Adrian Blackwell... The Beijing...


Adrian Blackwell: There are two things we are
interested in with your urban work. The first
concerns your thoughts about the contemporary
city: what's happening right now with Chinese
urbanization? The second is the approach you
take in your own urban interventions. I thought
we could begin by talking about some of your recent
projects. You started making art in the late 1970's, architecture in the late 1990's, and then quite recently,
just a few years ago, you began to making works that are about urban space, documents of your city. I know of four
of them: the Beijing video map, the void photographs, the Chang'an boulevard project and the Ring Road project. They are each fascinating ways of reading Beijing. What made you start making work like that, what made you start documenting the city?

Ai Weiwei: It's not exactly documenting. It has that function, but it has no documentary purpose. It's not
being used as evidence or testimony for anything, but
rather to materialize our physical life, its condition in the moment. If you are in place A or on line A or line B, then
that present there or that movement is simply as it is.
We're living in a constantly changing world and
everybody sees it and knows it, but as an artist
who is also involved in issues of design and urban
planning, I always try to find a way to most efficiently
capture what I call fragments, or very small pieces which carry the flavor or carry the essential meaning of the city. So it's a very small effort that I have made, even if it looks quite massive in terms of the length of the videos, its just one section of a fact - the concrete world.

AB: So maybe we could talk briefly about each of those pieces. Let's start with the first piece, the video which
follows every street in Beijing within the fourth ring road.

AW: "INTERVAL" - From Da Bei Yao to Da Bei Yao, 8.10. - 7.11.2003.


AB: It's about the street network and it makes me
think of Zhu Jianfei's book Chinese Spatial Strategies.
He talks about the public space of the city of Beijing
arguing that in a western city you have squares,
public space is organized around openings in the fabric,
while in the Chinese city (his example is Ming and Qing dynasty Beijing) public space is in the street, so the public space is not a void, but a network of space, and the active spaces are simply nodes, or widenings in that network.
One of the things that I like about this project is
that it is an attempt to map this entire network
using video, but it also conflates the map and its
opposite, which is the experience of simply being
lost in the city. What were you thinking about
with this network of every street in Beijing?

AW: I think that a city is a three dimensional or multi-dimensional thing, but the work itself is not even two-dimensional, it's just one point to another,
to another, to another. So of course in time this
weaves a net if you are thinking of the road
you have been traveling along or if you join the
individual points. It covers the whole city,
all the hutongs and streets, but actually it is
made at one time, at a moment. Still it follows a line,
a line made by a vehicle which has more than a
dozen people on it, and from day 1 to day 16 it
passes through different parts of the city.
So it appears to be a complete view of Beijing,
but if you look at any point, it's just dots,
because there is no camera movement except
the movement of the car. Very little changes,
but the attitude or position that drives it is not
passive, it's fixed through a very concrete concept.
So I think it's quite ironic in that sense:
after 150 hours it documents the city,
but nobody would watch 150 hours and
at any moment you see, you are confined
to a single point, or proportionally stretched
points form a very short time within this
big work. It only works when it is so long,
more than six days and nights. It shows
how big, how impossible, how crazy this
city is, or how meaningless at the same
time, because our proportion, our sense
of time, and also our visual contact with
the city is really limited by where we are
and which direction we go. The moment is
about a certain period of time, so when you
just look at one moment you don't really
know what is before or what is next,
even if you can pretty much guess.


AB: With the void photographs you are
documenting a moment where there is nothing.
If you think about Chinese cities as constantly
being torn down and rebuilt, then this is a moment
of quiet in between. It seems that this is a moment of potential, but I don't know if you are that optimistic
about this possibility all the time. What made you take
those photographs?

AW: I think that's a special landscape in today's China,
you are the largest construction site in the world and
each year Beijing has one hundred million square metres of construction which exactly equals the area of the
whole city in 1949. Every year you have this total
amount of construction, but you only finish a third
of it, thirty million square metres. You know these
are just numbers, but they really tell you something
about the urban condition, especially when you see
\ that China builds 20 times the area built in Beijing.
The whole country is building crazily. So you have a
kind of landscape that destroys the old, because the
old is really garbage I think. It's really shelter in its
worst condition, like Harlem. We used to say that
Harlem was 100 times better than most ordinary
people's houses. Then after you destroy you make
it flat - we call this san tong yi ping (three [infrastructural]connections and one leveling).


