A Bunch of Good Looking Bad Buys, O collective Happening, Shanghai, China, Credit: Nunu Kong

‘O collective Happening’ in Shanghai: “Loose Space,” Participation, and what Sustains between Instantaneity and Permanence

By Chiayi Seetoo

On a Sunday in June 2014, in a vast empty lot southeast of Tongji University in Shanghai, a rare free public arts event, titled O collective Happening, took place. The event lasted from the early afternoon till late into the night and drew a diverse and international crowd—visitors who had planned to attend, curious neighbors drawn by the unusual happening, and construction workers on this site, who stopped by. Flyers were pasted featuring a big “O” and an arrow sign underneath on the long white wall, on one side of Siping Road, framing the site. This was a mysterious script outside of the city’s normative sign system guiding passers-by and visitors to enter the little-noticed, semi-open space—designated on the official city map as “257 Fuxing Road.”

Figure 1. O collective Happening. Photo by Mayura Jain.

Beyond the white wall, visitors and residents of Shanghai continued their Sunday activities in the marked spaces of home, office, market, department store, cinema, restaurant, park, museum, or theater. Inside, over the span of eight hours, embodied, visual, sound and participatory art works ranging from performance art, film screenings, and dance, to experimental music, on-site micro-filmmaking, installation art, and a free graffiti wall, presented an unusual deviation from the habituated scripts of urban life.

Curated by a group of young, international artists in Shanghai, the event’s bilingual title—O collective Happening in English and O Jiti xitai O集体戏台 (literally, “O collective outdoor stage”) in Chinese—traced and linked meanings of “participation” in art and performance across Euro-American and Sinophone cultures and genealogies; they also reflected the international make-up of the artists and audience. The “O” corresponded to a large ring-shaped steel structure (7.4 meters high and 23.7 meters in diameter), an architectural model built for the seismic test of the new China National Exhibition and Convention Center in west Hongqiao, Shanghai, temporarily idle at the time of the performance. The model and the empty lot belonged to the Department of Civil Engineering of Tongji University. Here, beams, columns, and posts in steel intricately intersected, forming a porous cylindrical “wall” that enveloped a circular platform on the ground level. Reflection on the architectural uniqueness of the site figured prominently within the curation of this cross-media event. Co-curators Francesca Gotti and Lorenzo Malloni are Italian architects who came to Shanghai to pursue Master’s degrees in architecture from Tongji University in partnership with Polytechnic University of Milan; the other co-curator, Nunu Kong, is a Chinese independent dance and performance artist based in Shanghai. Francesca also has a background as a dancer. Other participating artists included architects, urban planners, dancers, or performance artists.[1]

Figure 2. Original steel structure, O collective Happening. Photo by Nunu Kong.

The curators’ idea of creating an arts event in this striking site of idling semi-construction was supported by Professor Jiang Shouchao of Civil Engineering at Tongji and the site manager, architect Jiajing Zhang (JJ), who conceptualized and named the structure “iNest Temporary Museum” (Niaowo linshi meishuguan 鸟窝临时美术馆). The title added another temporal and spatial layer to the event; besides associating the shape of the structure with the natural world (the “nest”),[2] the function of the space was reconceived as one that showcases art (meishuguan is more accurately “art museum”) but that is nevertheless “temporary,” contrary to the type of temporality normally attributed to museums as places that house, preserve, and exhibit the past. JJ acquired 10,000 RMB in sponsorship funds (about 1,600 USD) for the event from the construction company that undertook the seismic test.[3] O collective Happening was launched under the soft framework of Tongji University, “iNest Temporary Museum,” and modest private sponsorship. The bulk of the planning and implementation was undertaken by the three young curators; they and all the participating artists—recruited through an open call, apart from one invited artist—contributed their labor for free, with sponsorship funds spent primarily on publicity, set-up, and clean-up of the space.[4]

After two decades of rapid urban development, Shanghai today is not short of opportunities for exposure to the arts; theaters, concert halls, museums, galleries, festivals, and biennales abound, operating within different frameworks of public and private, and with both domestic and transnational funding. What distinguished O collective Happening was its international and interdisciplinary nature, strong bottom-up planning and implementation, and unique spatial-temporal reformulation within the urban environment. The event activated what Karen A. Franck and Quentin Stevens theorize as ‘loose space,’ that is, urban public space “appropriated by citizens to pursue activities not set by a predetermined program.”[5] Although the site of O collective Happening is not strictly a public space, it is nevertheless publicly accessible and expresses key characteristics identified by Franck and Stevens in terms of the ambiguity and thus ‘looseness’ of function and landscape character. Specifically, the idling status of the site, suspended between the seismic test and its unknown future, corresponds strongly with the “leftover and abandoned spaces,” one vital type of ‘loose space’ that Franck and Stevens describe:

Lacking officially assigned uses, leftover spaces and abandoned spaces lie outside the “rush and flow” as well as the control of regulations and surveillance that come with the established uses of planned urban public space. They are the negative or void to the city of named and fixed types of open space (park, plaza, street, sidewalk)—the ‘other’ places, what Ignasi de Solá-Morales calls terrain vague (1995). Calling them ‘superfluous landscapes,’ Nielsen (2002) sees abandoned spaces as the ‘backsides’ of the designed, ‘primary’ spaces of public life, which he sees as controlled and scripted, following the model of the theme park and the mall. Also called ‘no man’s lands,’ ‘indeterminate spaces’ and ‘free zones’ (Groth and Corijin 2005), abandoned and leftover spaces, temporarily free of official planning and commodification, are appropriated for other uses. […] La Varra calls these spaces and their uses Post-It City: ‘a fragile and fragmentary network which filters into the tightly woven structures of urban public space’ (2001:428).[6]

As will be revealed later, the site of O collective Happening, besides being a ‘spatial void’ in the city of Shanghai, is implicated in the city’s globalizing process, as a curious necessity and leftover.

