Through an extensive conversation with the curator of his current exhibition at OCAT Shenzhen, we bring you a behind-the-scenes look at the artist’s creative process.
Venus Lau You’ve visited Shenzhen twice for this show—first in March 2016, then again in November. The first spot you visited was Window of the World, a theme park at Overseas Chinese Town in Shenzhen which features vivid replicas of the world’s wonders and historical heritages. Did you already know about it before you came?
Simon Denny I had heard about it, but only in the vaguest terms. I knew that it had miniatures of different buildings from around the world. I’d also heard that it had a relationship to the opening up of China to capitalism—that it was a sort of metaphor for its entering free markets when Shenzhen was declared the first Special Economic Zone. I remember a quote about Shenzhen: “Technology, knowledge and a window to the external world.”
You’re right. When the park opened in 1994, China was in the early stages of “Reform and Opening Up,” an economic push led by Deng Xiaoping as the government began to shift from socialism to a capitalism with “Chinese characteristics.” The economic change gave rise to local tourism, as more and more people could afford traveling, but going to foreign countries was still not an easy thing. The Window of the World is a theme park comprised of miniature cultural landmarks from more than twenty countries, from the Eiffel Tower to the White House. It’s where the world opens up to the Chinese people on their homeland. The park presents a world view from above, a vision that it is there but not there, like a transcendental being looking at the world from above—not a drone-based God’s gaze, but rather the perspective of an angel, just a bit further off ground than the mortals. It’s similar to the view of a customer looking down at the productions from the glass vitrines at Huaqiangbei, “a major electronics manufacturing hub and sprawling electronics marketplace” in Shenzhen. How do you compare the theme park and the vitrines, two of the major imageries of your show?
To me, they act as cultural windows for trying to understand and interact with globalism: the theme park is literally a visualization of foreign places, and Huaqiangbei is a meeting place for global entrepreneurs. For me, the counters where all trade is done in Huaqiangbei seemed like monuments to the triumph of inventiveness: the promise of innovation, of global trade, of access to global markets for the small business owner. For everyone I talked to in Shenzhen—from people that worked in electronics factories, to people creating the sculptures for theme parks, to shop owners in Huaqiangbei, to Western entrepreneurs participating in accelerator programs in Shenzhen—the markets at Huaqiangbei had a special symbolic significance. They represented the triumph of small, global, niche electronic businesses—and the promise of a true meritocracy in technology—in a way that Silicon Valley is not able to provide. So there are these connections to the global in each place. They are frames for understanding and experiencing the world, for people within China as well as visitors to China. Everyone that comes to Shenzhen is a Shenzhener.
Why is the exhibition titled „Real Mass Entrepreneurship“? It recalls Premier Li Keqiang’s speech at the World Economic Forum in 2014, where he brought up the phrase „mass entrepreneurship and innovation“ and it became part of the slogan for national strategies to boost economic growth. You interviewed David Li, the foreman of Huaqiangbei, about this. How did it go?
This relates to what I’m saying about both Huaqiangbei and Window of the World. One of the most inspiring people I spoke with is a guy called David Li. He’s kind of an intellectual, but also almost a PR guy for China’s technology center, but also an agent for Huaqiangbei and the markets. He runs an innovation center and seems to be connected to funding that comes from the government. He had some of the most striking things to say about the role of technology in China today. One of the concepts he discussed is this idea that small technology businesses can save China’s economy. He outlined the problem for me, explaining that economists the world over are predicting the bankruptcy of social security, and that large countries in particular would not be able to support their citizens in the way that was planned in the mid-century. He said there is no way that China can centrally support a population of 1.3 billion people through spending from public money. He introduced to me this alternative plan for supporting the population, where everyone is asked to innovate, to start up their own businesses and support themselves. The Premier has endorsed this idea in speeches.
Interestingly, the „Maker Movement“ has also been folded into this narrative. The Movement was started in the States and is about people designing their own robots and making small hacks in 3D printed cases and custom PCP boards. It’s about being more than a consumer, becoming a producer or „pro-sumer.“ But under this „mass innovation“ idea encouraged by the Chinese government, it has also become the new hope for framing the small entrepreneur to take on and privatize all the risks of making money and supporting the population. It’s an extreme belief in the promise of free markets as a means of providing for populations. So the title for the show, „Real Mass Entrepreneurship,“ actually comes from a phrase I remembered when speaking to David Li. It’s the idea that grassroots innovation and widespread entrepreneurship was our new hope for the world. That seemed like a really powerful idea to me, and is the core of the exhibition.
