children covered in garbage

Yesterday I participated in the 蓝海生态艺术巡游 (Make Our Seas Come BLUE) parade, which was organized by CULTaMAP‘s indomitable Tracy Lee. We marched from Statue Square to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum via Victoria Harbor. The march culminated a cross-border Hong Kong-Shenzhen pedagogical collaboration to draw attention to garbage in the oceans, children’s ability to speak to issues that will shape their future possibilities, and the responsibilities of their adults to facilitate uncomfortable conversations in safe environments. Continue reading

shenzhen garbalogy


this morning as i walked the edge of houhai i stumbled upon another former settlement, where the squatters’ housing and kitchens had been razed, but then reconstituted in even more transient form–beds have been made inside the water pipes that are now being installed. signs of life: shoes, mosquito coils, and makeshift offerings. when i asked one of the women salvaging plastic wrapping from the site, she said that the settlement had been razed just this week. two more permanent fixtures remained–a pink shrine and a 42 stall traditional outhouse. the outhouse seemed relatively clean; perhaps it has been built in anticipation of the work teams that will soon move onto the site.

this is the second time this month that i have stumbled upon housing arrangements that have been hidden in plain sight on the border between housing built on the reclaimed land and newly reclaimed construction sites. just three weeks ago, while walking near the western corridor bridge, i came across a squatting settlement. the small pup tents were located along a sidewalk that was temporarily out of use due to construction. however, a hill and mounds of dirt in the reclamation site kept the settlement out of sight. i only came across them because i jumped the temporary barrier that had been installed, while a more permanent; it seems easier to go through concrete one was being built.

during a brief and admittedly superficial engagement with the other three anthropological subfields, i took several archaeology courses. i didn’t understand the joy of finding bicuspids, nor did i fantasize about going off to dig up the remains of lost civilizations. i did, however, like the idea of theorizing a life out of garbage, which william rathje initiated in 1973 with the tucson garbage project and popularized in 2001 with the publications of rubbish! the archaeology of garbage.

one of rathje’s points is that there are discrepancies between what we say we do and what are garbage reveals that we do. i’m not terribly interested in catching people lying; it seems unnecessarily stressful to constantly assess the degrees of truthfulness in any statement. nevertheless, i think that garbalogy might be useful when looking at how shenzhen has razed and continues to raze squatter settlements. officials maintain that shenzheners are building one of the most modern cities in china. the promise of modernity includes the promise of material comfort for all residents. however, the garbage that this process generates includes neighborhoods, family homes, and migrant livelihoods.

i like thinking about houhai through garbagology because it makes facts about squatters’ lives immediate and visceral, stubborn. it is difficult to talk one’s way around the image of a child who cut his head playing near his mother’s salvage cart. indeed, that child’s life measures the degree of truth in any statement about how globalization has been beneficial for shenzhen.

divine garbage

in the summer of 2003, fat bird theatre members produced a series of workshops on the meaning of shenzhen’s diverse urban spaces. the first piece “the human city” was performed in diverse sites throughout the city. the second “the divine city” was performed at shenzhen university. the video Divine Garbage documents the performance of “the divine city” during december 2003. it was edited in the summer of 2004.

what might street art be?

I’ve been thinking about the possibility of creating “experimental art” on Shenzhen’s streets. About a year ago, two Dutch artists led a two-day workshop here. They asked us to think about art as something that highlights the nature of everyday life. They suggested that by contrasting “unnatural” or “not normal” activities with quotidian routines, we could explore naturalized (but not natural) social forms and spaces. For example, a group of us sat on the steps of a building, playing with our cell phones. Normal activity for this space. However, every two minutes, we all looked up from our phones, stared straight ahead, and then turned our heads to the right. After a minute, we returned to playing with our cell phones. This kind of collective, planned activity constituted abnormal behavior for this space, highlighting the nature of “hanging out on steps” (among other things.)

At the time, I found this way of thinking quite useful, and have even used a version of it for my Found Objects series. However, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how much this strategy depends on the collective maintenance of social norms in order to be effective. What happens, for example, when the artist’s experiments can’t exceed extant uses of space? For example, walking from my apartment to a friend’s office in downtown Shenzhen the other day, I passed a woman eating out of a garbage can. She scooped handfuls of rice from a styrofoam container into her mouth. A child slept on her lap, his legs dangling near her left hip. Today, as I walked through the park, I noticed a man sitting on a park bench, legs spread, a limp penis in his right hand. Clearly, he intended to be seen because he was sitting next to sidewalk, rather than behind a bush. I’m not sure if he had just finished masturbating or urinating, but hand and organ both glistened in the afternoon sun. What kind of street art could say more about Shenzhen than these two performances? Or perhaps the question is, how might street art respond to these two performances?

Now, I’ve thought about photographing these and similar scenes, but part of me (and thus far the dominant part of me) resists. I don’t want to invade their privacy. This is the sentiment that prevents me from looking more closely and keeps me from snapping that picture. Clearly, they’re not worried about privacy in the way I’m used to thinking of it (behaviors that remain unseen, taking place behind closed doors). But I can’t convince myself that they would therefore welcome a photo shoot opportunity. At this moment, is turning one’s head away correct? Or would a more interesting form of art-response be to sit down and eat with the woman? Offer her food. Is the point to acknowledge the very specific reality at hand (so to speak), making street art a more explicit form of interactive improvisation? I’m as repelled by the idea of sitting down to eat from the garbage can as I am by taking pictures. Certainly, I had no desire to approach that man. What is it in me that turns away? Doesn’t want to look and yet wants to document this world?