Pei Zhao: By now its jiu tong yi ping (nine connections
and one leveling)

AW: Then all this land will be rebuilt by powerful
people, developers. Most of them, are connected
to the government. They make big profits from
land, which is not constitutional. After 1949 land
was taken from the landlords. They killed the
landlords, and the land was given to the people,
under the control of the state. Now all the land is
being auctioned to people in favor or associated
with the state, who are profiting from their
privileged background. So you have a landscape
that is just waiting for this future. Even if it's totally
empty, it will soon be built. Soon it will change the
whole landscape of Beijing and of China.

It's a very sad condition, you see a nation or a
city rip up the past, not to benefit the people,
or the situation, but for profit, it's really the idea
of all those new rich. It's like a country girl has to be a prostitute, because there is no other way to get
out of the village. China's development is so much
based in this idea: to let somebody ruthlessly
become rich, but they can't become rich unless
the party and government also profits, otherwise it's impossible. So who has become rich? Who has
become more powerful? Who benefits and
who is losing their rights, or their property.
This property belongs to everybody, it belongs
to somebody who never sees this property,
because you know we are a communist country
and this of course for the past 10 to 20 years
has been a hidden secret (I mean nobody talks
about it).
It's stealing. I am not criticizing, these are only
the facts. I record the condition after things are
torn down and before they are built up, you know
it's a very short moment, but in that moment nobody
wants to look. There's a question mark there, a big,
big void. The old is so sad, but the new is also sad.
It is a very sad condition, so I think it's interesting
to record it. It's a unique situation, a void with many questions, yet people don't want to look, or raise these questions.


AB: If the void project looks at empty moments inside
the city, the Chang'an boulevard project moves in a
straight line from outside through the city. It's a section.
You were interested in the movement from rural space through urban space and back to the rural. How do you see that piece describing the contemporary city?


AW: I think that surprisingly enough when I started
to make it, I did not know what it would be. It's not
based on very sophisticated thinking, more on an
attitude than on careful planning. It started when
one of our friends said they had a son who wanted
to come to Beijing, but had nothing to do. After he
arrived I asked him if he could do this for a while.
Then after days of planning what he should do,
I found that Chang'an from the 6th ring road to
the 6th ring is 45 km. So I made a very simple
decision: just take one video shot for one minute
every 50m. No technical requirements: push down,
Whatever happens in front of the lens is fine.
It took months, the whole winter, because in the
winter there is no better or worse view. I think in
Beijing the winter really reflects northern landscape
very well. You know there is a kind of sadness there.
So after months he had taken 1000's of shots:
from a very rural, primitive village, to the business
district, to the political center, to an old town and
later on ended up in the Capital Iron Company,
which has just been destroyed and moved to
another city township. This video was the last
possible time to take these shots of the Capital
Iron Company, a symbol of socialist industry.
They made all the iron for the nation.


AB: When you look at maps of the growth of
\ Beijing from 1949 to the present it is amazing
to watch Chang'an Boulevard, it draws the city out,
away from the old city. So much of the growth of the
city is along that line that it is much longer than the
rest of the city. The Last work that I know about that
deals with the city is your Ring Road project.


AW: I made two pieces, one about the second ring
and the other about the third ring. The video of
the second ring is structured through the 33 bridges,
taking one minute shots on each side of the bridge.
So standing there you see the car traffic moving from overhead. Then I did the third ring, 50 some bridges
and the same thing, the only difference is that second
ring is taken on cloudy days (in Beijing most days are
like that), while the third ring is taken on sunny days.
If you look at it immediately you know that one's
second ring and one is third ring. One is just grey
color, and sometimes snowing. It's very boring
and not an exciting thing to do, but nevertheless
it records the condition at the time, its very
much like a witness passing through: what
he would see, his eye, anybody's eye. There
is no artistic or aesthetic value, not much
judgment there. Its very, very simple
situation; it's very much like a monitor


AB: We have talked a little bit about these
works you have done about the city. But the
other thing I am interested in is the way you
live in the city. You live in a village; you don't
really live in the city.

