritage, lack of thought given to the cultural value, just the economic value; the intangible property to culture. “There are too many copycats in China, how can we secure further innovation in creativity?” We need to think about political and economic issues in terms of culture. Culture can be valuable for the next generation…we cannot think about one perspective, it needs to be thought of in a holistic and dialectic way…its application in different urban contexts.

The second Q&A session instigated by Professor Andy Pratt…there has been talk of one issue of the “only-connect” – if you could only connect things together there would be “sense-making”, though this is not always the case. Text…text and context…and how you work between those. Buildings and the activities that happen inside them and the spaces between the building…argument of contextualism, one building next to each other and should it look out-of-place or not. Contextualism is a Western based notion within what aesthetic judgement made..situated understanding, made sense in its own context. There was an attempt to highlight issues of artificiality get imposed on a place and how they don’t connect…and a second phase of how we find a connection to make sense of it all. It’s not simply enough to have an artefact, it must be part of a living culture and an appreciate of understanding that. Why do we have museums? To learn from the past. The skill is to reconnect the past with the present through integrating it as part of social life. In a cultural sense, its to avoid the separation (cultural separation). What we are seeing problematised in all these cases is whether policymaking is trying to join up these things…the role of cultural intermediaries is so important to bring together what can be incompatible views. “The Agora”…gathering/meeting place…creating environments, the idea of “curation” of space. Creating a new narrative and way of seeing…at an urban level this is happening with culture…a new story, a new way of appropriating the city. A lot happens through the “unplanned” city.

UCL sushi

After a sushi lunch and delegate chatter, it was time for the afternoon to begin with ‘Cao Fei’s ‘Magical Metropolises’: Chinese video art and the city’ by Professor Chris Berry, King’s College London. Through an examination of Cao Fei’s work through the lens of urbanism, specifically four of her works, ‘Hip-Hop Guangzhou’ (2003), ‘Whose Utopia’ (2006), ‘RMB City’ (2007) and ‘Haze and Fog’ (2013). What is “magical” about these four works? Heterotopic mirrors, participatory art, re-enactment, gestural cinema…gestural as it calls on collaborators and audiences to look at the transformed city. Heterotopic mirrors – Foucauldian concept between utopias and heteroptopias…heterotopias exist in the world yet away from it, space apart, existing spatial arrangements are represented and challenged and overturned. The heterotopic mirror is an in between state. “What are you doing here” guided the creation and understanding of ‘Whose Utopia’ (2006)…appropriating and transforming the Osram work model TPM (total productive maintenance) – More success with TPM changing its meaning to (team people motivation) – More fun with TPM. The debate of participatory art takes Western democracies for granted…such as the representation of political activity or activism…as offered through ‘RMB City’ (2007) where you must have your own online avatar to participate. Re-enchantment through disengagement…often through dance and rhythm. Cao Fei’s work is gestural, the deployment of dance and movement is one way that it is gestural and is seen as cinematic and a redemptive process. The importance of cinema lies in how they depict bring gesture. Citing Adamben and Rene ten Bos as regards oppositionality of gestural practice. Here Cao Fei shows a new gestural cinema, where dialogue is rare, but dance, music and rhythm leads.

Next was ‘Post avant-garde ‘movements’: from yundong to spatial change in 1990s Beijing’ by Christen Cornell, University of Sydney. Focussing on the artists districts of Dongcun and Yuanmingyuan…political and cultural status, reworking the political from the revolutionary sense, to look at the movement in the cities and spaces of everyday life, social and political engagement, the representation of social and political change. Concept of culture and historical progress…citing the developments of the 1980s, key artists groups and exhibitions, where they were working with inherited political activity and imagery. Moving onto the 1990s and a move from the political role of art, there was a recalibration of roles in relation to the change in the art market, dislodging the centrality of the political work. At that time, there was an acceleration of internal migration, and transnational mobility and economic growth. Artists defining new artists communities within the villages and spaces abandoned during internal migration – defined as Christen as “temporal pockets” – occupy the remnants of a previous existence. She went on to speak of the Yuanmingyuan Village in the mid 1990s and the artists’ status as “drifters”, with a lack of routine of everyday life, participation as part of their own cultural production – placeless-ness, hooliganism and ‘movement’. Politics of location, felt outside and inside the villages themselves. She concluded a shift in interpretive frameworks between 1989 and 1992, the beginning of a new relationship between the city and (collective) art subjectivities, and a transition from yundong to ‘movement’ within the city, a new means of engaging with social and political change, and making of claims for the position of art.

