Alternatives: HomeShop interview

An interview with Elaine W. Ho and Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga at HomeShop.

HomeShop, Beijing

Edward Sanderson: Elaine, you’ve been here three years, how did HomeShop start? Have you and Fotini been working together the whole time?

Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga: I’ve been to China a few times now, and we have collaborated on several projects, but it’s only at this moment that I’m joining in, as we are trying to think about HomeShop’s future. Elaine will be able to tell you more about what she’s been doing so far.

Elaine W. Ho: I think HomeShop really came out of my experience of living in China and my fascination with the juxtapositions between public space and private space here, which I think a lot of people notice or are intrigued by when they come here. A lot of the work that I do involves the public space and looking at alternative settings with which one is interfaced with an idea or a “work”, and because of that particular interest in negotiating a public space and a private space—not only on a spatial level but also on a social, economic level—this idea came to me: let’s play with the commercial space and see what we can do with that. So this was how it originally came about, and all the projects we’ve done here are based around this environment and the people here and are determined to a great extent by the architecture and the way that this space in particular relates to the community.

ES: What was your background prior to this?

EWH: I’m American-born, but my parents are from Hong Kong. That’s a whole different game to being a mainland Chinese person, so in many ways I’m still an outsider.

I first studied at Rice University, in Texas. At that time I was doing Art and Art History, but then I moved over into doing design work. I studied at Parsons in New York and then also transferred after that—it’s been a long ride!—to Holland, and I studied there for three years.

I think going into design was a desire to find something a bit more active and hands-on that I wasn’t finding doing Art History. I had been working in museums and I didn’t find it super interesting or stimulating. So moving into design and then coming back towards art has been influenced in a lot of ways by design issues, the ways of relating form and function to an everyday public.

I lived in Beijing for a year and then I went away for another year for other projects. After I came back I think I was here maybe six to eight months before I moved into this place.

I wouldn’t say this space was completely planned out or anything, it was quite an impulse to say: “This is my interest, let’s play with it and see what happens”. After I’d moved in, for a year I really didn’t do anything with the space. Looking back at it now, it was a necessary time to invest myself in this area and get to know the people. There’s a lot of mistrust, for sure, when they see me – this stranger living here. And of course they hear my accent and know I’m not from around here.

The first project that we did—the first big “coming out” project—was to do with the Olympics, which took place a year after I’d moved in here.

ES: You were in here for a year just setting up home, getting embedded in the environment and learning how it worked? So having a shopfront, what does that mean for you? Why is that a useful thing for you?

EWH: It’s useful on quite a lot of levels actually. On one hand—and this maybe has to do with my background in design—how people relate to one another on the basis of a commercial transaction, and how that commercial transaction allows a certain public-ness to a space that wouldn’t be there otherwise. In fact, shopping malls are not really a public space, they’re this pseudo-public space. But once that possibility is offered—that I can sell you something, or that there’s something for you to come and look at and possibly buy—they allow an openness of a relation, between a buyer and a seller, or between the owner and non-owner. Beyond the fact of a financial transaction, this level of publicness is a very interesting possibility for me.

Also, finding this space with a glass front made a nice juxtaposition – here is this living environment, but it’s made bare and visible. It becomes this screen between the outside and inside. All of these metaphors were things that I was interested to play with.

ES: So how do you work with the commercial idea of the space?

EWH: Thus far it hasn’t been a commercial project at all, it’s more engaging this idea of commercial-ness or the offering of a commercial enterprise, but without being so, necessarily. On the other hand, maybe I’m a terrible businessperson! I haven’t been able to manage this thing so well, but for me I use it in a lot of ways more as research rather than an actual business. I’m not making money from it.

ES: You also publish a journal called “Wear”, I assumed it was some kind of pamphlet, but now I see it it’s something more major.

EWH: The way of printing and the design is done on this very thick paper, so it’s actually not as big as you imagine! It is the intention that it is first approached as this huge object, as if importance were rated by volume. But when you open it and read it, it becomes much more minor, much more ambivalent, and the heavy pages are created in the style of toddlers’ books.

HomeShop Wear Journal

With the Wear project, it’s commercial in the sense that it is sold in a variety of places, but it’s moreso simply that I try to avoid losing a lot of money because it’s a completely self-funded project.

How that goes into the future is a balance we’re trying to play with right now. I mean it’s a concept hanging over everybody, you have to balance your artistic interests with being able to survive, making money. And so how we are going to pursue that line is the next stage of the project. Which may mean on the one hand, some things becoming more commercial (so to speak), but even then I think that it still remains that these transactions, whether they are financial or not, are always about the ways of relating people to people, so that is our foremost research interest.

