Community-based art renews ancient cities

By SHI YUNQING / 04-08-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Visitors appreciate the exhibition “Hutong Sound Theater” at Chaoyangmen Cultural Center in Beijing. Photo: FILE

More than three decades have passed since China started its urbanization drive. It has roughly gone through three stages. The first stage (1990–2004) had a commodification of space theme, featuring demolition and reconstruction. In the second stage (2004–2014), the commodification of culture played the major role, when culturally or artistically renowned creative talent and institutions from at home and abroad were introduced to cities to set the stage for cultural creativity. We are currently in the third stage, which is marked by a cultural renaissance and multi-actor governance, reflecting a striking shift toward public culture. 

Take Beijing as an example. The shift was first evident in the latest Beijing Overall Urban Planning (2016–2035), in which the long-established phrase jiucheng (old city) was modified into laocheng (ancient city). This modification has turned Beijing, which has almost continually been the capital of China for the last 700 years, from a reconstructed object against the backdrop of industrialization and modernization, into a protected one in the current context of reviving excellent traditional cultures. 
From old city reconstruction to ancient city revival, various humanistic sentiments that are attached to the space and history of the ancient capital have been evoked, while the culture has also been extended from the previously static elite culture, which emphasized architectural forms, to the present dynamic public culture that probes the everyday lives of ordinary people. 
Reasons for cultural shift
The change is based on the need to bring “people” and their “true life” back into the urban renewal process. It also reflects flaws in the previous city development model that favored spaces built upon commercial exchange value, and turned a blind eye to humans, or concrete life in each space. It is a response to rising social forces, and indicates the logical turn of urban accumulation from economic to cultural. 
Assigning a value to urban spaces by cultural means, in line with the global wave of emerging “societies of singularities” proposed by German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, is a feasible solution to the Chinese predicament in which development-based renewal cannot be sustained due to multiple structural restrictions. 
Endowing spaces and citizens’ lives with cultural, affective, and ethical meaning is one of the crucial methods used to generate singularities in urban spaces, thereby highlighting the importance of localized daily lives, and contributing to the popular “experience economy.”
Accordingly, the multi-actor governance model led by the government, operated by the market, and participated in by the public, has become a well-suited governance mechanism. As one of the main actors, residents have for the first time been incorporated into policy design and are expected to complete the renewal process jointly. 
Challenges to cultural revival
Although the multi-actor governance principle points in the general direction of encouraging social participation and reviving the public culture of historical blocks, two constraints are hindering the full, vivid representation of rich cultures in daily life. The first is the local population’s simple social structure, which can hardly diversify public life. Second, cultural resources of historical blocks are subject to territorial jurisdiction and thus can only expand to a limited scope. 
Specifically in Beijing, the original social ecology in communities linked by the hutong, a winding network of small lanes or alleys lining traditional courtyard compounds (siheyuan) on both sides, has been destroyed by the exodus of young and middle-aged residents in addition to severe population aging. 
In Baishun Community in Xicheng District, for example, survey data from 2015 shows that residents aged between 50 and 70 years old accounted for 58% of the total community population, and those above 70 accounted for 19%. A similar case is found in Neiwu Community, Dongcheng District, where survey data from 2019 indicated that middle-aged and elderly people took up more than 75% of the total population. 
As legacies of human civilization, the hutong and siheyuan in the older parts of Beijing boast great potential in terms of public culture, but when it comes to their physical carriers, bordered territorial jurisdictions are restricting borderless cultural radiation. 
In the current scenario, renewal by building public culture to revitalize historical blocks faces two difficulties. First, there is a lack of channels through which to showcase traditional cultures from the older parts of the city. Additionally, the vigorous youth culture is in need of a foothold to carry forward traditions. 
The lack of dialogue has made it difficult to connect the inside and outside of historical blocks, and bond together younger and older generations, impeding the natural development of public culture in life. 
People are behind culture. The shift toward public culture in the renewal of historical blocks can be condensed into a simple question: how can local residents’ daily lives be enlivened and improved? An associated question is whether the hollowing out of social structures, as a result of the recent past’s rapid urbanization, can be mended. In other words, can we bring people to the forefront after reinserting them into the context of renewal? 