Franck and Stevens emphasize that it is people’s actions—recognition, appropriation, and making use of the space—that create a ‘loose space’. Indeed, the site of O collective Happening, already quite ‘loose’ in its physical and social conditions, was further ‘loosened’ and transformed by the organizers and attendants. Through artistic and creative means, O collective Happening brought together and animated different types of participation, or durational engagement centered on relationships and experiences of the participants. The event facilitated such participation by embracing the dialogical, the intersubjective, the embodied, and the experiential for its audiences and organizers.

Because of the specific history and quality of the site—with visible piles of construction debris and fully exposed steel structures—contemplation about contemporary urban existence was either consciously provoked or emerged organically, and figured compellingly in some of O collective Happening’s presentations. Thoughts concerning the rapidly changing cityscape, building, demolition, dereliction, memory, and preservation, rubbed up against experiments in “relations” between people, space, and performance. This made O collective Happening exceptional, particularly in light of Shanghai’s history of urban development and the city’s diverse and contemporaneous artistic scenes. The wealth of reflexivity and stimulation encouraged through open, creative, and artistic experience and process also speaks to the “virtues” of ‘loose space’ that Franck and Stevens underscore, ones that arise from qualities of “possibility, diversity and disorder,” in direct opposition to “certainty, homogeneity and order,” qualities that control-inclined civic governance and discourse tend to uphold.[7]

Figure 3. O collective Happening. Photo by Nunu Kong.

Although much of what made O collective Happening innovative and exceptional emerged from its interdisciplinary quality, disciplinary fault lines did exist. One such conceptual divergence occurred around the question of what sort of temporality an event like O collective Happening would embody—“durational,” as mentioned above, or “instantaneous” (shunshi) as seen by architect JJ, who measured performance (defined as the event or the “happening”) against architectural materiality and permanence. This conceptual rift is worth contemplating as it raises important questions about how the arts are situated in place, and how participation is situated in the urban in the context of Shanghai. Against the pursuit of architectural monumentality and persistence, the “instantaneous” may seem oppositional and progressive; however, this idea risks undermining or overlooking, the experience and labor of the people, whose situation and inhabitance in space over time is as much the material of the urban as is the maintenance of infrastructure—buildings or otherwise. Departing from the paradigm of the oppositional, from which this conceptual slip in part derives, I raise instead the question of sustainability. What “sustains” between the instantaneous and the permanent?

In what follows, I first sketch the process of post-reform urbanization of Shanghai and the contemporaneous urban spatial, artistic, and participatory scenes that have emerged, in order to elaborate on the larger context of O collective Happening. I then review and offer readings of aspects of the event, drawing on my experience as one of the live participants. Finally, I reflect on the event in light of the competing temporalities summarized above. The production of space and time in the urban is under debate, as I inquire into where “sustainability” and concern for the human stands.

Post-reform Urbanization, Developmental Monstrosity and the Arts

As a public arts event situated in the urban space of Shanghai in a site embodying traces of the city’s urban development, O collective Happening explicitly dialogued with the broader discourse and milieu of urbanization and contemporary art in Shanghai. In light of Shanghai’s post-reform urbanization, changes and features of Shanghai’s urban landscape interrelate with the city’s art spaces, as well as with the context (and content) of other public arts projects contemporaneous with O collective Happening. The juxtaposition also helps illuminate the distinctiveness of O collective Happening.

In the post-reform era of China, from 1978 onwards, several Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen and Guangzhou, underwent rapid development. The impacts are most explicit in drastic changes to the urban built form. For the city of Shanghai—from the 1986 Master Plan for Shanghai to Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 designation of the city’s role in leading the whole country into prosperity—urban development directly translated to urban image-remaking through architecture.[8] The 1990s in Shanghai were characterized by a building boom and vast demolition. Enormous blocks of housing designated as decrepit were marked with the big Chinese character chai, “demolish,” while new real estate and spectacular architecture flourished.[9]

The venue of O collective Happening, containing the quality of a “construction site” within the urban landscape, makes reference to this urban development phenomenon shared by other growing Chinese cities. That the main steel structure was built as a testing model for the new China National Exhibition and Convention Center (an example of iconic architecture, boasting the pronounced shape of a gigantic four-leaf clover), further allows for this venue to exceed the merely referential and metaphorical, and present itself as genuinely imbricated within the city’s globalizing development.

Urban theorists have identified “iconic architecture” as a marketing tool for cities with globalizing aspirations. Leslie Sklair defines iconic architecture as “buildings and spaces that are famous for professional architects and/or the public at large and have special symbolic/aesthetic significance attached to them.”[10] To become a “global city”—characterized by nodes, networks and global flows of people, goods, services, ideas, and images—a city seeks to derive its status through iconic architecture. Such built form helps it gain global attention and thus regional and world capital, mobilized by a transnational capitalist class.[11] In Shanghai, the Lujiazui financial district in Pudong (the east of the Huangpu River), now lined with ultramodern skyscrapers including the Oriental Pearl Tower (1994), Jin Mao Tower (1999), Shanghai World Center (2008), and Shanghai Tower (2008), exemplifies such architectural iconicity deeply embedded in global capitalism.[12]

The success of Shanghai’s city-branding is not exclusive to generating an architectural iconicity of the new. Opposite the Huangpu River is the Bund, the historical waterfront that holds an equally iconic place, with architecture harkening back to the semi-colonial era of pre-World War II Shanghai. In a way, Shanghai’s self-image-making as a global city is really marked by strategic architectural iconicity, selectively enfolding the futuristic and the historical, embracing new skyscrapers of striking formal design alongside colonial era architecture reinvested with commercial and touristic value. This historical architecture recalls the city’s former status as the “Paris of the Orient” in the 1930s. Together, they become the icon and postcard image of Shanghai that the world’s spectators have come to know.

