Antonie Angerer has been building up independent structures for a critical art discourse in Beijing since 2014. The art historian Alexandra Sommer met up with her on a hot summer evening to talk independent scene, urban changes and her fascination with Beijing. The author and Antonie used to draw and imagine a future during arts major in high school in a small-town Germany. Since then art has kept them connected and every once in a while, for some art event in some place in the world they meet again. This time they sat down to talk about I: project space in Beijing that Antonie is running since 2014 together with Anna-Viktoria Eschbach, as well as the Independent Art Space Festival that will happen for the 4thtime in the beginning of September.
AS: Can you tell me a little bit about why you are fascinated by Chinese art?
AA: On my first trip to China in 2007 I visited 798, the art district of Beijing. At that time, it was still a very non-commercial, unknown little place, but there were several galleries and small experimental music stores. I’ll never forget sitting with a couple of artists listening to noise music in a 5m2 shop called Sugarjar. It does not exist anymore. The district has now become something of an art Disneyland, but my fascination with Beijing began there and hasn’t stopped since.
AS: I remember that you were interviewing Ai Weiwei in the early stages of your career. Can you tell a bit why you interviewed him at the time and your experience?
AS: In 2012 just a few weeks after Ai got out of jail, I was in Beijing conducting interviews for my master thesis, which was investigating the Shanghai Biennale in 2000, a so-called turning point in the short history of experimental art. In the 90s a lot of experimental art was not able to be shown in a public space and the Shanghai Biennale in 2000 ended that period and showed again works by video, installation and conceptual artists. It started a huge discussion, of how this coming “above” ground would influence the practice and a discourse of responsibilities started. One part of this discourse were the so-called Satellite exhibitions commenting on the Biennale. An important voice of these exhibitions was the Fuck Off exhibition, curated by Feng Boyi and Ai Weiwei. I interviewed Ai Weiwei at a very particular time of his life about how the art scene had changed since 2000. I interviewed several people about the changes, but Ai Weiwei was by far the most disillusioned of all of them. While others saw positive developments after 2000 by a thriving art market, contemporary art institutions, magazines, big-scale international exhibitions etc., Ai Weiwei thought of the system at the time as the same face, but with a smile.
AS: I also remember that it was a very difficult interview.
AA: I interviewed him after he just got out of prison. And I didn’t think I was going to get this interview. I was interviewing Feng Boyi, the co-curator of the Fuck Off exhibition, who helped me contact Ai Weiwei. It was a period where he was not supposed to give any and he was under surveillance 24 hours. It was complicated because I think he was not supposed to talk about anything after 2000. It was a very interesting and complicated situation interviewing Ai Weiwei.
AS: Did the research you conducted made you more interested in the political aspect of Chinese art and into being a part of it instead of “only studying” it?
AA: These interviews and experiences absolutely influenced me in deciding to open a space that is creating a platform for experimentation and critical discourse for the local scene. Talking to a lot of people at the time, many mentioned that of course the commercial sphere of the contemporary was very developed, but there is not enough non-commercial space for experimentation for young artists to develop their practice. It is about creating spaces, where failing but trying something new can benefit your artistic development. Since we do not sell art, we are more interested in the process of developing an art project in collaboration with an artist than only the product. Commercial galleries play a very important role in China, it is interesting to have to find your position in the art scene as a project space.
AS: So why did you choose Beijing?
AA: In China there are not so many centers of art. There is Beijing and Shanghai and then maybe Guangzhou. Shanghai has recently become the center for commercial art scene and museum scene, but Beijing is still until now the scene for artists and it’s been always the scene for the underground and intellectual discourse. I have always felt at home in Beijing. I think the roughness of Beijing reminds me of cities like Berlin, but at a time, where people did not know yet, where the journey was going. Beijing is the political and cultural capital of Beijing, so even though it is getting tougher and tougher, there are still so many people doing incredible projects.
AS: I saw that you also have projects, which are mapping on the urban space. Can you tell me more about that? Or is there a special focus in your program or do you personally have a special focus, respectively?
