TETI group members Anne-Laure Franchette & Gabriel N. Gee gave reflection on Curated nature: an interdisciplinary research trip in Shanghai, Haimen, and Hangzhou organised by Comple-X, with the support of Pro Helvetia Shanghai.
The book is covered in peach skin, that is, some material reminiscent of the texture of peach skin.
The peach is carefully wrapped in rose-crackling paper.
The peach is hanging from the tree, amidst many others, dutifully and passionately cultivated by the entrepreneurial farmers who run the ground, a series of plantations dedicated to peach and raisin cultivation in Xinchang town, on the outskirts of the Shanghai metropolis. In the afternoon’s fading sun, the summer heat still palpable as the visiting party is guided on a motorised cart through narrow paths and fields by an enthusiastic hands-on manager, it is easy to forget the sprawling towers of the nearby formidable urban fabric. The first day of the Curated Nature tour set the tone: what is the present and future of rural communities, what are the realities and trajectories of agricultural practices in the now ripening age of the Urban Revolution (Lefebre 1970)? The landscape around us is bucolic enough, alternating series of small-scaled fields and long semi-opened greenhouses, punctuated by the community’s aggregated houses. The sea is only a few miles away, one of the busiest lanes in the world for shipping cargo; the sky is filled with airplanes on their way in or out of nearby Pudong airport; these peaches appear to be located in an interstitial space, an in-between space, that the relentless pace of modern life preserved between cement and ocean. However, what is also most conspicuous in this scenery, is the canal system, an expansive network of water lanes that structure the farming plots since ancient times. Located on the eastern side of the Yangtze River Delta, a region of marshes, early settlements in pre-modern Shanghai were accompanied by the development of human-designed waterways, favouring commerce that led to its designation as a market town in 1074 (Chow 2014). Hence the visible array of canals and fields might not indicate so much a space of otherness in the coastal urbanity, as a sign of its very historical roots.
The following day, we look at salads. What is interesting about these salads, is that they are growing in warehouses in soil-less vertical farming, watered and monitored by automated machinery. The manager who gives a tour of the brand-new facilities, points to the addition of competences that enabled the implementation of such advanced technology, from engineering and scientific skills to the business acumen needed to develop the company. The advanced robotic equipment is Japanese, and everybody raves and asks us about Dutch knowhow. But, amusingly, we can only point to a recent Innosuisse collaboration with the Chinese company Huawei to develop smart farming in Switzerland, in the form of drone and robots to foster data-driven agriculture (REF). In Zhangjiang, we visit more automated warehouses, growing tomatoes this time. Again a discussion ensues. The future of farming will be digital, and certainly the new apparatus may contribute to increased efficiency, as well as mitigate the negative environmental impact (Swiss Smart Farming 2019). The elephant in the room, as in other sectors of our globalised society where artificial intelligence is reshaping production lines, regards human workers, and more generally all the hidden costs of technology: extraction, pollution, waste etc., in an echo of the Luddites uprisings of the early Industrial Revolution, when anxious workers turned against the machines that threatened to replace them (Donnelly 1986). At the IA island visiting the AI and Marine Technology Innovation Centre, one sees more clearly the changing forms of labour.
We go north to Nantong, to see this duality at play in space: on the one hand a village banking on the imminent but not yet fully materialised arrival of the creative industries – where we do learn about the traditional use of minuscule fish in the ecosystems of rice paddies (Lansing & Kramer 2011) – and across the street, a “scientific city” that has risen amidst the fields, to nurture scientific talents in the best immersive conditions.
