fat bird in hong kong!

On January 10-11, 2009 Fat Bird will perform “FBI: 2009 Shennong Plan” at the Fringe Club City Festival 2009. FBI is, of course, the acronym for Fat Bird Institution.

FBI: 2009 Shennong Project is organized as a series of public announcements, propaganda events, and onstage performances that are adapted to local audience concerns.

Organization of Public Announcement. During a pre-show press conference, FBI Chair Yang Qian explains how recent Chinese food crises are in fact signs that human evolution is entering a new stage. Specifically, toxic food allows the earth to weed out food dependent people, revealing the new human as the ones who directly ingest elements. All human beings are welcome to join FBI’s pursuit of a new and glorious future humanity.

Organization of Propaganda Events. At each of the onstage performance, FBI sets up an information table, where an FBI believer challenges passersby and audience members with the questions: “Are you afraid of China food?” and “If so, would you consider joining FBI?”

Organization of Onstage Scenes (for Hong Kong performance, January 10-11, 2009; time 30 minutes; 7 participants). Each scene is comprised of: multi-media and performance. FBI handouts and propaganda materials will also be available at each performance.

Images of the first FBI handouts from the December 4, 2008 press conference in Hong Kong:


fat bird red and blue

English translation of the handout:

FBI Report to Hong Kong Citizens: The Chinese Food Problem and a New Stage in Human Evolution

People of Hong Kong:

Greetings! Recently, under the pressure of population, environmental, rapid urbanization, and globalization, the quality of Chinese food has become increasingly questionable. Chemical residues in food and chemical additives with no nutritional value are now common. In addition, there are constant reports of industrially processed foods. This year, the “Three Deer Milk Powder Incident” transformed the question of food safety into a focus of social concern. “Three Deer” milk products carried the prestigious “No National Food Inspection” label because in previous years their products had all passed inspection. The contamination of Three Deer” milk products resulted in the collapse of confidence in national food safety regulation. This crisis and the high level of distrust of all food was the background for the appearance of a new illness—comephobia. Comephobics display high levels of anxiety, suffer from hallucinations, and are frequently aggressive. There is a danger of comephobic outbreaks in the richest of China’s eating regions. According to our information, health departments throughout the country are as yet unable to cure or control this disease.

However, the crisis in Chinese food safety is actually a signal that humanity has entered a new stage in evolution. Accordingly, FBI has a special announcement: the results of our research show that there is a special class of human being that does not depend on ordinary food in order to live. They are among us. We call the “elementals” because they are able to secure nutrition from other sources. Elementals are uniquely adapted to the current environment and do not suffer from comephobia. Given ongoing environmental degradation, they embody the hope of human survival and evolution.

FBI is the acronym of Fat Bird Institution, the department of the Global New Life Diversification Federation that is responsible for researching and optimizing the opportunities for human evolution caused by the pressure of the Chinese food environment. We have been secretly tracking the existence of elementals for a long time. However, we were unable to develop an easy method for distinguishing elementals from the rest of the population. The Three Deer Milk Powder Incident enabled a breakthrough in FBI’s work on identifying elementals. Our research shows that children who drink melamine contaminated milk powder and develop kidney stones are in fact elementals. When this research was extended to the adult population, our identifications were 99.46% accurate. FBI decided to announce our presence and research to offer an invitation to all people. Come to an FBI identification station and take the melamine milk test and determine your true nature. The mass distinguishing of human natures is the second core mission of the “2009 Shennong Plan”.

During the January 2009 Hong Kong Fringe Festival, FBI will set up an identification station in the basement of the Fringe Club. We welcome every Hong Kong citizen to begin self-identification. We will also provide entertainment.

fusion food-scapes

This weekend a group of Swiss writers visited as part of the food-scape / 食事风景 project. Representing the four Swiss languages, the writers were: Vanni Bianconi (Italian), Arno Camenisch (Romanch), Odile Cornuz (French), Peter Weber (German), and Martin Zeller (German). Margrit Manz organized the project. Three film-makers also came: Xia Tian from Tianjin by way of Basel, Janos Tedeschi, and Milo.

