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Inside I: Project Space
A chat with the founders of BJ's newest hutong gallery about 798 alternatives, international exchange, and post-internet aesthetics...
By Nov 13, 2014 Arts
I: Project Space (pronounced "ee" project space, like 艺术的艺) is the latest in Beijing's growing world of hutong mini-galleries challenging the hegemony of commercially-oriented zones like 798 and Caochangdi, and providing a centralized, easy-access alternative to the more experiment-friendly but extremely far-flung communities in Heiqiao and Songzhuang. Like IFP and Intelligentsia Gallery, I: Project Space is run by a few plugged-in expats looking to use non-salable art as a platform for cultural exchange. In this case, it's young German curators Antonie Angerer and Anna Eschbach, who relocated to Beijing in May after receiving their Master's degrees, and had I: Project up and running in under two months.

I: Project Space's second group show, Dì 地儿, opened this past weekend, with a solid crowd filling up the gallery's Beixinqiao hutong courtyard. Dì 地儿 is a "group group show" featuring the work of three separate collectives, a welcomed "intervention" in which Annelie and Anna invited artists to critically assess the space and its potentials. I sat down with I: Project's founders to talk about their two exhibits to date, where they fit within Beijing's alternative hutong micro-gallery network, how such galleries can function as conduits of international exchange, and aesthetics in the post-internet age:


SmartBeijing: So let's start with basics... Who are you? Where are you coming from? How long have you been in Beijing?

Anna: We're both from Germany. My name is Anna and my background is more art historical and curatorial. We studied together in Tübingen, at the University of Art History.

Antonie: My name is Antonie, I'm also from Germany. I studied Chinese Studies and Art History for the last few years. I've also been on and off in Beijing, worked in the art scene [here]. We came to Beijing at the end of May and opened this space in the middle of August.

SmBJ: That's a pretty quick turnaround. Did you already have the idea to open the gallery when you moved here? What were your ideas going in, and what was your process of finding a space?

Antonie: We actually decided one year ago that we wanted to do this after graduating with our Masters degree. When we came to Beijing at the end of May we found a company to get the legal stuff sorted out. The concept and the promotion of the space actually happened already, before we came here, and then we came here and it took us a month and a half to find this space. We wanted to have a space where we could do exhibitions but also have an artist-in-residence program. And we don't have a big budget, so it took us some time. After a month and a half we found this space, and we had to renovate it by ourselves. And then we opened in August.

SmBJ: Why did you choose a hutong location as opposed to somewhere in the more established or commercial art zones like 798 and Caochangdi?

Anna: For us, art is very much about dialogue with people, to raise awareness of specific topics and get people engaged in what you are doing. So for us to go to a place like 798 didn't make any sense. We wanted to be in the city center, where things are happening. And because we have an artist-in-residence program, it's much more interesting to be in the center of the city. We have a very small studio for the artists; the artists that come to us are artists that work in genres where you don't have to have a huge studio. More research-based projects.

Antonie: I think it's kind of weird that the whole art scene is in these really closed communities in Beijing, far outside [of the city center]. Art is something that really has to do with the contemporary development of the city, of society, and should be in exchange with it. So for us it was really important to bring this art into the center. Because we're non-profit, and we don't sell, and we're a small space, it's also something that we can do in the city. I think commercial galleries need huge showrooms that are very easily accessible. [This space] is for a different audience.

SmBJ: Where does the funding for I: Project Space come from, then? Are you funding it yourselves? Do you get some kind of stipend or cultural funding?

Antonie: Well, we're still really young, so… [laughs] In Germany we founded something called a Verein, like an association or something, maybe a support group...

Anna: It's a super German concept. [laughs] But for us it's very interesting, because in Germany there are a lot of art institutions funded by so-called "Vereiner". You can become a member of this group, and then you can support exhibitions or events or projects you want to realize. On the other hand, we are applying for cultural funding for our artist-in-residence program and exhibitions.

Antonie: Also working together with other cultural institutions. It's just starting. I think we will be able to have it fully funded soon.

SmBJ: Going back to this idea of engaging with the city-center or hutong community… It seems there's been a trend in the last year or so of these galleries, like Intelligentsia, Flicking Forehead, and IFP — which has been around a bit longer — all of these gallery spaces opening in these small courtyard or hutong apartment spaces. Where does I: Project Space fit in to this network?