It’s not even that these two performances are isolated events. I regularly see “abnormal” use of public spaces in Shenzhen. At construction sites and under park trees, workers take afternoon naps on woven bamboo mats. Beggars arrange themselves on most of the pedestrian overpasses throughout the city, while barbers set up shop underneath, placing a fold-up chair in front of a mirror that they have hung on the cement wall. At mealtime, many bring their rice bowls outside, squatting next to the road and people-watching. And I gaze, but out of the corner of my eyes, unable to bring myself to look directly at all this. It occurs to me that the reason they may have brought their lives to the street is that they can’t afford closed doors. So perhaps I am ashamed to look at poverty? But there may be other reasons they have brought their lives outdoors, just as there are other reasons I keep mine inside. If so, what then pre-empts a conversation? Or the possibility understanding? Is it that by looking away I am offering an exchange—don’t look too closely at me, and I won’t look too closely at you?

In Mandarin one of the words for “shameful” is “not fit to be seen by people (见不得人)”. What does that expression actually refer to? Is it the woman and her child? Is it the conditions that have forced her to eat out of a garbage can? Is it an American woman turning away? Is it how during public events police officers push her and others like her out of sight? Or is the question not what we look at, but how we go about looking? At that moment, is some kind of connection possible?

The Buji Crossing

A few days ago, I went to the Buji crossing, one of seven border crossings internal to the Shenzhen municipality. This border is called the 2nd line (二线), and divides Shenzhen into the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and Baoan and Longgang Districts. Buji is one of Shenzhen’s major manufacturing areas. It is also a center of migrant laborers, who either work in Buji, or enter the SEZ at Buji. So it is an area filled with semis and buses, as goods and people are hauled from one place to another.

Buji is one of those places where I viscerally feel the contradiction between vague research commitments to, if not the truth, then at least some version of the whole story and my bodily aesthetics. Here, goods and people clog the area, pressing into my skin and I inhale carbon monoxide and sweat. I walk quickly past numerous terminals where thin, sun-darkened men load and unload semis, while rural migrants get off long-distance buses carrying bulging plastic bags and dragging wheeled suitcases. Some stare back at me and my camera remains dormant; I am embarrassed to be seen observing what many would rather hide, or failing that, disavow. Along these streets, women hawk fruit, prepared foods, and bottled drinks. Venders and homeless migrants have variously occupied the areas under pedestrian overpasses; these spaces stink of rotting foods and urine and I find myself wondering if there are any public bathrooms nearby. Is it possible to bathe or defecate in private? I notice children working beside adults and am reminded that many of my students are in summer school, already preparing for next semester’s tests. I have come to take photos, but find it difficult to stop and pose my objects because I want to be already beyond the crowded heat and stench. Instead, I snap a photo here and there, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze, moving determinedly forward. I am reduced from methodological exposition to shamed confession. Such are the lessons of the Buji crossing. Continue reading

the overlooked ubiquity of bicycles in shenzhen

I have been collecting discarded objects and then photographing them in different sections of Shenzhen, the oldest and largest of China’s special economic zones. This process has (as yet) denied me photo-ops with a Guanyin statue, but helped me see things so common that they hadn’t previously registered as “Shenzhenese”. This bike tire examplifies how what gets overlooked is often the all-too-common (even by folks who define themselves through acts of documentation).

In the early eighties, just after the PRC had opened to the capitalist West, bicycles symbolized the differences between urban China and urban “us”. I remember magazine articles on Beijing and Shanghai that featured images of hundreds of Chinese citizens biking to (or from) work, school, the market. At the time, Shenzhen had just been established and rarely featured in these articles, except as an example of the extent to which China was changing. From its establishment, however, Shenzhen pursued modernization with an eye to non-Chinese cities. Accordingly, the Shenzhen urban plan deliberately excluded bicycle lanes; Shenzhen’s modernity would be defined by car ownership. I’ve heard that by the mid-1990s, per capita car ownership in Shenzhen had surpassed that of Hong Kong. Certainly, the total number of vehicles cruising Shenzhen streets has surpassed the number in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, bicycles remain a common mode of transportation in the city. Many workers still bike and many business depend upon bicycle delivery. Indeed, throughout the city, usually nestled under an overpass, individuals set up bicycle repair shops. For one or two renminbi, a tire puncture can be repaired, breaks tightened, or chains oiled.

Given their exclusion from the urban plan, bikers often compete with pedestrians for passageways through the city. I have often bumped into bikes or been bumped as bikers rush to their next destination. Nevertheless, I didn’t associate bikes with the city. If I’m any example of how folks have come to inhabit Shenzhen, then the municipality’s urban planners have successfully banished bikes and bikers from mental maps of the city. Or rather, bikes and bikers crash into our consciousness only to the extent that they interrupt normal traffic. All this to say that I have been in Shenzhen for ten years, and am just starting to realize how vast the overlooked landscape might be and how misleading these pictures probably are. Consider them evidence of an emerging awarenss of, rather than reliable data about Shenzhen. Pictures, here.