Rockbund Project by Michael Lin and his alliances
Trans-disciplinary collaboration between various creative activities is increasingly crucial and critical for contemporary art’s evolution today, in the age when all traditional concepts and models of practices in real life – economic, cultural, social and political – are rapidly deconstructed and collapsing due to the accelerated development and proliferation of new technologies and circulation of information and ideas, hence the expansion of intellectual and imaginative horizons across the world. This tendency, as a part of the process of intense renegotiation and redefinition of frontiers between territories of the urban and the rural, the public and the private, the individual and the collective, the everyday and the imaginative, the productive and the creative… and ultimately, between established social systems and alternative organisations, reveals a new opportunity for us to envision an upcoming world in which creativity will play a key role in the making of a new society. Certainly, artists, architects, filmmakers, musicians, writers, curators and other cultural workers will be the main actors in this process… And, let’s not forget the common workers, builders and street vendors, etc. whose contributions are not only physical but to a large extend, intelligent and even intellectual, rooted in popular wisdoms… In other words, this need of trans-disciplinary collaboration to achieve Total Art works embodies the core change in the field of artistic and cultural creation in our age of globalisation and restructuring of local conditions. Michael Lin, along with a whole group of alliances proposes to realise the project Model Home for Rockbund Art Museum. The focus of the project is exactly this model of collaboration. The artists state that the proposal “takes the premise of the Bauhaus’ idea of ‘a total work of art’ as a departure point and attempts to explore its implications and contradictions within the context of the contemporary Shanghai and an exhibition at the Rockbund Museum”1. In fact, because of the project’s strong and immediate connection to the everyday life of a rapidly changing urban society, it reaches far beyond the scope claimed by the classic concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Art Work…
The creation of Rockbund Art Museum is certainly a highlight of the urban renovation of Shanghai, a star global metropolis. It is here that the most critical questions and challenges of urbanisation and globalisation are posed. Or in other words, it provides an ideal laboratory for us to examine and test innovative possibilities and propositions to tackle those topics… Michael Lin’s project for his exhibition is revealed to be an exemplary action to lead the experiment.
The project developed by Michael Lin, along with Atelier Bow-Wow, in association with a whole group of creators – curators Lai Hsiangling and Alexandra Munroe, project manager Hsieh Feng Rong (Ramen), architecture researcher Li Xiangning, video artist Huang Ran, gallery owner Leo Xu, sound artists Lou Nanli and Wang Changhcun, as well as Feng Di Furniture Company, etc. – is greatly timely and pertinent in this context.
Michael Lin’s work has always been looking into creating an integrate environment through interventions of painterly languages and appropriations of ready-made folkloric textile patterns. His efforts to merge the worlds of the applied and the artistic prove to be singular in terms of formal inventions. He also proclaims a provocative aesthetic and ethic stance. His works generate accentuated public spheres within the context of privatisation and gentrification of urban spaces while consistently subverting the order of things by breaking down the boundaries between the high and the low, the elitist and the popular. And this stance is much needed today when the society is search for real relevance and significance of artistic production both within and beyond the dominant market and institutional systems.
Atelier Bow-Wow, a Japanese architecture practice consisting of Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima is famous for their smart and efficient designs for urban structures deeply inspired by their researches on the popular wisdom of spatial production in the cities of extremely high density like Tokyo and Shanghai. What is also noteworthy is that they have always been open to direct and organic collaborations with artists to intervene in the context of contemporary art. This further brings them to embrace more trans-disciplinary experiments.
