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!