what is worth passing on?

Friday August 25, 2017 I had the honor of participating in the closing meeting of the second edition of the “Shenzhen Oral History” project. It was a high level and exciting cultural event that commemorated the people who contributed to Shenzhen’s second decade, 1992-2002. A week later on Friday September 1, I attended the salon for Wu Xingyu and Zhong Yuxiao’s art project “Demolition.”

On the face of it, these two experiences were very different. Oral history participants were mostly or soon-to-be retired, while Guangxi Normal University rising seniors Wu Xingyu and Zhong Yuxiao were interns for Handshake 302. The oral history event included speeches and a clip from a professional documentary, while Xingyu and Yuxiao used cardboard, gold acrylic paint, baby powder and balloons to make a simple art work. The oral history project has received citywide media attention, while the Handshake Residency is featured in our we chat stream.

And yet. When we go beyond surface impressions, we discover the creative spirit that these two events share. In the 1990s, Shenzheners asked, “what can I do?” And then figured out how to do it. Of course, they learned from other cities and discussed possibilities, but in the main, most Shenzheners figured out how to build a city or run a business by doing it. A popular expression was, “there is nothing that can’t be done, only people who can’t do it.” Similarly, Xingyu and Yuxiao approached their residency in Handshake 302 pragmatically. As with modernization projects, so too with art projects; the answer to the question, “what can I do” is not abstract but requires a balance of interest, time, and material resources.

When I came to Shenzhen to conduct research in 1995, I moved into a single room apartment in Yuehaimen New Village. It was noisy, dank, and endlessly grey concrete. Nevertheless, this room was cheap enough for a graduate student budget and located next to Shenzhen University so that I could easily use the library and meet with professors. In other words, Yuehaimen was a viable option for a young graduate student. Today it is not. Yuehaimen was demolished in 2013 and is now a high end residential area.

Similarly, the Handshake 302 residency aims to provide young artists with opportunities to practice their art. Just as Old Shenzheners figured out how to modernize because they participated in transforming rural Bao’an into Shenzhen, so too the only way that students become artists is by making art. During their residency Xingyu and Yuxiao lived in Baishizhou, explored the neighborhood, and thought about what its immanent demise might mean for young artists. They were inspired by a practical question: Wu Xingyu and Zhong Yuxiao are aware that the only way they can become creative and professional artists is by making sculpture every day. Can they do that in Shenzhen if the city is gentrifying the urban villages?

The work itself was simple. Xingyu used cardboard and gold acrylic to create Shenzhen’s modern skyline. Behind the skyline was a pile of balloons filled with baby powder. It was an awkward and incomplete representation of the city. Too cheap and too simple to represent Shenzhen. After listening to Xingyu explain that the work was inspired by the sounds and immediacy of demolition, audience members were invited to pop the balloons sending powder into the air. Sudden and abrupt, the popping balloons and drifting baby powder was fun. Smiles and laughter met each pop. However, once the baby powder settled, it was suddenly obvious that without the balloons the cardboard city seemed less vibrant, less stable, and less interesting. Only after the balloons had been popped did we begin to reflect on what had happened. Until we saw the debris, it was all good fun.

Wu Xingyu and Zhong Yuxiao came to Handshake 302 as summer interns. In July, their alent, passion, and hard work made it possible for Handshake 302 to organize a summer camp in Dalang. In August, in addition to staying in Baishizhou and making a public art project, they also helped us run a series of art workshops in Qinghu. They had just finished their junior year in college, but they made it possible for Handshake 302 to do more than we could have done by ourselves because we gave them a “volunteer” stipend rather than paid them actual wages.

Here’s the rub: once they graduate from college, Xingyu and Yuxiao won’t be able to afford live on volunteer stipends. They will either have to get jobs or live with their parents. However, they will not be able to develop their art unless Shenzhen provides viable opportunities to live and work cheaply in the city.

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Here’s the point: as urban planners and teachers our job is to provide conditions in which people and students can invent solutions to problems we don’t yet recognize. This was a condition of development in Shenzhen during the 1990s and it continues to be necessary if art and the city are to move forward in more humane ways.

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