Christen Cornell

Onto ‘The reappropriation of hutongs for art spaces: Arrow Space, Za JIa Lab, HomeShop’ by Julie Ren, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Julie examined the place-making of art spaces that are connected to each other…considering the possibility of moving beyond the hutong characteristic in Beijing. Are they seen in other contexts? What are the signifiers? It’s important to think about the possibility of the research as serving as a case for something…not to be a parochial canon of Chinese urbanism. It is about how urban China is a source of theory in itself. “Urban appropriate” or “hutong urbanism”…alongside wanting to theorise a local vernacular that she doesn’t want to erase. Various hutongs are under cultural preservation, where art spaces are usually known outside of the hutongs in artists’ villages. Slowly art spaces are making their way into the second ring road. Art spaces in hutongs represent a specific identity and aesthetic; show selective preservation to retain memory…nostalgia for a certain kind of public that is curated…the materiality has meaning; they represent an alternative to the dominant modes of artistic production…a different art market…challenge the commercial norms…a critique of the art system; non-commercial space outside the everyday experience. Julie cited the work of HomeShop and Arrow Factory…a want to be closer to the centre of the city and the pedestrian experience. The dualism between art and everyday…how art can leave the gallery and enter the everyday space.

Julie Ren UCL

 The third Q&A was instigated by Professor Chris Berry, King’s College London…all three speakers are engaged with the connection between the artist and the city and what artworks can do in the city. Integrated spectacle…we are living within the spectacle…there is no outside space…there is no distance. Referencing back to Andy Pratt regarding creative cultures as a global model where China is doing it bigger with more money. Can we generate new theory out of these contexts or are they seen as a set of limitations?

I questioned the sustainability of the “temporality” of art spaces in China as there had been many conversations about the development and construct of cultural urbanism but not the sustainability of it…especially in relation to HomeShop as they no longer exist. Also do these experiences and happenings influence a future practice? Julie responded stating it is very difficult to distinguish if they are leaving by choice or done with the project, moved on,…structurally hard to sustain…underlying that was the refusal to commercial art practice. There is also a want to try to define this practice and place it somewhere…alongside constructing a language through which to describe it.

The final session of the day started with ‘Urban revolution and Chinese contemporary art’ by Dr Maurizio Marinelli, University of Sussex. He notes the importance of words and their definitions and “keywords” where here it is about culture and revolution. He spoke of the urban revolution that is occurring in China now…yet the word revolution is leaving the vocabulary of China. The ‘urban’ revolution…

“The future of art is not artistic, it is urban” (H. Lefebvre)

The metamorphosis of cityscape and artreifies the interaction between art and politics; art renders ‘visible what has not been’ and can unveil the ruins of a civilisation before they actually become ruins. He cited artists Zhang Dali (Demolition (Dialogue series)), DaiGuangyu (Geomancy) and JinFeng (A History of China’s Modernisation) who all reflect on the transformation of the cityscape, reflecting on the through ofRancière…the emphasis on the common loss of the community…addressing this loss. China requires the attention of all the senses.

“In the last three decades, the claimed reality of a common social world has withered away, and an aesthetic and political revolution has taken place, producing not only a redistribution of the sensible, but also a redistribution of the visible, the audible, the sayable, the tactile and the olfactory.” (Rancière)

“Rendering visible what has not been and [making] heard as speakers those who had been perceived as mere noisy animals.”(Rancière 2009:25)

Urban revolution

Next was ‘Humour as détournement: Chinese artists mock the architectural spectacle’ by Angela Becher, SOAS, University of London. I’d spoken to Angela a lot that day and we discovered there are many commonalities in the people we know and the circles we negotiate…small world as standard. She began by introducing this as a new area of research for her…how artists view spectacle through the theory of ‘Society of Spectacle’ and as humour (incongruity, superiority and comic relief)…mediate between the tragic (problematic) of Chinese urban development and humorous, and laced with allegory as part of collective identity. She cited the work of Jiang Pengyi (All Back to Dust No. 2),  Shi Yong (Keep the Height by all Means), Chen Shaoxiong (Anti-Terrorism Valley) and Liu Jiaxiang (Bird’s Nest). They are critiques of processes of urban renewal, urban sprawl as part of urbanisation…the artworks enable a view of them multiple layers of urbanisation, the different realities and the different moods. The government played no part in the project.

