untrustworthy environs

The current Handshake 302 exhibit, Baishizhou Superhero has just finished its opening weekend. We’ve had good press, and people interested in the topic have sent out weixin‘s and weibo‘s to their circles. In fact, the exhibit is fun, and once people come into the space, they clearly enjoy taking pictures of themselves and friends as one of the heroes (curatorial statement, here). And there’s the rub: getting people into the space.

In fact, mobilizing our neighbors to visit the space has been an ongoing project. Yesterday, during the exhibit’s open hours I observed to a visiting friend that for many of Handshake’s neighbors crossing the threshold from observing in the hallway to participating in the exhibition is a huge step taken only after several hallway engagements. In reply, he gave a class and generational analysis that avoided the easy (and prevalent) stereotypes of “Chinese culture” or “national ethos (国情)”, focusing instead on the social cost of trust.

He opened an analysis with a joke about an old woman who was sitting next to the road. A young man is talking on the phone and she overhears him say, “Dad, purchase me 500,000 yuan insurance.” Without waiting for anymore information, the old woman picks up her stool and moves away from the roadside. The (literal) punchline? Accident insurance apparently covers up to 500,000 rmb in compensation and is more than enough to settle cases in which urbanites hit and cripple rural workers, while an old lady wouldn’t get enough to cover her legal expenses and hospital recovery.

Background to the joke: Chinese tort law addresses the question of compensation for injuries sustained in a car accident in terms of a simple equation: average annual salary of place times twenty years. For those older than sixty, one year is removed for each year older than sixty but younger than 75 (so the compensation rate for a 63-year-old would be times 17). Compensation for all people over the age of 75 is times 5. For children not yet one year old, the compensation is also times 5. . There is a published list of average salaries by place (Shenzhen list). In other words, the average salary for a city worker in Shenzhen is 40,741 and for a rural worker is 10,542. So the mean compensation for car accidents falls between 800,000 and 200,000. There is a more detailed list that includes salaried workers, but clearly, for the majority of China’s rural population, they won’t get more than 500, 000 before legal fees.

My friend’s point was simple: the poor can’t afford unexpected encounters and so their first response is one of self-preservation. The old lady didn’t know if the guy on the phone had a car, she didn’t know if he was talking to his father, she didn’t know if he was amusing himself. All she could know was that if he did have a car, 500,000 and wanted to run her over, he probably could. I countered that this was an open door and most had seen me over the past few months. “But,” my friend added, “it’s a closed, private space. Why take a risk for a photograph?”

My friend added that younger peoplewere more open to conversational exchanges with strangers. He said the most reticent were generation 70, but generation 80 and 90 were increasingly open to proactively talking with strangers. And in fact, the few people who have come to the space through weibo and weixin have been in their early 20s, or members of generation 90. He suggested that we should move the photo stand-in to one of the public squares because (1) people really would enjoy it and (2) they’d feel safe to enjoy it in an open place where there were many, many people.

Good — if sobering — advise. It also reminds me that we have had our best turn out when we organized a fair like environment in the Baishizhou public plaza. Consequently, our next goal is to move Superhero to the Baishizhou Culture Square.

baishizhou superhero!

Baishizhou Superhero has been installed at Handshake 302. Come and see and play with the first urban village superhero photo stand-in!


Below, the curatorial statement for the installation.

Baishizhou Superhero

Superheroes navigate the debris of urban despair, haunting the rubbished alleyways and crumbling staircases that lead to cramped spaces at the end of unlit hallways. They appear as exaggerated silhouettes or bursts of neon light. They leap over tall buildings in a single bound and rescue the victims of unfettered greed and malignant desire. Most importantly, superheroes represent the fantasy of latent potential and unlimited transformation in these techno-modernized times; mild-mannered, nerdy and bureaucratically inclined Clark Kent steps into a telephone booth and strides out a decisively manly man, who rights systemic wrongs through physical prowess. Hooray!

In the installation Baishizhou Superhero, Liu Wei’s playful cartoon characters transform Handshake 302 into a magic telephone booth. Visitors step into the space and through the power of a photo stand in become one of seven possible urban village superheroes – Methane Man, Wonder Granny, Stir Fry Fly, the Amazing Beer Babe, Village Guardian, Super Dog, or Cat-a-go-go. Friends can then take pictures of each other as they model the most common social roles in any of Shenzhen’s urban villages.

At first glance, the installation seems a tacky party game until we remember that these social roles – deliveryman, child care provider, food hawker, beer waitress, and village fireman – are the vehicles through which migrant workers transform their lives. Each migrant worker undergoes the sometimes exhilarating and often bizarre transmogrification from ordinary peasant to urbanite. However, the Baishizhou Superheroes also sustain Shenzhen’s economic boomtimes. After all, these superheroes provide the services and social network that Shenzhen’s factory workers need to make themselves at home in the city.

At second glance, the insidious charm of the installation becomes even more apparent. There is no doubt that human beings have latent potential to transform ourselves and our lives. The Shenzhen Dream hinges on this fact and migrants come to the city in order to improve their material lives. Within the maelstrom of globalization, however, the latent potential of human beings to transform ourselves has been limited by the necessity to commodify ourselves. The super power of an unpaid grandmother, for example, is to create value by providing unpaid childcare so that both fathers and mothers can join the gendered labor force, as deliverymen or waitresses.

The “super power” of all Baishizhou migrants is, in fact, the power to sell their labor on an unregulated market for as long as their bodies hold out. A popular expression maintains that migrant workers “sell their youth”. As individuals, there are limits to the scale of transformation. When a deliveryman’s legs can no longer pump a bicycle or when a waitress’ breasts succumb to gravity, these workers are replaced by younger, more energetic migrants. And there’s the fantastic allure of the superhero myth – unlimited strength to endure and transcend physically exhausting and emotionally alienating jobs.

Participating Artists: Lei Shenzheng, Liu Wei, Lv Linxuan, Mary Ann O’Donnell, Yang Qian, Zhang Kaiqin, Zhang Yan, Zhou Tianlu

Hours: Weds 19:00-21:00; Sat & Sun 15:-17:00, or by appointment.
Access: Baishizhou Subway Station Exit A, walk north to Jiangnan Baihuo Supermarket, make left down alley, follow to Shangbaishi Block 2 Building 49 (above the flip flop store). Ring bell and come up.