Yongwoo Lee speaks on Shanghai Project 2016

Yongwoo Lee speaks on Shanghai Project 2016

Tokyo University of the Arts

Courtesy of the International Biennale Association.
September 12, 2015
Yongwoo Lee speaks on Shanghai Project 2016

Lecture: Thursday 17 September 2015, 18h

International House of Japan
Auditorium, Annex 2F
5-11-16 Roppongi
Minato-ku, Tokyo


As part of its Global Art Lecture series, Tokyo University of the Arts is honored to have art theoretician and curator Yongwoo Lee speak publicly on the concept of the upcoming Shanghai Project 2016. Over the last 30 years, he has organized exhibitions and initiated the Biennale to present the Aesthetics of the Difference internationally while reexamining and curating exhibitions related to discourses of visual culture as a social practice connecting art.

Yongwoo Lee is currently the executive director of Shanghai Himalayas Museum. He has also been the president of the IBA (International Biennale Association) since 2014. He was the founding director and Artistic Director of the Gwangju Biennale and served as the president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation from 2008–14. He has also been the editorial director of the critical art journal NOON since 2009. His published books on new media art and audience studies include Nam June Paik (Samsung Publication), Origins of Video Art (Munye Madang), and Information and Reality (Fruitmarket Gallery Edinburgh). He was a professor of art history and visual culture at Korea University and has lectured at universities across the States and in Europe. He obtained his PhD in art history at Oxford University.

Shanghai Project

The proposal
The Shanghai Project is a hybridized international art festival that brings together a team of culture and arts researchers in various genres, from contemporary art and film to architecture, design and performance, to produce exhibitions, performances, lecture series, public discussions and publication projects. It is a cultural forum in which the civil society of Shanghai, one the largest cities in the world—numbering 30 million residents, a state size—can speak, participate, discuss and relate to one another in the name of culture and art. Set to take place every two years, it may also be seen to foreshadow the 21st century form of a composite biennale: a multidisciplinary research project that takes both a micro and macroscopic look into the attributes of today’s megacities, which have been dressed up as mix of all types—the economic city, the cultural city, the educational city—while ceaselessly transforming into a global city-state.

The Shanghai Project is a window into the creative dynamism of the city, which, following its rise as a great economic city for the past 30 years, is now slowly transforming into a contemporary cultural hub. At the same time, it is also a research project that jointly searches for alternatives to the ugly faces inevitably exposed in the process of the rise of global megacities, beginning with Shanghai. The researchers participating in this project will be composed of 12 teams of a broad spectrum of professionals, artists, and members of civil society gathered from the global village. The results of their research and discussions will be presented to global citizens through exhibitions, performances, and research texts.

The Shanghai project distinguishes itself from what has become the grand narrative of biennales and international art events. Rather than being centered purely on the arts, it is an arts project that simultaneously incorporates diverse genres and interacts as a hybrid. Armed with elaborate critical theories and concepts, the multidisciplinary approach of the Shanghai Project is one progressive step away from jus sanguinis and elitist cultural field perspectives and slogans. In particular, the goal is to make public and put into action the thoughts and suggestions of program participants and the audience, rather than focusing on city showcases or exhibitionism. Iit is an active attempt to escape international events fatigue by breaking away from the redundancy and similarity seen in recent global festivals and events.

Instead of seeing these efforts to expand the current exhibition field as a political gesture, it is more meaningful to see the project as a way to modify and intervene in the talking points arising from culture and art on the new values and methods of a rapidly spreading information society. Hence, in place of the biennale form that has been in use for the last 120 years, the Shanghai Project can be seen as a discussion forum broadly construed for the conditions and discourses of one of the world’s largest megacities.

The name
Instead of using a novel term, the Shanghai Project invokes the properties of continuity and persistence characteristic of the research project. The project highlights process rather than completeness, setting as its goal the multitude rather than the individua; rather than political or social control and management, it emphasizes creative planning and operation. While the Shanghai Project is a name, it is also a discussion premised on popular unity and solidarity, and is suggestive of a philosophical direction. In this way, the Shanghai Project is a platform to build a foundation to build citizen-centered culture and arts program, through popular participation.

