Texting Beijing, Yale Perspecta

Transforming Capitals. New Haven: Yale Perspecta, 2008.
PUBLISHING info: 2008

Within China’s twenty-year trajectory of economic expansion Beijing presents itself as a border condition in which an accelerated rate of change gives way to hybrid conditions that coexist at a magnified level: preservation and modernization; the low, horizontal city of the hutong and the vertical city of the skyscraper; the forces of the market and those of a closed political system; the new urban rich and the agrarian poor; the European paradigms of architecture and an Eastern culture embracing Westernization and twenty-first-century change; the positive effects of increased wealth, global¬ization, hygiene, and infrastructure alongside the negatives of rampant corruption, pollution, acid rain, and urban displacement.

Regarding Beijing most know its new icons as they know those of its past—Tiananmen Square, The Peoples Hall, and The Forbidden City. Riken Yamamoto’s Jian Wei SOHO; Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s China Central Television Headquarters and the Beijing Books Building; PTW’s National Swimming Stadium (in the form of a giant water cube); Herzog and de Meuron’s National Stadium (in the form of a giant bird’s nest); Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid; Norman Foster’s National Airport (whose shape and color recall a red dragon); and Paul Andreu’s National Theater (which resembles a giant egg) are all poising Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

To map these new developments against older paradigms as artifacts and monuments, or to portray them as digitally generated form would be to present the city as stable, rather than that which produces, and is produced by and within, a field of forces through a dynamic series of changes and active stresses.

As a city that is not complete but being re-invented, Beijing has an urbanism that must be written as a projective history of future potentials and emergent patterns. Texting Beijing relies on a Foucauldian notion of critique in which analyses and mappings of particular conditions and specific phenomenon give rise to a more general understanding. Its methodology is empirical and curatorial, invoking choice and juxtaposition to disclose a broader condition. Its representation is active rather than static, temporal rather than ideal. It proposes no constitutive theory other than one of fluidity and obscurity with moments of clarity and revelation to instantiate a culture of change.

Beijing’s historic city is a city of walls—a fabric turned inward, in which the street is denied and the inner workings of a compound (be it familial, political or industrial) are sacrosanct. Its spatial syntax—compounded with its scale, concentric growth, the blur of its milky-white air, the lack of one vantage point, such as a river’s edge from which one can see the skyline—mean that one can never really see Beijing. This condition meta¬phorically speaks to a methodological problem of a purely visual means of representation, a problem that is endemic to urbanism in general (and one to which the Venice Biennale bore wit¬ness) but also one that is particular to Beijing. As a twenty-first-century city that is reinventing itself through industrialization, representing Beijing through vision and spectacle, mass media and the street, or solely illustrated through the bird’s eye view of the architectural plan is to fall prey to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western paradigms.

Texting Beijing presents a fictive anthology of individual voices through which multiple points of view converge to stage the city as an interface for performative action. “Text” here refers to a temporal medium, either images or text, implicit in which is a point of view. Each constitutes a fictive construction or narrative, an immersive paradigm that conveys spatial and environmental effects—a psychological space of inhabitation rather than the omniscient, timeless perspective and visual distance present in traditional mappings. The focus is not on the form itself but on the effects of the spatial syntax, which become instantiations of Beijing, rather than its visual representation. [Excerpted]

“Texting” as opposed to “text” is invoked to reference the current trend of sms-ing (rather than structuralist or poststructuralist theories). As an active verb of engagement and creation, it reflects to a process of transformation, mutation, and participation. Texting has its own language, its own code. Time becomes place to supplant physical locale. It subverts traditional surveillance because it slips under the radar. Its content is short, abbreviated. In a country that currently has the most mobile phones in the world2 texting becomes an expression of individual agency (albeit in a somewhat generically represented within the digital text) and a decentralized means of organization. As a message ”the text” is generative of a cluster of convergences. Order is not imposed nor planned but productive of overlaps, interludes, collisions, divergences. These convergences have their physical counterparts in emergent urban phenomenon such as traffic or pollution. Really they manifest themselves in the impromp¬tu parties staged at Urban Love Island (Beijing’s gay club) where “clusters of culture outside the mainstream find their own places of belonging”3 or among the urban youth who use sms-ing to organize the staging of their performances against the backdrop of the city.

