City of Other People's Dreams

Justin O'Connor September 25, 2010

Styen Desyens

Justin O'Connor and Gu Xin

The title of this text comes from Jon Solomon’s reworking of Patti Smith’s opening lines in Gloria. The resonance with ‘somebody else’s sins’ and the almost satanic rejection of a dominant discourse were just perfect at a time when the whole world seems enamored of Shanghai’s glamorous modernity. Patti Smith also takes us back to an ur-scene of contemporary urban regeneration – the transformation of 1970s Lower Manhattan from economic basket case and anarchic playground to the neo-bohemian property boom charted by Sharon Zukin in Loft Living.

Zukin’s great perception was that a new kind of property development model had been discovered, one based not on wholesale destruction and the construction of the new (as in Berman’s account of Robert Moses’ ‘taking a meat axe to the Bronx’) but on the symbolic re-valuation of the old. From industrial junk-space to textured urbanity in the blink of an eye. As usual in China, the city of Shanghai is doing both kinds of development at once.


Unlike national government, city governments have more direct or ‘hands-on’ connections to those driving and corralling the global flows of labour and capital; they have a stake in such direct involvements in a way the more abstract interventions of national governments do not. In China cities the city government directly controls much of the real estate and have high levels of influence over the state owned enterprises and related satellites that so mark the Chinese economy – especially in Shanghai. Flows of diaspora capital, FDI and state generated capital give the city much more control than many in the West. It makes the city government a central actor in those networks of gatekeepers, brokers, intermediaries and connected entrepreneurs which characterize the urban governance of Shanghai.


But what of the generation of symbolic value? How is this learned, understood, generated and assembled? By what processes did the city begin to mobiles this dimension, so much more amorphous and immaterial than the hard flows of capital and labour?


Zukin’s account of lower Manhattan headlines the role of artists; but the other key actors were those urban conservationists whose learned and documenting gaze transformed the detritus of an industrial district into an object of historical value. Similar conditions were also present in Shanghai and there have been a few major successes in getting the city to recognize the heritage value of an older Shanghai. The colonial buildings of the Bund and the mansions of the former French Concession, certainly; but also the industrial buildings whose patina resided in documented pasts rather than any late Victorian iron work or art deco notably absent from many of these brutally basic factories. As in Lower Manhattan, those passionate about this industrial heritage increasingly included artists who sometimes, though not always, occupied these artist studios-in-waiting. Of course the artists knew about such potential uses way before the government, because they knew about Western cities on a much more ‘street’ or fine-grained level than the officials hopping on and off tour buses.


In the 1990s urban China began a huge push towards city branding, with the bigger cities – notably Beijing and Shanghai – going for ‘global city’ status. Picking up on twenty years of similarly ambitious policy making in the West, the east coast cities looked to building the cultural infrastructure as a key ingredient. Concert halls, museums, art galleries, theatres, performing arenas and so on were quickly assembled to present local histories coupled with Western art and entertainment. These initiatives looked to Western models of cultural quarters or precincts. At the same time the traditional cultural infrastructures were set within rapidly transforming cityscapes with all the skylines and shopping, leisure and entertainment options associated with the performance indicators acceptable to in-flight magazines. Trumping both of these were the large-scale events and festivals represented by the Olympics and the Expo, both part of a whole iceberg of such events now moving across the globe in search of local sponsors. Finally, from around 2002, Chinese cities began to promote the cultural industries, and from around 2005, the creative industries, through a series of policy initiatives. The most immediately visible of these (as opposed to agglomerations, mergers and tax breaks) was the growth of ‘creative clusters’, the subject of a three year Australian Research Council project led by the authors.


The growth of the cultural and creative industries in China has led to an interesting extension of the work around ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘creative work’ being done in the West. Here we would point to another aspect of these ‘industries’ in the form of creative workers as ‘cultural intermediaries’. The term comes from Bourdieu’s Distinction and was adapted by Sharon Zukin to describe those who helped undertake that work of symbolic re-valuation that took place in SoHo. It was picked up by Mike Featherstone in the 1990s and used by one of these authors (amongst others) to look at similar processes of urban revaluation taking place in Manchester and other British ex-industrial cities.