Referring to the Japanese tradition of ceramic making named Raku which has decisive influences on tea culture and its societal structure, Michael Lin and Atelier Bow-Wow come together to conceive the project of Model Home for migrant workers from an early stage. This leads to further collaborations with other abovementioned creators covering diverse creative domains such as curating, filmmaking, music and sound work, etc. the result is impressive: not only a series of Model Homes (referring and yet contrasting historical modernist examples such as Matti Suuronen’s Futuro House and Richard Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, etc.) designed to host migrant workers has been fabricated and installed outside and inside the museum. The prototype-like houses are designed and fabricated with maximum economic, material and spatial efficiency while basic comforts are equipped to provide the dwellers decent living conditions. The migrant workers help produce and install the art works in the exhibition are invited to live in these houses during the preparation period. Then, the houses are moved into the museum to become useful structures for the performers and visitors after the opening. In the meantime, folk patterns extracted from blankets used by the workers are blown up and reproduced on the walls to become the omnipresent “decoration” of the building while a worker’s club with furniture of street restaurant style are installed. Other performative activities including lectures, workshops, concerts and so on also unfold to turn the exhibition, hence the museum, into a veritable machine of habitat with real time social life. Here the most experimental art practices are present and unfolding. What is even more exciting is that they are brought into an completely unlikely contact where a whole living world of the working class – the most populous, but largely overlooked, social class – is implanted into this elitist edifice, the renovated Art Deco building of high culture…
Apparently, in this project, a series of crucial questions related to the social, economic, cultural and political impacts of urban development and modernisation over the everyday life and social values, as well as the collective and individual imaginations are posed… One of the major outcomes of urban development and modernisation is the emergence of new social division between the rich and the poor, between the “upper class” (business, political and cultural elites) and the “lower class” (workers, small business people, low-income employees, etc.). Intense migration movements further prompt this tendency. More and more world-class business travellers are hopping across metropolitan cities. At the same time, fluxes of farmers are flooding the cities to become migrant workers to provide manpower for construction, service and other labour-intensive jobs. This is stimulating a profound change of urban culture and social structure. Obviously, these tides of migration are a part of the globalisation process. And the economic, cultural and social changes resulted from the process can be seen as an internal globalisation to introduce further openings and complications within the society.
Michael Lin himself is also an perpetual migrant between Asia, Europe and America. He has been regularly living in Shanghai for the last few years. Here he has developed deep interests in investigating the evolution of the everyday life of the “lower classes”. He has been strongly inspired by what he has discovered as wonders hidden behind the seemingly banal life of the common “mass”. In 2008, he purchased the daily products from the housewares store and reinstalled them as a kind of treasury in Shanghai’s most luxurious and trendy building of “3 On the Bund” to demonstrate the unexpected beauty of the “popular taste” and the living world of the “bottom society”. And, inspired by a globally popular song, he called it “What a Difference a Day Made”2. It was a serious and committed engagement with the struggle to render this invisible mass and their imaginary visible. The decision to turn his exhibition in Rockbund Art Museum into a microcosm of the migrant workers is a more audacious step-forward of this engagement.
Collaboration is now a key element, or a norm, in contemporary art practice, especially when it comes to the question of the relationship between artistic production and public space. However, in the context of the rapid marketization and institutionalisation of “experimental art”, the absolute majority of collaborations happen within the circle of the elites, namely artists and intelligentsia. Direct collaboration with the workers and farmers remains a rare option. Michael Lin, while working with architects, artists and musicians, also emphasizes the importance of direct involvements of the construction workers coming from the countryside. It is here that Michael Lin’s decision to give up the decision making power to the workers during the realisation of the project appears to be extraordinary. He designed the conceptual framework of the project. The choices of the patterns, furniture, materials and other aesthetic and physical elements are essentially derived from popular products found in low-price markets frequented by low-income classes including the migrant workers. The final realisation of the project almost entirely relies on the interpretation of the workers. Hence, they obtain the maximum freedom to express their imagination and capacity. The workers have never received any artistic training. The artist also avoids giving them any technical instructions. The execution of the design is essentially turned into the workers’ active reinterpretations that often go beyond the control of the artist. Their interpretations are improvisational, imprecise and imperfect. Instead of fulfilling conventional canons of beauty and elegancy, they tend to be out of control, much more vivid, vigorous, dynamic and full of wild energy. Incidental, unexpected but interestingly “invented” elements are allowed to come into the design and secretly but effectively disturb and even deconstruct it. Forms and tastes rooted in the bottom of the society, or popular culture mixing with urban and rural “folkloric-ness” are brought in to deconstruct the norms and canons of the high culture. This further suggests a subversion of the much pursued goal of turning contemporary art and its institution into elitist system of production of “good taste”, often understood as equating luxuriousness.
