798 demolitions are warnings for us all

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798-studio-demolished from Guardian
Update: See the comments for discussion about the accuracy of the Guardian article relating to the location of the demolitions/incident

The Guardian have reported on a shocking story from Beijing that brings home a certain issue here to the arts community.

Basically, landlords came to parts of 798 and told studio owners that developers were getting the land and they had to evict immediately. The artists, of course said no as they had contracts and leases ranging from 5 to 30 years on the buildings. They wanted to check the details first. Finally, fearing that the buildings may be demolished during the night on Sunday, they stayed over - and a gang of 100 masked men showed up with bats and knives. The photo shows the current situation.

I have recently written about the Expo and Top Floor Circus - 

- and one of the big issues in Shanghai regarding the Expo has been accelerated gentrification and demolitions. The band brought the song in question back partly as a reaction to the forcing out of 0093 studios. 

Let this story be a reminder, again, to those of us writing about the Expo and related issues, who also claim to support the arts here. There is a wider context and many issues. It is irresponsible and dangerous to report it while ignoring the negatives. Shame on anyone who is buying the hype and enthusiastically backing the brand. 

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Interesting read, however one should also follow up the comments in the Guardian article.

Having seen 798 four years ago and last year, it was a huge change, with the actual independent artists already having moved out of 798 and more and more commercial shops/cafes/etc. having moved in.

Also, the original article is mostly talking about 008 zone and Zhengyang, which is not 798 Art District:

There is confusion here. In Beijing and its surrounding district towns and townships there are numerous little art villages, similar to the way there had been Tree Village (nearby Midi), etc.

It is a sad story and one of many, but I dont think that 798 is affected.

Very interesting reading about the history of the place. Thanks, Max. I think it's sad that the artists are actually trapped in a paradox: they took a place that no one wanted or knew what to do with and, unfortunately, they made it so desirable that it caught the attention of the soul-sucking developers. Obviously, in that way, it's similar to your previous post about shoes. What's the old saying? If 100 rich men want to do something, then that thing is legal.

The Guardian story deliberately makes it try to sound like it's 798 going down, what with the intro and the picture and very delayed naming of the actual districts where the attacks occured.

798 is more famous, and thus probably fairly safe. It stopped being an artist community years ago, now it's mostly corporate offices and luxury brands and corporate, luxury "art" rather than anything very edgy. Killed by success.

It's classic property developers misbehavior, but beyond that I question the connection to Shanghai. Now, anyways. The original, independent Suzhou Creek art and gallery community got demolished for apartments in 2002, and their occupants were herded into what is now M50. 50 Moganshan is owned by the Shanghai Textile Group, one of the largest landowners in the city. ShangTex "rennovated" M50 around 2005, doubling rents and forcing most artists and good galleries out, replaced largely by these crappy commercial galleries that give Shanghai a bad name when the art-interested go to M50.

ShangTex has been trying to replicate M50 at over a dozen similar old warehouses around the city, these so-called "cultural industry hubs". Most are ridiculous failures, because these things need to be organic.

Tianzifang on Taikang Lu is an example of an organic development, albeit not an arts one. The main alternative art one is Weihai Lu - which has long faced the threat of being taken over by the SOE Red Town. Except Red Town is an abject failure, so has struggled to get financing for the 696 Weihai takeover. Mao, btw, is BEHIND, not technically in Red Town. The Soma guys said that they looked at some empty spaces in Red Town, but the rents were insane, and they'd already gotten burned once on a government landlord over at Zhijiang - in the Tonglefang/New Factories project, another abjectly failed attempt to create creativity by throwing money and government control at a property.

So Shanghai does not lack a shortage of "artists studios" (and probably neither does Beijing) - just the offered, state-approved spaces are property rackets beyond the means all but the already-succesful artists and galleries.

Sorry to double post, but I forgot to mention that there are rumors that the Caochangdi compound, much better known than Zhenyang/008, and home to Ai Weiwei's studio, is also being threatened with redevelopment.

Also, Branigan's article links to a two year old one by the esteemed Jonathan Watts - and the picture that contributes to the implication that it's 798 under threat is also from almost two years ago.

Maybe if Caochangdi goes down, it can be misconstrued as 798 too?

It's enough of a scandal that artists in Zhenyang were attacted without trying to mislead that it's the iconic 798 instead. Bad reporting.

