Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beijing art zone protest ignored by media

At least 300 people protested today in one of Beijing's well known art districts, though little has been reported in the media of the event. Partly organised through the Internet and by word of mouth it was described by some of those who took part as an art activist event. The "anti-government protest" was an attempt to stop the demolishing of artists' studios in the Heiqiao district of Beijing. The area is home to foreign and Chinese artists but with Beijing's rapid expansion the district has been targeted for destruction. Heiqiao [黑桥 or Black Bridge] is an area located east of Beijing, near Nángao [南杲] and Béigao [北杲] which, together with Caochangdi [草场地] represent an important enclave for communities of artists who maintain studios there. 

Karen Paterson, who goes by the Twitter username @KPinChina, posted several messages on the social networking site throughout the day. She described the event as the "coolest and most moving anti-gov demonstration" she had ever seen in China. Herself an artist and photographer she said that at least one person had been taken away by police. It was not immediately clear how many police were at the scene though Paterson said the area was also filled with journalists, artists and many "big names".

Unlike the more self-contained, sanitized, and tourist-friendly 798 Art District, located in a former factory site, Caochangdi is a loose sprawl of unnamed and sometimes unpaved roads, criss-crossed by clothes-lines and studded with mounds of gravel and dirt that accompany the area’s many construction sites. Rumours as to its demise were already being discussed on the Internet in November [ArtInfo]. Despite its local prominence and international visibility, rumours have been circulating that much of Caochangdi, as well as neighbouring artist villages and studio compounds, were being considered for demolition in order to make way for new government projects and business development. 

Next to the Heiqiao area, a little further northeast in the 008 International Art Studio compounds, Taiwanese artist Peng Hung-Chih recently finished construction on his new 500 square metre live-work space, only to learn that he may not get to use it for long. “There are still a lot of rumors,” a troubled Peng said in November. “I heard that the farmers basically want reasonable compensation. If they get that, the destruction will go on. I think my problem is not over yet.”

The Heiqiao district is just one of several areas towards which artists have gravitated [NYT]. Some have already been torn down to make way for skyscrapers and modern building projects. The Dashanzi Art District, in the Chaoyang District of Beijing, houses a thriving artist community. It is a sprawl of old decommissioned military factory buildings considered by some to be of unique architectural design. It, and others like it, have often been compared with New York's Greenwich Village or SoHo, but they all face an uncertain future as Beijing pushes its modernisation plans forward.

The 008 Art Zone is divided into A, B, C, and D districts, and originally home to more than 150 artists. On 19th November developers ordered all artists to “move out” and on the 6th December the water supply was cut off. According to a press release [link / link] issued by the community, electricity and heating in district A was also cut off on 17th December. Soon after "demolition squads began to pull down houses by force", the release says.

"History is being made today at the 008 Art District of Bejing," @KPinChina declared on Twitter, "Artists are not criminals." Maybe not, but for the city developers they are a nuisance and in the way. As is often the case, culture is often swept away in the name of progress. Late into the afternoon Karen Paterson was tweeting from outside the police station where the arrested artist's assistant had been taken. "Trying to free the assistant," she says, "He was the scapegoat for the event." While many journalists were in attendance, there are no reports in official Chinese media of the protest or the arrest.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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