AA: We started Beijing22 two years ago. Since we work very research based and the city started changing in such rapid speed around us, Anna and I together with Berlin photographer Jannis Schulze founded the long-term research project Beijing22, which is looking at Beijing’s urban transformation leading up to the Winter Olympics happening in 2022. It is looking into how China is using big scale events to push through reforms faster and legitimizes extreme changes for its citizens. The decentralization of Beijing has been planned for many years and parts of this plan will be able to be realized in time for the Olympics. This includes merging the neighboring provinces and Beijing to the metropolitan region Jing-Jin-Ji, reforming the mobile infrastructure, restructuring the residential areas of Beijing and creating a green city with Chinese characteristics. Imagine Beijing being build up by the Forbidden City in the middle and then growing in concentric circles. The city has now reached the 7thring and keeps growing and growing. To solve the problem of a growing center, it is rethinking the model of city and planning multiple centers connected through high-speed trains. This is one of the examples of what is happening currently in Beijing. All these changes of course have an immense effect on the social spaces of the city. Together with artists, architects, journalists and many more we are looking at different aspects of this change and collecting an independent archive of the effect of mega-urban planning on the city.
AS: Why do you think is important to have a project like Beijing22 as an art space?
AA: It was important for us to create a project documenting the changes while they are happening. It is changing so fast and it affects so many different levels and produces a broad spectrum of experienced realities, so we started this interdisciplinary project to also better understand what is forming around us and to create an independent archive of urban changes.
AS: That sounds very connected to the city of Beijing and the art scene there. I was wondering, if you look at I: project space as an international art space, how is it connected to the international art scene then?
AA: From the beginning our aim was to create experimental space for the local scene and connect it with an international discourse. As outsiders, you can be connecters, not the ones writing the local discourse. So, we have a residency program as part of our space practice, we do exhibition projects outside of China and have become a platform for exchange between travelling art professionals and the local scene. It is all about creating networks in Beijing and with like-minded spaces and artist in an international level.
AS: Talking about networks, you and Anna also founded the Independent Art Space Festival Beijing and will have its 4thedition in September. Can you tell us a bit more about this festival?
AA: We started the festival in 2015, shortly after we arrived. After arriving in Beijing, we immediately realized that there was an interesting group of different independent initiatives happening all across the city, but we also realized that the scene was not really connected, and many people were not able to access the spaces that were not on the www. Therefore, we decided to create a moment that is connecting the local scene and makes all the small initiatives visible once a year. This year’s edition will focus on the strengths, tools and strategies us spaces build over the years. In an environment, where you can lose your space in the time of days, no funding structures for independent spaces exists, critical content needs to be carefully communicated, we are trying to share the knowledge we collected throughout the years. Further we launch a new map of all the spaces in Beijing. The month of September will be all under the topic of Beijing’s independent scene. We are happy to also welcome 10 international spaces to participate this year’s edition of the festival and 23 spaces we will profile throughout September and map around Beijing.
AS: Coming to an end, how would you describe the art scene in China now and what changed if you think back the early stages of your career?
AA: I believe diversity is the key in order to develop a healthy art system. The current scene is China is still very informed by the market and almost all shows, except for a few institutions, are profit driven. It is essential that more spaces for artists and curators are created to develop their practice. For us this means to create a space for artists, that are working research based, process-based. Further we want to strengthen and build our networks, locally and internationally to share our knowledge and start creating solidarities. Independent Art Spaces are crucial to ask the less convenient questions, to show the less pleasing art works, because they can. They exist to support the art and artists and create an alternative platform the existing system is still lacking. In an art system that is currently still asking the question, how should a future art scene look like, independent spaces are the ones that can experiment and influence possible models. For me art is the way to talk about issues of what is currently happening- if your city is changing and how is that affecting the people living in these cities for example. Or how it can investigate in what kind of future we want to live when it comes to gender, culture, or economy. I think art is a possibility to express issues and emotions that you might not be able to speak out, especially in China. Art creates a space for discussion.
Alexandra: … what is art.
Independent art spaces Beijing will be opening September 6th. For more information visit www.iasbeijing.org
Just after graduating from high school, Antonie’s story with China started. Antonie has a MA in Sinology and art history from the university of Tuebingen and Zurich and did research for her master thesis at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Since 2014 she and Anna-Viktoria Eschbach have been running I: project space, that has become home for many projects by local artists, as well a connecting point for artists and curators visiting from outside. Shortly after their arrival they founded the Independent Art Space Festival Beijing, which is building structures of solidarity inside of the independent art scene.
Alexandra Sommer is an art historian who specializes in modern and contemporary art and currently works in the curatorial department of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
[The interview has been edited for clarity]