what is cultural industry?

Friend Jonathan Bach is in Shenzhen, researching questions around cultural / creative industry in the city and I have had the pleasure of thinking the issue through his questions. A few days ago, we went to F518时尚创意园 or F518 Idea Land, “The first experienced sharing space in China, Creative industry multi-commercial semi-tourist destination” – unquote from the website. While at F518, we spoke with Zhang Miao, the architect of area’s landmark hotel and planner of other similar creative spaces in Hangzhou, Guizhou, and Guangzhou, in addition to Shenzhen, asking, “What is cultural industry?.”

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In brief, as practiced and promoted in Shenzhen, cultural industry refers to the production and consumption of cultural commodities, including stories and artwork and design. Zhang Miao identified four basic kinds of spaces where this kind of production takes place: (1) Hollywood type production, where the space specializes in all aspects of one kind of production; (2) Beijing 798, which specializes in artistic production; (3) Places like Shanghai’s Xintiandi, where the space itself is the product; and (4) Places like F518, which have a direct link to industrial production spaces.

Although Shenzhen’s most famous cultural industry spaces are OCAT, Dafen, and Wutongshan Cultural Highland, nevertheless this model of economic development has become increasingly common throughout Shenzhen. In 2003, as part of a national campaign, Shenzhen officially shifted its economic development focus from industrial manufacturing, to value-added industries such as financial services, research and development, and creative industries, with a focus on design. Urban village renovation, which began in 2006 accelerated the spread of cultural industry areas as village-owned industrial parks were converted for cultural industrial production. In fact, the Shenzhen Cultural Creative Industries Vitalization Development Plan for 2011-2015 (深圳文化创意产业振兴发展规划) explicitly features “culture” as the value that can be added to other value-added  forms of production, for example: Culture + Science and Technology, Culture + Financial Services, and Culture + Tourism (“文化+科技”、“文化+金融”、“文化+旅游”).

At this level then, cultural industry refers to the Municipality’s decision to commercialize human inventiveness and our ability to recreate the world in order to grow the local economy. As Zhang Miao noted, such a decision may make market-sense but remain morally ambiguous. On the one hand,  encouraging creativity may lead to more aestheticized forms of human life, as people make purchases based on “taste”. On the other hand, the speed at which cultural products are appear on the market has resulted in (a) lots of pirating instead of real creativity and (b) the solidification of class identities, which are marked by one’s ability to make “tasteful” purchases.

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