When I googled „Real Mass,“ most of the search results pointed to a brand of bodybuilding products. This is a funny coincidence, but also a suitable metaphor for Shenzhen—a Special Economic Zone that has to keep reinventing itself, erasing its present by its ceaseless production of „newness,“just as a bodybuilder overloads muscle tissues and creates micro-tears to force them to grow. The exhibition we’re working on at OCAT Shenzhen is very timely, as Huaqiangbei just opened its new subway stations and a „main shopping street,“ with viewing decks on both sides, where all the glass vitrines for in-store product display have been replaced by clean, lab-inspired cubicles. Here, growth is accelerated by micro-destruction. The extensive use of vitrines in Huaqiangbei presented a subtext that the objects in the electronic market are limited to a certain scale, confined by the size of human hands. The disposal of the vitrines allows products of varied dimensions to be seen at the market, manifesting another level of „bulking.“ This drastic shift occurred between your two visits to Shenzhen. What was it like, witnessing this great change over such a short period of time?
For me, it was really an illustration of the dream and reality of Shenzhen—this incredible belief in growth. Noel Joyce from the Western incubator for mostly foreign hardware companies called HAX, which is based in Huaqiangbei, told me on my first visit that this is a constantly changing place. He’s a product designer from Ireland who lost the use of his legs in the military, which put him in a wheelchair. So the urban landscape of Shenzhen is of special significance to him as someone who needs ramps to access buildings and streets. As he was moving through the markets, with the subway and „pedestrian street“ construction, he told me this incredible story about how, because a lot of logistics are done with trolleys in Huaqiangbei, there is always impromptu ramps popping up. If someone makes a new staircase or door, there will immediately be a ramp so the trolleys can access the entrances and thoroughfare routes—which means that he can also access these places, using the same ramps for his wheelchair. For him, this showed how the forces of the market are constantly shaping the city, from a „top-down“ force of planners building more commercialized, consumer focused buildings, but also from a „bottom-up“ force of people who actually use the buildings and streets every day. The same’s true for the technology objects being sold in the markets. Every six months, there will be a new product that is suddenly everywhere—smartwatches in one period, VR headsets in the next, and so on. He described this relationship to the built environment and to technology objects as a way that objects contain knowledge—that Huaqiangbei itself is a kind of physical „living book,“ reflecting the market and the people that use the market, changing constantly with the times.
You have produced nine sculptures for this exhibition—fiberglass objects based on the vitrines you encountered at Huaqiangbei, airbrush-painted in a realist style by workers from Dafen Painting Village. What was your criteria in choosing them? After all, there are millions of them at Huaqiangbei—why did you pick these nine?
I guess it was a mix of things. As I was saying, Huaqiangbei is for many people almost a mythic site, a place where real grassroots innovation actually occurs. The exchange that happens there mostly happens over these glass counters; they’re the site of interaction, a kind of object-frame for the entrepreneurial magic that happens in the markets. My idea to make sculptures of them in the style of figurines from the tourist amusement parks run by OCT, produced by the same workshop and painted with airbrush, like amusement park objects often are, was an attempt to make a monument to the entrepreneur, to mass innovation, out of the counter forms. But figuring out how to have a kind of representative selection, one that could stand in for the form, was difficult. This is where my dialogue with you and Muxi [Assistant Curator at OCAT] really helped—we discussed different archetypes and levels of finish across various counters. I looked through amazing documentation images that Muxi’s team took of different parts of Huaqiangbei and chose forms that I found interesting and representative. We then discussed making a kind of topology—a range of forms, from very basic, with no lighting and mixed component counters, through to fake phones and novelty objects with slightly better lighting, all the way up to fancy „maker“ display cases. I was also quite interested in your suggestion that each mode of lighting reflected a particular socio-economic condition, spoke to different customer aspirations and backgrounds.
