多一事不如少一事: regulating space

yesterday fat bird held its weekly workshop at shenzhen university. we had been rehearsing in one of the rooms assigned to the acting department, but decided to work outside the gym, where faculty and staff play badmitten, swim, and learn gongfu. the gym building has set-in doors that are well-shaded and because usually locked, these entryways provide semi-private outdoor rehearsal spaces.

as we rehearsed, some of the gym’s patrons stopped to watch, but most glanced our way and then moved on. however, the gym security guards kept circling past and one finally stopped to ask who we were and what we were doing. we said we were university teachers and students working on a project. the guard grunted and then moved on. about fifteen minutes later, he returned and asked to see our i.d. cards. several participants began arguing with him. fat bird asserted its right to rehearse in the gym space because (1) it was public space and (2) we were members of the university community.

to understand why the security guard came over a bit of background information is in order. during the sars panic of 2003, the university quarrantined the campus. students who lived on campus were not allowed to leave; if they did, they were not allowed back in. in theory, only staff and students who lived off-campus and had appropriate identification were permitted in and out of the campus gates. however, in practice, the university continued to let construction teams on campus. pre-sars, shenzhen university was one of the few, if only, campus to which the general population had free access. since sars, however, the university has tightened restrictions on entering the campus; security guards at one of four gates now regulate access to the university. indeed, in an important sense, they determine who the community might be. all this to say that the sars panic increased the guards’ power to regulate who comes on campus as well as the behavior of folks on campus. (it probably doesn’t need to be said that construction continues unabated as the administration fills in “empty” space with new, improved, and obviously expensive buildings.)

so at the core of the debate between the security guard and fat bird participants was the definition of public space within a space that had been re-designated as private space three years ago. fat bird insisted that “public” meant anyone who could get onto the university. we had, after all, been vetted at the campus gates. public space on campus was therefore available to anyone in the university community to use. in contrast, the security insisted on his responsibility and right to monitor the activity of anyone using the gym. he applied the logic of gates to the gym; one had to demonstrate one’s right to be there.

yet, what obviously drew his attention was how we were using gym space. it seemed that because he didn’t understand what we were doing he wanted us to do it elsewhere. he wasn’t asking us to leave the university, just the section for which he was responsible. there was no indication that what we were doing broke any laws, but rather, that it was inconvenient for us to be there. from the guard’s point of view “one thing less to worry about is better than the alternative (a very, very loose translation of the expression: 多一事不如少一事)”. fat bird has encountered this kind of monitoring public performance in other spaces. in the summer of 2003, fat bird organized a series of improvised responces to symbolically important spaces called “human city”. at several of these places, security guards interupted the performance and asked us to leave.

it is worth noting an important difference between security guards and the police. security guards are hired by private organizations to regulate and monitor use of private space. the police monitor and regulate public space. at one fat bird performance, the security guards actually called the police; we ran away before they showed up. so one of the morals of this story: we are more likely to argue with security guards than with the police.

a second and more sobering moral of this story has to do with regulation of expressive life in the prc. most of us are aware of the prc’s ongoing attempts to censor the internet. this very public battle is important. however, fewer of us are aware of the extent to which regulation takes place at the private level. security guards are just one symptom of a pervasive tendency on the part of private companies and organizations to pre-empt trouble by shutting down that which they don’t understand. throughout shenzhen, security guards monitor gateways into housing, commercial, and industrial developments. then within these spaces, security guards are placed at the entrance to each individual building within the development. the relationship between gate and gymnaseum guards at shenzhen university reproduces this all-too-common way of regulating space. the expression “less is more (多一事不如少一事)” in this context refers to the idea that it’s better to avoid trouble, than to take risks. this means that even if citizens aren’t breaking any laws, security guards nevertheless may (try to) stop them from using space in unconventional or unexpected ways.

unfortunately, the less is more approach to using space permeates our consciousness, so that censorship on expression goes all the way down. after the security guard left, i said that if we wanted to change the guards’ responce to us, we should report them. one of the fat bird members said that they would rather try to convince the guard to leave us alone because it wasn’t worth reporting them.

“what would the head of security do anyway?” she continued, “instead, if this keeps up, i would rather find someplace else to rehearse.”

sometimes, less is just less.

you be the judge. please check out a clip from the 13 may 2006 fat bird workshop. during the workshop, we continued working on new experiences of the body, specifically limiting the body in space.

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