Certainly, this is not simply a question of taste. One should understand it as an attempt to resist to the logic of hegemony of a rising social class empowered by their economic and political “successes”. This logic is leading to an enforcement of social control founded upon a stabilisation of the new class hierarchy and division. The design of Model House for the migrant workers by Michael Lin and Atelier Bow-Wow and the practice of involving the workers’ active collaborations open a door for new possibility of production of social space. This process starts with the direct incorporation of the bodies, the bodies of the workers. They not only produce the structure but also inhabit it. This act of dwelling not only brings a dimension of time through corporal integration with the materials and structures. What’s more important is that this act, by introducing the bodies of another social class who carry with them subjectivities and values different from the “art and culture class”, a space in which the muffled voices of an exploited social class can start to be heard by a public who often ignore their existence. Of course, how much this voice is really heard and understood remains an open question. But this attempt is clearly a brave but timely experiment.
The fact that this project has been conceived for and realised in Rockbund Art Museum is highly significant and symbolic. The museum itself, as a part of a large scale real estate development that automatically implies gentrification of the city and favours for the powerful ones, is a fruit of the efforts of a rising business and cultural elite to embrace a new-born social consciousness to share their achievements with the society itself using their economic, social and even political privilege. In the meantime, it’s also a way to exhibit and boast their own successes. Obviously, this also helps forming a new elite circle in the bourgeoning urban society. In the meantime, the establishment of the art community in both the political system and public opinions, including mainstream media and alternative, bottom-up social media, also opens up a new platform for the debates of the role, meaning and value of artistic and cultural productions in the society at large, which are far from reaching any consensus. Contemporary art and its institutions as well as “creative or cultural industry” as a whole are hence utilised in a highly ambivalent manner and brought to respond to various, overlapping but ethically contradictory demands. It is in this highly controversial and challenging context that the project of Michael Lin and company appears to be provocative. Not only it invites us to understand it as an exemplary experiment of collaboration in art and the importance of collective and trans-disciplinary intelligence in the making of truly contemporary art and a new typology of Total Art. It also proactively propose us look into the impacts of such a collaborative model in terms of the making of new cultural institutions through demonstrating the possibility of involving various social strata in the process, with an emphasis on the role of the grass-root and bottom-up forces. What is even more meaningful – and somehow ironic – is that the project’s conception and realisation have been mainly resorting to the resource and production system of the dominant economic system, namely neo-liberalism. At the same time, by putting forward the importance of the lower class and the interests of the general public in order to claim for equality between all social classes and individuals in front of creativity, what it aims to achieve is a subversion of the class order defined and defended by this system itself. Fundamentally, the logic of development propagated by globalised neo-liberal capitalism and its alliance – “socialism à la chinoise” – is somehow suspended and reversed for a moment…
It is here that, through a labour-intense endeavour, more questions and debates on the role of artistic production, cultural institution and the tension between artistic expression and public interests, between privatisation of urban space and the claims of public sphere, etc. are brought back to the front-stage of intellectual and social dialogue.
Since the founding of the Rockbund Art Museum in 2009, the question of the institutions public role and influences in the city has been put in the centre of its curatorial agenda and has continuously been explored and debated.3 With the introduction of a project like “Model Home” by combining and confusing “good design” and “bad design”, “high art” and “low art”, and especially, by encouraging the encounter and merging of divided social classes, a new phase of the construction of the institution in a fresh and somehow unknown perspective is being opened. Institutional critique is now an integral part of making of the institution itself.
