Monday, 15 December 2008

Holiday Pageant

To prove that I'm not a total Scrooge, the "legendary" holiday mix is here.

A Holiday is a Terrible Thing to Waste
December 15, 2008 | Huffington Post

When I think of Christmas, I see all the stuff under trees: toys and books and computers, DVD players and colorful paper.

I don't mean the Christmas tree. During the holidays in my neighborhood in New York, I often see this stuff left under the spindly black trees that line sidewalks, waiting to be carted away to the landfill, or wherever else it goes (more on that later). It's estimated that Americans generate about 5 million more tons of waste than usual between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

Now, I don't want to sound like the green Grinch, raising sobering concerns about consumption in the middle of the holiday cheer, the cavorting under the mistletoe, or the egg nog-soaked sweater fashion shows around the new flat-screen TV, where everyone's watching "It's a Wonderful Life."

For a while it was a wonderful life, and if anyone needed proof, our Blackberries and laptops and gas-guzzling cars provided some of it.

Now that one era of excess is over, concerns about waste may seem moot. We're already cutting back our spending, and if anything, economists argue we should be worried about too little consumption, not too much. Now, the angel Clarence might say, every time a Wall Street opening bell rings, a kid gets less things.

Some of us are staring at that reality (and the contents of our wallets) with a kind of dumbfoundedness. Others with more fluid cash flows may find ways to keep buying presents as usual, almost as if it were Christmas 2005. A recent Bloomberg article reported on ultra-rich buyers like an American interior decorator who called off her 10th anniversary party because it "didn't feel right to send out invitations" and yet still managed to buy "some 2,000 euro dresses from Lanvin and Balmain for year-end festivities, 600 euro shoes from Jimmy Choo and a 5,500 euro brown Birkin."

But for those of us still living on earth, the downturn is nothing if not a good learning opportunity. It's a moment to consider not just how Wall Street's excess speculation drove us into the hole, but also how our own unfettered consumption has been burying us and the rest of the world in another kind of debt.

It's also an opportunity to think about what does make life so wonderful.

I've been thinking about these issues a lot since I moved to China. On the streets of Beijing, where I live, it's hard to find the garbage piles that populate the streets of New York around Christmas time. It helps that China doesn't celebrate Christmas -- not yet. But even if it did, China's culture of thrift breathes new life into old or broken objects before they reach the garbage pile; when they finally do, the city's informal army of scrap collectors dutifully picks out what can still be recycled. For a while, when I took the garbage out, I was often intercepted by a neighbor, Mr. Li, who would thank me profusely before pouring my bags onto the pavement and picking through them. Now, I leave the trash out for him.

Western countries have a similar if unspoken arrangement with China. In scrap towns down south, the country that makes most of our electronic stuff also recycles it: from DVD players to monitors to iPods, much of our holiday junk will end up being mined for their precious metals through a kind of alchemy with toxic results. Recently researchers announced that in the town of Guiyu, China's biggest e-waste purgatory, pregnancies are 6 times more likely than normal to result in miscarriage, and 7 out of 10 children have too much lead in their blood. The story -- repeated in towns across southeast Asia and the Ivory Coast -- puts concerns about toxic imported toys (and toxic assets) into perspective.

Yet e-waste recycling is a big business, and it can be a viable way of saving energy and conserving materials. And governments around the world, including the Chinese, are working to improve environmental standards. But in practice, recycling our old fax machines and videogame players is often literally sickening--and fed in part by our buy-and-toss culture, which in turn is abetted by the virtuous feeling that we get from recycling.

Even if we could ensure that recycling were a healthy affair, we still could not ensure that our stuff will actually end up being recycled. Only 19 percent of our plastic is being reused. A day's sail from Los Angeles towards Hawaii partially reveals what happens to the rest of it: there the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a steadily growing flotilla that is said to be larger than the United States, continues to suck in everything from discarded shoes to toothbrushes to plastic bags.

Then there is the other collateral ecological debt fed by our spending sprees. The cloud of pollution that hangs over Asia is like a scarier, airier version of the garbage patch, with a similarly eerie name: the Atmospheric Brown Cloud. It's not relegated to Asia either, but tends to float across the Pacific, across the garbage, to pollute the skies over the United States. The effects of our Middle Eastern oil addiction--fed in part by our use of all-too-disposable plastic--are too obvious and regrettable to need a mention.