The importance of food in creating and nourishing human relationships is a truism in both anthropological theory and Chinese culture. We don’t just eat with intimates, we also create intimacy by sharing food. Moreover, when a group lacks common topics of conversation, talking about food easily segues into childhood memories, strangest food I ever tasted bravado, journeys through cultural landscapes, and perils of world domination by American fast food chains.

Saturday afternoon, day one, started awkwardly but ended with the sensual pleasures of a Hunan restaurant,where I was most struck by how good food facilitated conversations that had previously been stilted and dry. Pre-food, we approached conversation intellectually, each of us rehearsing arguments and theses we had clearly developed in other contexts. However, the flavors, the baijiu, the chewing, the swallowing, and the communal digesting of Hunan food gave us a world in common. We talked about tastes, what was special about Hunan food, the different types of chili peppers in China. We enjoyed Peter and Vanni’s enthusiasm for new dishes and suddenly the distance between people dissolved into laughter, stories, and arranging another workshop, which would be held after visiting Dongmen and City Hall the next day.

Sunday morning, day two, Winnie Wong joined us for morning tea at the revolving restaurant at the top of the National Commerce Building (国贸). This building is a particular favorite of mine because the inexpensive morning tea (48 per person on weekdays, 58 on weekends) is not only tasty, but also an easy opening to talk about Shenzhen history (the National Commerce Building was the first skyscraper built in reform China) and view Shenzhen (at 49 stories the building is tall enough for great views but low enough to be able to see and identify other buildings). Again, food, its presentation, and the dim sum fun of selecting baskets of dumplings, braised chicken claws, and cow stomach created commonality, so that presence in the present could anchor conversations that might otherwise have drifted into the tenuous connections of abstract thoughts.

We then visited the street markets of the remains of old Hubei Village (湖贝村), an urban village that occupies downtown land as yet to expensive to appropriated. Rows of and two-story traditional houses create narrow lanes, which are wide enough for a person to walk through open onto wider main lanes, which are wide enough to accommodate small carts, bicycles, motor scooters, and tables of fresh meat, vegetables, seafood, fried breads, imported fruits, tofu products, and displays of preserved eggs. Most of Shenzhen’s migrant workers live with their families in inner city villages like Hubei Village and these street markets both reproduce the feel of local markets elsewhere and provide convenient access to food. More importantly, the street markets create food-scapes, where migrants can inhabit Shenzhen by making neighborhoods out of grocery shopping, haggling over prices, sharing recipes, or simply walking around and noticing what’s available.

These three very different food-scapes provided the backdrop to our short visit to experience the monumentality of the central axis, where Martin bought pastries for our afternoon workshop, which itself was a food-scape of another kind. Martin arranged the pastries in the center of the table, I added the box of Swiss chocolates that Xia Tian had given me as a meeting gift, and the hostel workers served cups of hot coffee and tea. The group was now ready to talk about art. And we did. The conversation touched upon individualism, Chinese familialism, the materiality of language, and the performance of written works. Odile and Janos provided an impromtu reading of my translation of Yang Qian’s “Neither Type Nor Category”, and then Peter read his poems in German and Yang Qian their Chinese translations.

I left the table thinking about the importance of shared intimacy through eating to nourishing mutual understanding. Indeed, eating together made spaces in which conversation was meaningful and viscerally pleasurable, allowing real cultural differences to explored, rather than skipped over. During the food-scape exchange, for example, two of the most obvious moments of cultural ignorance appeared as lack of knowledge about Shenzhen (among Western artists) and indifference to Dada (among Chinese students).

On the one hand, over the past thirty years, Shenzhen has touched the lives of every single Mainland person. To have lived through Reform and Opening is to have seen its possibilities tried out, tinkered with, and transformed in Shenzhen. Indeed, migrating to Shenzhen, especially before 1997, defined a particular kind of courage and ambition that all Chinese people recognize. Thus, in the context of the contemporary PRC, ignorance about Shenzhen is unimaginable because it would mean having missed an entire historical era.