We go south and alight in Hangzhou, and from there the taxi driver can’t help chuckling all along the drive that takes us to Qingshan village. Mountains appear in scenic succession. Above the village, there are several damns that offer urban visitors a respite into a staged nature. This village, one has to say, is very pretty. At the heart of it, there is a grand old barn that has been converted into a library – the Róng Design Library – with materials and books documenting craft techniques from China and beyond. The barn itself is made of wood in the traditional way, which keeps the cool inside without having to resort to air conditioning, as do all the new houses that local inhabitants have built to adopt modernity. The place is run by the village and the Pinwu Studio, which has settled in the village a couple of years ago, moving out of Hangzhou into a series of spacious buildings not far out. The representative of the studio kindly agreed to an interview, in which we got a better insight into the design of Chinese „future villages“, for that is the status from which Zhejiang benefits, combining rural agricultural traditions with new activities attuned to the creative industries. A lingering focus of our Curated Nature tour comes to light: what role can art and artists play in the reconfiguration of rural ecosystems? This question is not unfamiliar to our Swiss background, the Alps having seen numerous artistic initiatives emerging in rural locations. The modalities, purpose, and outcomes of this aesthetic contributions is the object of numerous discussion and actors, in Zurich as much as in Shanghai, or if you prefer, in Zhejiang as much as in Tschlin. The wider implications of the discussion are not unfamiliar either, and can be reflected upon in the light of artistic strategies placing the emphasis on social service, community arts, site-specificity, but also on the thorniness of artistic instrumentalisation, in which we see artists being transformed in social workers, whose interventions are valued for accessit reasons to core aesthetic practice (pensée plastique, Francastel 1960). In effect, the dialogue between tradition and modernity renews itself, just as our societies enter an accelerated phase of territorial transformation, in which the ground beneath our feet, as TETI explore in its collective 2021 publication Mobile Soils, starts spinning ever faster in the currents of planetary transformations.
The peach skin, is the book’s best-selling feature. It’s a cookbook, written by Diana Henry, in which peach, of course, takes the central role. The textured cover makes it the most desired, and purchased, of all publications on display at Text and Image, an independent bookshop in the heart of Shanghai. Throughout our journey, we moved from the cultivation of crops, to the tillage of prints, meeting book enthusiasts in the dynamic Shangainese scene, at the crossroads between art and publishing. At Text and Image, the selection works by affinities, connections made by the owners that might pair A book Lover’s guide to China and its self-publishing issue by abc, next to Design as Art by Bruno Munari.
At BANANAFISH, the selection ranges from Spark Zine to Post-Digital Print by Alessandro Ludovico. abC (art book in China) and BANANAFISH are also known for the organisation of some of the main book fairs in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, highly successful events that attest to the liveliness of printed matters in China, despite the costly constraints implied in acquiring ISBN numbers in the country. It is also interesting to note that material publications, promoted by fairs such as VOLUMES in Zurich, also continue to thrive in China along the surge in digital platforms and realities. At Special edition Project (SeP), that we visit with Yinan who happens to have initiated the Stay Art Festival in his hometown of Nanchang during the pandemic, there is an exhibition space behind the shop and café, where art students are organising a shooting.
In Hangzhou, we also encountered the dynamic alternative art scene, visiting Schein Space (a 24/7 streetside exhibition space which used to be a vegetable shop and where rotting apples were exhibited alongside canned food, salt and pepper), Imaginary Z (artist-run space hosted in a private home with a lush interior and exterior gardening), cusp. (an image based art space, mini booskhop and window project), alongside the X-Art bookshop of Parallel Institute, scenographed by Atelier Gegeben, whose rural studio complex we also visited in Changdai village, passing through fields of Longjing tea, one of China’s most famous green teas. In recent years, the village has developed cultural tourism by integrating art practices alongside the local tea industry.
The border between art and artefact can be significantly thin: walking from By Art Matters, a residency and contemporary art exhibition of Chinese and international artists, to Harmay, an arrangement of cosmetic products on sale in an arty half-emptied office installation, we see the movement, juxtaposition, survival and revival of techniques and technologies, that so interest our research group on Textures and Experiences of Transindustriality. It is evident in the work of Long Pan on show at Chronus Art Centre in Shanghai, which explores through ceramics and video an archeology of a large e-waste dump in Guangdong. We find it at work in our visits of the studio of Xiao Longhuaer in Shanghai, whose practice draws from the metal tools of specialised artisans to develop sculptural figures and highly crafted publications, as well as to the practice and shared studio of Ziqi Jiang, where video production is cultivated alongside original independent book objects. Such industrial superposition are captured on the city scale at the Power Station of Art, in the building itself that testifies to characteristic global repurposing of former industrial factory spaces, and in the exhibition presented that summer: Paris Moderne 1914-1945. Needless to say, there too the public could find a carefully scenographed bookshop (Battersea Bookshop) on the ground floor.
To conclude our research tour, we organised a Coal Peach 煤桃 Food Club in Ovary, an independent art and flower gallery in the heart of the former French concession, generally hosted by its curator Iris Xiaxia.