Hi Lisa and Max

I find it very hard to understand your comments. Sorry.

First of all, there's a point that the Guardian article confuses the exact location of the incident. Sure. But beyond that I can't follow your thinking at all except that you seem to both be playing off this kind of incident as overblown and part of a kind of normal series of events. Like belittling the issue.

Lisa, you say: "It's classic property developers misbehavior, but beyond that I question the connection to Shanghai."

So you are saying that this sort of thing doesn't happen in Shanghai? It seems that way except that you go on to give several good examples of it happening in Shanghai.

Also, what's the Mao link there? I know that Mao is part of Xin Shi Gang, the overall ownership/area, you guys pointed that out when we all met that time - so are you implying that Mao may be knocked down or become the subject of an eviction?

Would that make this issue relevant enough for Shanghai?

The truth is that ii does happen, has happened and could still happen here. It's completely plausible that Mao Livehouse, for example, could get sudden notice to b*gger off tomorrow and be removed at night by thugs if they complain.

I happen to know two people here whose dad's took work on goon squads when they were out of a job and they came by it via friends in the police.

I stand by the my basic point, that incidents such as these remind us that it could happen here in Shanghai at any given time.

On the subject of Redtown, those projects are self-defeating. To encourage arts and indie studios, you need two things, cheap spaces and artistic freedom.

Taking some older buildings that have been abandoned, gutting them and then opening them as a landlorded resort is the opposite of what artists and art need.

Redtown is basically a property development project in the generic sense.

A pity cos it started well. I remember the first thing down there. They cleaned out the main factory to house an Anthony Gormley installation, Asian Field. I went and was blown away. Then they decided to keep it open as a sculpture space and it all sounded very promising.

Hi Andy,

I got also confused writing the comment, cause the Guardian article is very confusing in itself.

My points are:

- 798 is not in danger
- The Guardian article is misrepresenting the situation (by trying to make it look like 798 is being torn down) --> see Lisa's introductonary statement
- The Guardian article is a typical "wrong" representation of what is happening in China
- The comments to the Guardian article, especially the one with real background info on land & property deals is interesting
- Physical abuse as described is not toleratable and definitely not good


You write: "The Guardian article is a typical "wrong" representation of what is happening in China"

Lets be clear - forced relocations, one way or another, are the norm in China. And if you try to stand up for yourself you will be removed, one way or another, often by gangs or police.

That is an accurate representation of China.

Sure, the article may have got the location wrong - but it is far more dangerous and irresponsible to trivialise the issue and seemingly apologise for it.

Hey Andy,

I think there is a misunderstanding. I am not saying that this issue is a trivial one and definitely I am not trying to apologize anything, why should I?

What I mean with "typical wrong" representation is that the Guardian article is:

1.) Not digging up the background story, which, e.g. in the comment section is by far better explained, including explaining who the actual land owner is, what concerned parties there are involved, etc.
2.) Misusing the reference to 798 to get attention and thereby willingly confusing lots of people
3.) Misusing pictorial content (the photo) bringing two completely different things (the re-construction of 798 / demolishing of 008) into conjunction

Remember those articles in NYT or Washington Journal talking about the "new music of China" with poor background work, combining wrong things together, etc. or when they talk about "hey, they have punk in China!" or "Chinese bands have to be political".

Reading the Guardian article left me with a bad taste: because points 1.-3. at least show for me that there is no concern in the actual happenings.

Those guys should avoid bringing in wrong connections (798). That's what pisses me off. Cause I guess (like me in the beginning), readers immediatelly hit up Wikipedia or another news page to check what happened to 798, then finding nothing unusual, they propably have already forgotten about it. That the whole incident happened at 008 district most people will not have remembered. Read this for example:

"In the best-known of Beijing's art districts, the 798 factory complex, studios have been replaced by commercial galleries, large institutions, shops and cafes in the last decade as the art scene has prospered and rents have soared.

This week a group of artists said they were beaten with bricks and batons by thugs trying to evict them from their studios. More than a dozen of them mounted an unusual public protest in the heart of the capital on Monday against the demolition of art zones and the overnight attacks upon them."

The group of artists is actually not from 798, but from 008/Zhenyang. They mention demolitions in Chaoyang district and but had been in the Zhengyang and 008 zones without even explaining to anyone concerned where these areas are or what the difference is. For those not living in BJ, like most ppl reading Guardian, they certainly intermix that and lead to wrong reposts like yours: "798 demolitions are warnings for us all". People trying to Google that will not find anything and might put it away as a rumour. It should actually read "008/Zhengyang demolitions..."