Finally ‘Everybody’s Donghu (East Lake)’ art project: resistance through representing urban space’ by Jian Xiao, Loughborough University. Her main PhD research looks into the punk subculture of China, where here she focussed on an exhibition initiated by artists and architects over three different time periods between 2010 and 2014 – the ‘Everybody’s Donghu’ project in 2010, 2012 and 2014. She adopted Lefebvre’s concept of relational space – “space is directly lived through its associated images and symbols” to rationalise the research. The project included work by individual artists and in groups such as Xiaomin Jian (Toilet) and Yue Sun (Bury)…transformation replaced by new meanings, and symbolic destruction, and Wei Fang and Qi Pai Zu…to add meanings and interpretations to Donghu. She went on to reference Ueno’s concept – resistance through relativisation, and ‘the stranger’ and the “self”.

The final Q&A was instigated by Dr Maurizio Marinelli…he noted an epistemological problem as to how we address urban transformation, how do work with images are proposed by these artists, what is the contribution that these artists are offering. We are also talking about stories that are proposed, alternative stories, ways with humour and different forms of humour to add the different layers of context. Artists’ power…the power of imagination, how are these artists refer to utopian dreams or heterotopia, the juxtaposition of these elements. It is a critique and an alternative way of bringing to the fore important issues. Is this a way of witnessing what is happening in these cities? The visual is offering a different vision, a different future…these artists are trying to evaluate what has disappeared. They are really trying to offer their own interpretation…the link from the past to the present to the future…continually projecting into the future…the time that the artists have lived through.A transformational time. What is interesting in the tension of all these narratives…between the master narrative and all the other layers proposed which is why we need a transdisciplinary approach. We are critical of this fetishisation of the urban.

Comments from the open discussion time at the end of the day returned to sustainability…the physicality of change and loss in China…drawing inspiration from destruction and the abject use of it…how we think about culture in the urban in China we need to add something, another word to culture – the visual, the seeing, the touching, the senses – when we talk about culture it is so complex…the discipline and background that you come from shows its boundaries and constraints unless you try to reframe and rethink the culture…it shows a limit unless we add all the other components. We also have to differentiate between the more commercial projects, city branding, the “starchitects”, the grass-roots projects…they all create narratives but with different depths of meaning. One term that hasn’t been discussed is the term “public” and “publicness” and what is invested in this term…it is a word that everyone can embrace but means many different things. It is “public” versus commodified/commercial etc….they’re in the same space but not talking to each other. Do the West think about architecture through its principles and the East through the architectures imagination? At this point I stated that their is a shift from the Eastern imagination taking on the need for Western principles for sustainability. In 2011, over 386 museums opened in China, and over a third of museums closed, yet this “loss” is never spoken about. It comes down to the state…to politics…to ideology. There is a real contradiction between these things. Are we missing the anthropological aspect?

Another question was raised as to how culture is being quantified – its about assessing the government members success…about making progress for the city. Also how universities have become directly involved in terms of cultural regeneration…which is the same from the UK as they seek international counterparts. Regeneration and newness…newness as spectacle…newness as rebranding…reaching a heterotopic newness. The vision(s) of regeneration. Also what is the value of the word “culture”…its meaning in different places.

“It is important how we use words and reconfigure words when we talk about China, culture and urban culture. We have a challenge in how try to analyse and understand words. The transdisciplinary context is bringing together and talking about these different forms.”

Are we able to identify the discipline we come from? What are some of the questions we are asking in this discipline? Are the disciplines different or are they confused in China? From the urban planner to the architect, the artist to the curator…what are their roles? Are they completely different worlds with completely different ideas? This is another area to explore…

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