The17
TOURS / CITY-TO-CITY / BEIJING China

Surrounding Jiuxianqiao Market

Day One: 14 August 2009

In Beijing. Been invited here to take part in a performance art festival. The full title of this festival is the 10th Open International Performance Art Festival. To my ears and imagination this sounds like something from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. Back then I loved seeing news reports from China featuring thousands of Chinese students in identical Mao suits and caps all brandishing the Little Red Book of their Great Leader’s thoughts. I was somewhat disappointed (but not surprised) to find that the organisers of this festival had dispensed with the suits and caps of their parents’ generations and were wearing T-shirts, jeans and trainers just like every other youngish person in the world. And there was not a single copy of the Thoughts Of Chairman Mao to be seen, just international art magazines that you can get anywhere. Also, in reality, the festival was referred to as just ‘Open’.

Back to what I am doing here. The performance that I have planned to instigate is to be a performance by The17. If you do not already know, The17 is a choir, but a choir that is made up of different singers each time it performs. And the singers do not have to be singers. And what they sing does not have to be song in any sort of traditional or musical sense, although it can be. But not here in Beijing.

The performance by The17 in Beijing is part of the choir’s Coast-to-Coast and City-to-City world tours (2008–2012). The main score for Beijing is a large-scale one called Surround. This score has already been performed earlier in 2009 by 100 local residents of the English county town of Northampton. Each of the 100 participants of The17 stood 50 metres apart on the five-kilometre circumference of a circle that surrounded the centre of Northampton. And right at the centre of the circle, where my compass point got stuck in the map, is what used to be the Northampton Fishmarket but is now a public art space. The majority of the 100 people taking part in Northampton were contemporary-art friendly, the whole event was sponsored by the Fishmarket gallery. The performance was simple enough, starting with a designated member of The17 calling out ‘Way-ho’ at the top of his voice to their clockwise neighbour 50 metres away. The neighbour then passing on the cry to her clockwise neighbour, and so on. And once the cries of ‘Way-ho’ had made their way all the way around the circle five times the performance was considered complete.

The plan for Beijing was to replicate the performance done in Northampton exactly but with a choir made up of 100 local residents of Beijing on a five-kilometre circle surrounding an area of the city called 798. Open is based at the heart of this 798 area. Twenty years ago 798 was a sprawling industrial estate where the Chinese Government, in partnership with the East German Government (DDR), made arms to sell tyrants, despots and struggling left-wing insurgencies the world over.

Things change, walls crumble and the artistic output of a nation is now seen as a positive plus when it comes to the promotion of your country on the global stage, almost up there with winning Olympic gold medals. Before I got here 798 sounded an exciting place to be. I had read some time ago about this new generation of young Chinese artists (YCAs), who left our Brit Art lot, the YBAs, standing in the creating-a-sensation front, and how these YCAs had moved into the derelict former arms factories to make and exhibit their work.

But things keep changing. The day before yesterday I arrived here, to discover that 798 is no longer a hotbed of underground artists making work to challenge the world, but a state-sanctioned hypermarket for art: Shoreditch meets Bluewater. All kinds of art, from the trashiest to the work of international art mega stars, was on offer. I do not have a problem with the buying and selling of art (well, maybe sometimes), but here in 798 it is being done in such a way that what ever the impetus that drove the artist to make their work is somehow obliterated and the work is left neutered and gasping for air in the heat, humidity and smog of this Beijing summer.

Yesterday I felt uncomfortable with things. I did not want to sully the pristine, if somewhat naive, idealism of The17 with a performance in the heart of whatever this beast is – especially when I learnt that the folk making up The17 would be drawn from 798 ‘art workers’ and cruisers of the international art market.

Something had to be done, so I went for a walk. And on my walk I discovered a massive sprawling run-down market whose full name in English, I have subsequently learnt, is the Jiuxianqiao Decorative Building Materials market. It was every bit as big as 798, and no longer just sold decorative building materials. Everything that could be bought and sold was being, except contemporary art. There were hundreds and hundreds of stalls, each a small family-run affair. This, I decided, would be the ideal place for The17, and the members of the choir would be drawn from the market stallholders. But instead of them performing on a perfect five-kilometre circle each 50 metres apart, they would stay put at their stall and the ‘Way-ho’ cry would wend its way up and down, back and forth, zig and zagging the ramshackle tightly packed lanes of the market.

Earlier today I set out to recruit 100 of these market stallholders to be members of The17. When I say I, I mean I went along with Zhang Rui, who is a 21-year-old English language student and volunteer worker for Open. As I found it difficult to pronounce her name, she insisted I call her Monica, and explained that when they learnt English at school, they all choose an English name for themselves. So from now on it will be Monica, although I feel somewhat crap about not using her real name. But back to the story – Monica was more than my interpreter, she took to the job with zeal and commitment. I just stood back grinning like a useless white man as she tackled each new market stallholder. Each of her sales pitches took about ten minutes. I had no idea what she was actually telling them. If I detected a smile breaking out on the face of a costermonger, I knew she had them. Of course not all agreed to take part. Why should they? Would you? Those who did agree, she asked to sign their names in my notebook and told them the performance was to begin at noon tomorrow. I would then take a head and shoulders photo of them using my mobile phone, spray the number 17 on the ground in front of their stall, using a cardboard stencil.

