by Hou Hanru

San Yuan Li is a touching name, a reminder of my childhood experience. Grown up in Guangzhou in the 1960s and 1970s, San Yuan Li was an inevitable location that we were encouraged and even instructed to visit. This little village situated at the edge of the city has been considered as a landmark of China’s anti-colonial and revolutionary history because of the legendary uprising of the villagers against the British invaders in the Opium War. Although too often forgotten, San Yuan Li remains a kind of symbol of national pride in the collective consciousness of our generation.

More than thirty years later, San Yuan Li is now completely merged in the wave of urban expansion. The Guangzhou city has been immensely expanded. San Yuan Li, which used to mark the physical and mental borderline of the city has now become a little dot in the endless urban network. Along with this mutation, the neighbouring Baiyun Airport, the once-unique opening of China towards to the outside world, is now seeing itself as a weird void inside the urban density and high rises. As has been demonstrated by some city observers, San Yuan Li is now a “village-amid-the-city”, a shadowed zone of the brightly developing city. All kinds of marginal activities such as illegal or unofficial immigration gathering, irregular construction, drug consumption and trade and prostitution, etc. have been rapidly occurred and spread through out this microcosm. The village and the airport are now becoming a kind of extra-territories constantly escaping the grasp of “normal” urban life. Ou Ning, Cao Fei and their U-thèque friends are now exploring these particularly interesting situation. Their researches and testimonies, using digital video as a main “weapon”, reveal an essential part of China’s transformation today, which has been purportedly ignored in the main stream media. No doubt, China’s urbanisation and economic boom not only generate growth and better social relationships. It’s also prompting new forms of social conflicts and unbalanced development. – implying an alternative understanding and practice of urban development. To survive such a new contradictions and harshness, many communities, especially dwellers of “extra-territories” such as San Yuan Li, are forced to invent and promote alternative forms of activities in order to organise their own social structure. As the U-thèque “San Yu Li Project” shows, they are producing fresh forms of urban structures and constructions by necessity of survival, out of immediate urgency of life. Certainly, these new forms are situated far beyond any urban planning textbook! What is especially remarkable is that this kind of “villages-amid-the-city” can actually be found in tens of cities across the country. The outcome of such a process, or struggle for survival, are often highly innovative, flexible and fluid urban structures while a “outlawed” forms of social solidarity as well as conflicts are given birth. This demonstrates that China’s social mutation is a far more diverse and vital picture than any scenario that mainstream media would like to present. Do-it-yourself is the central driving force to push forward the mutation. As a result, “alternatives” are no longer alternative. They are main elements that form the “mainstream”.

In fact, DIY has always been the fundamental philosophy and strategy of contemporary art and culture experiments in China. In a society where established institution and market systems have never existed, DIY is the only efficient possibility for art and culture activists to express their imagination and realise their projects. By both intellectual reflection and ethic solidarity, activists from different domains, or disciplines, are regularly and systematically gathered and collaborate. Multi-disciplinary collaborations as an inevitable process open new spaces not only for more experimental artistic creation. Moreover, they urge the practitioners to critically reflect at and redefine their own activities. U-thèque is certainly one of the most remarkable organisations in this trend. Founded as a kind of cinematographic club with exchange and debates at the core, it has been gradually expanded to become a laboratory of multi-disciplinary collaborations gathering activists from different fields such as film, music, visual arts, graphic design, poetry and social sciences. Their events, publications and forums have already influenced considerably the cultural scene of Pearl River Delta. In the meantime, it’s being identified as a nation-wide significant model. On the occasion of their participation in the Canton Express project for the exhibition “Z.O.U. – Zone of Urgency” that I am curating for the upcoming 50th Venice Biennale, the U-thèque is now focusing their efforts on “San Yuan Li Project”. It is developing its own project at an unprecedented scale and level, mobilising active troops from different and enlarged perspectives resorting to highly contemporary weapons such as digital video and internet websites.

“San Yuan Li Project”, along with other initiatives involved with Canton Express, is clearly anchored on the shore of the society. Social engagement is at the heart of its artistic and intellectual conception and action. Chinese contemporary art has gone through a rather interesting but contradictory process in the last decade. While the changing social, economic, cultural and political realities incite more and more artists to utilise signs and images of the immediate reality, especially images of consumer goods and mass media, real engagements with social reality become considerably reduced. The usage of social images are often aimed to meet the demand of a “globalised” market instead of genuinely questioning and criticising the reality itself. This, in fact, make social engagement of contemporary art and culture in China today an increasingly emptied domain. “San Yuan Li Project”, appears in such a climate, chooses to engage itself in the opposite trend: to merge itself in the urgent reality of the urban transformation and social mutation. It’s solidly proven that this project has been firmly rooted and entirely engaged in the process of witness, analysis and critical interpretation of social problems. criticality and intellectual intervention in the remaking of social, cultural and political structures.

As a part of the Canton Express  project that gathers over 20 art and culture activists from the Pearl River Delta, “San Yuan Li Project” will be presented in the 50th Venice Biennale. Canton Express in general and “San Yuan Li Project” in particular are the best examples to demonstrate the inventive process generated from a particular “locality” situated in the most intensive zone of global-local negotiations. This zone is not only one of the most spectacularly developing area in terms of economy and social life. It’s also one of the most exciting terrain for cultural and artistic creation. Out of the dynamic and somewhat dramatic movements in real life, these projects force us to face new forms of urban expansion and modernisation. They clearly put forth the necessity to recognise the difference in the understanding of modernity in different contexts. In other words, they demonstrate “other modernities” beyond the span of the dominant Euro-centric notion of modernity itself. As I try to promote in the exhibition “Z.O.U. – Zone of Urgency”, the most urgent task today in the remaking of global art and culture structure is to encourage “alternative visions and actions”, with “post-planning” strategies and DIY at it’s centre, to respond to the urgent reality. This is a fundamentally influential force in the ongoing redefinition of globalization. “San Yuan Li Project”, under the banner of Canton Express, is convincingly a perfect example of such a necessary process. It’s based on such a kind of down-to-earth experiments that we can see the possibility of redefining our visions of the real, therefore our own artistic and cultural activities.



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