Yes. Technology has long been built on the foundation of positivist gaze fantasizing perfectly transparent and neutral mediacy in the process of observation. The extensive use of glass vitrines in Huaqiangbei—all of which were retired after the market’s recent renovation, replaced with clean, white cubicles—was not only because of cheap costs, but was also a gesture of openness and honesty. Huaqiangbei is not like those tech hubs resembling Latourian black boxes; it’s more like an alien being dissected, exposing the different stages in the production of tech products. Each stage is presented in the form of products: electronic parts, phone cases, batteries, cords, packaging materials. The lighting in the vitrines varies according to the products they show: the more „raw“ and basic vitrines, usually paired with the cheapest fluorescent tubes (a sign of poverty in East Asian culture, as their flat, cold light exposes the flaws in domestic settings), belong to the vendors selling parts like CPUs. The more polished „final“ products like phones and drones are presented in vitrines with more streamlined and ultra-cold light with a touch of blue.
So the presentation is also about transparency and visibility. It goes hand in hand with another idea that David Li and Eric Pan were very fond of: this idea of intellectual property being different in Shenzhen, making copying a part of the process of innovation rather than something one avoids. The idea is that one can open up a technological object, copy what is being done, and then do a version of that product oneself. This is a stark contrast to the Western technology framework, where intellectual property is closely guarded and patents are strictly enforced.
Muxi and I talked about the difference in the lights and the visibility you mentioned; not that we reached a conclusion, but we think it may reflect the „hunter-gatherer“ economy of Huaqiangbei. The makers just wander in the market, thinking about how to combine parts and functionalities of things together. Like the portable karaoke device we saw, which is a microphone attached to Bluetooth speaker that can link to the karaoke apps on ones phone. When you look at its form, it is just a product brutally suturing things together, the way prehistoric human put a stick and stone together to make a tool. For these sorts of products, they aim at a very „primitive“ accumulation of capital.
Right. There is this idea that products like the Karaoke Mic (and the selfie stick and hoverboard before it) came out of this environment of open intellectual property. As you were saying about „hunter-gatherer“ economies, there’s also this notion that technology is not used as a cutting-edge thing here—it‘s more like a social product, reflecting not a positivist advance of technology, but rather a social adaptation of technology. It’s about treating technology as a material, a basic resource like steel or plastic—it’s not about making more refined versions of steel or plastic.
This kind of not-well-thought-out product is a symptom of mass entrepreneurship, when everyone can make a product that becomes a craze without a professional threshold. That’s why people need to „see“ when they wander in the market. The need for visibility contributes to the ubiquity of glass vitrines.
That’s super interesting. With the professional threshold gone, many different kinds of products are produced—the opening up of tools and access to developing products changes the course of what technology is used for. To me, there is a pretty amazing parallel here between the hardware side of things and what has happened to communications technology—the undermining of existing journalistic hierarchies, for example, with Twitter and Breitbart replacing the New York Times.
In Huaqiangbei and other Chinese electronic markets, you always see similar signs: they’re in basic RGB, obviously produced at some makeshift printer’s around the corner. The inspiring part of it is the fonts. They have a „flat“ font style in which the strokes are of the same width. These homogenous fonts—usually listing out the services they provide: hard drive recovery, screen replacement, etc.—are a symptom of how replaceable these shops are.
Yes, and then there are others that use another vernacular—a more sophisticated vernacular, like the language used on the maker counter, or some of the more branded shops. It seems like Huaqiangbei is shifting away from the CYMK fonts and simple glass vitrines towards a more international retail display style.
But at the same time, when you look at the signs for the company names and brands, they tend to use fonts with strong calligraphic traits. They want to show their „individuality“ in this way—remind people they’re not just another replicable store providing the same services.
For this exhibition, you rented sculptures from a Shenzhen factory that produces gigantic installations for malls. Some of the sculptures are generic shapes, like spheres and rocks; some are very specific objects, like a set of blown-up sculptures based on filmic awards: The Palme d’Or, the Oscar, the Hong Kong Film Award. You aren’t known as an artist who integrates readymades into your work. Why the change?
It’s interesting you say that—borrowing things has often been a strategy of mine. For instance, I did an exhibition over a few years in different forms in different venues called „The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom,“ which was a visualization of all the items seized from Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload, by the New Zealand authorities when he was indicted in 2012. For that show, we followed a list from the US court naming the items subject to forfeiture—from cars and art to screens and servers—and tried to acquire the same versions of these objects that he had. The whole show was about borrowing objects, visualizing a collection without having the exact objects from that collection on hand.