Amidst the frenzy of building and demolition, the massive loss of urban form has drawn great attention. Artists, including some involved in O collective Happening, have addressed this issue in their practice, exploring themes of urban past, loss, nostalgia, and memory. While concerns for preservation are strong, Shanghai’s phenomenal urbanization turns even architectural “preservation” to commercial profit reaping. The renowned case of Xintiandi (2001) exemplifies such a paradox; originally decrepit, low-value shikumen[13] housing from prewar Shanghai was selectively “preserved” and repackaged into an area of chic, fashionable, and expensive high-end bars, restaurants, and retail outlets.

Many of the arts and cultural spaces in Shanghai also took on the form of architectural iconicity; The Shanghai Grand Theatre, Shanghai Oriental Art Center, Himalayas Art Museum, China Art Museum, and even K11 Art Mall, all boast extravagant designs. Urban geographer Lily Kong pointed out that for global cities to derive their status, particular forms of cultural capital are required in addition to networked nodes of global flow, and a prominent means of generating such cultural capital is to create new “cultural urban spaces” such as grand theatres, museums, and libraries.[14] Often monumental for obvious reasons of visibility and tangibility, these structures intend to enliven a certain kind of cultural life to “attract and sustain global human and economic flows.”[15] While Kong’s study centers on government-led endeavors, Shanghai’s current art spaces contain a mixture of government and private interests that share global capitalist pursuits.

A contrasting art space of significant renown is “M50” (50 Moganshan Road) by the Suzhou Creek in the inner city of Shanghai, a once spontaneously-formed cluster of artist studios and galleries. Since the 1990s, artists first moved into the warehouses of closed-down factories for cheap rent, gradually forming the distinct arts district that it is now. However, frustration in the face of development persists here. Artists based in M50 fight to keep the developers’ bulldozers away and now precariously survive on rising rent and uncertainty of the site’s fate, despite some, but still insufficient, official recognition for its economic and city-branding value.[16]

Figure 4. O collective Happening. Photo by Tom Lee Petterson.

O collective Happening’s grassroots initiation and organization is akin to M50 but differs significantly in its appropriation of urban ‘loose space.’ The art spaces mentioned above, including M50, have accumulated clear and specific meanings of arts engagements; in a way, urban public life in these clearly demarcated art spaces are as scripted as the themed environments of amusement parks and malls. Another key aspect of O collective Happening is its nature as a public arts event, and Shanghai has witnessed many such events that also unsettle given meanings and functions assigned to specific urban spaces. In the latter half of 2014, a series of high-profile, high-impact arts events took place here. From May to July, French photographer JR devised a photobooth truck that traveled and parked in different spaces in Shanghai for the general public to instantly take and print out large black-and-white headshots that were then pasted over the walls and grounds of different public spaces.[17] In July, New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang sailed a dilapidated fishing boat filled with fake animals in Huangpu River to the dock of Power Station of Art to open his solo exhibition The Ninth Wave.[18] In October 2014 as part of the China Shanghai International Arts Festival, a week-long “arts carnival” took place on the campus of the Shanghai Theatre Academy. For a low entrance fee visitors experienced a wide variety of indoor and outdoor arts events including performances, visual exhibitions and screenings, talks, workshops, and creative markets.[19]

Unlike O collective Happening, these events operated within prominent institutional frameworks, with interests in different degrees and forms of symbolic and real capital. Their high-profile, high-impact quality also tended to fall toward the spectacular. This is not to undermine institutional arrangements and support and neither to deny the potential for provocations rooted in local urban history and textures, but to point out that certain tendencies do exist for arts produced in such conditions. To offer some counterpoints, two other projects are worth mentioning that directly concern memory and oblivion in the wake of rapid urban development, themes that also went into some of O collective Happening’s presentations. The first is The Wrinkles of the City (2010), also a project conceived by JR, in which he interviewed elderly people of Shanghai, took photo portraits of them, printed the photos in monumental sizes and pasted them across sites marked for demolition. Stirringly provocative are the aging lines and countenances of the close-up faces of the local elderly, which appeared unexpectedly on crumbling walls against high rises under construction looming in the background. The interviewees’ personal stories were published in both English and Chinese in a separate photobook.[20] That JR is a foreign artist may beg further consideration of the conditions and limitations of participation in relation to legal citizenship. The second project concerning memory and oblivion against rapid urban development is the exhibition Dinghai Qiao: Art Practice into History (2014) that connected art with more sustained local research to reflect on the state of the outlying Dinghai Qiao neighborhood in Shanghai, marked for the continued, if dwindling, existence of socialist workers’ housing complexes built since the 1950s. These housing complexes once filled the landscape of Shanghai as a socialist industrial city.[21] The exhibition of Dinghai Qiao manifested a quiet, unspectacular participation in the little-noticed part of the local. This project was undertaken by the First Emerging Curators Program of the Power Station of Art, Shanghai (the first state-run museum of contemporary art in mainland China, established in 2012).

O collective Happening—Intersecting Frames and Urban Participation

In light of the specific ways O collective Happening was situated in and against the environmental and discursive scenes of Shanghai’s urban development and contemporary arts, the event itself reveals how it relates to and reflects on Shanghai’s urban development, and further, to ideas and practices of community and participation in the urban. The history of the site itself, the conceptualizations of the project, and the actual content of the event are entry points into teasing out some of these insights and provocations.

Figure 5. The Apparatus of the City’s Memory, O collective Happening. Photo by Chiayi Seetoo.

The ‘loose space’ appropriated for O collective Happening is not just any urban space devoid of defined meaning and function, but is interwoven with the city’s larger globalization process. In fact, the site already traced periods of its own developmental promise, idling, and reuse, parallel to but eventually falling out of Shanghai’s urban development. Tongji University had planned to turn the vast empty lot into a creative park, but the project has long been suspended. Around the summer of 2013, the idle space was temporarily adopted for building the architectural model for the seismic test of the new China National Exhibition and Convention Center (Shanghai) in west Hongqiao. The future Convention Center will include hotels, corporate offices, and exhibition and convention halls, capitalizing on its adjacency to the transportation hub of Hongqiao, where the airport and high-speed train station converge.[22] Indeed, it is a perfect case of an iconic architecture that facilitates the necessary flows required of a global city. Moreover, the connection between the ring-shaped steel structure and the Convention Center makes the site of O collective Happening more than just the negative, void, or flipside to the named, fixed, primary, or designed spaces of public life; rather, it is the leftover and left-out from the city’s globalizing progress, if also a necessity as one stage of the development (the seismic test space) for Shanghai’s iconic architecture. The implications of this will emerge clearer in later discussions.

