Interior, Dacheng Flour Factory
Courtesy Shenzhen Biennale Interior, Dacheng Flour Factory

In all the rush of year-end reports and reviews, I have not yet had a chance to blog on the 2015 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, “Re-Living the City,” which I co-curated with Hubert Klumpner, Alfredo Brillembourg, and Doreen Heng Liu, and which opened the beginning of December in a former factory in the port area of that city.

The process of assembling this exhibition was not an easy one. Coordination between four curators on three different continents with busy schedules was complex. It reminded me of the importance of being in one place together, no matter how much clearer Skype conversations are these days. The organization in Shenzhen that takes care of the Biennale is small and not proficient, certainly compared with the team I worked with when I curated the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008. 

Left to right: Aaron Betsky, Hubert Klumpner, Alfredo Brillembourg, and Doreen Heng Liu were the curators of the 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture in Shenzhen, China.
Courtesy Shenzhen Biennale Left to right: Aaron Betsky, Hubert Klumpner, Alfredo Brillembourg, and Doreen Heng Liu were the curators of the 2015 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture in Shenzhen, China.


What was most difficult, however, is the fact that standards are different in China. My friends who had worked as architects and designers had warned me about some of the issues, but I was still not prepared for how complex the situation was. It started with the contract, which took three months to re-write into English, but still contained provisions that were strange to us, such as the fact that the taxes would be set on the date of payment (although we managed to insert a range). Then, every time we thought we had filled out all the necessary paperwork so that we could be paid, we were told there was more yet to be done, or we had not completed the previous ones in the right manner. I was not reimbursed for any travel until right before the opening, more than a year after my first trip.

Exterior, Dacheng Flour Factory
Courtesy Shenzhen Biennale Exterior, Dacheng Flour Factory

Venue renovation proposal
Courtesy Shenzhen Biennale Venue renovation proposal

When I arrived on site, I found the former Dacheng Flour Factory—which is being partially renovated and partially torn down as part of a (mediocre, in my opinion) plan by OMA for housing, offices, retail, and a new ferry terminal—still almost a ruin. After having curated exhibitions and run museums for 20 years, I am used to last-minute work, but this was an extreme situation. Not only that, but working conditions were abysmal, with one of the exhibitors going home because he was coughing up orange dust. There were no spray booths, I saw little or no protective clothing, and the amount of dust was horrific. Conditions for the local construction workers seemed even worse. The head of the Biennale’s organization, who was pregnant, refused to come to the site.

Finally, I found that the Biennale had agreed to exhibitions we curators knew nothing about, while a few weeks before the opening one of the main sponsors took over the space we had designed for education activities, forcing us to find a smaller, more out-of-the-way location. The line between sponsored and curated content was sometimes difficult to find.
The one issue that concerned all of us as curators, but which did not impact the Biennale heavily, was political censorship. Only one of the exhibitions—a banner created by the Dutch group Crimson Architectural Historians that contained images of last year’s Hong Kong protests—was covered over, although in my personal opinion Crimson, who announced that the exhibition would be censored pro-actively, made the act (which I was never able to have confirmed) part of its display.
For a Biennale that sought to offer tactical answers to the imposition of order and form by outside forces on our daily lives, I cannot say that we were particularly successful in doing so in the exhibition itself. What we did manage to accomplish was the renovation of the Dacheng Flour Factory, a beautiful, concrete structure filled with immense spaces and potential, as well as the assembly of more than 9 projects from around the world that show ways in which we can relive the city. I will talk more about those in the next blog—or you can see for yourself, as the Biennale runs through Feb. 28, and sports an array of lectures, symposia, and design charrettes organized by Jason Hilgefort and Merve Bedir.

What I learned from this process is perhaps a cliché, but a hard-learned one. It is that real places with real people also have real laws, real traditions, and real modes of action. These lead to real conditions and directly affect the reality of what you see and do there. Visit Shenzhen, and you feel as if you could be anywhere. Gliding along its avenues, staying in its hotels, meeting in its offices, and even eating in its restaurants is no different an experience than doing so in Singapore or Los Angeles. Work there and try to make an exhibit about the place, and you realize you are in China, where different standards apply.