AW: Well this city, Beijing, surprisingly enough
is not a real city. I cannot call it a city, it's still very
flat, not dense enough, not strong enough,
it doesn't have enough variation and mixed
conditions, it's still very even.

Today I live in Beijing. I was also born in Beijing,
but soon after we moved to Xinjiang and I grew
up there. My father owned a courtyard in Beijing,
but for years other people lived in it, because our
family was considered an enemy of the people,
an enemy of the state, and an enemy of the party.
Three enemies. Being just one of them was
enough to be exiled. Then after 20 years away
we returned and lived in different parts of the city.
We borrowed places, because our home was
inhabited by other people. We lived in different
places: West, North, East or South, so I have a
very clear image of what the city looked like.
At the time the city was occupied by bureaucratic compounds: universities (of course at that time
were not open), government, military and so-called
scientific research institutes. All these different
departments were all under the same conditions,
communist, without private property, everyone
belonging to the work unit. So there was only
one condition: you were either one of the people
or an "enemy of the people." So simple. I guess
there weren't so many "enemies of the people,
" but from time to time that vein was very
consciously mined. They were trying to find
out who is an enemy of the people for years
while I was growing up. It was one political
movement after another after another.
It was crazy every day. Today you talk
about it and it sounds more like a joke:
"what a joke, why are you still talking
about things like this?" But this was true:
many people lost their lives. I think that
that ghost is still haunting China today.
Not the communist ideology, the ideology
may be good, but the way that this power
is maintained within society and how brutal
the state can be towards a human's basic
condition, not to talk about human rights,
but essential needs.

So that is basically what this city was and
still half of the city is still based in this and
the other half is the so-called new rich, after
Deng Xiaoping's getting rich first policy.
Of course who is going to get rich?
It's not the ordinary person.
But this is not a complaint, it's simply the truth.
You know in China, you still talk about people
who have the right to live in the city or not to
live in the city. It's called hukou, dividing people
into locals, non-locals.

PZ: You need a license, or special registration to
live in the city. Throughout the entire world only
North Korea and China have a policy like this one.

AW: Locals don't have many rights, besides the
privilege of enrolling in school, but in the newspaper
they often talk about the crimes caused by non-locals.
There is a crazy amount of discrimination against
people who are not local. A small example of this
is that the city has laws against illegal structures
like this one (Ai Weiwei's home and studio).
Think about it this way: the city is built solely
by migrants from the outside, but none
of them are locals except the boss and
where are they going to live? Nobody
provides any space for them. Of course
they gather at the outskirts of the city...

PZ: And in the village in the city...

AW: Just to build a place that they can stay,
whether it's legal or not.

AB: But this village, Cao Chang Di, is it a village that pre-dates the city, or is it a village like you are talking
about now, a village that is built illegally? Most people
that live here appear to be migrants, but did they build
this village, or did they inhabit an existing one?

AW: In the 1960's this was a so-called
"China Albania Friendship Farmer's village.
" These were very privileged farmers, who
were supposed to provide an example for the
country, growing vegetables for the city.

So when university or high school students
graduated, and Chairman Mao sent them to
be re-educated on a farm, they would send
some people here. At that time people working
here found much better conditions that you
would find in more distant areas. At least on
the weekend they could ride their bicycle home.
These were example farmers, so it was a good farm.

Recently I heard that it is no longer a village
and the former farmers are buying out their hukou to become citizens, instead of farmers. The real
reason this is happening is so that the land can
be returned to the government, because if you
are a farmer no one can take your land. Of course
there is real benefit for these new citizens, they
have some new citizen's rights, but at the same
time the land is returned to the state, so that it
can sell the land to anybody it wants to. There
are a lot of tricks and games, but it is really so
simple: the state is the only beneficiary. But in
a state, like China, which is not a democratic society,
far from it, nobody argues about this, the press
won't talk about it, intellectuals never discuss it.
Probably I am the only crazy guy who always
talks about it. But they think: "This shit guy,
why is he always talking about this?"

