Meetings at Womenjia Youth Autonomy Lab

Is Wuhan Really the Chicago of China?


The scene in the narrow corridor of the all-night train from Beijing was hilarious: small knots of freaky people talking, eating, drinking, laughing, slipping by each other to reach those further down the line. Emi, Xiao, CiCi, Gao Bei, Qu Ge, Desirée, Elaine, Gordon, Jing, Dan, Jay, Stephanie, Sarah, Orianna, Claire and myself, all celebrating Michael’s thirtieth birthday. Home Shop on the road with new friends.

We arrived at Wuhan in the early morning, somewhat the worse for wear and whiskey. For us, generous hospitality in the home of Gao Bei’s parents, thank you! A quick fifteen minutes rest turned into hours of profound slumber. Later on, delicious food in the “street of snacks”: dozens if not hundreds of street vendors with an amazing variety of edibles. We walked along the fortified river bank overlooking the Yangtze, near the Soviet bridge. A fabulous sight, expansive, breathtaking, beautiful, the river life in motion. We laughed and joked with an old man and his kite, floating probably half a mile up in the air.

Mai Dian arrived with all those staying out at the Autonomy Lab, then Elaine and the group lodged in some friend’s apartment much further to the south. We climbed the steps leading up to the bridge and found strange scenes of karaoke dancers singing Chinapop tunes to old men who would buy them reusable plastic roses. Behind the young starlets I noticed old ladies furiously counting one-yuan notes. Then suddenly a guy with a bucket throws huge fistfulls of bills showering over the young singer. The money shot! Meanwhile a man in dark glasses was very ostensibly photographing our camera-happy band of Western-Chinese tourists, as if to say, “Try it from this direction for a change.” Perhaps he is pointing at my portrait right now and laughing with his friends.

download the PDF of our presentation here

The first event was a lecture at Wuhan University, organized by the student union of the sociology department. Claire, Dan and I gave an improvised talk on experiments in collective perception, based on a slideshow organized by yours truly. Every time Dan transposed our extravagant concepts into Chinese the audience generously applauded, ’till we received a note reading “the students speak good English and they are saying maybe we could go faster without the translation”! This encouraged Dan to break into English and push the activist side of our interests, talking about the recent social movements in Wisconsin. It was an odd and fascinating moment, attempting to convince a bunch of sharp sociology students that our practice of drifting could be available to them. “Yes, but is it science?” they asked in sum. Still they really seemed to get it in the end. Mai Dian urged the public to come to the events the next day, and I think a few of them actually did.

Womenjia Youth Autonomy Lab is an anarchist house at the edge of a huge botanical garden (periodically we would see residents assisting visitors over the fence with wooden ladders, to reduce the steep 30 RMB entrance fee). It takes courage to organize such a living space, and to use it. Respect to Womenjia! Lots of people came for an excellent day of presentations, entitled Multi-Dialogs: Art, Society & Space. For most of us it was a unique experience in China, the fringe where art meets activism and people speak without self-censorship.

Most interesting  for me were the talks by a local art professor about a university gallery called the Yangtze Space, which seemed to transgress every usual limit and open up a wild contemporary art experience; and by Li Juchuan on the East Lake project, which was a call for artistic interventions and reflections on the OCT real-estate development that suddenly privatized a piece of public lakefront to make a residential complex and “Happy Valley” amusement park (for the controversy, see the China Study Group). There were over fifty responses to the East Lake call which was mainly about carving out the possibility for public commentary on the kind of lawless expropriation that typically happens in reform-era China, when local governments raise money for urban infrastructure by leasing public landed whose title is ceded to them by the state. Some of the artistic projects were very striking, powerful messages of defiance and discontent. It is impossible for us to fully understand what such a project means in practice and daily experience – but a sense of deep and continuing frustration with the limits of current Chinese politics was thick in the air.

That feeling formed the departure point for much of the conversation with Mai Dian on the following day. He explained that in the reception of the East Lake project by Western art circles, the critique always focused on the market and the corporations: but in China, they have many more problems to contend with. The market and the corporations, indeed, but also state economic planning, local corruption and maybe worst of all, majority opinions that support the kind of accelerated development that forms the status quo. This seemed to Claire and I like a perfect description of conditions in America.

There was some disagreement between me and Gordon about whether you could really maintain that there is a “mirroring” dynamic between China and the USA, as had been the case between the US and the Soviet Union. Do the two economic superpowers somehow condition, reflect, propel or contain each other’s development? Does the structural relation translate into any parallels on the political level? For sure, there’s no comparison with the degree of difficulty and privation suffered by activists in China. But as American democracy decays beneath the weight of state and corporate power, military abuse, financial corruption and the crushing assent of the majority, the feeling of failure is increasingly similar – at least from an activist perspective. The question is, how to survive after failure? How to create long-lasting and relatively autonomous communities that can develop contrary values and ways of living? Mai Dian explained that he had been to Europe and absorbed anarchist principles there; but on returning to China he found the need to develop “a new language.” Again this struck a chord. All of my work since returning from Europe has been about finding a new language for left politics and culture in the US context.

That afternoon we hopped a bus and followed the long winding causeways out to the OCT real-estate project on East Lake. Walked down the unfinished road, circumvented the barrier and entered the construction site in plain view of the security guard who did absolutely nothing. There was something pretty surreal about strolling alongside the work crews and the backhoes, talking art or politics or philosophy with any of twenty different people, while the more serious looking guys in red hardhats approached. Xiao claimed we were a group from Wuhan U who had planned this trip with the developer. Well then, call the university and have them deliver the clearance! Or if not, go away right now, not out the other end, but back where you came from. We took that advice and drifted back, right next to the workers this time, filming, observing, still talking about art and politics and philosophy…

Wuhan has been called the Chicago of China in some politician’s rhetorical phrase, and like the Midwestern giant it is in effect a crossroads of railroads, highways and water, a logistics hub for a continental boom. Ten million people already live here; and the sprawling metropolitan area is set to become the central node in a network of eight new cities, whose planning and construction is underway. It’s hard to believe all this can be achieved, that the energy can be found to support such an area, and perhaps above all, that the air would remain breathable if such massive quantities of coal and oil were to be burned every day. Even today there are bottlenecks in the coal supply, driving up inflation and pushing the power companies to burn anything available, however dirty. For a full hour’s drive outside the center, the new towers loom amidst choking clouds of dust and pollution. It’s almost impossible to measure yourself, your own human existence, against the endlessness of coastal Chinese cities.

After the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of Western markets for Chinese manufactures, something had to be done with the tremendous productive capacities assembled over the last fifteen years on the great coastal plains and up the Yantze valley: otherwise the growth engine of the world would experience an immense overaccumulation crisis. That something turned out to be a vast building campaign, not just mega-gentrification but mega-metropolitanization. What we are seeing is a “spatial fix” on an unprecedented scale: a government orchestrated transformation of circulating capital into fixed urban form. The destiny of all this appears radically uncertain. Under the disproportionate shadows of those unfinished buildings (symmetrical opposites of the deadscrapers in abandoned Detroit) the quest for small-group autonomy could appear microscopic, or totally meaningless. In a sense it is. But for those involved it is the one thing that matters, the existential necessity. In Wuhan I finally encountered what I never did find on my first trip: the sources of some kind of resistance to the present.


One Response to “Meetings at Womenjia Youth Autonomy Lab”

  1. Creative Space—Art and Spatial Resistance in Asia | DOXA Says:

    […] Brian Holmes, Meetings at Womenjia Youth Autonomy LabIs Wuhan Really the Chicago of China?, […]

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