my white wall compulsions: paint it black (I)

On Friday, October 3 at Handshake 302, we held the first salon for My White Wall Compulsions (墙迫症), “Paint It Black”.

The artist team for the first wall comprises Liu He (刘赫) and Wu Dan (吴丹), both under 25 and both curious about art and its possible articulations with and through society. Liu He is a second generation Shenzhener, whose parents came to build the SEZ before he was born. Wu Dan came to Shenzhen last year, a first generation migrant just out of college. During their first salon, Liu He talked about his anti-inspiration for “Paint It Black”.

This past summer, Liu He took time off from work to travel to some of the less travelled neidi cities. In one of the cities, he decided to take a job at a karaoke bar in order to see what it would be like to do day work (打工). He got a job as a procurer of Karaoke Bar princesses (and at the bar where he worked, hostesses who worked private rooms were so-called). The job included a three-day training session, in which the trainer was as enthusiastic and self-determined as a multi-level marketer. And in fact it turns out that procuring worked a lot like multi-level marketing–the more young, pretty women the procurers brought in, the more money they made.

Liu He left after a few days without recruiting any young women because “he couldn’t get past the moral issue”. Of the 30+ young men who had joined him for training, 12 decided to stay and work the job. Of that twelve, three were 16 years old. According to Liu He, the trainer insisted that once he stopped worrying about ethics, he could talk to pretty women and get rich. In fact, that seems to have been the point of the training: to overcome the young men’s repugnance to pimping and replace it with self-justifying desire for money and everything it buys.

The story ignited debate about what it means to leave one’s hometown and make one’s way in the world. There were two main positions, both pulsing with anger, sadness, and faintly, despair. The younger participants wanted a more honorable way of making a living, to live in such a way that they wouldn’t have to make the kind of choice that Liu He walked away from. The older participants, especially those who had worked their way out of a rural area, expressed that young people didn’t understand what was necessary in order to secure a better life for one’s children.

These two positions took a different relationship to the young pimps. The young people saw themselves and their choices in the decision to procure princesses. The older people saw the choices they had made so that their children would be protected from making those choices. No one saw themselves as a princess, a blind spot that not only hints at how gendered inequality shapes job opportunities in China, but also how difficult it is to truly see the most oppressed. After all, the young men’s decision to pimp or not to pimp still implied some kind of agency. It would have been more difficult to focus on the conditions that make young, rural women the cheapest and most convenient labor in manufacturing and service throughout the economy, even as women are markedly absent from positions of social influence and power.

Friday, October 10 at 19:00 the conversation continues when Liu He and Wu Dan present their finished wall.

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