So what kind of city is this? I can't see a city
without citizens. It's like you don't see a religion
without followers. Nobody can decide how the city
is going to be; everything is done through governmental decisions, today we need a road here, tomorrow...
It's by very simple decisions from the top. If Sanlitun (a Beijing bar street) becomes nice they say:
"Oh, lets change it, we'll plan big buildings
so that someone can profit from it, not all
you street vendors." It's crazy, whenever they
see people benefit, they will grab the profit.
It's so simple, they change here or there not as
they say, to make the city better. The city is
already better when they do nothing, take 798 (a contemporary arts district, in a former model
industrial work unit) as an example, but once
they see this they always take action.

So that's my understanding of this city.
I really have no relationship with it, except
when journalists come to visit me. Otherwise
I just go to one restaurant, which I designed
(called Where to Go?). A lot of friends go as well,
so we have a place to meet and eat dinner,
and then I come back here.


AB: This is a courtyard house, and it seems to me
that the kind of city you are talking about when you
say you live here and in your restaurant, has very few elements, its not so much about the city space in
between. I am interested in that because a lot
of people, for instance New Urbanists in North
America, might say you make a good city by
making lively streets, by concentrating energy
on the public space of the city. I don't know if it is
the way you would like to make a city, but the way
you live is different from that, its much more about autonomy, creating a separate space through the
compound, but still finding forms of community.
The restaurant for instance is a kind of public
space, which can't be here in Cao Chang Di; it's
better that it's in the city, because people can
get to it more easily. I am wondering if you are
interested in making a city that starts from
the way you live in it, which I think is quite
different from the way many others think a
city should work.


AW: Of course most European cities are based
in convenience and efficiency. But it's not necessary
to me that these functional requirements are
supported, what is more important is the use.
You need a real variety of intention and purpose:
people who are doing things that you would never
think about. So you know that's important.
I think
a city can be very brutal and lacking in qualities
of life, because these are not desired, but without
many different purposes, the city loses its initial
reason for becoming a city.

Many places, like this city, have vast areas without use.
It is so strange, these spaces are not for individuals;
they're for a special group that has no meaning.
This group gives the city no meaning; it's a
negative force, working against other people.

AB: Maybe we could finish, with a question
about the different processes you use in making art.
I'll list some of the different techniques, or tactics,
that you use. I am interested in how you might see
them applying to your design thinking and its
relationship to processes of urbanization.

The first is the notion of detournment,
this Situationist idea of diverting the meaning
of existing artifacts, taking found things
and altering them slightly to change their
You've used this technique in architecture,
in the projects you did at Beijing's Soho housing
development, the silo and the upside down house,
and in the project we're sitting in - your own studio.
Even though it's not a found object, it looks like one.
You use ordinary typologies and vernacular forms
and slightly modify them.

The second involves letting things go, you just drop a Han Dynasty vase on the ground. You let it go to see what happens. I think this works like the video pieces as well, you set up a process to see what ensues.

But then there is another tactic you use: an overt "fuck you!", working very strongly against authority, centrality...

AW: ...order and the state, establishment...


AB: And I guess the final one which is in some
ways the opposite of the last one, is that you use
the power of developed knowledge, a general intellect, vernacular techniques, you have a deep respect for
the way people do and make things.

So I am wondering how you see these tactics in
relation to the city, can you see your practice of
making urban space in relation to these same


AW: I think we are in a very special moment,
As Chinese people, but also internationally,
we have gone from the cold war, an unjust society,
towards so-called globalization, or a stronger capitalist society, or an information age. Everything happened
with a purpose leaving us with unknown conditions.
I don't think humans can ever really control this,
and it has become even less controllable.
Circumstances are now much more complicated
than we can predict. For example until quite recently
there was no China or India and now suddenly they
are the factories of the world. But people are still
trying to figure out what this means in relation to
ideology, social and political structure, and all kinds
of other problems, like education and the
environment. I don't think there is a single reaction,
at least for myself that can answer these questions,
or put me at peace. So I constantly think about the
condition of being lost. Once you're lost, you try to
figure out where to go. Imagine you're in the middle
of a train station and you try to understand the
much larger, much more complicated, space
around you, or the travel you are embarking on.

So I think it's crazy, the whole thing is crazy. I am not very clear about what I am doing. If I have a character, I don't have much purpose in my life, but more of a natural flow. The only fact is that I am still alive. I'm here. This is solid now, but even this might change. I can't figure out what is going on. Really that's true. Honestly, I don't have a clear answer for this. The clearest answers look ridiculous to me.

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