Antonie: Well, we came here [already planning] to open a space, so we didn't really know that these other spaces also existed. And we're really happy that they do, because the more you have, the more you can connect and work together. I do think our project is a little bit different from the other ones. For us it's really important that we give artists a space where they can experiment and realize site-specific art projects or performances. We have a lot of events going on, like art salons and artist talks, all these different things. We really want to use the space in all different kinds of ways. We're very similar to IFP in the sense that we have an artist-in-residence program, and now they've also started to have this art space [Black Sesame], but for us it's always been linked together. It's very important for us to get the artists in residence in contact with the Chinese artists who come here, the Beijing-based artists. That's our goal, to give [these artists] a platform to experiment and exhibit outside of the art market.

Anna: We have a focus on video art and performance art, which is something that is also happening in the other spaces, but there is still a need to have more places that really support that.

SmBJ: Why are you choosing to focus on these media specifically?

Antonie: Because they don't really have a lot of space in the commercial galleries, basically. They're also new media. That's something we really like about video art, especially. We're going to have a workshop and exchange program with Albania and Germany next year about video art... Because it's such a young medium, maybe it's not so influenced by these art historical conventions. Maybe because young video artists grew up with the same aesthetics, videos and internet and everything, maybe it's something where you can really see that it's a transcultural or international aesthetic that's not so much based in this strong traditional aesthetic of pictures.

SmBJ: How are you finding artists to bring over for your residency program? Who are the Beijing-based artists you're working with, and how have you been trying to connect them with your residents?

Anna: We have open calls through our website, through WeChat and Facebook, and we are also part of a few residency networks like Res Artis and China Residencies. So we announce our upcoming deadlines, and you have to apply for our residency with a CV and a project proposal, so we can see what people want to do with their time here. They can change it, there's always some freedom with it, but we want to see what they're up to. Our first two artists in residence have a Chinese background. They'd already spent some time here, they started projects here, and they continued what they were doing before. That's really interesting to us, one of the reasons why we chose them. As for the artists we want to connect them with, we have a lot of projects here. Through this [current] exibition [Dì 地儿] we have eight artists that go in and out of our space and are very closely involved with everything we do right now.

Antonie: They're also very closely linked to Intelligentsia, and IFP. We're already talking about how we can better connect our projects and get our artists in residence connected, and advertise for each other's exhibitions.

Anna: And with this "Apartment of Dreams" piece [in the current exhibit], we saw that behind this project there are so many artists who studied at CAFA, that are based in Beijing, that work together on various projects, various ideas. So I guess our network will grow exponentially now. If we exhibit one artist, there are 20 artists behind them.

Antonie: The artists from the exhibition come here, we have artist talks. We also have art salons with the academic circle, so we have researchers coming. And there are a lot of people coming here to visit, curators, outside artists, so every time they come here we tell our artists that they're coming and they can join.

SmBJ: So it's also functioning as a space for social interaction, in addition to being a residency and gallery?

Antonie: Yeah, exactly. It's definitely supposed to be a meeting point for different creatives.

SmBJ: "Dì 地儿" is your second exhibit, right? Can you give me a brief description of your first two shows? What were your ideas going in? These are basically establishing the gallery from scratch…

Antonie: For us it's important that it's always on a certain topic, and it has to be group exhibitions for us. The first exhibition was two young artists, and our topic was "structure" and "restructure" in the creative process. We wanted to see how different artists work with structure itself, but also with restructuring certain materials, and how it's always part of the creative process, that you often start to structure the different information that you have and something new comes out of it. So we had Wu Ding, who is a Shanghai-based artist, he very much worked with structure itself, how structure in philosophy and mathematics explains reality. Then we had Zhou Zijian, who made this huge book of [gunshot] bangs in movies. He tried to position himself as an objective observer and take out all these "bangs" in movies, and then make an archive. But something very aesthetic, contrasting all these scenes into something new.