Architect JJ named the ring-shaped steel structure “iNest Temporary Museum” for the event. For him, the conception of a “temporary” museum, or, in a different iteration, the idea of the “instantaneous” (shunshi) offers a kind of critical promise against dominant architectural pursuits that prize monumentality and permanence. It should be noted that the “instantaneity” conceived here does not refer to the rapidity of building (and demolition) that characterized Chinese urbanization in 1990s. Rather, it evokes the temporality of the momentary appearance and physicalization of a “happening.” This is what co-curators Fancesca Gotti, Lorenzo Malloni and Nunu Kong proposed, (with their own conceptualizations and agendas), in contradistinction to architectural monumentality and permanence—Shanghai’s most pronounced spatial-temporal preoccupation.[23]

JJ’s embrace of instantaneity in some ways echoes the dematerialization and institutional critiques that have inspired visual artists to make performance art in Euro-American contexts.[24] In a different conceptual vein, co-organizer Francesca Gotti’s desire to appropriate the space for an arts event privileges the opportunity to generate and reflect on “relations.” Francesca is interested in how arts participate in the social context, much like how architecture participates in the environment. The “relations” that interest her concern those amongst people present at the event, between people and (public) space, and between performer and audience. It was bringing people to this unfamiliar and strange site, unmarked by spectacle or consumption (like the majority of spaces in Shanghai), and to stimulate them to think about “relations” through physical, tangible arts experiences—contact, voice, movement, objects—that inspired her to create O collective Happening. It was not planned as a “festival,” or a “meeting,” but as a “happening” in the sense of a “situation,” a “moment limited in time,” in which things could “grow,” “develop,” “open up,” rather than “finish.”[25]

Figure 6. Ritual Memory Icon 1, O collective Happening. Photo by Chiayi Seetoo.

Although Francesca is aware of Allan Kaprow’s famous “happenings,” Kaprow’s practice was more peripheral in her conceptualization.[26] Guy Debord’s “situationism”—involving critical urban interventions and practices like walking in abandoned sites and construction sites, and Italian architect Francesco Careri’s concept of “walkscapes”—treating “walking as an aesthetic practice,” or an “architecture of landscape,” are sources that inform her praxis as both an architect and dancer.[27] However, the call for proposals for O collective Happening was more open-ended than citational—simply detailing the information and physical attributes of the site, the format of the event as a series of multi-arts presentations lasting for several hours, and examples of the wide-ranging possibilities of arts presentations.[28]

The Chinese title added another layer of spatial, social, and performing arts genealogy to the mix. Nunu Kong created the Chinese title O Jiti xitai. Jiti is the direct translation of “collective”; xitai in Chinese conjures the image of traditional outdoor stages where Chinese song-and-storytelling performances and various kinds of xiqu (Chinese opera) are performed, all functioning as a kind of ritual and entertainment embedded in everyday folk lives.[29] This traditional Chinese performance genealogy was cited to frame and evoke the public, outdoors, communal, and artistic performance qualities projected in the event. It was left to the audiences, with varying cultural-linguistic attachments, to interpret and imagine the event and to the live participants to realize its actual “happening.”

I participated in O collective Happening as a contributing artist, audience member, and a friend of the curators. A female performance studies researcher holding graduate degrees from U.S. universities, a Taiwanese versed in both Mandarin and English, a recent inhabitant of Shanghai, I am non-Western but also non-native to the city, harboring a unique quality of foreignness to and familiarity with Chinese culture. Below I submit a series of accounts and ruminations (echoing the spirit of the presentations) of the more memorable pieces and moments that stirred provocations for me. They subtly address issues of urbanity, relations, construction, memory, and meaning.

For dancers like Francesca and Nunu, physicality, embodiment, duration, and even the ephemerality of performance are less a means of disrupting certain aesthetic conventions and economies. These aspects are already central to dance or embodied performance. The new environment simply foregrounded these characteristics of their practice. The move away from the enclosed and sometimes lofty proscenium stage to a specific site in the open air where spectators could come and go induced a new set of conceptions and strategies for performance. Fixed choreography was largely overtaken by improvisation and audience participation was central to the aesthetic schemes.

While most of the performance pieces took place in the circular platform inside the ring, treating the site exactly like what the event’s Chinese name suggests, a xitai, an outdoor stage, Nunu’s piece completely withdrew from the framework of “proscenium stage performance.” Instead, she brought the audience to another corner of the lot and turned them into actors for an on-site micro-filmmaking work, titled A Bunch of Good Looking Bad Guys. The participants were instructed to perform the most “villainous” look they could make with the scarves, straw hats, huge goggles, and mock weapons provided by Nunu. It turned out that as most of the participants were quite young, the “badness” they performed almost inevitably exuded a kind of cuteness, or the budding, wide-eyed qualities of moe (萌), the discourse from Japanese popular culture that has also powerfully entered Chinese young people’s everyday lexicon and performance. This unwitting twist of the villainous ironized the motto “Don’t judge a person by their looks.” From the pronouncement of “good looking bad guys,” to the instruction for acting up the “villainous” “look” for the camera, and to the unexpected turnout on the set, the hyperbolic twists and turns on the surface could potentially stir one’s thoughts beyond the superficial. At question was the obsession with the visible that camera, and by extension screen culture, enhances and feeds into, and how the visible has come to be interpreted as the direct sign of the “good” or the “bad,” terms that are often simplistically used to designate a person’s intention or some kind of inherent morality, and more relevant to modern civic terms, what ensures or endangers security. I began to think of how locating the “bad guys” has become one of the most common ways of maintaining “security” in modern civic governance, and “looks” turned out to be the easiest thing to turn to. Much violence has been done in its name across global urban spheres, often masking the real “bad guy.”[30]

Figure 7. A Bunch of Good Looking Bad Buys, O collective Happening. Photo by Nunu Kong.

