3 Years: Arrow Factory, Pauline J. Yao, Rania Ho and Wang Wei, Sternberg Press, Berlin 2011 (200 pp, $ 25)
When an Armenian craftsmen, who has actively produced for the last 40 years in my neighborhood, offered me and my friend his small workshop space on a top floor for us to continue our research-based art and design activities, I had in mind the speed urban transformation process currently happening in Istanbul and the question of …until when we may all resist, with our DIY, collective and shared space practice. Sharing the trans-local practices, finding other ways of collaboration, and disseminating knowledge in art and design are the most important and needed practices today in our cities. As global cities experience continuous transformation into neoliberal architectural and urban production, the cultural production of the city becomes a tool to face this change. The existence and the role of artist-run spaces and related art initiatives in these cities become more important, in order not to depend on the rising art markets or the privatization of the city. Cultural policy is becoming simply a tool for the neoliberal municipal governmentality, in which the constellations of the cultural infrastructures are re-organized. Establishing and sustaining local initiatives that have an expanding rhizomatic network reproduces local dynamics. Emancipatory practices are becoming more and more important in these contemporary urban conditions.
The 3 Years: Arrow Factory book, recently published by Sternberg Press, covers three years of activity of the Chinese Arrow Factory collective, and includes several texts discussing and relating issues of artistic collective practices in urban space. Arrow Factory is an artist initiative space established by three artists/curators Rania Ho, Wang Wei and Pauline J. Yao. Following the overwhelming expansion of the Beijing art market and the phenomenon of the Olympic stadium, Arrow Factory debuted in 2008 as an artist-run-space in a Beijing neighborhood hutong storefront. Edited by the collective's founders, the book is partially funded through grants from Arts Network Asia [ANA] and other sources. 3 Years: Arrow Factory serves as a map of ideas and an archive, connecting discussions and artworks on the diverse realities of the city's fabric, territories and industries. Divided into three sections — Site, Situation and Sphere —, the book reveals an alternative cultural production in response to the city. A site-located space rather than a site-specific one; an ephemeral artistic practice that permeates everyday life and artistic production, rather than an institutional urban practice; an everyday practice in which the audience and artist are dissolved in each other, representing more than a collaborative, socially engaged art practice… These are the operative aspirations of this artist-run-space, situated in an area of the city currently under pressure, revealing the multiple stratifications of recent urban conditions. How can such artistic initiatives resist the proliferation of neoliberal urban production, while simultaneously remaining independent? This is one of the main issues when reflecting on the emancipatory role of such spaces.
China's situation is similar to other non-western urban realities; co-editor and Arrow Factory co-initiator Pauline J. Yao explains the Chinese condition: "…the legacy of anti-institutional practices that we most readily associate with contemporary art in the West barely exists in the Chinese context; if anything, it represents a conundrum for artists who strive to maintain a critical stance while supporting the aim of mainstream acceptance'. The process of reconciling these two goals—of gaining entry into hitherto closed institutions locally while at the same time maintaining an "outsider" or "anti-establishment" aesthetic or political position in the eyes of the global community—produces a tension that underlies artistic production in China, just as it does in many other developing art centers. (in You, P., "A Game Played Without Rules Has No Losers", E-Flux journal)
Arrow Factory signals the creation of a new community, not only inside their neighborhood circle but also in a trans-local circle. Local people, artists, international visiting artists, other artist-run spaces from different parts of the world have found in Arrow Factory perspective and ideas. The book surveys the art projects and events that took place at Arrow Factory, and interviews city dwellers that follow and collaborate with the small hutong. Artist and critic Kenneth Lum discusses and illustrates the Arrow Factory space through the lens of the transformation of the typical Chinese hutong storefront space, traditionally a shared and collective space. Lum's perspective shows how collective and shared spaces with a traditional social past are changing in the midst of current urban and cultural transformation.
The book reveals Arrow Factory's last three years as a combination of layered and mixed-use art forms — process-based, collaborative and discursive. Projects like "Rooftop Walking & Going Up and Step Down" share the gesture of everyday life in the hutong roofs. The collective "Xijung Men's Xijung Olympics" is an autonomously organized Olympics with ironical actions in a local space. Projects like "Arrow Factory Bakeshop" or "Vive La Différence," a collaboration with a family-run tailor shop initiated by artist Ni Haifeng, express and amplify the local economic networks while also referring to a larger informal structure in the urban environment.
3 Years: Arrow Factory reveals, in the local area of 38 Jianchang Hutong and in Arrow Factory's practice, more than just a neighborhood engagement project or a socially-engaged art practice; an "urban place" producing trans-local objects and networks, dissemination and knowledge of urban everyday life.