The answer is not to stop buying presents. But I think we need to think more carefully about what we're buying. If it breaks, it may be repairable, not just replaceable; if it's old, and still works, it still works. There's nothing wrong with giving the gift of an experience, like a dinner or a trip. And there's nothing impolite about re-gifting presents we don't want or need to someone who does; in fact, we should be proud to do so.

Nor should we be ashamed -- especially at a time of economic turmoil -- to give cash, either as gifts to our loved ones, or in their names to charity. Red envelopes of money are considered lucky presents in China, a country that also happens to have an enviable ability to save.

In many ways, concerns about consumption come down to how we save things, from money to oil to time. If companies could think more these kind of savings -- if they could think creatively about how sustainable and durable their products are (Detroit's cars, for instance, or Apple's iPhones), we'd be better off ecologically and economically.

Similarly, if politicians could get creative with regulations on manufacturing and tax policies, and if we could think better of buying, say, a new video game system when we don't really need one, we won't just be better prepared to cope with an economic downturn. We'd be resisting a downturn in resources, in health, in a precious natural world that no stimulus package or bailout could save.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is a wonderful movie, and an appropriate one for now: it's about a man driven nearly to suicide by financial ruin, before learning that there's more to life than money.

The movie and it's lesson gets tossed around a lot during Christmas. And yet the holidays remain the captive of the "holiday shopping season." For all the good cheer spilling out onto the streets, there's just as much trash spilling out there too.

Perhaps more than any other in recent memory, this recession holiday has given us an unexpected present. It's a reminder about how we're all connected, as countries, economies and as people. And it's an opportunity to consider what the holidays, and the other days, are really about, rather than wasting them on things we don't need.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Touch Down

A middling Hollywood film from the mid 90s. Actually you don't know if it's from the mid 90s or the late 90s or the late 80s -- it doesn't matter -- but the first thing you notice, somehow, is the sloppy set design and beige colored walls and corny background music. And then the cornier half aware acting, all framed by angles and techniques described in the early chapters of film school textbooks. The lighting alone makes you want to want to sit far away from the TV, crawl into the corner of the foreign hotel room. But it also, all of it, sucks you in too. And though you could have sworn you've seen it before, you can't help but watch it, can't even help but watch the terrible advertisements that interrupt it all. The way you want to watch a big wreck.
Some excerpts from the film:

"In the worst case scenario...I have to sleep here." - man on cell phone with slicked hair

"I asked for an early holiday. They didn't tell me I could only take off two weeks before Christmas!" - handsome man with a TSA jacket

"Go beyond the image, the controversy...CNN Showbiz" - television

"Tomorrow night, Larry King talks to Caylee's grandparents." - tv

"...but today Oprah weighs 200 pounds. She says she's embarassed." - tv

"Whether the economy is up exponentially or down exponentially, things here keep rolling along very well." - a man from the DC government

"What a modern airport." - my father, upon landing at Dulles, 20 years ago

"Modernist funeral home." - me, upon landing at Dulles, last week

An old couple never looked so scared to me.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Election Day Notes

It wasn't a moment for words -- or rather, it was a moment for words, just words. Because only words, poetry, can be imperfect enough -- more perfect enough -- to capture how strange and unformed and provisional and playful and new the moment felt. When the founders declared independence, they were making poetry in the old Greek sense: poetry, poesis, the act of creation. They were declaring, declaring their independence to stake a claim not just for a new nation but for an old imagination that could bring people together in peace and prosperity. And it was an imagination would necessarily have to be expressed in words, that would have to try and fail to use and be ready to amend words to make life more like that imagination. Unalienable rights were alien until the word “unalienable.” And even then, they would have to be tirelessly defended, with words.

And words were a perfect symbol too for this always new country, tools that connect, however clumsily, however imperfectly, our thoughts to our feelings to our world to our things to each other and to us. They are the formulas that describe our emotional physics. Divinations that make anyone an oracle. Bridges, they are bridges for the gaps that make our world interesting, and they are never bridges to stand on but ones to run across and run back and stare across and gawk at. Rivers to ride across, like Washington across the Delaware -- or Walt Whitman coming over from Brooklyn. He asked

What is it, then, between us?

