Notes From China: Concrete Flux
17 feb 2015 by Kirsi Hyotyla
As part of her ongoing series, 'Notes from China', Kirsi Hyotola interviews Solveig Suess, a founder of the Bejing-based artist collective Concrete Flux as they discuss urbanisation in China from an art and design perspective.
'China is experiencing the most rapid urbanisation in history. Within 20 years the country has transformed from a rural society of communal farming to an urbanised society of mortgages and careers. This has involved the migration of at least 100million rural residents to the cities and has, as any visitor or resident in China will surely know, created sprawling concrete jungles of little parallel in the world. The implications of this unparalleled process of urbanisation are manifold, diverse, and under studied.
In tandem with global urban growth, the study of urban environments has become an increasingly popular and prominent subject across the world. A number of academic institutions have set up specific research departments and majors in ‘urban studies’. Meanwhile, blogs such as Polis, Mashallah and the Urban Topologies project of the Swedish art gallery Fargfabriken have garnered much attention and interest. These projects have adopted a holistic, inter-disciplinary approach to investigating the meaning of these urban spaces, including writing of all forms, graphic design, fine arts, video, maps and infographics. Every discipline can offer new insights into a topic, and the interaction between disciplines holds the potential to provide new modes of understanding for the world’s new, urbanised modes of living.
This kind of analysis, which has blossomed over the last few years, is lacking in and has rarely turned its attention to China, where urban developments are particularly acute. Concrete Flux—whose name reflects the static, the old and the constantly shifting new, the rhythm of destruction-construction, and the flow 流动 of people around the country—intends to provide a platform for such scrutiny of Chinese urban environments.
China, however, is a special case. Despite only last year becoming majority urbanised, China has a much longer history of urban settlement and urban environments than almost anywhere else in the world. During the Tang dynasty (600s-900sCE), the population of the city of Chang’an (today’s Xian) may have reached one million, at that time the largest city in the world. Marco Polo remarked that China’s major cities of the 1270s “seem[ed] quite beyond all possibility” in their scale, the size of their population and their wealth. Chinese history also contains a distinct set of theories on urban design, involving qi flows and fengshui. The remnants of these fengshui urban designs remain, even after the radical change and destruction of China’s modern history, the backbone of many Chinese cities. Imperial Beijing’s central meridian, for example, is still the spine of the city. China’s long history of urban environments means that, despite the fact that the rapid urbanisation of the 21st century is a global phenomenon, the theories and observations of cities made in Europe and America cannot simply be transposed onto the urbanised Chinese map...'
This is an excerpt from an introduction released in sync with the first issue of Concrete Flux, a collective consisting of writers, designers, art critics and organisers based in Beijing, China. I contacted Solveig Suess, one of the two founders of the collective, and asked her to share more insight into the project.
SS: We started Concrete Flux with Tom Baxter, in 2013. He was a freelance writer and I was a freelance graphic designer, both with avid interests in China’s mass urbanisation and we were neither architects nor urbanists or specialists in the field. At the time we were surrounded by people doing interesting projects that confronted topics tied to urbanisation on a macro and micro level. We wanted to learn more and reflect on the process together with other people accross disciplines to expand the conversation in a comprehensive way. The idea was to create a journal and a platform that acts in an open source basis, and to provide a space that encourages and publishes people’s own investigations in a curated manner. We wanted this content to be available online for free as well as support anyone who wanted to do an event under Concrete Flux.
Concrete Flux was launched during Beijing Design Week in 2013 with our project Audio Archaeology. Audio Archaeology was a participatory event designed to focus people's attention on the sounds of the city. On registering for the event, participants were provided with a sound recording device, a tote bag and a set of instructions with four interpretable themes (Ritual, Prosperity, Neglect and Pattern). Participants were then invited to, whilst traveling the streets of Beijing, attempt to uncover or to excavate the sounds which they believed related in some manner to these themes. As participants returned the recording devices, we uploaded their recordings onto our sound installation, where each theme had a dedicated booth in which a medley of recordings played. Over the week, this installation developed into a comprehensive, participant-created set of themed soundscapes of the city.