On the other hand, modern art movements like Dada have impacted and made possible all kinds of Western lives, ranging from aesthetic experimentation to philosophical interrogation of the limits to objective truth. Many of us, including myself, have created lives out of these possibilities. Thus, in the context of Western individualism, indifference to Dada is puzzling because to learn about Dada is to deepen one’s understanding of the self.

Definite food for thought.

film maker liu gaoming

On Tuesday, December 2, 2008 SACS hosted the Shenzhen premiere of Shenzhen filmmaker, Liu Gaoming’s film, “A Song.” Mary Ann O’Donnell interpreted the after film discussion. QSI Shekou provided the venue.

Ostensively straightforward, “A Song” tells the story of the anti-Shenzhen Dream; a young guitar player migrates to Shenzhen, looses his job, lives off his friends, and falls in love with the possibly drug-addicted hostess who lives in the apartment across the alley. When not hanging out or trying to sell commercial yellow pages over the phone, A Song spies on his pretty neighbor. One day he vanishes.

However, unlike traditional films, “A Song” challenges genre conventions by documenting the filmmaker Liu Gaoming’s memory of A Song, rather than presenting a cinema verité of A Song’s life. In 1996, Liu also migrated to Shenzhen. For three months, he and A Song lived together in a crowded apartment in one of Shenzhen’s urban villages. Then Liu changed jobs, moving to another part of the city. He and A Song lost contact with one another. Later, through a mutual friend, Liu heard that “Maybe A Song made a mistake, so maybe he’s hiding from the police.” Liu has repeatedly wondered what could have turned his first Shenzhen friend, the friend who cooked him dinner and cared for him, what could have turned this basically decent human being into a swindler? What actually happened while Liu was at work and A Song hung out at the apartment?

“A Song” is Liu’s painfully intimate exploration of that fundamental time, when both men faced the existential challenge of making a new life in an alien city, alone. According to Liu, “The only difference between me and A Song is that I persevered and stayed, while he left.”

In fact, unlike A Song, Liu Gaoming has achieved the Shenzhen Dream. He is now the creative director of his own design company, has a beautiful condo in one of Shenzhen’s upscale neighborhoods, and drives an imported car. His wife is an equally talented and successful fashion designer and their four-year old daughter laughs easily.

Liu came to Shenzhen after receiving a teaching degree in painting from a teacher’s college in Ganzhou, Jiangxi. After graduating from college he taught middle school art class for half a year before deciding to pursue his dreams in Shenzhen. During his first year in Shenzhen, Liu did odd jobs in art related businesses. However, the following year, he was hired to work in a design studio and his life became more stable. He settled into his job, learned the trade, and then in 2001 opened his own design company, Brothers Design.

However, the more materially successful Liu has become, the more he has felt disconnected from the city that enabled his rags-to-riches transformation. This is one of the paradoxes of the Shenzhen Dream. Once a migrant achieves the dream and becomes a Shenzhener, it becomes apparent that although everything is different, nothing essential has changed. The desires and dissatisfactions that compel one to migrate to China’s most important post-Mao experiments don’t dissipate simply because one makes good. If anything, existential questions become more acute. Indeed, thirty years after the Reform and Opening era began, many of the beneficiaries of Deng Xiaoping’s policy to transform Maoism are actively asking themselves if there is a spiritual dimension to all this economic booming.

For Liu, the question, “How did I get here?” became salient in 2003, when his parents visited him. He was shocked to realize that they really were already old and that time really was that relentless. Liu Gaoming suddenly wanted to know: how did I get here?

In order to understand both his alienation from the Shenzhen dream and the actual city, Liu Gaoming began making films. However, when he picked up a Sony 790 and turned his gaze on Shenzhen and its residents, Liu had no previous film making experience. In fact, no one on the production team of “A Song” had any film making experience and Liu himself still doesn’t know what kind of sound system was used during film. He does remember that they used two hanging and two body mikes. Consequently, Liu has humorously named his film company “Amateur Productions”.