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

That vision is a moving one. And what does moving mean anyway? Not just “emotional.” I am moved to say that this adjective describing feelings is still connected to the physical act of moving. That something moving is something that transports you between two places: the real and the imaginary, the actual and the ideal, the reality and the dream. It's not the destination but the journey to it and back that "moves" me. The lingering in the midst of crossing that makes you see not one side or the other, but both, and the possibility of getting where you're going, where you've been, and the great spaces between them.

To say something is moving is to propose the possibility that there distance doesn't matter, place doesn't matter, because you're crossing between the two points, you're already closing the gap. It's like a dream in which you can't tell the difference between what's part of your waking life and what's part of your imagination. But it doesn't matter, what matters is you're moving suddenly from past to future and the present is a present, revealing something you didn't realize about how you felt, and showing you how you feel. It's the surprise of that moment that's moving. The sublime, the suspension of disbelief – and suddenly everyone's breathing together. The image is: beating chests and holding and waving together like flags that are torn but not faded. Again, Whitman the American bard:

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!

I was call'd by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,

Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,

Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,

Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,

Play'd the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,

The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,

Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

If I had to guess where I was when the election was over, how I was being moved – and again, how I will be moved on inauguration – it was somewhere between the politically correct rhetoric of a multicultural education -- the kind that attached words like "historic" and "racial barrier" to momentous occasions -- and the sharply vivid sense of injustice that has weighed down on people in the America like a curse, a tree growing in reverse weighing heavily on the dark soaked dirt, on the strange unborn fruit. It was somewhere between my sense of what had happened and what had actually happened. The feeling of years, of decades of injustices, and then, again, more years of injustices, weighing down on me somehow and seeping out, dripping, pouring out, from a small, hard pit inside -- and the feeling that they had become so deep that I didn't notice them there, so ingrown, that I could not care anymore.

Or the feeling that I had not given up after all, that I did actually care, and, for a moment, I realized just how much.

(I don't know why I cried. That's probably why I cried even harder.)

The first thing I did -- the thing that triggered this moving sensation, the feeling of being rocked by waves -- was find a poem. Partly because I guess only words -- faulty, grasping words -- could approximate on the outside what I was feeling inside, could ride the gaps between the facts, the results, the news, and the long string of things that had led there, and the long stirring of what was beneath it.

And partly because I just had to find this poem. With no intention, with no idea that I would think of it at that moment, but as if on cue when Wolf Blitzer or whoever said it, I pressed my hands to the keys and found it. It was as if it had been waiting in the back of my head for years, sitting there fallow in the attic of my brain with a pile of other high school poems, heavy in the dust of explanation and context and connotation and history, waiting to be dusted off, and seen again. Langston Hughes:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.

The feeling that we are not one thing but many things. There is much talk now of healing divisions and coming together as one. That is beautiful. And at the same time, also beautiful, is the fact, the possibility that we can be one and many together. That we can each contain multitudes and sing ourselves and each other and everything and and and and --

It's the beauty of the deepest love, the deepest strangeness, the promise of the past and the future meeting, of people brought together despite the odds against them.

And just as I was reading the first poem, another poem caught my eye on the side of the page—I was scanning for more oracles, more explanations, more séances for a catharsis – through the beating of the election drums, the beading of my eye. The poem is great, the reference is Whitman, and the title is

Let America Be America Again

Whatever we want to say about this country, bad or good, it's beauty lies in the revolutionary cauldron in which it was born, and which, thank the blankest verses of the Constitution, it has never quite left. It takes time for the revolutions to come, but it always comes back to being America again. It always rewrites itself, reinvents itself, Our Greatest Poem.

I think I knew about that. But I had forgotten about that. The words reminded me.

Forgive my excesses here and my melodrama. I'm not very patriotic; I haven't really felt this way before and may not feel it again the same way. And I'm skeptical too. But this moment, this feeling, it's a moment to take in. And it's not a moment that ever really leaves. You see, I don't think this is about something as blind and repetitive and devotional as patriotism. It's almost about its equal and exact opposite.

