Art Radar interviews curator Hou Hanru about the seventh edition of China’s Urbanism\Architecture Biennale in Nantou.
The seventh edition of The Urbanism\Architecture Biennale (UABB), themed “Cities, Grow in difference”, for the first time features a contemporary art exhibition, curated by MAXXI’s Hou Hanru.
The Urbanism\Architecture Biennale (UABB) explores issues of urbanisation and architectural development in China. The seventh edition opened on 15 December 2017 in the Nantou Old Town in Nanshan district, an urban village that was once the administrative centre of the Bao’An County. Hou Hanru, together with Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan, is co-curating this year’s UABB, an event which plays host to 200 exhibitors from 25 countries. The seventh edition theme is “Cities, Grow in Difference”. Organised into three sections, the biennial structure aims to map, imagine and pave the way for future forms of city life in China. Key to the theme is the notion of China’s “urban villages”, which the bienniale defines as a combination of top-down urban planning and bottom-up spontaneous growth.
Art Radar talked to curator Hou Hanru about the project and what to expect from the events.
What are the particular challenges of launching a biennial from the Nantou Old Town as a base?
This is a fundamental shift in this exhibition from a context of normal exhibition space, (previously UABB was held in spaces that were factories and warehouses converted into exhibition spaces) but this time the project was brought into the reality of the urban village and integrated into the context of everyday life. Urban villages are a particular phenomenon that have been very condensed and embody the intensity and challenges of urban development. UABB is an exhibition space, but it is more about integrating into the life of people there. They are extra-territories within the regular city. Beginning of the transformation of that space turns the biennale into a process of sharing with the people living in this kind of “exceptional” spaces and imagining that this is their future.
Because this is not a conventional exhibition space, and the issues that we deal with are also beyond usual topics of urban and architectural discourses, we encountered challenges at almost every minute. From research, concept development, finding venues, and talking to the community, we had to find unusual approaches to solve the problems. This required us to be more creative and reactive to the momentum.
The press statement talks about the need to change the exhibition structure to cater for the urban village context. What tactics of intervention or collaborations with already existing spaces have been particularly successful or pleasurable experiences?
Measuring success itself is a very complicated question. We push more on the side of the experimental rather than achieving success, and we will only know if it is successful long time after. From the beginning, we don’t have the expectation to be successful, but rather to make the process of negotiation and collaboration with local communities more inspiring. This changes the typical approach of making an exhibition, by allowing participants to open up their minds and stepping into this unknown venture.
There were many enjoyable experiences, but a few direct projects such as the artist Marinella Senatore and her team to create school of narrative dance with the local inhabitants. She has been working with different communities around the world in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and now China. They have been working closely with the locals for 6-7 months now, who share their love of dancing. It has been a very direct collaboration process. Of course also Yona Friedman’s Street Museum that invites local communities to share their stories and lives and memories as well as to construct the museum structures.
The title of this year’s biennial is “Cities, Grow in Difference”, which proposes that we see the contemporary urban environment as an “ecosystem”. To what extent does the use of metaphors such as “organic growth” to modes of production in city centres naturalise or disguise what are often top down processes of ordering space, populations and consequently the body?
“Cities, Grow in Difference” is not a metaphor, but much more a physical action in a way. We emphasize on looking beyond the official approach, which is often top-down planning. An example of this is Shenzhen, a city with a foundation built within 5 years, and now after 30 years has experienced exponential growth. The main principles come from master planning, a top-down model that combines Soviet style modernism and a fantasy of American or Hong Kong metropolitan images. In between there is an intervention of Singaporean tropical modernism. Many “problems” have been solved by a tabula rasa approach that replaces old buildings with new structures. In reality there were many questions about preserving historical sites and the accumulation of historical heritage, and especially the organic forms of social life.
This cannot be solved by imposing the same model, so it is a critical time for the city to become mature by introducing alternative models. The invention of the urban village was a product of this process from the grass-root society, as result of the resistance and preservation of the communities, and have developed their own economic systems. It is interesting because urban villages are not only of high density, but also locations where a real life unfolding with dynamic and uncontrollable possibilities for people to live their own lives and invent their values. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to think about the diversity of urban development. We must emphasize difference and varieties when envisioning the urban future. This is not only a question for Shenzhen, but also all the cities in China and around the world. A lot of places are trying to embrace the image of a global city, but what a global city is still needs to be defined. Local and global questions meet here by process of exploring difference.