Food research is part of TETI practices, exemplified in the series of Mobile Soil Dinners held at the SAE Greenhouse Lab in Zurich in 2022. The Food Club format allows for collective engagement and reflection, and we found it could resonate in a meaningful manner with the Curated Nature program. Prior to the event, we were treated to a tour of a pet/plant market, and a popular food market. There, on the stalls offering a great range of products from vegetable to fresh fish, in the booths selling varieties of pasta, buns, pancakes, we got a glimpse of the Shanghai culinary traditions, and more generally the importance of food cultures in China.
The title of the event, Coal Peach, with its playful variation in mandarin 煤桃, referred on the one hand to industrial production and history, and on the other to rural environments and imaginaries, both of which we see in the process of radical mutations in the early 21st century. The food club was thus an invitation to collectively explore the realm of industrial ecologies and territorial transformations at the nexus of global forces and local innovation, as seen through food that is consumed daily in the Shanghai metropolis. Guests were encouraged to bring a dish responding to the Coal Peach theme that spoke about our relation to the natural world in ever-more technological societies. Participants played the game, with industrial and take away food in the limelight given the focus. All extensively commented on their choice, ensuring a sustained conversation on Chinese culinary traditions, issues of sustainability and import-export, and the role of technologies and industries in food systems in the early 21st century.
In parallel, we presented a Display-en-valise, showcasing objects collected during our research journey, which aimed to identify lines of investigation in a series of poetical assemblage, transforming raw materials into cooked artistic research recipes:
- Secret Message, Peach + Bamboo Fan + The Peach Blossom Fan 桃花扇, by Kung Shangren 孔尚任 played on the longstanding symbolism of the peach in China, together with a literary reference and musing on historical change.
- An Orchard (after Craig Martin), Bowl + Water + Wooden stand, evoked the garden’s notion of borrowed scenery, the waterways so associated with Shanghai, infused with powers of conceptual art.
- Orange County, Orange + Haimen Coaster referred to the multiplication of Silicon Valleys, centres of excellent for which a certain architectural aesthetics is conveyed to house the thinkers, and possibly artists, of the future.
- After Pistoletto, variation, Mirror + Robot figure print, combined a reference to Arte Povera, with the concept of the Uncanny Valley, developed by the Japanese Masahiro Mori to understand humans’ relation to robots ; it also suggested the possible reversal of perspectives, the mirroring gaze of cultures across space.
- Emerald Garden, Erigeron Canadensis + Portable garden, was a direct reference to an interstitial yet official green space on the banks of the river Huangpu, reflecting on native and imported plants, and the value of greenery in urbanised landscapes.
- ISBN , Rice + hand drawn character of book + Book Book, Hyon Myungah & Chang Yuchen (Dreamer FTY, 2022), draws to language formation, evoking souvenirs of the ISBN inventor Joe Woodland who reminisced being inspired by drawing signs in the sand, to the specificities of the Chinese publishing market, and the container space of rice paddies and farms.
- Curated Nature, White cube + Salad + Coal, again a variation on an Arte Povera piece, in this case by Giovanni Anselmo, questioning the inherited tradition of the white cube in art with forms of de- industrialisation and regeneration, together with omnipresent environmental debates, in parallel with vertical farming.
- Fresh Retreat, Lotus fruit + Buddha + Water spray, playfully revisited Nam June Paik Buddhas, critically posited in times of technological humidification, interrogating our capacity to design harmony in the light of new technologies.
Key lines of interrogation encountered during the tour that we aim to pursue in the future include: Industrial ecologies; Culinary traditions, food sustainability and industry; Heritage in territories, between past and future; Printed matters as connecting affinities. A central idea that emerged during the trip, might be qualified as the lightest touch, characterised by the subtle balance our increasingly digital societies must find between automated designs, and the embodied experience that continues to ground our earthly presence.
Many thanks to Comple-X Institute and Pro Helvetia Shanghai for this inspiring experience.
TETI Group is an interdisciplinary study group of artists, designers, writers, historians, curators, who exchange and collaborate on equal footing with gardeners, environmental scientists or engineers. This active collaboration between art & science allows each side to question their theoretical groundings and embrace novel strategies leading to new modes of learning, research objects, and outcomes.
TETI fosters critical interdisciplinary inquiry into industrial heritage and environments through mediation, conversation, and production.
TETI participants of Curated Nature: Rural, Nature, Art and Technology – UN-Curating Interdisciplinary Research Visit Program:
- Anne-Laure Franchette: artist, researcher and curator, Zurich, Switzerland
- Gabriel N. Gee: art historian and writer, Lugano, Zurich, Switzerland