It should be pointed out that in the past 30 years parts of culture and art have already been commercialized and hybridized. But rather than diagnosing and critiquing this in a self-righteous manner through ideological viewpoints, we need to make public both the means and path of selection. However, to be sure, the Shanghai Project is a means to propose a bold and distinct research path in opposition to the tacit and consensual agreement that has overseen the decline of genres lacking marketability over the last 30 years. The Shanghai Project will be a means of bringing this new path to life.

The composition 
The Shanghai Project is a major financial beneficiary of the Zendai Group, a private Shanghai corporation, and is financially and operationally supported by the Shanghai city and Pudong governments and related public institutions. The home organization and operations institution of the Shanghai Project is the Shanghai Himalayas Museum, which houses its administrative offices.

This kind of practice is being launched not as a regional hegemonic form led by individual groups, but rather as a platform to open up multiple paths of participation. In particular, the roots and inspiration for this project stem from cultural and political discourses rethinking and reinvestigating the identity of Shanghai which has suddenly exploded into a megacity in the last thirty years. Not unlike looking at one’s mirror image, it will present an illuminating example of the shared will to urbanization that can be observed in many parts of the global village.

Naming the participants
In order to maximize the possibilities of research and communication, and to distinguish it from other culture and arts events, we have refrained from using existing titles commonly used by such event organizers. In addition, we designate all participants as “researchers.” This is, on the one hand, to distinguish the Shanghai Project from existing shows or exhibitions, performances, lecture series, etc. On the other, it is to reject the abuse of cultural power associated with many of these existing titles. Thus, the title of researcher, operating as the ethical platform of the Shanghai Project, will be consistently used, applied equally to everyone including artists, scholars, organizers, etc.

The composition of researchers
Each team of researchers will be composed of ten people from both Shanghai and abroad. Researchers of each team will be selected from curators, authors, architects, filmmakers, designers, performance artists, scholars, and other members of society. On the basis of the proposed title of the Shanghai Project, these researchers will develop an expansive conversation, and the discourse and topics produced by these teams will form the basis for a synthetic discussion forum. Such research results will be reflected in various exhibitions, shows, performances, and publications. Moreover, writings and other textual work will be published in serial form in the Shanghai Project catalogue.

A team moderator from among the ten researchers will be designated to lead the event’s administration and group. The moderator will be positioned as the central organizer of each team, responsible for ensuring the smooth operational progress of the project. In this way, event organization specialists will be distributed amongst the teams in a balanced manner.

Shanghai research
Shanghai is a mirror with which to examine both Chinese and world history. Although Shanghai literally means “over the sea,” it is an exquisite region where the land is offered to the sea and the sea is offered to land. Shanghai is without a doubt a breathless site of Chinese and world history from the 19th to the 21st century. At the same time, Shanghai is like a mirror that allows us to glimpse into key domestic transformations within China. The Shanghai Project looks at and examines Shanghai from the place of this fused amalgam. One of the most marked features of Shanghai’s transformation into both a megacity and an economic city is the influx of new city dwellers, or the new Shanghainese. While the growth of nomadic urbanite migrants and immigrants are a common element of great cities worldwide, the information revolution owing to scientific advance has accelerated this phenomenon. Historically, in all of the megacities formed from rapid economic growth, there reside new city dwellers who have laid claim to the city. Rather than a retrospective civil society that stresses memory, the new city dwellers are both much more optimistic and future-oriented. However, there are also those intellectuals and producers who look back on the Shanghai that is lost, critical of the megacity, luxury residences, the average rise in income, and the situation abroad. The Shanghai Project will employ these two positions to rethink Shanghai’s roots.


Yongwoo Lee on Shanghai Project 2016 as part of the Global Art Lecture series at Tokyo University of the Arts

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