The first issue of Concrete Flux magazine was published later on in November that same year, creating an event where contributors were invited to give pecha kucha like talks to the range of projects we featured.
Solveig Suess of Concrete Flux on the left. Image credits to Matjaž Tančič (2014).
KH: What are the main events of Concrete Flux in the past year and for 2015?
SS: This past summer, in June 2014, the first Bring Your Own Beamer (BYOB) event in Beijing was organized by Concrete Flux in collaboration with a curator by the name of Michelle Proskell. We projected onto the walls, ceilings, windows, doors and other surfaces of traditional Beijing hutongs in the heart of Dashilar area in Beijing. Hutongs, or small alleyways, represent an important cultural element in Beijing, and with the fast paced social and economic trajectory of China in recent years, it has become evident on a local scale that these traditional alleys have dramatically decreased. In light of these changes, BYOB Beijing artists explored the theme of “Rendering” or “使成” (shǐ chéng), as they transform a few spaces within a Dashilar hutong into a one-night DIY installation.
We organised for over thirty artists to explore this theme of transformation and engagement with traditional buildings interpreting sound, performance, and installation through various means of projections - including the use of slide projectors, video projectors, homemade projectors, shadow play, animation, light projection and live VJ-ing. We took the BYOB concept from artists Rafel Rozendaal and Anne de Vries, where with their encouragement to get other organisers to use their format has led it to spread worldwide.
Bring Your Own Beamer (BYOB). Image credits to Matjaž Tančič (2014).
KH: The aim of Concrete Flux is to contribute to some understanding of or gain insight into how China’s hyper fast emerging urban spaces and this configuration of space through urbanisation will lead to a new configuration of society. Who do you consider your audience to be and how well have you reached this aim so far in terms of bringing new audiences in and creating events and collaborations?
SS: Concrete Flux initially started out with Tom and I (Solveig) with no financial backing, merely doing this out of sheer interest in the topic aside from our daytime jobs. Now with the Concrete Flux collective, we have managed to share the workload more as well as let wider audiences know about the project. From our last call for submissions we have been really pleased with how many submissions we have received - really from various areas of China!
With our more interactive events, such as Audio Archaeology, BYOB and some smaller events such as film screenings organised in collaborations, we felt that we were able to help create situations that exemplify the possibility of a more activist approach to viewing and experiencing our surroundings. Throughout the past year it was inspiring to see collaborations grow from discoveries made through the content and participants of Concrete Flux.
We had a pop-up shop in WuJin, a small space associated with Arrow Factory, which was located right in a small hutong in Beijing. With the huge window shop front, passers-by were stumbling into the space. In general we have always tried to steer the events towards encouraging people to go out and actively investigate or interact with the content from our thematic journals. Concrete Flux is ideally created for anyone who shares this curiosity and interest in the topic.
KH: How do artists and designers collaborate with you?
SS: We are open for people to suggest an event or a project to which we can offer support both locally and internationally. I think this is evident reflecting back to our previous events. Another thing we have been actively participating with are a few international independent publishing festivals such as Facing Pages in the Netherlands or the LA art book fair (this year organized by Bactagon Projects and New Territories Studio).
KH: Could you tell us a bit more about the idea of the magazine and the limited edition prints published by Concrete Flux?
SS: Independent publishing has become a large movement in reaction to the digitization of information. This movement has promoted the exploration of new ways of publishing, through experimenting with content and format, empowering individuals to self-publish their own content. We wanted to join this community of independent publishers with Concrete Flux. We predominantly sell them through our launches and accept orders but also have been sending this print edition of Concrete Flux to independent publishing festivals. This gives us the opportunity to share our journals to a larger, diversified audience.
Image courtesy of Concrete Flux.
Image courtesy of Concrete Flux.