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"So, Gabriele, are you an artist?"
"Not really... maybe sometimes? Half-artist?"
“Sometimes? What does it mean, so what are you going to do here?”

I’ve been an artist in residence in Xianqiao village for three weeks now. To be honest, as of today I’ve been way more ‘in residence’ than ‘an artist’. I guess this is also part of my methodology – or ‘my process’, how artists call it. It is the first time that Design Harvests, a branch of TEKTAO Studio, offers to ten local and international artists a 45-days residency period in Xianqiao Village, Shuxin Township, Chongming County, Shanghai Municipality, China. The theme of this year’s residency program is “Flow/Flux”, and of the nine other artists scheduled to come over throughout the year, I have already met six. When I was here a couple of months ago, some of them were completing their projects and showcasing them in a two-day exhibition set up in a pigsty newly repurposed with recuperated materials by Kang, a Taiwanese video artist who has made of Xianqiao his creative ground. The weather wasn’t good on that weekend, and the expected hundreds of visitors didn’t show up, but we still had a great time drinking beer and xiaomijiu (millet wine) and playing a counterfeit version of Uno with civil servants who happened to be training in the village, while occasionally showing our works to the elderly villagers who would walk up to the pigsty to see what those foreigners were up to.

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The first resident artist I met, right after getting off the bus and following our all-purpose curator, organizer and contact person Huang Yi to the shared studio, was Jane Tagg, a mixed-media painter from Cumbria. As I was trying to memorize the names of the Design Harvests staff, Jane was working on some paper-cuts for her installation, a symmetric bouquet of intricate mandala prints and paper vines provisionally hanging from a wall of the small studio room. Huang Yi introduced us, and then told her that the pigsty exhibition space was almost completed and we could go take a look. “I’m doing something related to the ecosystem here in Chongming,” Jane explained to me while sitting on the back of our motorized tricycle hurtling towards the pigsty. “About animals and plants, local and invasive species, the impact of urbanization and industrial development… For example, the materials I was working on right now are made from my own drawings of local birds and weeds, manipulated digitally and then cut into different shapes.” At that time, the final form of Jane’s installation was still up in the air, and might have included projections and series of hanging prints. Eventually, faced with the constraints of the exhibition space still under construction, she spent the following two weeks negotiating the composition of “Strength Through Fragility” through a ritualistic arrangement of bamboo racks representing the fixed geometry of urban development and the overgrowth of a changing fauna.

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I ran across Auður Sellgren, Elsa Ásgeirsdóttir and Niki Jiao when Huang Yi brought me to Tiangeng House, the minsu (countryside homestay) prototype offered by the program to artists in residence. As design graduates, their work in Xianqiao was an iteration of their larger project “Weather”, concerned with how atmospheric conditions affect artisanal practices. The first part of the project was done in Iceland, and the second revolved around exploring local techniques of bamboo craftsmanship in Xianqiao. When I arrived, tests and prototypes of small bamboo objects were orderly arranged on a studio table, and Niki told me they would be part of the final installation. After a couple of weeks of further testing and prototyping (and burning and hammering and sawing), Auður, Elsa and Niki reached the final version of a small combustion chamber designed to produce bamboo carbon with the heat of a traditional Chinese kitchen fireplace, and had it made by a local welder. “One of the first things we noticed about the weather here is how humid it is. So we thought that we could design a way for people to easily produce dehumidifying bamboo carbon at home with their existing domestic appliances” explains Elsa. In the final exhibition, “Weather II” was installed as a narrative collection of prototypes, a sample of the produced carbon, a short movie documenting their research and design process, and a painstakingly hand-drawn QR code that worked flawlessly.

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Two months later I am back in Tiangeng House, chatting with long-time friend Terence LLoren about tape machines and sharing our experiences of doing field recordings on Chongming Island. Without knowing much about what the other was doing, we ended up approaching local soundscapes in strikingly similar ways: focusing on individual soundbites, appreciating the rarefaction of noise, searching for rhythms, being fascinated by the cyclical roar of jet fighters taking off from an air force base nearby. Terence has been the first artist to stay at Tiangeng House, and keeps coming to Chongming every month to collect a year’s worth of seasonal audio. In the evening of the same day, I’m sitting at the large wooden table in the kitchen with Zhang Qiong, a dancer and choreographer from Gansu province, who is sharing with me her initial ideas for a performance piece involving local residents. She just got here, and is still trying to figure out how to go about it: “I had an idea, but then I came to Xianqiao, and it was quite different from what I expected. Now I’m thinking of doing a performance piece on the main street, because the village is so dispersive… residents stay in their homes watching TV, zip around on their electric scooters, go to sleep quite early, and don’t seem to have many occasions to gather besides the occasional square dancing and the elderly citizen activity center down the road.”

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The most recurrent question we asked each other during our evening backstage banter was a matter of institutional critique: why do they want us here? As Huang Yi explains to us quite frankly, TEKTAO continues to run Design Harvests as a multifunctional prototype and showcase regardless of its actual profitability as a countryside homestay for weekend tourists: through its different programs and projects, it serves to gather expertise about, and experiment with, a wide range of domains, from sustainable agriculture and rural revitalization to academic research and art practice. Yet, while the first three domains are extensively discussed in the writing published around the Design Harvests experience1, artistic production and curation are merely hinted at. Given the way in which the first group of artists in residence are spontaneously engaging with wildly different and urgent aspects of life in Xianqiao – urbanization and its ecological impact, weather and local craftsmanship, seasonal sounds and spaces of socialization – the implications of being ‘artists in village residence’ deserve a thorough curatorial discussion scrutinizing the role and the potentials of artistic production in this peculiar context.

 

1 Lou, Y., Valsecchi, F. & Diaz, C. (Eds.), Design harvests: An acupunctural design approach towards sustainability. Gothenburg, Sweden: Mistra Urban Futures.


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