For the OCAT show, the sculptures were rented from a workshop that made sculptures for display—not only in malls, but also for amusement parks like Window of the World. The objects we borrowed are in varying stages of completion, and many of them are figurative bodies or suggest landscapes. The idea is that these half-formed bodies, themselves literally shaped by market forces (they’re former commissions of the sculpture factory), will surround and form a kind of crowd which all face the counter sculptures. All of these objects are rendered in the same materials, each becoming an entrepreneurial monument—bodies surrounding these mythic counters.
This idea of different forms from the same materials may be a useful metaphor for the subjectivity that the Chinese government’s „mass entrepreneurship“ initiative. It encourages the individual—everyone can do it—but at the same time, „everyone“ is part of the „mass.“
Exactly. When we talked to Li Liao, a Chinese artist based in Shenzhen, he had a skeptical view of the idea. He felt that this attempt at turning everybody into a Maker was more an idea than a reality; he argued that the real businesses getting made were platforms, the spaces enabling the supposed makers, rather than the makers themselves, or even their new products. He said it was more like monetary speculation, where those who were profiting from this idea of mass entrepreneurship were not this „everyman,“ but rather the people enabling it.
There’s a website in China called Zhihu (列빎), which is like Quora. People submit questions for others to answer. When it comes to the question of „mass entrepreneurship and innovation,“ most people have very negative comments.
What kinds of things are said?
When we talk about mass entrepreneurship and innovation (hereinafter MEI), especially in the tech context, we’re talking about lowering the threshold of starting business—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It’s not as rosy as the government is saying; the „mass“ they are talking about is mostly the fresh grads from middle class who don’t have financial burden. Here, for example: https://www.zhihu.com/question/29118760. The thread is „How do you understand MEI?“, and it says, „The Great Leap,“ „Down_to_the_Countryside_Movement 2.0.“
It reads: „The entire economy in the country is in recess, markets are undergoing downturns—what should we do? There are too many university graduates and not enough jobs—what should we do? Encourage them to start their own business, convincing them to take their parents’ savings to fill this bottomless hole of economy. You don’t know how to run it? Not a problem! Just create some gimmicks to finance your business to get some quick money. Even if the business dies, you make some ripples on the stagnant water.“
Yes, the idea that the answer to the economy rests on the shoulders of the individual, who might just magically start their own business with little more than a Kickstarter account, does seem like wishful thinking—or worse, ignorant of the reality of what doing something like this means.
„7.4 million fresh grads, unlimited unemployed workers, plus peasants who lost their lands—ta da! Here comes the slogan: ‘Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation!’ Holler it to the people of your own country, so as the people from overseas.“
It reminds me of a very extreme liberal logic, like a hyper-Thatcherism in British terms.
It often reminds Chinese people of the Cultural Revolution. When people talk about MEI, they compare it, even jokingly, to the different forms of mobilization at that time: da lian gang tie („the backyard furnace,“ which tried to accelerate the country’s heavy industry by asking households to donate all their domestic metal products) and Chu Sihai (the first movement of the Great Leap Forward, meaning „clearing the four pests“—sparrows, rats, flies and mosquitos). This is how the authorities mobilize the country: by claiming that everyone is part of it. Mobilizing is an important word, both literally and a conceptually. During the Revolution, the movement progressed according the Hegelian Spirit, moving towards the Maoist utopia. Nowadays the main shared belief is that capital can’t stop replicating itself—the machine has to keep moving. We can’t even imagine it ending.
Right. That unending upward growth seems to be something that Shenzhen itself represents in a very visceral way, constantly changing in the face of free market logic.
It’s also brutally free in an economic sense—there is not much concern with intellectual property. That’s why it is a „Special Economic Zone.“ Obviously, we can’t predict how things will go in China in the coming decades, but encouraging people to pursue new ideas is always a good thing.
Tat Lam, the co-founder of Shanzhai City, pointed that out—there is not much sense of where this direction will lead. He said something which is eternally true: good hearts and good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. These things may indeed have an unintended negative impact overall.