Francesca’s piece Zoo utilized the aesthetic feature of the ring-shaped platform to unsettle conventional performer-audience relationships. The audience was first instructed to get up from their seats and move to the circular platform and told that they would be taken to “visit the zoo.” As the audience was still adjusting themselves to the new stance and vision, some of the collaborating artists began to imitate the audience members’ actions from the ring. When more and more people discovered the potential “rule” of this game or performance, some began to make funnier and more exaggerated movements to test the limits of imitation by the artists in the ring. At times, these artists also departed from strictly mirroring the actions in front of them, performing even funnier twists of the actions in response. A kind of dialectical bouncing between looking and being looked at, action and passivity, surveillance and agency, and pleasure and subjection emerged and expanded until the time-limit was reached. I was greatly affected standing in the circle watching all the actions that happened around me, all the while conscious of myself being part of this grand spectacle. Questions about how form facilitates function and impact came to mind. The circular platform recalled acts of display and watching invested with power and pleasure with which the “zoo” is commonly associated; the dynamic was then playfully highlighted and further experimented with through a deliberate shift in vantage point and stance for those present. Particularly, it is the shape of the circle in which one’s performance cannot find a back, a corner, or an end that made the ambiguity of the boundaries between surveillance, counter-surveillance, exhibition, and self-exhibition palpable. The “zoo” is the metaphor and citation of an aspect of modern human culture translated into modern urban planning—one can almost always find a zoo in a major city, and the circular platform recalls such architectural precedence and resonance from the Colosseum to the circus, where spectacle and acts of watching and performance intersect with slavery, violence, animals, and buffoonery.

Figure 8. Zoo, O collective Happening. Photo by Tom Lee Patterson.

Site-specificity took other shapes as well. Francesca and Lorenzo Malloni exhibited an installation at the smaller adjacent square platform, titled Ritual Memory Icon. Quaint objects such as pipes, teacups, teapots, incense burners, and small bird cages in different sizes were lined up vertically like mini-towers—bigger ones on the bottom and smaller ones on the top. To me, these objects evoked dim-sum places, teahouses, and a bit of fantastical otherworldliness. They embodied at once the delicate, the intimate, the hand-made, and the dated. The Oriental Pearl Tower came to mind, as the Tower too professes replicative layering in accumulated sizes (in the form of bright pink “pearls”). This structural association loomed strong for me when I cast my eyes to the photographs below that showed these delicate installations erecting fantastically into the sky out of the low-rises of old neighborhoods of Shanghai. The commentary on the contradictions of urban development was readily apparent. I was struck by the explicitly artificial production of the city’s simulacra, in which the hyper disjuncture between the soaring tower and the low-rises remained, but the original—that is, the Tower—and its extravagantly outdated futurism of material and symbolic power was displaced by the quaintly stacked teapots and cages in impossible scale.[31]

The issue of where memory lies in the urban was most directly addressed in artist and urban planner Ana Martin Juste’s performance The Apparatus of the City’s Memory. Exploring the question “How do we experience ‘city’; how have our ancestors through history experienced the growing mysterious urban development?” Ana cited and reinterpreted seven Western literary, filmic and musical texts in English.[32] She placed cardboard pieces cut in the shape of jigsaw-puzzle pieces on the ground and asked audience members to pick up one piece at a time, which would then trigger a specific text that she would perform. Eventually the words “collective memory” were revealed underneath the puzzle. The interactive performance was aimed “to involve the visitors and […] to make them navigate ‘the apparatus of the city’s memory.’”[33]

Poignant and challenging, Ana’s performance and the instruction to navigate it, however, underwent an unwitting twist by a little boy among the audience, who, not understanding English and undisciplined by the frame of this performance, conducted a parallel performance by placing, quite carefully in his own aesthetic order, pieces of green bristle grass he had been collecting, along the rim of the platform on which Ana was performing. The boy did respond to Ana’s recitation, if not to the content per se, as he slowed down, ducked, and steadied himself along the rhythm and volume of Ana’s voice (and was also careful not to interfere or block her) as he performed his own ritual. p The little boy had been secretly decorating the seating area with this grass for a while, adding his personal touch to the environment, driven not by external purposes but a pure desire to decorate, beautify, and simply have fun. Indeed, while the curators had appropriated and transformed the site for the event, the little boy—and many other participants—performed their own forms of “participation” on the spot. The loose programming in between performances and the overall friendly physical environment transformed by the curators—colorful hammocks and “benches” made with wooden boards across the columns—enabled people to casually socialize or play amongst themselves, not necessarily having to always connect with the “arts” in presentation. It was in this newly created condition, within which attendants felt comfortable enough to spontaneously engage and improvise modes of “relating” with others and the space that a specific kind of “participation” emerged. “Participation” in O collective Happening privileged the embodied and the relational—forming dialogues and intersubjectivity among people and between people and the space—as an experience unfolding over time. The experience encompassed not only the intellectual, but also the affective and the emotionally felt, as simultaneous and intertwined, uneven and complicated, and individuated and communal. What Franck and Stevens embraced in theorizing ‘loose space’—“possibility, diversity and disorder”—resonated strongly in O collective Happening.