I am clearly with you on the same side, that incidents surrounding land property development are terrible and dangerous. People get hurt and die.

Going to ignore the 798/008 discussion as I don’t know the facts, however………..

Andy – I would take exception to your comment that artists need two things; affordable space and artistic freedom. You need a third and that is the public. Beavering away in isolation may be artistically satisfying from an existential viewpoint but my experience of working in the arts is most artists want to make a living from their work but more importantly want people to see and experience that work . This is why Mao etc (sticking on music only) exist – so artists can share their work, art of any type is a language and artists (typically) express themselves through whatever medium they work in.

How you balance that is a whole different thing – “victim of your own success” is a phrase that comes to mind and this sort of thing – developers ripping the heart out of a community (if that is what has actually happened here) – is not uncommon in any country. The problem I think is when artistic communities are created the middle class “yuppy”, who is “down with the kids/whatever” follows, pushes prices up, or demolishes what they were attracted to, retain the “brand/image” of whatever district they moved to, make a fortune on their “canny investment”, retain their ‘cool” and fuck the place up.
This is not restricted to China although the tactics may be a little unreasonable, it happens everywhere. Look at the current issues where I used to live by the Ministry of Sound – low cost area with a thriving alternative community in a central location and developers are moving in and threatening the end of an institution (like it or hate it is an institution).

The place I used to work for in London is all but finished in its present location I fear, the Olympics are transforming East London and the arts community there are finished – they sit in a large collection of warehouses 10 minutes from the city on the questionable say so of a massive developer who will obviously kick them out after 15 years as part of the gentrification of the area. But the good part being they have built exposure over the years (and work with the community and schools) and the great waste of cash that is the Olympics will bring and is bringing further exposure to their work and their existence. They are embracing the Olympics – not poo-pooing them and they will no doubt move further out of the centre but STILL survive and develop.

Which brings me on to point 3 (I think) – Expo. I don’t understand the bashing of expo, sure, money could be better spent in other areas but there are very few opportunities in China like this to get your product to the world. I would think there is a huge opportunity here for the arts if you embrace it and run with it, rather than walk away in disgust. You mentioned Antony Gormley above – he is without doubt one of the most commercial artists of our time and has embraced and developed opportunity to push his work out in to (or on to) the general public. Like his peers (Rachael Whiteread, Damien Hurst, etc) he employs near slave labour (upcoming and student artists) to produce his work for him. He never misses an opportunity to publicise his work and this is where I think Expo is an opportunity for Chinese artists, not something to be dismissed as “capitalist propaganda” or whatever. For god’s sake – this is the best opportunity China’s independent music scene has to become more global and I despair when I read this stuff. The energy spent slagging it off would be far better directed at taking advantage of this massive opportunity and promoting the incredible music scene here to the huge number of non-commercial tourists Expo is going to drag in.

And yeah, crap reporting from the Guardian again, they seem to have moved to “scraping” and don’t research their stories – the past 6 months has seen a distinct change of style to China bashing and it bothers me.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t condone any of what may or may not have happened in 798/008 or any of the forcible evictions that seem to be a part of daily life here but it isn’t just a China thing and moving the arts ahead is a complicated game that requires I hate to say an understanding of the rules of the game and a degree of flexibility. Change is a slow process.

@ Max

I agree on the article. But don't you agree that forced relocations of all kinds are a fact of life in China and a major issues across the board (not only arts people)?

You wrote that this issue misrepresents China. That the article should be "008/Zhenyang demolitions" doesn't change this.

@ rubbish

Obviously we are in touch but I won't use your name in case you use rubbish to avoid that.

Firstly - thank you for adding so much new material to this debate and a useful opposing one too.

However, the artist-audience relationship comes after what I'm talking about. First they need time and space to make the art.

Now about your Expo bit.

The majority of Shanghai's music and arts scene are not invited to the Expo. There is no place for them at the site - and the gov/police will close down 90% of the venues and events in town during the run of the event, just like during the Olympics.

One band has already been banned for talking about Expo issues and 0093 relocated.

How is the Expo a chance for them to go international? How can they promote the scene to tourists when the scene will be forcibly shut down?