To date, Liu has completed two films, “Rib” and “A Song,” is editing a third, “Beijing” and is planning his fourth. Each film focuses on a Shenzhen anti-hero, someone whose life never quite takes root in the city. Instead, like the pirated DVD hawker of the eponymous documentary “Rib,” the Shenzhen anti-heroes who populate Liu’s films start off at society’s edge, begin a downward spiral into its uncharted depths, and then vanish without a trace.

Filmed in 2004 and edited in 2007, “A Song” was Liu’s first interrogation of the anti-Shenzhen Dream. The film implicitly asks: If the only difference between a Liu Gaoming and an A Song is that Liu stays and A Song leaves, what does it mean to inhabit Shenzhen? Is there any point to staying in the city?

Liu takes a non-judgmental view of A Song’s inability to pursue the Shenzhen Dream. Instead, he matter-of-factly shows the sparse conditions of A Song’s life. The apartment is not only cramped, but also presses up against other apartments that are so close that if A Song were to reach out through the barred window, he and the neighbor could shake hands. The incessant noise compounds the visceral lack of privacy. At the same time, A Song doesn’t speak with anyone; he practices speaking Cantonese with a book, he pretends to call customers on the phone, and he grunts instead of answering the pretty girl who washes his hair and cajoles him into joining her for a “chat”.

A Song’s silent implosion is painful to watch, but Liu holds the camera unwaveringly on the memory of his friend. A Song stands on bench. A Song smokes a cigarette. A Song rides a bicycle in the apartment living room, first circling then crashing into the long sofa. A Song becomes nothing more than a body occupying space. A Song vanishes. Liu admits that he originally filmed in color and then converted the files to black and white because, “That’s what I felt like when I was making the film.”

“A Song” ends with a fantasy sequence in which Liu imagines that A Song has returned to his hometown and resumed his career as a music teacher. This image poignantly speaks to how migrating to Shenzhen has changed individuals like A Song and Liu Gaoming, begging the question: is going home the last, unrealizable Shenzhen Dream?

shenzhen photographer bai xiaoci

this past week, my friend jonathan has been visiting. he’s doing research in shenzhen and has inspired me to get out of my usual orbit. on tuesday night, jonathan set up a meeting with with bai xiaoci (白小刺), a photographer documenting shenzhen on his blog, 抓拍城市/我所见的城市和城市化.

one of bai xiaoci’s more interesting projects is “i live in here (我住在这里),” a series of shenzhen home interiors and their occupants. definately worth a visit.

urban form and memory


joshua kauffman and gwendolyn floyd

the bienniale opens tonight. well, bienniale the third. but it’s my first. i missed the previous two. i’ve been hanging out at oct loft with fat bird and silo, and these past few weeks, with gwendolyn floyd and joshua kauffman, co-founders of regional, which they define as “an interdisciplinary design and research network that performs and applies original analysis of global society, culture and commerce, uncovering and developing opportunities for profitable innovation and meaningful cultural intervention.”

their installation is called “foreground”, which was built out of bamboo. the design is derived from GIS data of a recently removed shenzhen mountain ridge. over the past twenty years, shenzhen has aggressively reclaimed land from both its eastern and western coasts. in everyday conversation this process is called “moving mountains in order to fill the ocean (移山填海).” with foreground, floyd and kauffman have respond to this transformation by using bamboo to re-construct a mountain that no longer exists. the contrast between the structure and the ground actualizes the difference between shenzhen’s pre- and post-urban topographies, creating a visible and material history for the area. more importantly, the installation enables bienniale visitors to imagine the lay of shenzhen’s land before urbanization and, in doing so, re-imagine how the city might reproduce itself in the future.