In Search of the Sustainable, O

Echoing the spirit of O collective Happening as Francesca conceived it, more questions are “opened up” than tidily answered or “finished”. In retrospect, publicity was one big challenge. Although the event was well attended, participants were most often from the direct or extended circles of the curators and artists and the foreigners present were mainly study-abroad students.[34] This type of event had never taken place before and was not strictly attached to any corporate or official framework, the ‘trade-off,’ one might say, of the relative autonomy of bottom-up organizing was lack of support including publicity. However, the fact that the neighbors—mostly local Chinese senior citizens, some of them bringing their grandchildren—and workers on the site found the event interesting and stayed, forming momentary interactions with other participants, added unexpected diversity to the crowd and revealed other possibilities for the site and the questions it raised concerning “relations” between people and urban space. We might begin by asking: if for most urban residents, foreign and Chinese alike, the specific site is “strange” and “loosely” undefined, what is the space’s relationship to those who live nearby or work on this site?

Many people asked whether O collective Happening would continue. The curators themselves were uncertain about this. Was it just a one-time thing, what JJ referred to as the “instantaneous,” when placed in relation with the macro spatio-temporal conditions of urban existence and architectural monumentality, or does it endure in any way? This brings me to the question of “sustainability,” but rather than diving into the pragmatics surrounding the temporal duration of any event, such as fundraising and organizational structuring, I want to reflect on the conceptual entry points to the event itself. The slight difference between how JJ and the curators framed O collective Happening, yields insights into how we might envision the relation between human interaction in and with urban space, and sustainability.

Figure 9. O collective Happening. Photo by Nunu Kong.

First, is a “happening” instantaneous or durational? From JJ’s architectural perspective, it was “instantaneous,” and it was this instantaneity that seemed to perform a critical opposition to monumental permanence. Francesca, by contrast, was more concerned with “relations” that stem from human interactions and experiences, as participants and audiences encountered space and each other. “Relations,” are of the temporality of the durational; they are formed over time. When Francesca talked about the idea of the “moment” with a “limited time” for the happening, she was referring to a marker of duration rather than the shortness of timespan. Is an eight-hour event “instantaneous”? By what measure do we assign temporality to human energy, experience, relating, participation, and labor?

JJ’s concept of “instantaneity” could also be applied to the steel test model and facilitated a certain conception of “sustainability.” The information about the test model is also included in the public call for O collective Happening; it describes how the model is “built for the task, and dismantled when the task is over,” (jiyong jijian, yongwan jichai 即用即建, 用完即拆) and that to reuse it until its demolition is a way to “fill in the temporal and spatial void after an incidental happening” (in this case the seismic test), which may align with some concepts of “sustainability.”[35] If one takes a moment to probe underlying assumptions, it becomes more apparent that the way “sustainability” is conceived of in the public call places the “space” first; “space” as it is tied to the material it holds (the building), and it is when the space is emptied of its function based on its material holding, becoming the spatial void, that it in turn produces the temporal void. In other words, “sustainability” is conceived in terms of what happens to the space. O collective Happening functions as an event that fills in the “void” of this site.

What O collective Happening inspired me to search for, however, is “sustainability” in terms of engaging people in relation to the space. Both ways of conceiving “sustainability”—as whether or not a space still holds any material or performs any function, and how people are engaged in relation to their situation in space—entail spatio-temporal formulations, but the slight split in orientation at this point may lead to a greater difference in how we engage with the urban. If we seriously consider “sustainability” with these split orientations in an urban framework, we may begin to sense the greater divergence in their potential consequences: Is “sustainability” concerned with structures and materials (literally and metaphorically) in the city, or the people in relation to the city (and its structures and materials)? Moreover, which structures and materials, and which people? In question is also the way resistive politics is privileged and conceived through an oppositional paradigm. To frame a “happening” as “instantaneous,” overlooks and potentially undermines the creation of enduring “relations” that stem from the people, their experiences and efforts. If the “instantaneity” of a “happening” comes across as progressive in relation to architectural permanence, the underlying logic of this argument may have already sidelined or even neglected concern for human interactions.

Figure 10. O collective Happening, from left to right, Francesca Gotti, Lorenzo Malloni, Nunu Kong. Photo by Chiayi Seetoo

In searching for conceptualizations of urbanism that can provide a framework to consider more deeply how “participation”—as durational, human-centered activity and experience—relates to the urban, I find Lily Kong’s articulation illuminating. Kong has outlined the three-fold concept of sustainability for her study of urban creative space—environmental, cultural, and social—that articulates the centrality of human experience. Environmental sustainability concerns “sustainability of urban spaces as valuable repositories of human (personal and social) meaning and simultaneously as livable, rejuvenated spaces” (my emphasis).[36] From environmental sustainability stems cultural and social sustainability that privileges indigenous cultural idioms, local identity, social inclusion, and community bonds.[37] “Participation” that centers on durational, human-centered activity and experience in relation to urban space is an important foundation for a politics of urban sustainability that foregrounds sustained human meaning in their environmental, cultural, and social ramifications, so much more than filling in the “void” of the space or by its extension the potential tendency to privilege the maintenance of the structures and materials of the city.

While these questions are opened up by O collective Happening, the event was built on transient foundations. The appropriation of urban ‘loose space’ is inherently of the “temporary”; the steel structure had a temporary existence as well, although in service of another “sustainability”—seismic prevention—of the real monumentality, and we may contemplate the profound allegory it composes for the particular and accelerated urbanizing phenomenon of Shanghai and many other global cities. The art district “M50” exemplifies a more established model of bottom-up, spontaneous appropriation and creation of art space in urban Shanghai, although within the city’s “paradoxical simultaneity of (un)sustainability,” as Kong has also pointed out, it is surviving in precarity.[38] In the end, whether or not O collective Happening can endure in any way is like the real “O” itself, in suspension


(Open, zero, zen, collective, circle, embrace, bonding …)

[1] Relevant information about O collective Happening can be found on its event website; “O Collective Happening,” Event Website, accessed November 28, 2014, http://ocollectivehappening.weebly.com/.

[2] The neologism of “iNest” itself may evoke a range of associations, from Apple products (with the initial “i” and a certain creative class associated with it) to another iconic structure, the National Stadium in Beijing designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron for the Olympic Games in 2008. The Stadium’s interweaving steel beams locally earned it the nickname “Bird’s Nest” (niaochao). The naming was not particularly favored by the three curators of O collective Happening.