Beijing’s historic spatial syntax of walled compounds, modularity, and repetition–re¬flected in the Imperial City and the courtyard hous—its underlying grid that produced what was believed to be a harmonious society, reflected not the modernist subject as we know it in the West but embodied and produced collective subjectivities or collections of collectives, rooted in Confucian ideology and the social ideals of the Peoples’ Republic of China.4

Hence the reference to the digital age and to “telematics” does not propose networked or an informational paradigm of the city. Rather, it proposes that technology alters the way in which we inhabit the city, navigate through it, and even build in it. While there exists, for ex¬ample, a “great firewall” set up for the compre¬hensive control and censorship of the Internet; approximately 40,000 official wall monitors search the mails and homepages for suspicious-looking content and cordon off the country5, the bloggers are faster than the Internet police; the hidden alley escapes the authorities’ view long enough to post a protest. Organizations such as the Alternative Archive, a dispersed film collective of over 800 members, are springing up.

Cao Fei’s Cosplayers films the Chinese urban youth enacting Japanese comics. These actors use the sms or “text” to organize their performances. The new city–now not Beijing but the artistic center of Guangzhou–in which contemporary artifacts such as the abandoned roadbed that floods every time it rains and thus appears as a lake, is appropriated as the set. The city becomes an interface for performative action and enactment. These enactments not only manifest themselves in artworks; but in the most minute levels of the street, such as the space where Zhang Jinli posts his protests.

Curation as method and text as media are invoked to used as paradigms of mapping to trace dynamic change and reveal invisible (or overlooked) yet defining phenomena and patterns. The voices invoked here are specific, representative of perhaps larger collective voices. They include the documentarian photographer (Sze Tsung Leong), the tourist (Tina DiCarlo), the Western architect practicing in Beijing (Ole Scheeren), the Chinese Guanzghou-based artists now re-located to Beijing (Ou Ning and Cao Fei), the resident of the hutong (Zhang Jinli), the Chinese painter still unknown outside of China at the time of this research (Yan Lei), and the Chinese Scholar whose works and knowledge of Beijing’s spatial and collective structure has served as a primary historical reference (David Bray). The voices are passive and active; the narratives and images have been collected over the last two years. The graphic layout is intended to evoke a discrete spatial structure: the old city, colliding and effaced by the new in an ad-hoc accumulation within a peripheral order.

Six voices voices reveal five phenomena that have been distilled to adumbrate the transformation of the city: tall buildings, toxicity, toilets, walls, and telephones. These phenomenon suggest that Beijing’s urbanism is best represented through specific but largely invisible phenomena that organize the city and precipitate spatial, behavioral or performative patterns, whether they be the interior of the tall buildings, the air quality that permeates every aspect of daily life, or the toilet, credited in the West as defining the autonomous subject.

Six parallel columns contain six parallel texts,that unfold alongside one another across nine spreads. The texts have no particular order. They overlap, comment on one another, diverge, contradict. Ole Scheeren’s story of CCTV unfolds alongside Zhang Jinli’s tale of displacement; Sze Tsung Leong speaks of a certain beautifica¬tion, of which the tourist finds none; George Eugene-Hausmann’s modernization of Paris seems to provide a datum; Cao Fei and Ou Ning reflect the digital age through different media.

The texting of these multilayers reflect Beijing’s new spatial syntax, in which local patterns of inhabitation still preside. The city can be found in the building, where harshness becomes a qualitative beauty: instability is a fixed condition; the underlying grid has been effaced and order is ad hoc. They evoke something of its contemporary quality through which specific phenomenon delineate (probe) political, cultural, socio-spatial histories and practices, new behaviors and ideas, a radial structure of a still largely inward-looking city, in which discrete clusters exist within striated urban space. In the absence of one particular vantage point, six viewpoints converge, allowing dialogue and positioning of the city as a temporal construction of parallel histories, proceeding forward without the ability to replay or rewind.

Work: Writing