Red Mansion 2015 Beijing Residency : 4

Disconnection: Instagram, Cables, Assumptions.
Unlikely this will be published while I am still in Beijing, as the crack down on communications with the outside world intensifies.
Seems fitting for my last week here. About time I got used to just how far away I am from home, and just how unfamiliar life is here. No more Skype for talking- the internet is now too slow, even if it is still available. No more Instagram and the subsequent news feeds it offers. Lockdown.
The loose cables which have fascinated me since I arrived now seem a bit sinister.

Without communication, how can we be heard, anywhere in the world. When desperate protests are taking place in one of the most connected cities in the world, how can we monitor what is happening and how can we support them.
It’s alright for me- I have tickets to take me home soon. But what if home is the unsafe place?
Writing that last part, I spotted another assumption- that my plane will still leave. And so with each day I have been learning to take the assumptions that I understand how anything works here down another notch. Take it as it comes. Don’t expect to get anything done, then something always does happen.
If that’s not some sort of zen lesson then I don’t know what is. Perfect place to practice it in I suppose.
Just spare a thought for the people in Hong Kong and Taipei who are standing up for their rights to democracy and free communication.

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Beijing Design Week: Caochangdi: Liu Xinyi at White Space Beijing

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The works of Liu Xinyi presented as ‘Goulash’ by White Space Beijing contained prints and 3D installations on a scale fitting to the cavernous gallery. The name of the show, along with some titles of the work seems heavy-handed, seemingly ending my thought process before it had a chance to begin, but in the case of Surplus Value it seemed to inadvertently add to the work.
Huge foam cutouts in the form of defunct symbols once used by socialist states are stacked in one corner. They reference old logos and flags, in the shapes of natural crops, yet are rendered in laser cut plastic foam. They weigh less now than in the original subjects, and the artifice makes the plant forms all the more unnatural.
I enjoy a juxtaposition of materials and motives, I see the tragedy of what each isn’t as much as what it is.
The optimism and ideology of fallen regimes are often proved flawed and unsustainable, yet here are emblems rendered perfectly in a material which will never degrade. They are pristine, they could be pressed into service again at any moment, should history ever change as quickly again as it has done in the last 100 years.
That this is being observed in a socialist state which so far continues to function is surely no mistake. Are these emblems being stored out of respect, or rendered powerless through their decorative states?

Beijing Design Week: Caochangdi : ARTMIA

IMG_2046.JPGZhou Dong, Love is like lighting a match (detail)

IMG_2047.JPGZhou Dong, Hometown (detail)

In the group show Landscape of Mind presented by ARTMIA I was as usual drawn to work which escaped the single plane. (3D being my normal mode of thinking)
The very large format oil paintings by Zhou Dong featured protruding materials and heavily layered paint, resulting in work which was more visceral for me than some of it’s neighbours.
The ongoing investigation into the urban condition is very relevant when seen in this part of the world where demolition and construction are everywhere. Nowhere is immune, be it downtown or the suburbs or the very edges and villages. The noise and the dust settles into the background of daily life. The inescapable scale, and the visible gestures of Zhong’s works brought them back to my attention, reminding me that these things are important to notice.
The rate that areas are being consumed by the concrete, and the rate at which lives are being churned up in the name of progress affects us all financially (as production of our consumer goods is legislated for the good of the workers, to the detriment of our insatiable appetitive for cheap consumer goods) and environmentally (dust and noise go hand in hand with destruction of habitat and depletion of our limited resources which include air as much as commodities and wildlife).
Zhong’s controlled use of a muted earthy palette is contradicted by the insistence of the scale, and the small optimistic points of colour steered the work towards pragmatism rather than pessimism.

Beijing Design Week: Caochangdi: Wang Youshen

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Wang Youshen, Per Square Meter at ShanghART
Engaging with the whole-scale demolition which surround us in Beijing, Wang presents installations and wall based works which allow you to walk amongst the rubble rather than pass by as an observer. Having installed a partition wall, he then demolished most of it and left us to pick through the rubble. The dust and sharp edges reminded me of the working conditions of the labourers, along with the implications of all the dust rising into the atmosphere we all share. In clearing the spaces, the space for us to live longer together on earth risks being compromised.
Mounted on the walls are large scale photographs of an area of demolished buildings, presented up against panels of concrete which has been reconstructed and mounted. The cracks and texture of the surface shows the force required to break the material, but the effort taken to locate the pieces and reassemble them seems quite tender. Cherishing the space, the material, the workers or the former lives lived in the structure which is reduced to rubble? All come to mind.