It's about the words, the metaphors and the symbols we use to convey our imaginations. It's about the imperfect relation between each of us, between us and generations before and to come, between us and what we want to be, between dreams and actions, and how we try to make the relationship more perfect all the time. It's why we voted – which is poetry made political, a “yes” or a “no,” times millions and put into law – and why we said yes, yes we can.

It's why I wrote these imperfect words, why I tried to move across the gap for a brief moment again, and it's why you are reading it.

Friday, 8 August 2008

New Beijing New Beijing

Xi Dawang Lu, Summer 2007

Fortunately it's still easy to get lost in Beijing. From the center, which harbors a labyrinthine imperial palace with a fabled 9,999-rooms, the old capital rambles in a maze of narrow alleys that can be as befuddling as they are charming, with their secret gardens, endless detours, dead ends and sometimes maddening lack of orienting landmarks. Many of the hutong – those that remain, that haven't yet been turned into shopping strips – look so identical and are so secluded from large buildings that they can feel like anywhere in Old Beijing, at almost anytime in history. Not knowing exactly where you are or what street you'll end up on is part of the ancient city's delight.

But as one city was dawdling and wandering in the hutong, another city was preparing for its biggest event ever. Even decades before the Olympic bunting went up and the buildings came down, New Beijing had the triumphal architecture and collectivist spirit, the security machine and love for spectacle that are the necessary ingredients for a grand international gathering. The city's ancient south-north axis is a perfect showpiece for the Games, sprouting the Olympic Green and getting a major face-lift under the auspices of Albert Speer, Jr. (the son of the man who reshaped Berlin for the 1936 Olympics). And then there's the general ambition, parallel to that of the Olympics themselves, not only to rally national spirit, but to spark development, investment and international connections on an unprecedented scale. Just as intense as the most heated track finals will be the race for foreign and local businessmen to forge billion-yuan deals that will continue to remake the city and the country. Even the Games' motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius," or "Faster Higher Stronger," seems to describe this country better than any other Olympic host, and better than all of the other Olympic slogans plastered around the city.

It is impossible to know how things might have turned out differently if, say, the Olympic Committee had said "Paris" instead of "Beijing." It was one of Beijing's main competitors, the "most romantic" city in the world, that set the modern standards for Olympic-sized urban renovations. The Baron Haussmann called for untold numbers of the French capital's small alleys to be eviscerated in order to widen streets into massive, car-friendly boulevards that could also, if necessary, serve to make streets more accessible to soldiers and tanks. An inspiration to Mao's planners, Haussmann uprooted whole neighborhoods to bring the modern city to ferocious life, a transformation which might have become soul-crushing had Paris not retained the gorgeous, human-scale lanes that make it so charming and, boycotts aside, popular with Chinese tourists.

Thanks to the inescapable countdown clocks, Beijing's own preparations have progressed with the tick-tick-tick suspense of a new millennium, a space rocket launch, or something more sinister. But the city was already keeping pace with another set of timepieces. Old buildings crumbled like hourglass sand, new subways coursed through the city's ramshackle circuitry like status bars for a new software installation, while civility campaigns and hygiene campaigns and tree-planting campaigns enforced international compatibility. Amidst the uneven upgrade of hardware and software, there was hand-wringing and fighting and crying, but mostly it all happened so quickly that there wasn't much time to consider what had been erased. Just time to get in (an orderly) line, move on (or move out to the suburbs), and stare slack-jawed at what replaced it all. And then keep moving. That's Beijing.

Unlike everything else in the city, the new generation of Great Projects – like the famous ten monumental structures built in the city center in 1959 - seemed to transcend timelines. They were built in "no time," at least compared to construction in the West, as monuments to China's unforeseeable future. Thanks to the Olympics, they will also have all the airtime in the world too, becoming, overnight, as famous as the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building. In the New York Times last month, Nicolai Ouroussoff offered only the latest gushing admiration. "There is no question that its role as a great laboratory for architectural ideas will endure for years to come," he wrote. "One wonders if the West will ever catch up.”