ES: So you may well have a commercial line, and an artistic line?

EWH: I would hope that the commercial and the artistic could be rolled into one. That’s the tricky balance between all of these things.

FL-H: Maybe the question is to stay more on the line, instead of having to take a position. Actually in the first edition of Wear, I wrote a short text about the threshold, which I think is a good metaphor to understand the whole project – this condition of being in-between. There’s a sign over the door saying “家 (Jia)” or “house”. People walk by and they always look at it puzzled and probably think it’s a store. Some of them stare at us and they come inside wanting to look at these clothes behind you, because they think they are for sale, or they start asking questions, and it’s these kind of everyday encounters and interactions that we find particularly interesting.

ES: So you’re setting up a situation that appears to be one thing, but maybe isn’t that thing but then encourages people to believe in it and somehow when that happens…

EWH: It triggers a curiosity, or at least the asking of a question, and I think that asking questions is always something super-important to the work.

ES: So the projects you’ve already done, starting with the Olympics project…

EWH: This was a series of different events. The loose structure was that we did it as a reverse countdown, a sort of impending moment that had been coming for seven years, from when they announced it until 2008. So we made a joke of it and did a reverse countdown until the day that the Olympics would end. And during that time we did different events, for as many days as we could in between. They varied from public screenings of the Olympics that were projected on the store-front; reading groups; a lot of field recordings that I was doing on my own at that time; other activities where I invited artists to come and do an activity or intervention on the street, or in the neighbourhood. We did a big barbecue party, with a Nintendo “Mario versus Sonic at the Beijing Olympics” Wii competition projected on the store front; the winner, an auntie that lives across the street, won tickets to a rowing event that were donated by a friend.

I was really happy about it because it was the first thing that we did, and with this strange juxtaposition of the city being kind of empty at that time, it was just the right moment with the whole spectacle and people being more open to the unexpected. It was a big turning point for the city, for everything from Government activity, to urban planning, to media, to public/personal interest in sports (which maybe people wouldn’t have had otherwise), all of these things coming together in that very big moment is incredibly important for China and the makings of its new society.

On another level,it was this very strange process because I did it all myself at the time, gathering friends of course, but it was really just this DIY effort – “let’s put this thing together and document it and post about it” – it was this constant self-conscious process of things happening at the same time as you’re recording them and figuring out how to arrange other things for the next day. And this process was how it led to the journal project, which serves the very simple purpose of documentation of the projects that we’re doing, but also a way to expand on the thoughts that we were having and invite other artists and writers to participate.

[The journal is a good format] simply because a lot of things that we’re doing are time-based and event-based; they are ephemeral and very limited in terms of who can participate at any one moment in time. And because I’m not any sort of official institution on the art map of Beijing, I have to rely on these methods to let anyone know what’s happening, so on that level it becomes very important. Personally, I like writing very much, so that process of documenting and relating the visual to a text-based reflection is a constant working process.

From there it seems most apt to continue in this way, to do a series of projects, mostly in the summer time – simply to allow us to be outside, when people are out and the weather is nice.

ES: So the very small size of the space demands that for any sizeable number of people you have to spill out?

EWH: Yes, exactly. And I want it to, so that’s what led to this loose organisation of a yearly series, around the summer time, loosely based on a certain theme or issue or interest.

I feel bad that sometimes this small space is not big enough to comfortably invite people in. But in the summer, when the doors are open, the neighbours come over all the time to chat and this is really great, I like this. There’s a lot more that could be done if we had a bigger space, but I think we’ve done well considering.

ES: What was the second project that you did?

EWH: The second series was about “Cultural Exchange” – a cynical take on what that that term means and how it is used as an empty justification. There is so much foreign interest—in both directions—between China and everyone else (as the division is commonly proposed here). This last issue of the journal is documentation of some projects and events that happened last summer, and then some newer contributions from people like Carol Lu, Michael Eddy and Mai Dian.

This season we’ve loosely tagged the series “Balls” or “Ballsy”. We try to keep it light, but in an ironic sort of way, so “ballsy” can be simply a formal reference or something more subversive, depending upon how you look at it. But the line-up of activities will really depend upon when we can get a new space and how we can get it organised.

ES: You call them “series”? Because it’s a series of things happening?

EWH: Yes, because I think that experimentation with format (as in, moving from film screening to workshop to installation) is something very important, but then I find it hard to find a proper word to describe such variation, like “huodong (活动)”, maybe?. A series allows you to know that there are several things happening that are related and built upon continuities.

ES: A world series? [laughs] OK, so let’s move onto something which is a bit imponderable – the next stage you’re in the process of deciding on. How do you see this developing?

