Being Beijing

looking into the past
(all photos by Claire Pentecost)

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And so we moved from Argentina to the United States to China.

This bewlidering transition was not exactly planned, but it grew out of a proliferation of the enthusiasm for travelling in a group, seeking collective knowledge, widening the horizons. The project we are now engaged in was born of that desire, sketched out by a relatively large number of people, many of them living here, most of whom Claire and I didn’t know. Caught up in a process that expanded far beyond the initial conversations in the US, members of the Compass Group – inhabitants of the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor – have crossed the oceans to discover Chimerica.

Chimerica? What’s this word? In Argentina, our friend and collaborator Mauro Machado kept asking a question. How to go beyond espejismo, which is the condition of everywhere encountering your own reflection? To my mind Chimerica is a fundamental concept, condensing an unsustainable economic structure of trade and capital circulation with a delusional veil of reciprocal exoticism and mutual ignorance. Isn’t it vitally important to understand the social relations that sustain your own existence?

China is part of today’s horizon: wherever we live, we are all somehow living in China. The same was true of America generations ago. On the other side of the massive flux of products and dramatized news items there is a micro-mesh of daily life, a texture of experience. Is it possible to touch some of the realities that are changing the world? Can we discover how it is that wherever we live, we are always somehow living in China?

looking into the plants

Here in Beijing, our generous mediators are a group of artists living in a place called HomeShop. Just what it sounds like: an inhabited storefront and a place for making things, bringing a territorial, neighborhood-oriented practice into the field of art production and adding a collective twist to the ordinary economy. As usual in China, there is no public support, and so rather than selling art or trinkets or coffee as is done in places like 798 / Dashanzi Art District, here people are working at different kinds of jobs, doing translations, renting studio space, cooking food for each other, with lots of hanging out and sharing of projects and ideas. This is a very interesting way to go about transforming what an artistic practice can be, and we are happy to be here.

Whereas on previous trips I’ve been awestruck by the national scale – the most populous nation on earth – with all its regional and global interconnections leaping out everywhere in the forms of the urban environment, this time we are being introduced to a territorial experience, the hutongs of old Beijing, a friendly labyrinth of brick buildings and alleyways and people. There is a kind of slow knowledge that you get from this walking in the neighborhood, or from talking to an older denizen of this young and transnational artistic space, a man from the north named Tschuga. Ancient history, almost my age! A warm and challenging man with lots of ideas and questions. I had an interesting time trying to explain my concept of art as a collaborative way to change one’s directive ideal. We had an interesting time discussing to what extent this kind of practice could become – or stand in the place of – a politics. Neither of us was very sure about the answer!

looking out of the window

Living for a week across the street from HomeShop in a room rented from Mr. Lee does not in itself change your life; but it does give a sensuous and material idea of the social fabric on which this world city was built, and which it is now destroying. How to grasp the powers of national, imperial, global Beijing? How to grasp the powers of those who live in its alleys, in its cracks, on its edges?

Thanks to Xiao, who grew up both here and in Viola, Wisconsin, we took a walk in the city. From the largest shopping mall in the country to the tiniest alleyways: radical shifts in ambiance, unsettling transitions through scale and time. To walk in a group is to explore both a place and a collective sense of possibility. We came upon an old temple in the midst of reconstruction. Some artists had placed hilarious sculptures on the old stones. Drift onward to Beida University where the May 4th movement began, then down the longest gentrified hutong seen I have yet seen: maybe twenty blocks of brand new old buildings, branded behaviors, the disappearance of a way of life into its own simulacrum, which is also progress.

Intimate, territorial, national, continental, global. Somehow, everywhere, we are living in (what used to be) China.

looking into the future?

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