But to what exactly is the West supposed to catch up? Yes, these buildings are spectacular, but next to the cozy scale of the hutong, their enormous scale, futuristic skins, steel acrobatics and sheer daring make them mostly just spectacular. To our mere early 21st century senses, they do not really compute. The egg and the water cube and the nest and the dragon and the big shorts/pants are convenient monikers for buildings that don't look like any other buildings, or any thing we've seen before. Dazzle and provoke they do, but these surreal buildings also come close to confusing and alienating. Amidst a forest of gated communities and mammoth highways, those are qualities that perhaps should be less of a priority.

Even how they were made - their modes of production, Marx and Mao note, smiling - is well concealed, right down to the construction workers, who have been asked to leave Beijing as quickly as they came. The sensation of building something as massive as the airport or the stadium -- or merely looking at them -- is one that Franz Kafka imagined in "The Great Wall of China," a short story narrated by a worker on that epic project:

Could there really be a village where houses stand right beside each other covering the fields and reaching further than the view from our hills, with men standing shoulder to shoulder between these houses day and night? Rather than imagining such a city, it's easier for us to believe that Peking and its emperor are one, something like a cloud, peacefully moving along under the sun as the ages pass.

The posters ask us all to believe New Beijing is part of a similar pristine unity, one world, one dream. But what is this New Beijing, really? Was it decreed by the government and implemented by thousands of workers? Was it named by property developers and their wealthy clientele? Was it dreamt up by the media? In a city where things can so easily get lost, is it so hard to imagine something else?


For a brief time, before the hyperbolic real estate billboards would be taken down and replaced with Olympics logos, a piece of scaffolding surrounding a construction site near the Central Business District offered an oracular take on one of Beijing's mantras. "One Word One Dream," it said.

What must have been a typo, a pretty funny one, also seemed like an apt description of how Beijing would remake itself for its close-up and its continued growth: not just through wrecking balls and steel and glass and concrete but by a marshaling of words, by a state-sponsored, privately-owned or street-bound poetic imagination.

Consider the names of buildings. If the nicknames given by citizens to Beijing's new architecture are signs of intimacy and a desire to make some sense of them, the names doled out by the real estate industry speak to middle class aspirations and a desire to make cents. Some luxury housing complexes and gated communities are simply bootlegs: Central Park, Upper East Side, Orange County (who knows what Regentland and Space Montage are meant to evoke). New words were added to Beijing's realty poetry by two shopping malls: at The Place and The Village one is hard pressed to find a sense of place or the feel of a village, not anymore at least.

But the point is that how the city develops depends on how it is seen, and, more importantly, how it sees itself. "One Word One Dream" secretly an empowering idea, an Emersonian idea plopped into the Kafkaesque city. Beijing's future depends on the dreams – or the nightmares – of all its people, from the slogan makers to the slang-slingers.

I asked Mike Meyer, the author of simply the best new book there is on Beijing, Last Days of Old Beijing, what kind of a city the world will see when it arrives for the Olympics. "The world will see the Beijing it wants to see," he said. "Cities are not jars of clay, but ever-changing rivers, open to multiple interpretations. I have 'my' Beijing, and you have yours." By the same token, Beijing will show the world what it wants to show it. Afterwards, others will continue to decide what Beijing is. Surely there will be more timelines and new slogans and big countdowns. But like so much else, these will probably get lost in the maze of worlds and words and dreams that make the city every day, and that count towards a place that is more than just "New."

Friday, 11 January 2008

Other Kinds of Ambitions

From Artist Villages to Art Districts

Beijing's modern creative geography began, fittingly, with the closure of its artist districts. In 1995 police descended upon a village near the ruins of the old summer palace at Yuanmingyuan, in the northwest of the city, to evict the painters, writers and musicians that had taken up residence there. Like Dong Cun, or East Village, which had been raided a year earlier, the neighborhood had become a refuge for creative types from around China after the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, a place to evade the bustle of the city if not the eyes of the authorities. Artists like Fang Lijun, Zhang Huiping and Yue Minjun, who would later command millions of dollars at auction, held exhibitions in which paintings hung from trees. ‘We were young, had no self-censorship’, performance artist Zhang Nian said in 2004. ‘The moment a creative idea popped up we put it into action. In a sense we felt we had found the destination of our ideal and faith’.

