Sprawling over a city of 20 million, the second Shanghai eArts Festival took art to the masses in a brave experiment with new technologies and new environments. Over 150 international and local artists showed digital works in this month-long event.
Cleverly picking the autumn, the best season to be in Shanghai, with little rain, snow or tropical heat, the organisers took electronic arts outside, into the parks, rivers, squares and shopping centres of the city with most work staged in Shanghai’s districts of Xuhui, Yangpu and Pudong (for Londoners think Oxford Circus, Battersea and Canary Wharf). The opening ceremony was a huge event with massive screens featuring artists’ works sited on a temporary wharf built jutting into a river in Pudong New District. At the same time, the neon signage in central Xujiahui, one of the city’s top shopping areas, was also taken over: imagine Times Square being devoted to artists for a few evenings.
Now in its second year, the annual Shanghai eArts Festival has become a phenomena in itself, a multidisciplinary, multiplatform, multivenue showcase of local and international artworks, here in the world’s largest communist entrepôt. Predominantly funded and supported under the auspices of the Propaganda Bureau of the Shanghai Communist Party Central Committee, its approach differs significantly from Beijing’s more dogmatic, nationalist stance when organising similarly large events. Shanghai tends to be the country’s window on the world, while Beijing deals with China’s domestic, internal issues. During the Olympics, Shanghai was instructed to keep a low profile, but now that the games are over, the city has the green light to extol its virtues. Missing during eArts was any spirit of the nascent nationalism that tends to prevail in Beijing. Historically, Shanghai is a more international city, and the common citizenry are more tolerant and open-minded towards, and interested in, arts and culture projects. Throughout the festival, large crowds of workers, families and everyday people attended external performances en masse, tolerantly sitting through hours of electronic beeps, squeals, extended feedback and eyeball blistering visuals.
Highlighting Shanghai’s move towards the avant-garde, a sad, extremely dark, performance by Aaajiao, seemingly based on Japanese film The Ring with hints of Macbeth, was attended by a crowd of several hundred people who live in the nearby community, including migrant workers, grannies, casual park visitors, and others. As two dancers simulated a fight, the crowd became excited, some even re-enacting the scene. Visually, the experience seemed more about watching the crowd’s reaction to the fight than watching the work itself.
While the outdoor events were a highlight, static venues, such as the Museum of Science and Technology, were also used. The installations here came from a mixed group of local and international artists. The 3D works La Dispersion du fils, by Jean Michel Bruyer, and Place-Hampi, by a group of foreign artists led by Jeffrey Shaw, proved most successful, with the perfect mix of interactivity and art that Shanghai crowds love. And one local journalist who spent half an hour with the installations by Ulf Langheinrich told me she felt she was having hallucinations afterwards.
In some ways the eArts Festival is a dry run for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, on which the Shanghai government will spend billions of dollars. The World Expo will last six months, with thousands of events planned: “The economic and cultural version of the Olympics,” as one government official told me. Fittingly, during eArts, some artists were housed in their own Olympic-style villages – purpose built complexes, one of which was reportedly put up in only a week. And also with echoes of the summer games, for some of the more remote events, students were bussed in by the government to help create a crowd.
Due to the sprawling nature of the programme, with dozens of events daily at widely diverse locations, it was impossible to attend even a small part of what eArts had to offer. A highlight for me was Christian Marclay’s screenplay, performed in the open air venue at Xuhui Park. It was interpreted by three different sets of sound artists – Elliot Sharp, Top Floor Circus and Ben Houge. Of the three, local punk band Top Floor Circus stood out with their fascinating interpretation of Marclay’s visuals in a series of Chinese songs, riffs and sound bites, with the band’s entertaining performance proving a real crowd pleaser.
Preparation and communication seemed key in the works that proved successful, as others seemed to be overcome by the scale, technical issues or cultural misunderstandings. The majority of the foreign artists appeared old hands, familiar with the technical issues facing new media, and were able to smoothly deal with issues such as sub-standard equipment, or just no equipment. They tuned their work to meet the specific locations, and seamlessly provided functioning versions to the large crowds. Many of the younger artists’ work appeared weaker, struggling to cope with the scale of the performances – probably what had seemed cool in their bedrooms or studios didn’t translate immediately to stadium scale, and they lacked the technical support so vital in new media work. Hopefully the experience this year will help them for future works, especially the knowledge gained by cooperating with the more seasoned operators who flew in from Europe, Japan and the US.