But the MEI is encouraging not only the possibility of large-scale enterprises (like OPPO and Tencent), but also small ones, like the factory producing the karaoke device we saw in Shenzhen, which is popular outside China and will probably bring its maker a fortune. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Exactly. As you said, unlimited freedom is something that is nominally valued; there’s this idea that innovative forces should have not barriers (like regulation) to them. But of course, total flexibility comes with its flipside: total precarity.
Another interesting thing that I want to touch on with this exhibition is the timing politically in which it’s being produced. I was in Shenzhen for filming and research in the weeks following Trump’s election, and a huge part of his rhetoric was about how China was taking jobs away from the USA—manufacturing as well as product development. Part of my aim in making this show was that it should look at what globalism means right now, find the voice of globalism that was in opposition to Trump’s story. The Chinese thinkers I talked to were all very pro-globalism. They reminded me of the years of protectionism during the Ming Dynasty and communism during New China. Closed boarders and isolationism were thought of very negatively in light of this history.
But the other thing I’m talking about is the labor conditions that produce the supposed advantages that Trump vilified as a political scapegoat in his campaign (and now adopts as policy in his presidency). Li Liau talked about his time at Foxxconn while he was making his performance piece, describing it as the „factory of the world.“ It would be very unlikely that Americans would want to work under those conditions. He had a nice metaphor, saying that once one has tasted a sugary bun, he wouldn’t want to go back to eating plain rice. David Li emphasized the role of the entrepreneur in defining workers’ labor conditions in manufacturing. If you forced factories to make $10 phones, then you got very bad labor conditions. But if you were to give the factories $100 to make the same phone under better labor conditions, they would happily do so.
Globalism is a topic that never ends. But what is the globe? A lot of makers in China are very pro-globalism, but when you look at the things they’ve made, you think, „Hmm, it’s not as ‘global’ as I expected.“ The thing is, this „globe“ people are thinking about isn’t just the US, East Asia, Europe, the Middle East. Some people’s globe focuses on African countries, for instance.
Right. David Li emphasized that Huaqiangbei services those regions as well—that many business owners who get their product lines developed there are targeting Africa and Russia, where iPhones, for example, are less realistic.
The gaps between the different globalizations are interesting. Different zones are demarcated on the basis of cultural context, legislative system, economic forms, etc.
That is a nice way to frame it, but at least ecologically, a workable future will have to conceptualize the earth as one pool of resources, not many different zones.
In past discussions of globalization, there were mainly two dualist situations: one is a seamlessly globalized, homogenized world where capital can travel freely without obstacles; the other is a secluded bubble. Both of these scenarios can be represented by the image of a sphere/bubble—but borrowing the concepts of Peter Sloterdijk’s „spherology,“ maybe our world is more like foam: a lot of bubbles agglomerating together, their surfaces touching each other, producing a Maragoni effect—which, taking a quick reference from Wikipedia (one of our shared bubble surfaces), refers to „the mass transfer along an interface between two fluids due to surface tension gradient.“
Wikipedia itself has been described as free-market logic applied to encyclopedic making. But how does that relate to current competing narratives between China and the US?
From the people I know in China, I don’t really believe in that Cold-War-ish narrative.
Yes, that’s the impression I got from the people I spoke to in Shenzhen and Shanghai. Many seemed also positive about Trump. To me, that narrative seemed almost like a contradiction.
My feeling is the majority of Chinese people aren’t anti-American.
But how can one be pro-Trump in China, when he is so vocally anti-China? That doesn’t make much sense to me, apart from some parallel narrative where Trump is seen as a very successful businessman and therefore good, as we all want to be successful businesspeople.
Yeah, entrepreneurship and how it is linked to the idea of success—being a boss, even just being self-employed—offers a certain extent of power, even if it’s just the power of claiming territory. I guess everyone wants to have the right to kick someone out of the room and say, „You’re fired!“
That logic seems to be stronger than all other narratives—the triumph of the entrepreneurial myth, which is maybe what the exhibition, and a lot of my work over the last few years, is really about.
Photography by Ann Woo
Venus Lau is the Artistic Director of OCAT Shenzhen. A curator and writer based in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, Lau has won the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Critics. She is a contributing editor to LEAP magazine and has written for KALEIDOSCOPE, Artforum, and Flash Art. She is formerly director of the Society for Experimental Cultural Production in Hong Kong, and has worked as a consulting curator for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, where she led planning for the museum’s “Secret Time Zones Trilogy.”