But the eviction of artists from Yuanmingyuan would usher in a new era of artist districts, built as much by the spontaneity of the artists as by the pressures of policy and money. The artists' exodus to the village of Songzhuang, 80km northeast of the city centre, coincided with a burst of interest in China by the international art market. A decade later, as Richard Florida's book on the ‘creative class’ circulated among some of China's policy-makers, areas like Songzhuang, and more famously, the Factory 798 area, came to be seen as hotbeds not for dissent but for the creative industries that could drive the nation's next stage of economic development. In 1995, the Beijing government would dedicate USD$140 million to the development of visual arts and the art market in Beijing, exempt art-related businesses from city taxes, and include art districts within its next Five Year Plan.

Once restricted to the city's physical and psychic peripheries, Beijing's upstart art villages today are an integral if largely unchartered part of the city's cultural geography. Formed less by accident than by governments, international organizations, investors, collectors and property developers, the city's artist districts are presenting new patterns of urban development and altering the space for artistic production. Three present models – from the fully commercialized (798) to the upstart real-estate driven (Pingguo, Gaobeidian), to the village setting (Songzhuang or Caochangdi) – indicate a delicate balance between the demands of the market, policy pressures and creative ambitions.

Factory 798

No district represents the potential and complexities of Beijing's artist villages better than the former factory 798, located in the neighborhood of Dashanzi. After decades of disuse, the factory became a temporary studio space for the sculpture department of the China Academy of Fine Arts in 1995. By 2002, artists and galleries from China and abroad began to divide and rent out the factory spaces, converting them into studios, exhibition halls, design firms, cafes and shops. Tall ‘saw-tooth’ ceilings created well-lit spaces that were ripe for studio and exhibition space conversions. The rare Cultural Revolution slogans that still linger on the walls, like ‘Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts’, lent an iconoclastic irony.

Adding to the irony has been the spectre of a decidedly un-Maoist property development that threatened to imperil the whole area. After raising rents dramatically and rapidly, the state-controlled owner of 798 curbed new leases in 2005, amidst rumors that the district would be turned into a high-tech zone along the lines of Beijing's so-called Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun. Ten years after the demise of the Yuanmingyuan village, a flurry of petitions and intervention by the Chaoyang district government, which designated 798 as one of the city's creative clusters and an Olympic cultural site, gave the city's bold new art district a dramatic reprieve. Ultimately, and most ironically of all, the prospect of 798's extinction – a threat that still lingers on if only in rumor – has only added to the area's allure.

That allure has fostered a new challenge to 798 – not the government's suspicions nor the developer's wrecking ball but its own commercial success. In a familiar narrative, 798 has shifted from a bohemian creative zone into a mere display case for creativity, where rents are too high for artists and everything is on sale. ‘I never visit 798’, says Ai Weiwei, the influential Beijing-based artist. ‘From the very beginning, it was going to be a shitty place. You're using art for the wrong reasons. It never really served in the way that art should serve a community. It simply became a carrier for other kinds of ambitions’.

Though gentrification may have choked the area's creative energy, 798 may still be seen as Beijing's best example of an urban art district. ‘Even if people don't like it within the art and architectural circles, we have to be very honest with the fact that it's an amazing success, not just in terms of the commercial side but in terms of its idea’, says Berenice Angremy, a curator who used to organized an annual art festival at 798. ‘This is a site that provided freedom of expression and exhibition. The art events that we produced here are still difficult to produce in other spaces’. One reason for its success was its relation to – and between its factory spaces, replication of – an urban context, which generated dynamism and connection with people outside the art world. ‘The idea became’, says Angremy, ‘not only are we public, but we have a quality of intellectual life that is urban oriented’.