Red Mansion 2015 Beijing Residency : 3

The bunches of cables which adorn most posts here have pretty much replaced the tree for me as the wonder I look up to see as I walk. They are reassuringly ubiquitous. The tangles of the multiple junctions, the coils of cables waiting to be connected to the next new building, and the stray dangling disconnected escapees are completely fascinating. For me they have become a metaphor for my time here in Beijing. They are completely vulnerable to a passing tall vehicle, to the whims of a strong wind, and to theft, yet they are repeatedly installed this way, left unmolested, and they work. Things do function.
There is a consistency to the adhocism here which is really inspiring. Older cables are employed to keep the new coils tidyish and ready for use. They are used to tie loops together as they span from one pole to the other. Connections seem to be left exposed to actually make future alterations simpler.
Why not use bits of old cables which you have to hand to tie things?
Why not save time and tape by leaving things exposed?
Why not leave a loose end dangling, incase you want to connect another wire later?
This alteration in my assumptions about approaches to work has been clumsy. Health and safety issues aside, the consistency to what appears chaotic to me must mean it’s not chaos. This is normal and usual.

As a first time traveller beyond the comfort of the western world, I’m almost disappointed in myself that I didn’t expect the unexpected a bit more. Friends predicted the culture shock, but it still surprised me, as it came in quietly but insistently. Not really shocking at all, until it had fully arrived.

The way I work has had to be adjusted, not just my engagement with the wider social media. Researching facts and details for applications and proposals for future work from here requires planning and patience. It requires me to set aside serious amounts of time. This can really only be a good thing, demanding a focus which is frustrating when compared to the way I work at home, often juggling several tasks at once, slotting them around each other in the usual rush to get through the day. Here, even the act of walking on the subway is slowed to a normal pace- with crowds this big, how could you really move much faster anyway, so why rush?

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Red Mansion 2015 Beijing : 2

I’m not immortalising them in marble as Ai Wei Wei has done with those trained on his front door, but I am photographing and Instagramming a lot of CCTV cameras. Some of these are accidental: they happen to share a pole with a tangle of cables which has caught my eye, so they make it into shot. Some are in such interesting places that they deserve to be photographed in their own right.
I’m not sure I believe that all the CCTV cameras in the world are active, or that anyone is really watching them if they are- they function according to the theories of Foucault’s Panoptican, surely? But for some reason the act of openly photographing them initially made my heart rate rise a little, a little moment of apprehension, similar to that I felt when I enabled my location services on my camera and Instagram feed.
For all that I use social media to my own advantage, and for all I understand about how mobile phones can track us, why does this feel different? And is this feeling enough to allow me to think that I have had a little insight into what it must be to live life under threat from the authorities with whom you disagree? Similar to a little more understanding I have gained through being disconnected from the online world I normally rely on?

Seeing the CCTV cameras around the ‘villages’ on the outskirts of Beijing, amidst the dust and detritus where the artist studios we are working are located is contrasted with those I encountered at the highest part of the section of the Great Wall I climbed last week. Their reassurance of protection and rescue if needed is obviously not the whole storey. But up a mountain surrounded by nothing more than trees and the breeze, the cameras seemed more unwelcome. They dragged me back from musing on the human effort involved in building the wall hundreds of years ago, back to the present where I remembered I was actually walking on heavily restored steps.
The unseen human effort behind the construction is as alien to me as that which monitors the cameras. Yet here I am, a fellow human, connecting to them by just bing in that spot.
I think that anonymous connection is a key element of my experience here. I stand out on the subway even as I am squeezed in with scores of other people. I stand out in the local restaurant and as I walk down the street. I am present but completely disconnected.

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Red Mansion 2015: Beijing Residency 1

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This is actually week 3 of 4 of my time here in Beijing.
Before I arrived, I anticipated a month of juxtapositions, of submersion in the population of over 23 million inhabitants, strangely alone amidst them. I thought this would result in some time for me to think, work through the inspiration that comes from a new place.
I thought all this time would include space for a self-observation project, tracking and broadcasting my every move, to save anyone else the trouble. This blog is part of that. This project was inspired by the difficulties I faced trying to end my residency with one of the longest train journeys possible, up to the plateau of Tibet. I always did want to visit there, and while I’ve come this far, what’s another few thousand miles?
Unfortunately, security and visa issues proved beyond my means. It’s not wholly popular, to express an interest in such a contentious territory. I found this oddly encouraging, that I would be a potentially strong enough voice in the world, that any one voice would be strong enough to cause a ripple on the ‘calm waters’ of the land there. So I thought I’d help, thought I’d add to the huge volume of data out there which anyone can use to investigate us further and track our movements.