at least i hope so. one of the illusions of land reclamation and disappeared mountains is how quickly they vanish from consciousness. when i go to houhai and look out at the new landscape i have to think, and think hard, to recall something about what was once there. most of the time, however, i end up taking another round of photos and then doing a little side by side comparison. that was then, this is now.

its hard work to keep the city’s past and present simultaneously in mind. usually, i depend on the material world to do that for me. the old buildings, certain parks, particular roads–these hold my memories, which i enter by way of an evening walk. to the extent that it remains in place, shenzhen keeps my memory intact. but the city keeps getting razed. or rebuilt. or refashioned. and as the buildings collapse and new edifices rise, or factories get a facelift and industrial areas are upgraded, i forget. or rather, i loose access to memory. all that stuff are also doors to memory, and when a building gets razed, i am locked out of my past.

click for images of gwen and joshua’s work in progress.

old man party, shenzhen

this weekend, independent documentary digital film-maker liu gaoming (刘高明) and independent film producer zhu rikun (朱日坤) curated “old man party, shenzhen (老男人的party)”. like many shenzhen artists, gaoming has a white-collar day job (he has his own design company), which supports his artistic activities. this makes the shenzhen art scene very different from other cities, where being an artist is often a fulltime practice. zhu rikun is the head of fanhall films, a beijing based institution which produces and promotes chinese independent films.

the event was held at club de vie (圆筒艺术空间) was founded by a group of professional artists and wine tasters, bringing together both economic and aesthetic interests in a way similar to the loft space at oct. club de vie’s owner, feng zhifeng (冯志峰) is designer by day. again, the shenzhen twist on art promotion. club de vie is located within the shenzhen sculpture institute hosted the event–this is the same unit that sponsored fat bird’s “draw whiskers, add dragon”. the head of the institute, sun zhenye has said that it is their goal to turn 8 zhongkang road (中康路八号;their address) into a brandname.

the party took place on saturday and sunday; three films were screened each day. invitations to the event were texted to folks in gaoming’s and zhifeng’s circles. all of the films were digital documentaries, made out of diverse interests and commitments, but sharing limited financing. information about the artists and their work is available on the fanhall site. i have noted when the artist has an independent website. anyway, the artists and their films were:

huang wenhai’s (黄文海) “dreamwalking (梦游)” was about several beijing artists who went on a road trip to nanyang. performance artist li wake(李娃克), poet motou beibei (魔头贝贝), and painter ding defu (丁德福) are all somewhat known within contemporay art circles. their intention was to make a film with wang yongping (王永平). huang wenhai went to help with the filming. however, the filming fell apart and huang wenhai ended up filming the artists’ daily life, which included drinking, impromtu performances, and drunken discussions on the meaning of life.

zhao dayong (赵大勇) presented “nanjing road (南京路)” about garbage pickers living at the heart of shanghai’s fashionable shopping district. the film focused on heipi (black skin), a migrant from the northeast whose poverty and subsequent arrests and beatings by the police lead to him going crazy.

wang wo (王我) showed “chaos (热闹)”, an impressionistic account of how it feels to live in contemporary china. interestingly, “renao” refers more to the general excitement of a crowded and prosperous area than it does to chaos, per se. indeed, describing a place as “renao” is more often than not complementary.

xu xin (徐辛) presented “the huoba troupe (火把剧团)”, a film that looks at the demise of sichuan opera. once the home to opera troupes and tea houses, chengdu is increasingly modern. young people prefer to go to discos and bars, and some of the old opera stars are now running song and dance troupes.

zhou hao’s (周浩) “hou street (厚街)” brought the documentary lens to guangzhou, chronicling a year in the lives of migrant workers on hou street. all lived hand to mouth, looking for jobs in nearby factories. none have the kind of traditional relationships that made life meaningful back home.

hu xinyu (胡新宇) presented his first work “men (男人)”, an intensely personal film about hu xinyu, his friend old su, and their neighbor shi lin. old su graduated from the national film academy. after loosing another job, he moved in with hu xinyu, who filmed their days together.

all six films were made by non-professionals, who had turned to digital film-making as a way of expressing themselves. to my knowledge, this is the first time such an event has been organized in shenzhen. so an art scene emerges.