From Caochangdi to Pingguo

A distinct alternative to 798 lies a few kilometers northeast in the village of Caochangdi. The difference is signaled by the prevailing architectural style: modern, sober grey-brick courtyards whose imposing walls seem to turn their noses to tourist groups and local villagers. Though the buildings – many designed by or copied from Ai Weiwei – bear a scant connection to the surrounding community, they speak to the needs of the local artists in a way that 798 no longer can. ‘I don't want to be in the retail business’, says Meg Maggio, the founder of Caochangdi's Peking Fine Arts gallery, who compares 798 to New York's SoHo or Chelsea, and Caochangdi to the Lower East Side. That is an exaggeration: the galleries and nearby animation and film studios seem alien next to the neighborhood's bustling back alleys. The area is still very much a thriving village, catering to a local population, not bohemian tourists. It is the quality of galleries like Boers-Li, Do Art, Platform China, and Three Shadows – not their location – that draws visitors.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, where art is increasingly linked with upscale lifestyles, real-estate developers are reshaping the city's art geography, using galleries as a branding tool for their commercial and residential projects. One stand-out is the Today Art Museum, established by developer Zhang Baoquan at the site of his massive Pingod (Pingguo) apartment complex. The museum is housed in a former brewery that has been converted by Yung Ho Chang and Wang Hui. Nearby, an ambitious art district called 22 Art Plaza is set to contain some two dozen galleries. The neighboring apartment complex has become a fashionable address for upper-middle class businessmen and artists. Pingguo may be one of city's first upscale ‘art villages’.

Real-estate developers can be ‘a positive force making new things happen in China’, says Beatrice Leanza, a curator for the Moon River MOCA, a $4.4 million museum connected to a resort-development project east of Beijing that includes apartments, a golf course and an 'art club hotel’. Through hotel revenues and venue rentals, the museum aims to become a registered non-profit museum, a designation that would be a first for an arts institution in Beijing. ‘Philanthropy can come out of these new personalities’, says Leanza, who previously helped a Chinese furniture entrepreneur consider founding a new art district in the Gaobeidian area. Promise, she says, may even lie in the ‘barbaric, aggressive politics of profit’.

Art Urbanism

Yet the success of Beijing's new and existing art districts may hinge on a shift of how investors and government officials define profit. Leanza calls for ‘a different approach to the temporality of the process’. That is, ‘how long it takes to get back your investment, and in what kind of forms it can come back to you’. Such a patient and ‘creative’ approach to developing art clusters may encourage more than just the arrival of new galleries: it could mean more dynamic urban spaces that help generate creativity. ‘The question is how one can still negotiate new ideas and creative ideas within an economy of scale’, says curator and critic Hou Hanru, ‘not how much one can maximize capital or benefits’.

That approach may be the forte not of private entities but governments. Already art districts may be affecting how officials perceive the city's urban development. Rather than razing historic areas and building oppressively large neighborhoods from scratch, as has been common from Mao until the Olympic era, art villages have led to an acceptance of new urban typologies: the reused factory, the mixed village, the upscale residential hybrid. If Factory 798 began its life in the 1950s as the sober product of central planning, it has become a dynamic art district due largely to accident, and the lassez-faire encouragement of the government.

At Songzhuang, the old artist colony born partly out of government evictions elsewhere, the local government has updated China's formula of collective production, encouraging thousands of artists to move into the community using tax incentives and cheap land. In 2006, it spent more than $1.3 million on a smart 2,500 square-metre art centre designed by architect Xu Tiantian. It has also reportedly tried to entice Paris' Pompidou Centre with free land, and given land to artists. ‘Many houses in Songzhuang used to be illegal’, says Xu. ‘Now they're going to be memorials after they die’.

One of the local government's latest initiatives is its support for an independent foundation and archive meant to nurture young filmmakers. While avant-garde Chinese films, typically documentaries touching upon tender social issues, tend to fall foul of the authorities, in this case the local government has opted to seize upon the creative and future market potential of this underground current. The initiative exposes the tensions in China's drive for creative development and highlights the ambiguous ground on which artists' villages are now situated, in the grey area between political and market forces. ‘In a way it's an experiment to see how far it will go’, says Xu. If her museum, like the artist village growing around it, has not received the outside attention paid to the more centrally-located 798, it has thrived nonetheless with the support of decentralized government policies that work with existing conditions.

‘The government sees that this new complexity can generate more interest, have economic effects, somehow create a community and a social texture’, says Hou. ‘It can bring the city together, make the city more interesting’. Over a decade after the shutdown of its two major art villages, Beijing's art districts now thrive between the twin pillars of Beijing's commercial ambitions and creative desires. Aside from galleries and artist residences, new modes of urban development and art creation are growing in these villages too. What other ambitions these districts nurture will determine what the next decade will bring.

* All quotations are from interviews conducted by the author, with the exception of the quotation of Zhang Nian.