I was soon to learn that things don’t often run smoothly in Beijing, or turn out like you expect. This is surely true with any unknown, be it experience, place or action.
The experience of travelling alone for the first time, for a whole month, to a continent I have never visited before, and trying to openly share where I am and what I’m doing has been educational.
The acknowledged Red Firewall prevents access to usual social media services, and many other news and info sites too. A VPN was duly purchased and set up prior to travel. This didn’t work here. The saving grace was that I had my Instagram account (cadi_f) set up to cross post to twitter (also cadi_f), which is also set up to cross post to the ubiquitous FB. This allowed part of my data exposure plan to function. It also has psychological advantages to dealing with the isolation: knowing that along with the public exposure of the information, Facebook was showing friends and family images of my travels, is a comfort.
Why this desire to keep connected, to assume connection? It surely is the comfort I take from it: at this distance it’s the next best thing to a chat. This has shone a bright personal light into the wider popularity of social media. It’s one thing sending distant grandparents amusing pics, or publicising work and shows to remind the friends I saw recently to come and see it for themselves, but I have the luxury of having chosen to live in a town where I am surrounded by familiar faces, and a city where the largely familiar face of the art world is easily accessible. Social media is a bonus, a tool to enhance it all. But what if it was one of my only links to the wider world, and to friends and family too? It sounds obvious writing it, but I had never appreciated the reality facing large numbers of users, which is that it really can be a voice to be heard, and to hear, when you face theoretical, ideological and practical boarders between yourself and others.

Switching my settings to enable location services on my phone camera, logging locations on Instagram posts which are visible on its map, and using a GPS App to track my movements felt uncomfortable. It makes me feel vulnerable, exposed – anyone could come and find me. But of course these conscious actions are carried out unconsciously every day by the sheer act of carrying my mobile phone. The ultimate success of the system- who cares about ID cards in the UK now?
Most of us willingly pay money to our network providers for hardware and services which allow anyone to track where we are to within 50cm at any time. This is established evidence now accepted in courts of law. I think the number of people I know without a mobile phone has gone down to about one now. Not including kids under 9. That seems to be the age it starts now. It’s a brilliant system we subscribed to, more expansive than the most optimistic ID card advocate could ever have dreamed of a decade ago.

This project is the first time I have knowingly made my self part of my work. I remember one of my first, brilliant, tutors pointing out that it is up to us how much of ourselves we show in our work. There is surely at least a grain of ourselves in every successful work, reflected in the issues we engage with and the medium we choose to work in. But this is different, blatant. Maybe a reflection of how apprehensive I was coming here, but how determined I was. A reflection of my perceived personal cost, the cost to my loved ones. Was it a test, to see how far I can stretch the limits of my relationships and my relationship with my familiar art practice?
That is what I see as the aim of the Red Mansion foundation. Their goal is to give us the opportunity to stretch everything, to see the edges of the familiar. Painful but without doubt productive. I’m looking forward to seeing this productivity take form when I get back to my studio next week. But not before I’ve had a nice cup of tea at my own kitchen table!

Tracey Payne Breathing Space Eastbourne

Thinking about sea air and escape from the metropolis I set off to find Tracey Paynes work in The Labyrinth in Eastbourne. The name of the venue should have been my first clue that, as always with Paynes work, all is not as it seems.
The Labyrinth is a little Victorian shopping arcade which has somehow survived development by secreting itself away and changing as little as possible since the last time a bustle was worn down it. The businesses occupying it have changed, but the commerce goes on, it is very much alive as a space.
Installed in a new truncated art space being explored by Curious Projects is a work which is also alive and breathing. Made from contemporary sail material in vibrant orange and sky blue, Breathing Space rises up at me from behind the glass bay shop front and catches me unawares. I had actually walked past it at first, though the colours didn’t go unnoticed. I turned back to peer in at the deflating form as it slowly slumped back below the windowsill.
Suddenly it sprang into life again, taking a deep motorised breath, filling out and rising above my head. This optimistic expansion, this deep intake of air was contained against the panes of glass. It climbed and climbed to no avail, displaying it’s cheerful colours pressed against the limits of the space. At last, as it occupied as much room as it could, it conceded, turned off, stopped trying.
The title and the location suggest optimism for space, and this is the commodity in most short supply here. This duality is often seen in Paynes work, most recently at Art Lacuna and at the Camberwell Salon at Unthank Artspace. The playful materials and installations have the joy of possibility in them, and manage to remain beautiful and enticing even as they exhale: they never do escape.
This determined attempt to occupy the space, the repeated thwarting of it, but ongoing tries nonetheless makes Breathing Space a work which I spent a good while with, ever hopeful of its success, ever entranced by its withdrawal.

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Tracey Payne, Breathing Space, 2014

Two Circuits at Trowbridge Town Hall

A site-specific installation of salvaged headphone wires, building cables and PC cooling fans, 9v battery

Thinking about all the voices and exertions of the people who have used and valued, enjoyed and dreaded this space, these works silently move the air once again, inviting a continuity for the building to host more breaths in years to come.

Appropriately, first blog posted by email, hopefully will be able to access in Beijing this month…. if it formats ok…