[3] Shanghai LANKE Building Damping Technology Co.

[4] All the performances and art pieces were solicited through an open call for proposals, except for the experimental music performance duo Yasen Vasilev and Christian Berg, who were invited by Francesca. The majority of the funds were spent on hiring workers to clean up the space, which was originally littered with construction debris and massive amounts of cords for the seismic test. Francesca, Lorenzo, and Nunu also did additional work to decorate and set up the space, such as installing “benches” made of wooden boards in between columns and creating a relaxing area hung with colorful hammocks.

[5] Karen A. Franck and Quentin Stevens, Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life (New York: Routledge, 2006), 28.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Cary Y. Liu, “Encountering the Dilemma of Change in the Architectural and Urban History of Shanghai,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 73, no. 1 (March 2014): 120.

[9] Liu, “Encountering the Dilemma of Change in the Architectural and Urban History of Shanghai.” See also Xuefei Ren, Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) and Weiping Wu and Piper Gaubatz, The Chinese City (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[10] Leslie Sklair, “Iconic Architecture in Globalizing Cities,” International Critical Thought 2, no. 3 (September 2012): 349.

[11] Sklair, “Iconic Architecture in Globalizing Cities.”

[12] Ibid.; Lily Kong, “Cultural Icons and Urban Development in Asia: Economic Imperative, National Identity, and Global City Status,” Political Geography 26 (2007): 383–404. The phenomenon of Lujiazui district is not simply architectural but a megaproject of urban boosterism and capitalist globalization entailing a vast designated zone in the urban landscape.

[13] Xuefen Ren, “Xintiandi: New Heaven and Earth,” in Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 110–23. Shikumen (“gates-wrapped-in-stone” in Shanghai dialect) is a popular style of housing built in colonial Shanghai blending western and Chinese features, such as slate-gray bricks, French windows, courtyards, stone gates, and stylistic arches at the front door. Households are linked together forming dense, long neighborhood lanes (lilong) that are representative of old Shanghai.

[14] Kong, “Cultural Icons and Urban Development in Asia: Economic Imperative, National Identity, and Global City Status.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lily Kong, “Making Sustainable Creative/Cultural Space in Shanghai and Singapore,” The Geographical Review 99, no. 1 (January 2009): 1–22. In the same text, Kong also articulates “the normative policy script” of “creative-economy strategy” that has captured official imaginations in Asia, taking shape in cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei, and Seoul. This was, in part, prompted by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and the need to seek alternative economic strategies. The abundance of monumental art spaces in Shanghai are a form of cultural capital for a global city and attest to how the regional circulation of the creative-economy script (whether directly official or not) has made its imprint on the urban landscape. The case of M50 shows the relevance but also the limits of Shanghai’s urban creative-economy script in enabling it to thrive.

[17] “Inside Out Photobooth Truck,” Close-Up in Shanghai by JR, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.jr-closeup.net/en/.

[18] “Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave,” Power Station of Art, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.powerstationofart.com/en/exhibition/detail/690kt.html.

[19] “R.A.W.! Land,” China Shanghai International Arts Festival, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.rawland.cn/EN/Project_2. R.A.W. stands for “Rising Artists’ Works,” a platform to present works by young and emerging Chinese and international artists.

[20] “The Wrinkles of the City by JR,” Gallery Magda Danysz, Shanghai-Paris, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.magda-gallery.com/en/wrinkles-city-jr; JR and Magda Danysz, The Wrinkles of the City: Shanghai (New York: Drago, 2011).

[21] “Dinghai Qiao: Art Practice into History,” The 1st PSA Emerging Curators Program, Power Station of Art, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.powerstationofart.com/en/exhibition/detail/719cuA.html.

[22] Jiajing Zhang, Interview with the author, June 30, 2014. The National Exhibition and Convention Center in Shanghai is collaboratively built by the Ministry of Commerce of China and Shanghai Municipal Government, scheduled to complete in 2015; “National Exhibition and Convention Center (Shanghai),” Official Website, accessed November 28, 2014, http://en.cecsh.com/index.aspx.“

[23] Zhang, Interview with the author.

[24] Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[25] Francesca Gotti, Interview with the author, November 9, 2014.

[26] For reference to happening in the vein of Allan Kaprow and the associated artists in New York in the 1950s, see Mariellen Sandford, ed., Happenings and Other Acts (London ; New York: Routledge, 1995).

[27] Gotti, Interview with the author. For reference to Guy Debord’s Situationist International, see Tom McDonough, ed., Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004). For reference to Careli’s “walkscapes,” see Francesco Careri, Walkscapes (Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili SL, 2002).

[28] “Call for Proposal, O Collective Happening,” May 2014. The call describes “performance forms such as theater, dance, music, and performance art and live participation and happening of visual arts forms such as photography, painting, and graffiti,” further encouraging “interdisciplinary artists and even amateur arts lovers to participate and create.”

[29] Xitai is different from “juchang” as “theater”; juchang refers more to modern theater arts or theater space often associated with the proscenium stage inside an auditorium.

[30] When I discussed with Nunu Kong the association I had of her piece, she expressed appreciation but also confessed that she did not intend any social commentary when she conceived the piece; Nunu Kong, Interview with the author, June 20, 2014. My perception was informed by the discourses I was exposed to, from recent police shootings of black subjects in the U.S., such as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, to perceptions of minority ethnicity in the context of China, to which I was new. A pronounced incident that linked “security” and ethnicity in China happened not long ago before O collective Happening. In March, 2014, a violent killing of civilians in Kunming railway station in Yunan Province, recognized by Chinese officials as organized crime by Xinjiang separatist terrorists, have added to the ways Uygur ethnicity in China have been perceived and profiled by the dominant Chinese Han ethnic imaginary, translated into a burst of all kinds of popular and intellectualized discourses circulated at the time; for reference to the incident, see for example, Celia Hatton BBC News and Beijing, “China Separatists Blamed for Attack,” BBC News, accessed December 2, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-26404566.