That heat and humidity of the Beijing summer relentless, hour after hour we toiled on from stall to stall. I poured sweat and questioned my wisdom but Monica kept on going, her smile never fading her zeal undiminished. But by late afternoon when the stallholders were beginning to pack up for the day we still only had 54 signed up for the performance and the battery in my mobile was flat.

Monica and I agreed to make an early start of it in the morning. We still had to get 46 willing recruits to The17 before the performance began at noon. I am filled with a sense of almost certain failure. Once again I feel I’ve taken on far more than I can achieve just out of some misplaced bravado.

Day Two: 15 August 2009

We met early at the gates as planned. Monica is full of confidence, I’m all for compromising the score and settling for far fewer than the 100 choristers required. She is having none of it. Yesterday it was stalls selling building supplies, fruit and veg, clothes and kitchenware. Today it is wholesale soft drinks, cigarettes, dead meat and live fish.

At the meat counter pig carcasses are being hacked up. Everything from the snouts to the curly tails are being sold off with plenty of spare ribs inbetween. In the fish section, tanks of barely alive carp and catfish are gasping their last. Lobsters try to make their escape. Everywhere there are flies and the stench of death but above it all rises the good-natured banter of the stallholders.

Monica keeps going and I keep tagging along behind her, stencilling a 17 on the ground in front of each willing stallholder and then taking the snaps on my mobile. With less than 20 minutes to go before the performance is due to start, we have barely got 80 signed up members of the Beijing 17. And still there are a few hundred yards between where we are and where the ‘Way-ho’ has to connect back to the starting point. Then we bump into a gang of casual labourers, who are hanging around the building supply section of the market, in the hope of getting a day’s work. They all want to get involved, and willingly sign up. The fact that Monica is a cute 21-year-old must be a bit of an incentive for them I think. This makes 99, so Monica volunteers to be the 100th member of the Beijing 17.

We had just time for a tea at the ramshackle market café and meet up with my colleague John Hirst. He had been out and about, doing his best impression of a National Geographic photographer. He could hardly fail with the richness of subject matter on hand.

So it was back to stallholder number one, immediately inside the large and ornate gates of the Jiuxianqiao Decorative Building Materials market. We had to remind him how the cry went and then it was off. From stall to stall the cry of ‘Way-ho’ wound its way up and down, back and forth, zig and zagging the narrow lanes. We travelled with it, egging on the reluctant and shy, holding back the over-zealous and, as you might expect, we were adopted by a growing bunch of kids, all wanting to get in on the act/join in the performance. It took almost an hour for the cry to get all the way round, back to where it had started.

The performance complete, I wanted to collapse like an Olympic runner after the 10,000 metres. Instead I had to head back to the Open HQ in 798 area where I was to give a talk about The17 and what my performance at this year’s Open festival was all about. There was no point in me trying to give an intellectual rationale for this performance by The17. If I had, I would have ended going up my own arse.

Afterwards I had to face the obvious displeasure of one of the festival’s main organisers. She thought what I had done was a complete negation of my responsibilities, as none of those who had come to the festival to specifically take part or at least witness ‘my’ performance were given the chance to. I did not respond well to her chastisements and said things that I now regret saying. But I did attempt to make the case that all those in the market who had taken part or witnessed the performance, might have got more from it than those who have already bought into the idea of a performance art festival. She then took another tack – I should have at least invited the photographers and journalists who are covering the festival for the Chinese press and the international art media. Her main thrust was that while I might not want the exposure, the festival needs it. Maybe she had a point, but not one that I was going to acknowledge. I told her that I would write up what I had done, and that it will be published somewhere and in that way a wider audience will, if not hear, at least imagine the performance and know about the festival.

It is now dark and the mosquitoes are out in force and I am sitting at a roadside café with a bottle of Yanjing Beer and these notes all but done. Tomorrow I will be up early to do my IMAGINE WAKING UP TOMORROW & ALL MUSIC HAS DISAPPEARED graffiti. Daubing walls with words and statements is something I have been driven to do since my late teens in the early 1970s. The aesthetic content has never been that important to me in this ongoing urge, nor has there ever been a particular political agenda. It has always just been household paint, a broad brush and words that somehow seemed important to me at the time. On a number of occasions I have found myself in court trying to justify my actions, but the fines and threats of further punishment have never been enough to thwart the urge to see my words writ large one more time. As for the IMAGINE WAKING UP… one, I have done it now in a number of places and in several languages, but this will be the first time using non-European letters. Monica had translated the statement into Chinese characters for me. I have already bought the white paint and brush for the graffiti at the market. I wonder how the Chinese authorities deal with foreign graffiti vandals?