local is as local does. or not.

This week I have been thinking about iterations of the “local” in two sites: the 2015 Shenzhen Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture and the Baishizhou Street Museum. In particular, I’m thinking about the possibility of making connections from “here” to “there” when they hinge on the distance between (a) some outside understanding of what the local might be and (b) what might be interesting to actual locals. The possibility of meaningful dialogue is further complicated when “outsiders” and “locals” are organized by global hierarchies, internal class structures, and unquestioned ideas of what might be intellectually and/or aesthetically engaging.

Both the 2015 SZ-HK Biennale and the Baishizhou Street Museum have non-locals showing up and variously engaging locals. It is a moment when compassionate and intelligent practice seem more important than good intentions: without knowledge of the diversity of Shenzhens and Baishizhous it is difficult not to produce travelogues and touristy scrapbooks of our adventures. The problem, of course, is that more often than not it is these tourists (self included) who end up writing about and representing the “local”.

With the Biennale, for example, I have been asked by various people about where to secure local supplies to make projects, which might be interesting except for the fact that often what the outsider is asking to find shouldn’t require a guide. Or rather, should (at this point) already have set up deep enough relationships to navigate the territory. And that’s a problem because the level of information sought is simple tourism, but will become an exemplar of “local” engagement at an international exhibition. Of course, the SZ-HK biennale committee that approved these projects is as complicit with tourism knowledge as the artists.

Similarly, the Baishizhizhou Street Museum brought pictures of Baishizhou into a Baishizhou plaza. The epistemological structure of the project resembles that of the SZ-HK Biennale (without any money); art projects that engage the local are installed or shown there in order to stimulate relevant conversation. However, here’s the rub: most of the people who passed by stopped for a moment to watch the images, but didn’t stay because they weren’t interested in the content of the pictures. The Street Museum displayed images that were too close to their everyday life to allow for intellectual/aesthetic difference and the pleasures they bring. In contrast, I did notice many gathered around televisions to watch telenovelas and Taiwanese game shows just 10 feet away.

I believe that intellectual and/or aesthetic pleasure comes from practices that enable us to reflect on the meaning of our–very situated–lives. Anthropological research, pour moi, is most engaging in the field when I can ask questions and learn about things I didn’t know. The process of visiting sites, talking with people, and subsequently figuring out I relate to a locality brings me joy. Not unexpectedly, this process requires me to formalize the distances between myself and said locality and its locals in order to constitute a knowable object (Shenzhen, for example, or migrant workers).

That said, I’m not as interested in the ontology of intellectual/aesthetic objects as I am in their epistemology. “How do we know?” strikes as more important question than “what do we know?”. Consider, for example, the differences between tourists, migrants, and refugees. Tourists show up, snap shots, and confirm understandings of locality through choreographed differences in food and housing and language. In contrast, migrants have different intentions–a job, an education, or possibly a chance to engage the world otherwise, while refugees secure survival by escaping untenable places. The very different intentions that motivate movement from some “here” cannot produce similar knowledge of some “there” even if a tourist, a migrant, and a refugee all arrive at nominally the same place–New York or Shenzhen, for example. At this moment, knowledge becomes a question of moral value: how we rank these three “New Yorks” or three “Shenzhens” will determine how we intervene in these places and toward what ends.

So, pressing question du jour: what do we need to do, to do better?

This week’s pictures juxtapose images of the under construction biennale site and the Baishizhou Street Museum experiment. In between, a picture of the Sino-African Logistics Institute that I just noticed in Shekou; it’s on the way from the subway to the flour mill and I really, really, really hope they’re doing something for the biennale–One band, one road. And there’s a concept in need of sustained critique.

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2 thoughts on “local is as local does. or not.

  1. I read this. I read it again and all I can day is your genius and clarity are so well felt here. Now I am going to print this out and read it a third time so I can respond. You writing makes me thing, improves my analytic tools and most of all, makes me understand the nature of having a moral responsibility to all out “locals”…New York, Shenzhen, Ontario, Paris, Shiraz. and to step out of my perspective and into the perspective that guides those who are born in a certain area, those who visit and those who labor. Thanks. Thank you. Sepas.

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