Practices of community-based art
Gratifyingly, community-based art has become a new avenue for the renewal of ancient cities. Chaoyangmen Cultural Center, in downtown Beijing, is a good case in point. Under the jurisdiction of Chaoyangmen Sub-district (Jiedao), the center serves three surrounding communities as a public space. Since 2016, it has been operated by a small cultural creativity team committed to exploring public culture. 
In the past few years, the team made continuous artistic attempts to push entrenched boundaries, building dialogue mechanisms between different groups to facilitate interpersonal connection. So far the center has staged 2,200 activities, received 90,000 visitors accumulatively, and acted as the branch venue for the popular Beijing Design Week several times. 
Different from other community building approaches, public art reflects itself, emphasizing the importance of breaking through stereotyped thinking patterns to advance the cultural construction of urban renewal. 
This model has become a mechanism for recreating everyday life in historical blocks. With creative artistic methods, it separates the individual lives of seniors, which were limited to hutong and siheyuan communities, from the original environment and institutional context, and unveils their lives to the outside world, with new elements to inspire more possibilities.  
First, the approach has made intergenerational communication more public and encouraged young people to return to historical blocks. Intergenerational communication was a focus of the team’s exploration, embodied by projects named: “When I Am Like You” and “Useful Items Shop.”
Centering on building of effective methods and platforms for interaction between youth and seniors, and even cultural communities represented by other generational groups, the “When I Am Like You” project paired 15 seniors from the hutong with 15 young people from outside neighborhoods to invite the two generations to enter each other’s lives by such means as meeting, clothing exchanges, and group photography. 
In the second project, artists visited many households, collected things mentioned in, or needed in, seniors’ daily lives, or what seniors thought would be useful, and arranged the collection in the form of a “virtual shop,” in an effort to call attention to the living and spiritual world of the aged. 
Due to public art interventions, elderly residents were invigorated, while youth acquired a more concrete and warmer understanding of social changes, history, and culture from stories told by seniors. 
Also, efforts were made to improve life aesthetics and make everyday life tasteful in hutongs. As one of the important mechanisms for fostering singularities, the improvement of aesthetics is to create distinctiveness in social culture and arouse unique feelings from participants. 
In practice, the team blended traditional Chinese cultural elements into local community activities, such as making zongzi stuffed with five sorts of rice for the Dragon Boat (Duanwu) Festival, preparing a flower basket in the new Chinese style for Mothers’ Day, or giving demo classes on intangible cultural heritage like shadow puppetry and traditional ornamentation. Furthermore, artists reached out to international communities and utilized cultural elements from other nations, launching the African cultural festival, French cultural festival, Indian dancing activities, and the like. 
Chinese and foreign cultural practices can be further mixed, as French students were led to experience a dumpling (jiaozi) dinner, a common meal among hutong residents. In addition, stage play workshops and theme parties were organized to improve residents’ cultural appreciation abilities. 
Moreover, the team tried to cross institutional boundaries and make full use of resources in each community. Traditionally, each community’s cultural spaces belonged only to that community. They were separated by administrative divisions and open only on weekdays, serving residents of the jurisdiction but not efficiently accessing their full potential. 
To maximize the value of each space, operators hammered out a time extension and feedback strategy. They not only extended opening hours to weekends and evenings, but also made a distinction between free community hours and chargeable market hours, subsidizing the former with the latter to reach a dynamic equilibrium. As such, the outward expansion of excellent cultural resources within historical blocks gradually became supported by administrative mechanisms. The open public cultural space provided footholds for many young people to enter historical blocks and created opportunities for them to interact with local residents. 
As an advanced attempt at ancient city renewal, the exploration of community-based art can sufficiently address realistic challenges in the abovementioned desired shift toward public culture. Through artistic forms, it broadened the scope of the “people” in the context of urban renewal, targeting not only local residents, but also other groups interested in traditional Chinese culture across the city, the nation, and even the world. Simultaneously, it offered richer ways to make “people” visible with artistic techniques, which not only broke boundaries, but also created virtual scenes similar to real life. These methods complement the profound culture of ancient cities and represent a more subtle, sophisticated mechanism for encouraging social participation amid the modernization of governance.
Shi Yunqing is an associate professor from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.