A few of the most ground-breaking biennials recently have been curated by larger curatorial teams. For example, the 32nd São Paulo Biennial, the 10th Berlin Biennial and the last few editions of the UABB. You are sharing the curator role this year with two colleagues, Liu Xiaodu and Meng Yan. What does working in a team make possible that working alone does not, and what are the specific experiences and skills between you that have been particularly important for preparing this year’s biennial?
I’ve always worked in teams; no one can do a biennale alone. This year is interesting because we divided the work by our different expertise. We have two teams roughly divided: architecture\urbanism, and art. This is only labelling, a relatively convenient working structure. Somehow there is overlapping between the two. There is a lot of collaboration, discussion, and overlap in terms of interest, disciplines, so on. We started perhaps from our own expertise and backgrounds, and tried to extend them into a common meeting point. We stress on transdisciplinary practices. Of course there is some difference of approach, of understanding how exhibitions should be made, and of their nature. This is a highly fruitful learning process. We learn to work together and learn about each others’ ideas and visions. It has been a very positive and constructive process.
You have always been a fan of the biennial structure in terms of its contribution to local art scenes, and the opportunity it presents to foster exchange of knowledge, strategies, political strategies, etc. Since 2015 the global art market has seen a considerable post-crisis up-turn, meaning it has effectively benefited from the economic crisis. What do you think is the role of the biennial in this slightly worrying financial phenomenon?
The biennale has been and continues to be a place where one can escape from the dictatorship of the market and also the political powers as much as possible. It’s a place for experimentation and trying things that are not based on any commercialistic or market, or power-dealing, influences. It is a place were the intellectual aspects of artistic production are at the centre. We do not consider the hierarchy of the market or fame of the participants, but only work with people who see their work as engagement with a particular reality. Just come to see the biennale! It will be very different than what you read on paper!
The biennale opened on 15 December. What artists and projects are you particularly excited about sharing with the public?
Well that certainly is a difficult question to answer as all our projects are exciting. We have developed projects of different levels and approaches, roughly separated into 3 blocks, architecture, urban, and art. Each block has its own focus while overlapping with each other in both concepts and forms. Dealing with the concept of the South, it looks mainly at the typology of architecture and urbanism related to the concept of global south. The global South is more than just a geographical notion, but also a geo-social and geopolitical notion that provides us with a new perspective beyond the division of the East and the West, modern and tradition.
This new notion of the South signifies an innovative orientation of looking at the tensions between urbanization and social transformation in relation to ecological issues. This further invites us to deal with a specifically local issue as one looks at migration and people in movement as well as their impact on the transformation of the city. It will also bring in a focused chapter on the conditions that the Hakka face. We look into the cultural roots of Hakka, or migration at large, while also investigating it as a global phenomenon that has not only occurred in the past but also in the present. It will also look at how the new Hakka is bringing in a new circulation of people, ideas, social relationships and a new type of city life. The previous biennales have had a focus on theoretical and conceptual studies of architecture and urbanism, resembling a typical architectural biennale, but this year we have introduced an entire section of artistic projects. This art section focuses more on actions, coming up with a complex structure of different levels of interventions with investigations of street life as the core.
At the conceptual level, we present a series of installations and video works which reflect how artists use the streets as a site of creation, dealing with questions of from personal freedom in public spaces to playing games, from political manifestations to community building. Physically, we have decided to preserve the original condition of the factory building, as a site specific presentation to remind us of the original situation and to provide a particular context for this discussion. The second section, we introduce installation, mural paintings, multimedia works and performative actions into the streets of Nantou. This will also extend into other off-sites areas, such as other urban villages. This will also extend to other areas such as Dawan Hakka round house (being redeveloped by OACT) and Design Society in Shenkou. This will turn the exhibition into a more direct confrontation with even more complex conditions in the city.
We also have relatively permanent interventions in the village to generate relatively long lasting social communities surrounding the projects. Such as the ongoing workshops, food courts, school education programs and so on. They are closely inserted into everyday life situations. This would be a long-lasting process throughout UABB and we hope that some of them will remain after the biennale as permanent structures for the urban village.
2017 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture (Shenzhen) “Cities, Grow in Difference” is on view from 15 December 2017 to 17 March 2018 at various venues Nantou, Shenzhen, China.
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