A Model Home by definition is a utopian project to provide better efficiency and more comfortable conditions for life according to certain idealist rationales. In the specific case of Michael Lin/Atelier Bow-Wow’s Model Home, exploration of the best possible solution for the life of migrant workers within the economic and social constraints in today’s Chinese urbanisation is the central concern. The key here is that, in spite of the parasite position and status of the structures – they are built in the narrow lane next to the museum building as a kind of additional and quasi-illegal shelter, the designers try to provide the best conditions in terms of materials, spatial efficiency, light, air and equipment so the workers can enjoy the maximum comforts during their work in the museum. What is even more interesting is that, after finishing the realisation of the project in the building, the Model Home, with the housewares used by the workers, is moved into the highest floor of the museum and becomes a potential public housing space within the museum itself. Another identical structure is also installed on the terrace on the top of the museum to form a kind of “high rise parasite”. In the process of urban gentrification, a museum like Rockbund Art Museum can easily be seen as an accomplice of capitalist invasion of the city. However, there is also a utopian dimension to it when it attempts to endow itself with a mission of developing the public presentation of artistic production and embracing the task of public pedagogy and even “the sharing of the sensible” (le partage du sensible) in Jacques Rancière’s sense4. This suggests to open up a space of aesthetics and politics for the new social common while respecting the singularity and uniqueness of individuals and collective. With all the ambivalences, the museum can still be seen as a laboratory for constructing a contemporary public space, a site for experimentations of the realisation of the new common. Michael Lin/Atelier Bow-Wow’s Model House focuses on both the betterment of the migrant workers and mobilisation of public sensibility vis-à-vis the condition of the working class and their role in the making of the new urban life. Here, there is a certain convergence of two opposing utopian ideas, or an encounter and even a clash of two distinct utopias. This is exactly what renders this project particularly dynamic and energetic, as well as relevant, in the context of Chinese urbanisation today where social division and conflict are becoming increasingly serious and violent. It shows that, at least at an experimental level, there is a possible conciliation…
This utopian ideal and attempt are enforced by the artist’s choice to set up a Worker’s Club in the heart of the museum, inspired by Alexander Rodchenko’s famous Worker’s Club (1925) that searches to propose a prototype of an ideal social space for avant-garde society based on avant-garde political, ideological and aesthetic projects, namely the Soviet Communism. The artist collaborates with the local Feng Di Furniture Company to redesign the furniture in order to render the design more “Chinese” and grass-rooted, along with the stools and tables purchased from street markets. Drawings, plans and diagrams reflecting the research and design process of the project are presented here while videos documenting the process of the realisation of the project are projected in the space… Obviously, this is not only a technical addition to demonstrate further the conceptual dimension of the ambitious project. It’s also a completely concrete and tangible devise to allow the public to experience physically the eventuality of sharing a public space in which one can mingle and exchange with the others, no matter which social class one belongs to… Here, we are all workers and belong, instantly, to the same Club, the same common.
Therefore, the whole museum now is turned into a machine to generate utopian ideals for dwelling, working and sharing. Here, one can learn how to live with the each other, with those who have been too often mutually overlooked. It’s here that we can imagine the making of a new social common – a Soviet in the real sense – so much needed for our time.
And this is our home…
San Francisco, 25 March 2012
1 Michael Lin’s proposal for Model Home.
2 Michael Lin, What a Difference a Day Made, one person exhibition at Shanghai Gallery of Art （滬申畫廊）, 2008.
3 For example, in the project “By Day, By Night, Some (Special) Things A Museum Can Do” curated by myself in 2010 has turned the museum spaces into on-going event spaces for lectures, workshops, film screenings, public forums, etc., a major space of dialogue with the public, during the exhibition under the banner of “Night Life”. This has been continued by the museum team as a regular program of the museum.
4 Ref. Rancière Jacques, Le Partage du sensible. Esthétique et politique, Paris, La Fabrique, 2000