In a city like Shanghai such cultural intermediaries would be a highly diverse group. The process whereby the potential symbolic value of Shanghai could be mobilized on a global scale involved a range of different players. Cultural intermediaries here would refer first to those local and international actors who were concerned to transform the image of the city at the most visible scale – architects and master planners, a complex mix of Western expertise and Chinese ‘interpretation’ or ‘application’. It would include cultural consultants such as Charles Landry or Rem Koolhaus, or even Richard Florida and John Howkins, who were able to set a context within which ‘policy exchange’ might take place. Much more influential or at least pervasive was the rising influence of advertising, branding, design and media firms on the cityscape and the ‘imagined community’ of Shanghai. These were accompanied by those magazines and journalists – such as That’s Shanghai or Urban Anatomy – who, like Village Voice in 1970s New York (but without the politics) opened up the space of the city for a particular kind of consumption-oriented gaze, stimulating new kinds of ‘cool’ spaces ahead of official marketing interest.


Unlike the SoHo of Loft Living the artists, bohemians, critics, curators, buyers, gallery owners and so on in Shanghai were rarely ahead of the game. Foreign migrants usually followed the lead of local (or Hong Kong based) developers, frequently buying into an imagined Shanghai which was being assembled elsewhere. As for local Chinese artists, historians, academics, dealers – they had no power to purchase that which they were re-valuing, only move into proto-clusters. It is an open question as to the extent to which their vision and their symbolic re-valuation was adopted by property owners and local officials. In Shanghai, a sophisticated city exposed to the many micro-currents of Western art practice, knowing how to recognize and use such re-valuation was something officials picked up very quickly. The correct ‘feel’ of an art cluster is one of the hardest things for a government to learn. It is related to a kind of aesthetic ‘autonomy’ that nothing in either the culture or politics of modern China seems to have prepared them for. However, the odd, intangible power of the major Western Art institutions is something that even a polity as brutal as Russia can learn to adopt. The other non-visual art based cultural practices of music, performance, literature and even traditional Chinese culture have very little impact on the urban symbolic landscape.


Clusters such as SoHo in the West have become more formalized in their definition and management but they still rely on those more informal antecedents of the ‘quarter’ or ‘scene’. They are seen to represent some capillary action of urban life which is equally invaluable and unplannable. These quarters / scenes are crucial formation grounds for the wider ‘art worlds’ – they are where the habitus of the artist or cultural producer is formed, where the cultural knowledges circulating the city are tested, adapted, worked over. It is also in these quarters / scenes that many of the most powerful images or narratives of the imagined city are produced; often oppositional, they ultimately demand acknowledgement from the official narrative. To not respond is the sign of a regime losing (or disdainful of) legitimacy.


In Shanghai the government directed nature of the new urban narrative along with the sheer speed at which it has been assembled produces an urban imaginary with great fissures, hidden conflicts, resounding silences and disorienting amnesia. The creative economy of Shanghai – its cityscape, its media industries, its cultural programming and leisure possibilities, its ‘creative industries’ of fashion, pop music and design – has mobilized an urban imaginary based on its claim to be ‘the most Western city in China’. It looks to ‘Shanghai Moderne’, where Western modernity made landfall, to re-invent an image of decadent glamour and excitement. Mao has censured the city for precisely that reason – it was a symbol of China’s shame. Now the decadence can be evoked as the shame is erased; the Bund is dwarfed by the iconic giants of the Pudong skyline. It is an open city, but now its own boss.


Yet the 1930s on offer is strangely one-sided. It effaces the years from the turn of the century to the rise to power of the Kuomintang and the Green Gang after 1927. Here, alternative China’s and alternative West’s circulated and intermingled. Neither the nationalists nor the communists were interested in these stories. The return to power over the decadent 1930s also effaces more recent memories. Shanghai was the home of the cultural revolutionary leaders. Its memories closely mark the citizens, many of whom could only return from the countryside in the 1990s. Shanghai is also scarred by its rapid de-industrialization – a process as extensive as anything experienced in Manchester but whose narrative is buried and intermittent. Many, especially women, stopped work at the age of 45. Their connection with the city is their ownership of an apartment (courtesy of the privatization of their work unit) – a narrative satisfied by a real estate price graph rather than the image of a glamorous 1930s revisited.


The re-invention of the junk-spaces of the city, of new stories about the past and present has taken place not through the urban cultural intermediaries of the SoHo years but through real estate agencies and local government officials rapidly gaining knowledge from Western models and those intermediaries able to handle this knowledge. ‘Artists are the storm-troopers of gentrification’ went the famous graffiti; in Shanghai they are more like ‘embedded’ journalists and the actual graffiti is mostly supplied by foreign artists-in-residence.


Where are the spaces of these new kinds of subjectivity, where are the spaces of a new kind of narrative of the future of the city, where are these quarters / scenes in a city whose creative clusters are mostly sterile incubators of ‘design talent’? Where do someone else’s dreams stop and become a different future?