li wenliang: the heroic intellectual

One of the eight Wuhan whistleblowers, Li Wenliang (李文亮) died on February 7, Chinese time. Most of the posts to my friends’ circle (朋友圈) are memorials to him. In addition to pictures of Li Wenliang wearing a face mask, these posts include images of his police file for creating rumors about a SARS-like virus and screenshots of relevant posts, including international posts in English and German. In addition, essays about his life and the meaning of his death are starting to appear. The more ‘viral’ of these essays emphasize the fact that he was an ordinary person doing his job and that he had the courage to speak truth to power. These posts imply a relationship between Li Wenliang’s status and his courage; only the ordinary, it would seem, are able to tell the truth, affirming both the need for public intellectuals to watchdog the public realm and the public’s right to have intellectual watchdogs looking out for their interests. Continue reading

a general history of shenzhen

On Saturday, July 21, I participated in the launch of A General History of Shenzhen (深圳通史) at China’s 28th National Book Expo. We gathered to honor archeologist Zhang Yibin, who has spent over thirty years of his life documenting the shards and towers of Shenzhen. He has contextualized these bits and pieces of material culture within and against local gazetteers and academic research, providing us with a rough timeline of the past 7,000 years. So, now we have an official history that we can begin deconstructing. Who knows? We may actually move beyond the fishing myth and our investment in imagining “normal history” as the history of boomtowns and capitalist accumulation.

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public intellectuals we be

Last Friday evening, Yang Qian, Chen Hongjuan (Melon), and I participated in a public talk on “Designing Escapist Experiences”. The event was the first in a four-part series on experience design that is co-produced by the OCT A3+ space and the Baptist University of Hong Kong, Master’s of Visual Arts in Experience Design. As with many talks in currently salon obsessed Shenzhen, the talk quickly exceeded its proscribed limits, this time steering into discussions of whether or not art was by definition “escapist” or if it constituted an opportunity to re-imagine the world, with particular reference to the every changing utopian project of the PRC. Also as with many of these discussions, commerce came in, guns blazing: was it really so horrible to pay for the delights of Disney princesses or to imagine oneself as middle class if only for a few moments? Indeed, it is an exciting time to be in Shenzhen where public debate–especially minjian debate–is enjoyed and well-attended. Young and old, well educated Shenzheners and recently arrived professionals, everyone wants to learn and is eager to share “true thoughts” with receptive interlocutors. After two hours of intense conversation, we took a group photo and went home, refreshed and somewhat hopeful in the lingering delights of conversation.

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possible vocabulary games: xu tan language workshop

Xu Tan is a Shenzhen / New York based artist by way of Guangzhou, getting his artistic start as part of the Big Tail Elephant Group almost twenty years ago. From January 22 through March 20 (with a ten-day break for Spring Festival, Feb 1-10), every afternoon from 3 to 5 p.m. Xu Tan is holding a language workshop at the OCT Contemporary Arts Terminal, where he discusses various keywords in Shenzhen’s development with invited guests and those who sign up to participate.

Xu Tan’s keywords project grapples with the instability of linguistic meaning in contemporary China. Specifically, Xu Tan investigates how industrial urbanization changes the meaning and relative importance of different words. For example, at Convection, the Dafen International Contemporary Arts Exhibition, Xu Tan installed a mixed media space, where he spoke with different artists and museum visitors about the meaning of words such as, creativity, originality, and copyright. At OCT, the words have been drawn from the Shenzhen public sphere and the interests of the workshop guest.

Why participate in one (or several) OCT workshop(s)?

In the first place, if you go tomorrow or sometime over the next week, you can still sign up to be a special guest and be part of the unfolding of the piece. Second, the workshops model and are a continued effort to perform public intellectual life in the city. Indeed, this weekend’s guest, Zhang Zhiyang (张志扬) is a wonderfully quirky yet erudite philosopher, who had much to say about how western belief in God is the context for our keywords, even when we don’t believe, he argued, westerners are striving to transcend. For him, this makes us interestingly different from Chinese, who “live in the world”. Third, it’s fun to grapple with language in cross-cultural contexts because the misunderstandings, confusions, and heated emotions teach all sorts of unexpected lessons about what we think we mean when we impose our ideas on the world and the world resists classification.