Moving the arts ahead in any society simply requires not blocking them, one way or another. Creativity is an endowment that we all have, is just exists.

Hi Andy,

yep, I do agree on that (forced relocations).

Maybe my point "The Guardian article is a typical "wrong" representation of what is happening in China" was too strong. But the article iself is not a very well written one, as Rubbish also mentioned. And I condemn such poorly written journalistic pieces.

I’m clearly not an expert in arts in China and I do understand that there are very different and significant challenges that exist here. I also accept that Expo doesn’t in itself offer much – it is a commercial/trade fair first and culture takes a back seat. Shame really – if you look back at the beginnings of “world fairs” culture was always as important as the money making deal doing rubbish – we wouldn’t have an Eiffel Tower for example.

I’m not sure we have had or are to have wholesale closures of venues in Shanghai, if I am correct there is a lingering and significant threat but nothing official and I am living in hope that unlike Beijing tolerance and wisdom will prevail in Shanghai. If it doesn’t then I’ll unreservedly withdraw my comments and join you at the gates. The banning of Candyshop is something I doubt anyone on this blog would support so nothing to add there other than we know the rules of engagement here are different and complicated and sometimes downright nuts. As I said change takes time and we are living in a country that 30 odd years ago Expo wouldn’t have even been a consideration, this is part of why I don’t see it as an entirely evil event – in the past two years China has held two major global events, attracted millions of people as visitors and generated positive media coverage.

Which leads me (eventually) on to your question - how does that help if the arts are cut out of Expo? At its most basic there will be a huge pool of people in Shanghai eager to see as much as they can jam in to their annual vacation that wouldn’t be here normally, one would guess that a significant proportion of those people will return (this is after all the main reason cities spend such huge amounts on these events). So we have the people, the million dollar question is how do you get them from the artificial toy town to venues, galleries, studios what have you. Which is where I run out of steam I suppose :).

My point being there are going to be a lot of people here and also a lot of performers and artists (although knowing your love of world music I am guessing that list would leave you a little cold). Perhaps the way in to this is via these performers, get them down to local venues and studios and it’s a start. Plaster your blog in “Expo Music” tags and get to the top of google as you have done for Shanghai music? Nah, maybe not.

These events naturally attract a small proportion of people who will actively seek out things that are “local” in nature and given the sheer numbers expected (frightening) that proportion would make up a pretty large number of people. Get them and you have a start, a small start admittedly but being pragmatic you have to start somewhere. Maybe from there recognition of the arts and fewer restrictions will start to develop – maybe even people will go home interested in culture in this country and see China as an attractive country to come to and link up with local artists? It won’t happen overnight but it will happen I believe and events that drag millions to this country will help.

As Oscar Wild said; “the only one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”.

Sorry for not following up earlier. Max and others have already clarified the problems with and irresponsibility of the article. It's as if Melting Pot was being closed and they wrote an article suggesting instead that it was Yuyintang being threatened.

Again, it's a big enough story without sensationalizing it. It's not just the Guardian: http://www.sinocism.com/2010/02/25/what-is-behind-the-new-york-times-inaccurate-headline-of-their-story-on-the-eviction-of-beijing-artists/.

Two different issues at play: property development and forced relocations, and the art scene. This is a case where the two coincidentally overlap. I say coincidentally because it is not as if they're being targeted because they're artists; if anything, they have more recourse as well-off artists than your average Zhou.

My original comments were explaining the situation for the development of art spaces here. The only main parallel is the pall hanging over Weihai Lu; otherwise it's the opposite, with developers desperate to lure in artists to culture up their projects so they can charge more.

I have to cover a lot of the "cultural" events around the Expo, and largely they are quite dull and propagandistic. "Yay [insert country here]!" The upshot is that a lot of the countries want to do collaborations with Chinese artists - the downside is that they only want the big names. Artists from Beijing, pop musicians from Hong Kong. But a few of the curators I've spoken with seem inclined to be more creative and inclusive, and I'm lobbying hard for more Shanghai at the Expo.

Also, so far it doesn't seem like venues are closing: both Mao and Yuyintang expect to stay open. Probably both will have to host a fair number of international Expo-related performances, but doing so should also provide some protection - and maybe we can elbow some local groups into the line-ups.

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This page contains a single entry by Andy Best published on February 25, 2010 2:55 PM.

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