移民与海: oh that shenzhen cultural industry

yesterday at 派意馆, the shenzhen sculpture institute (深圳市雕塑院) hosted the opening ceremony/press conference for its multi-cultural documentary “immigrants and sea (official translation of 移民与海). paiyiguan is an exhibition space located in the oct loft area, right near the art center. the documentary explores the question of (in word for word translation of the chinese) “coast cities immigrant culture way of life (滨海城市移民文化生态).” a string of descriptions that force grammatical impositions in english. safest translation, perhaps: the immigrant culture of coastal cities.

the entire project has three parts: a documentary film about cultural life in latin american coastal cities; a public culture project in shenzhen; and an exhibition in the shenzhen architecture biennial. the documentary recounts cultural moments in various south american countries and cities. in havana, the shenzhen photographer xiao quan (肖全) takes the audience on a tour of havana’s charms. “he passes through cuba’s big streets and small alleys, searching for and recording cuban smiles and happy faces, ceasely uncovering the native warmth of cuba’s powerful culture and integrative force.”

in chile, liang erping retraces the footsteps of pablo neruda, citizen of a country of only 15 million people that nevertheless produced a nobel laureate. in brazil, shenzheners are less interested in rio than they are in brazilia, itself a famed overnight city. our guide in brazilia is shenzhen television personality, hong hai. the documentary pays special attention to carnival. in buenos aires, a shenzhen designer han jiaying explores the richness of argentine tango, soccer, and architecture.

that brief sysnopsis helps define what the film makers mean by “culture”; it is not only high culture, but also culture as giving a city definitive international identity. what kind of culture would shenzhen’s immigrants have to create in order to attain similar recognition?

historical alleys like havana? the attempt to package the ming and qing dynasty county seat at nantou has not succeeded.

noble prize worthy literature? one of shenzhen’s most famous author is an ze, a woman who broke out of being a laboring daughter (打工妹) by exposing the gritty and sexualized underside of shenzhen’s development. unlike the protagonist in wei hui’s better known book, shanghai baby who attempts to realize herself through writing and sex, the protagonist’s of an ze’s (also banned) books use sex to get ahead. sex in shenzhen, the story goes, is not liberatory, but cohersed and mercenary.

municipal festivals like carnaval? at windows of the world themepark, shenzheners already participate in carnival, oktoberfest, and water festival. there is, however, no city wide festival, in part, because most native festivals are village based. indeed, going with a local festival would entail shenzhen’s urban elite recognizing the contributions of local villagers to urban culture, something that hasn’t happened as of yet.

architecture like in buenos aires and brazilia? this seems the most likely, and shenzheners continue their pursuit of architectural excellence. it is telling that this project is entering shenzhen’s public culture through the architectural biennial.

fat bird enters this picture in part three, the sculpture exhibition. the sculpture instute is the same organization that sponsored fat bird’s inclusion at the guanshanyue museum’s tenth anniversary celebration. they have also invited us to participate in the biennial. we are currently working on a project about remembering nanshan’s now banned oyster farming as our contribution to shenzhen’s coastal culture. in fact, remnant beaches (in yantian district) of oyster cultivation could become an important and unique marker of shenzhen cultural identity. the catch is that oyster farmers immigrated generations ago, and shenzhen’s cultural elite are interested in creating high culture out of their immigrant experience.

yang qian and i left the press conference with a purble paper bag stuffed with gifts: a neckless, advertising materials, and purple immigrant & sea shirts. unfortunately, my camera was uncharged, so i didn’t photograph the event. so i have included a picture of yang qian modelling the purple shirt. he is standing on the balcony of our houhai apartment. faintly visible in the background is the land reclamation project, which is perhaps shenzhen’s most concrete contribution to coastal ways of life.


the purple shirt, the balcony, the reclaimed coastline