FL-H: The main idea is to have a bigger space that will allow for more things to happen, and more people to join in in various ways or at various stages. The idea is to bring together the things that we’ve been doing the past few years with other creative projects that we want to do, in a way that’s sustainable and still allows us to engage with the neighbourhood around us. To stay on that line that we were talking about earlier, between commercial and non-commercial, or the line between public and private, to walk this very thin but blurry line through these categories and see what can come out of it.

EWH: I think it’s the difference between looking at an artist as a product maker – “one who signs their name on their thing and sells it”, versus us being artists as workers or researchers. We hope to provide or offer something to a community, with that community being very much in transition. At the same time, all of these interactions are creative jumping off points, or means of reflecting on larger issues about society and the city. This is the uniqueness of the juxtaposition of “laobaixing (老百姓)” – the people that live in this neighbourhood, with other creative people that are similar to us or that have similar ways of thinking or exploring ideas.

ES: These are two different audiences? This area, does it have a particular strength, we’re right by Fangjia Hutong (方家胡同), so do you have a creative community around here, do you think?

EWH: Yes, for sure. The funny thing about this street is its juxtaposition between Fangjia and Nanluoguxiang. You have this strange passerby population of schoolchildren from next door, the normal local Chinese people that live around here, the hipster kids that are passing through, and then because of the restaurant being on this street, the foreigners looking for Dali [Courtyard Restaurant].

I think what we’re doing is not necessarily that unique. How one positions oneself relative to the art world could make it seem unique, but I think that pursuing an artistic practice in this way is something that’s very common, actually. Whether I call it “high” art or whether it’s a community thing is where it can end up seeming more or less special, but this is not so crucial. On the one hand I present myself as an artist and I think that in many ways what I am doing has a discourse with a lot of parallel streams in art, but how much I am investing myself in the art world and art scene within China is probably a lot less deliberated. That can be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage depending on how you look at it. In the time that I’ve lived here I’ve exponentially gone less and less to see the shows and to participate in all of these things, and I do feel very much that as a sort of “outsider” artist it’s very hard to break into that Chinese art scene. So I think I just kind of said, well, okay, I’ll just continue doing my thing and not worry about it. It’s not really my place to judge whether I’m in it or not. Of course I do have a certain interest to maintain dialogues with certain people within the art world for reasons of common interest. But I don’t think the formats [I’m working with] are ever the kind of thing that will make them easily consumable by that kind of community.

ES: You’re also one of the organisers of the “Also Space2” show?

EWH: Yes, I was very interested in participating in “Also Space2” because I wanted to work with the curator, Reinaart Vanhoe. who has a lot of similar interests and ways of working—a sort of organised but slightly anarchic method—that I was interested to play with as well. I think it’s something very strong about Reinaart—that he’s open to letting things happen, to see where people take their own initiative.

There was also the first “Also Space” show last year. With this first show I wasn’t so involved because I wasn’t here beforehand – I came back [to Beijing] maybe one or two days before the show opened. It was [physically] very close, at this hotel near Andingmen. So after I got back I was able to be there all the time, to learn from how he was playing with this environment and how he put people together. For my own artistic play I decided to sleep there as well, to be attentive to a displaced temporal context in a city which is technically my current “home”. Discussion from the first “Also Space” led us to want to try it again. So I got more involved with organising the second one, but like I said it wasn’t something that we were struggling very hard with for months and months! It was quite open.

This is something that is very important for me as a way of finding a balance between an artists’ project, coming out of certain initiatives and interests of mine, but also as a way of building a community, which is related to both of our work. How much a community can be involved and how much it can come together without being over-organised – in one sense this can become a political question. This is for me the basis of a lot of the theories and thinking I’m doing. So that question of having a bigger space or of having more people involved, or what kind of people get involved, the question of people having the initiative to make and discuss rather than simply consume – these are things that we would like to focus upon.

ES: Obviously when you have a bigger space, that puts more overhead on you, which then feeds through into the decisions you’ll make about what you do to sustain that. Which may end up being more organised events – this kind of butterfly effect, a change in one parameter affects in different ways other aspects of the project. So it will be really interesting to see where you go, what happens because of that, because it will be a different thing at that point, it won’t be the HomeShop as it is here, it will be a completely different thing.

EWH: Well, I hope not completely different, because I think there are still a lot of threads there. But of course it won’t be exactly the same.

Elaine W. Ho and Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga were interviewed by Edward Sanderson (CPU:PRO) at the “HomeShop” Beijing, on the 11 April 2010. Interview edited by Edward Sanderson.

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