[31] In Francesca’s conception, teapots, teacups, pipes, incense burners, and bird cages represent Chinese “ritual,” which pertains to the concept and formation of memory; Francesca Gotti, Interview with the author, November 14, 2014. I felt differently about these objects, informed by my own hybrid cultural experience, including my experience and understanding of Chinese culture from my upbringing and ongoing encounters with Westerners’ imagination and perception of Chinese culture; there seemed to be a “Chinatown-ness” in these object that is also exotic and fascinating to me, in an endearing but also ironic way. Francesca’s abstract of this research exhibition states the intention “to free stereotypes around the image of the city, the communication between people and urban material, to play with the concepts of image, identity, history, language and start an understanding of the city with new eyes, judging less and leading more. Deconstructing the knowledge we have of these concepts, by de-contextualizing their visual translation, remixing, recomposing in an apparent random order which in fact reflects on the mind set with which we look at reality, the name we give to things, the meaning we decide for them in our context and in any other context,” in Francesca Gotti and Lorenzo Malloni, “Ritual Memory Icon, research exhibition,” 2014.

[32] Ana Martin Juste, “The Apparatus of the City’s Memory,” O Collective Happening Program, June 15, 2014. The texts range from “‘The God of the City’(Georg Heymn), ‘Citizens’ (Alfred Wolfenstein), ‘Traveling’ (Gottfried Benn), ‘I don’t know if history repeats itself’ (Yehuda Amichai) to the poetry slam ‘Fruit tea’ (Franziska Holzheimer), extracts from the Movie ‘Medianeras’ (Gustavo Taretto), song lyrics from a band called ‘Moop Mama’ who are dealing with for e.g. the video surveillance in the city and something self-written.”

[33] Ibid

[34] To the disappointment of the curators, although the event was under the framework of Tongji University, somehow no other Chinese students from Tongji showed up. It may be that channels for University-wide publicity were not utilized, or that Chinese students are not used to going to this kind of event, as Francesca speculated. WeChat, the preeminent mobile app of text messaging and social networking in China, turned out to be the most effective channel of publicity, although its relatively “closed” design (only allowing one to see posts and comments by people in one’s direct “friend circle”) may have also limited the potential for the publicity to circulate more broadly. Gotti, Interview with the author.

[35] “iNest Temporary Museum,” Event Website, O Collective Happening, accessed November 28, 2014, http://ocollectivehappening.weebly.com/40479313892002026102326542641539302-inest-temporary-museum.html.

[36] Kong, “Making Sustainable Creative/Cultural Space in Shanghai and Singapore,” 3.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 4–5.


“Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave.” Power Station of Art. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.powerstationofart.com/en/exhibition/detail/690kt.html.

“Call for Proposal, O Collective Happening,” May 2014.

Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes. Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili SL, 2002.

“Dinghai Qiao: Art Practice into History.” The 1st PSA Emerging Curators Program, Power Station of Art. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.powerstationofart.com/en/exhibition/detail/719cuA.html.

Franck, Karen A., and Quentin Stevens. Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Gotti, Francesca. Interview with the author, November 9, 2014.

Gotti, Francesca, and Lorenzo Malloni. “Ritual Memory Icon, Research Exhibition,” 2014.

“iNest Temporary Museum.” Event Website. O Collective Happening. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://ocollectivehappening.weebly.com/40479313892002026102326542641539302-inest-temporary-museum.html.

“Inside Out Photobooth Truck.” Close-Up in Shanghai by JR. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.jr-closeup.net/en/.

Jackson, Shannon. Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. New York: Routledge, 2011.

JR, and Magda Danysz. The Wrinkles of the City: Shanghai. New York: Drago, 2011.

Juste, Ana Martin. “The Apparatus of the City’s Memory.” O Collective Happening Program, June 15, 2014.

Kong, Lily. “Cultural Icons and Urban Development in Asia: Economic Imperative, National Identity, and Global City Status.” Political Geography 26 (2007): 383–404.

———. “Making Sustainable Creative/Cultural Space in Shanghai and Singapore.” The Geographical Review 99, no. 1 (January 2009): 1–22.

kong, nunu. Interview with the author, June 20, 2014.

Liu, Cary Y. “Encountering the Dilemma of Change in the Architectural and Urban History of Shanghai.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 73, no. 1 (March 2014): 118–36.

McDonough, Tom, ed. Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004.

“National Exhibition and Convention Center (Shanghai).” Official Website. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://en.cecsh.com/index.aspx.

News, Celia Hatton BBC, and Beijing. “China Separatists Blamed for Attack.” BBC News. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-26404566.

“O Collective Happening.” Event Website. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://ocollectivehappening.weebly.com/.

“RAW! Land.” China Shanghai International Arts Festival. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.rawland.cn/EN/Project_2.

Ren, Xuefei. Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Ren, Xuefen. “Xintiandi: New Heaven and Earth.” In Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China, 110–23. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Sandford, Mariellen, ed. Happenings and Other Acts. London ; New York: Routledge, 1995.

Sklair, Leslie. “Iconic Architecture in Globalizing Cities.” International Critical Thought 2, no. 3 (September 2012): 349–61.

“The Wrinkles of the City by JR.” Gallery Magda Danysz, Shanghai-Paris. Accessed November 28, 2014. http://www.magda-gallery.com/en/wrinkles-city-jr.

Wu, Weiping, and Piper Gaubatz. The Chinese City. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Zhang, Jiajing. Interview with the author, June 30, 2014.

Author Bio

Chiayi Seetoo holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Shanghai Theatre Academy. Seetoo’s research interest lies at the intersections of dance and modernity, development, and inter-Asian relationships. Her book manuscript on contemporary dance and Taiwan in transnational perspective is in preparation. Her second research project concerns independent and avant-garde dance and performance in postsocialist China. Seetoo has also worked extensively in the performing arts as organizer, dramaturge, choreographer, performer, writer, translator, and stage hand, often playing several roles at the same time.

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