And then for the second exhibition, we wanted to question the function and the surroundings [of the gallery], and work with the surroundings that we're in, because it's kind of a special surrounding. Also with this "white cube" discourse that's always going on in the art world… It was funny, in the first exhibition, because we had a lot of videos we had to darken the whole room and kind of make it into a white cube. We took down the walls again because we have this huge window-front in the way, and it's so funny that we actually do this, even though we have this really nice surrounding and we can work with our space and our courtyard very well. So we wanted to invite artists to work with our space, as an intervention. And also invite artists that work with a similar concept, or artists that we want to support in what they do.

And then it turned out that all the artists that we talked to were in groups, so now we have a group group exhibition. [laughs] Invisible Elephant made this camera obscura work in the gallery space. That's our site-specific work, where they came here and over a few days thought about what they wanted to do. At first we thought about doing "inside-out", but now they've put the outside space inside the gallery space. I think it's a very beautiful, very poetic work that also questions the function of the art space, and what happens when you put something in this very abstract atmosphere, on a two-dimensional screen, and then what changes from reality even though it's a real-time documentation of the outside.

And Utopia Group, they're a group that always works with interventions with society, work with their surroundings, so we thought it was really fitting to bring them here. They interviewed our neighbors at the opening as a part of their ongoing project, so our neighbors became part of their art project.

And "Apartment of Dreams" is not really an art piece that's here. It's actually, in a way, an advertisement for another project, which will grow over the [exhibition] time. It's a project that takes place somewhere else, so we're kind of like a satellite space for their project. They invite artists to live in an apartment that they rent in this migrant worker area outside of the fifth ring. They invite each artist to live there for seven days and live on 60 kuai per day, because that's the minimum wage of the people that work there. It's being documented every day on their WeChat account, and we're going to put that documentation on our wall. It's going to grow throughout the process of the exhibition.

Anna: Also we're going to have artist talks with the artists participating in this project in our space.

SmBJ: What's the schedule of events you have planned connected to the current exhibit?

Antonie: This Sunday [November 16], we want to have a whole day dedicated to the Invisible Elephant piece, the camera obscura. I think it's beautiful to focus on it for a whole day, how it changes, because the sunlight and the weather conditions always change how it looks. And then we will have an artist talk on November 30 with Song Yi and Yang Xiajia ["Apartment of Dreams"], and also with Deng Dafei and He Hai from Utopia Group. And then on January 10, for the closing, we're going to invite all the artists that participated in the "Apartment of Dreams." So these are the fixed events for this exhibition, the frame events. Otherwise, we're going to have an art salon going on at the end of November, we're planning that...

SmBJ: What is your plan after this exhibit ends? It seems like you're planning on sticking around for a while. Do you have a one-year plan? Or at least vague ideas of what you want to do in 2015?

Anna: We have a lot of ideas, actually, for next year. We'll have a workshop in Spring with a researcher from Germany. She's researching city structures in Asia, so this will be an event where we also invite architects, and we'll discuss also what we are doing, our part in the gentrification of the hutong area. We are planning a non-profit lecture series for next year, and then we have a very big exchange program planned together with a German art space and an Albanian art space. We'll invite six artists, two from every country…

Antonie: We'll find two Chinese artists, one will go to Germany and one will go to Albania, and the other way around. And then we're going to end up here in the end. They'll all be video artists and we'll discuss this topic of young video artists in the internet era.

Anna: We're also working on a performance festival together with some artists from Beijing, also in Spring. Because we had so many people proposing performances for this exhibition, and they didn't really fit into our topic, but we really wanted to feature them and show them. So we decided to put them all together into a little performance festival next year.

Antonie: And every month there's going to be an artist talk, and then also every month an art salon.

Anna: And our normal exhibition program, and the artist in residence program… A lot of stuff.

SmBJ: One more really standard question… What is the significance of the name I: Project Space?

Antonie: It's pronounced "ee" like "ï", from the phonetic alphabet, "ee" not "ai". In Chinese it's 艺, from 艺术 ("art"). But the "I" is also for "independent" and "international." So it's those three meanings, basically.

I: Project Space's current exhibit, Dì 地儿, is open from 11am-5pm every Thursday, or otherwise by appointment (to make one, email or call 18513629273). Keep track of I: Project Space's upcoming exhibitions and events on their website and Facebook page, and find a map + upcoming event info in the SmBJ listing.

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