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Qingdao (Shadong. © Ren Xihai, 2007

So much has been said and written about contemporary China. A fifth of humanity lives within its boundaries, the country is undergoing extraordinarily fast mutations, its cities dwarf whatever idea Europeans might have of a metropolis and its economy is increasingly linked to ours. Yet, i doubt there are many people out there who could honestly pretend they understand or 'know' the 'Middle Kingdom.' In fact, the splendor and history of imperial China is probably clearer in most minds than the country as it is nowadays.

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Pekin (Beijing), an hutong demolition. © José Antonio Soria

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One hundred signs of demolition 'Chai' painted on houses that have to be bulldozed. © Wang Jingsong, 1999

The exhibition In the Chinese city. Perspectives on the transmutations of an Empire currently on view at the CCCB in Barcelona gives an overview of the recent processes of construction and implacable deconstruction that the country is undergoing and puts them into a historical and cultural context.

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China: Street scene in Canton. © Misión 21: BMA

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Shopping street in Canton/ Guangzhou around 1930. © akg-images / Richard Fleischhut

The show is split into a dozens sections linked between themselves by a Chinese word or concept that leads visitors through the urban design, architecture, landscape and infrastructure of various Chinese cities.

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The "new town Caixiangxincun", neighbourhood built in 1980 in Suzhou. © Comité municipal de compilación de las anales locales de Suzhou

Archeological artefacts, maps, spectacular photographies guide visitors to the most exotic places: along the coast of Guangdong province where more than 100 000 workers recycle computers and other electronics waste products shipped from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Or to Chongqing, a mountain city counting some 32 million inhabitants where bang bang workers carry huge amount of goods on their shoulders and to the Dafen Oil Painting Village, a village that churns out around the world about five million paintings every year -- most of them copies of famous masterpieces.

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"Cry me a river", film for the exhibition about the city of Suzhou. Director: Jia Zhangke. © Xstream Productions Ltd./CCCB/Cité de l'architecture et du Patrimoine

The most moving part of the show comes in the form of short movies shot by five young movie directors who present their personal visions of five cities. Jia Zhangke -whose previous movie Still Life won the Golden Lion at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival- portrayed Suzhou, the 'eastern Venice' in a short titled Heshang de aiqing (Cry Me a River).

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Channels in Suzhou, 1966. © Solange Brand

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Pufu bridge, built during the Ming Dinasty and destroyed in 1969 during the cultural revolution. © Comité municipal de compilación de las anales locales de Suzhou, 1930

Suzhou is remarkably well 'preserved' compared to other Chinese cities (most famously Beijing) who have felt the pulverizing wrath of modernization. According to Ruan Yongsan, who used to work at the Office of Building in Suzhou, there is no law that protects monuments in China, only labels given to 'famous, historical and cultural cities'. China is finally starting to awaken to the need to save its patrimony and some fear that authorities might want to erect some fake authentic buildings where monuments have been destroyed.

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"Waiting", film for the exhibtion about the city of Congqing. Director: Peng Tao. © X Stream/CCCB/Cité de l'architecture et du Patrimoine

Interestingly, the exhibition is coupled with a series of debates and presentations that deal with delicate and controversial topics such as Tibet or political prisoners.

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Shimen (Henan) © Zhou Zhenhua, 1975

In the Chinese City is a co-production between the CCCB and la Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine de París. On view at the CCCB in Barcelona through February 22, 2009.

If you can't make it to Barcelona, i'd recommend the catalog of the exhibition, In the Chinese City published by Actar. There's an english/french version, a catalan and a spanish one. I bought a copy at CCCB and forgot it in a hotel room. I wish i would not do this kind of silly acts so regularly.

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Chongqing, music shop. © José Antonio Soria, 2007

Image on the homepage: "Espera", film for the exhibition about the city of Chongqing Director: Peng Tao. © Xstream Productions Ltd./CCCB/Cité de l'architecture et du Patrimoine.

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No proper building. Not even an architecture project that would give a hint of what its future headquarters would be like. That didn't prevent El Bòlit, a brand new Contemporary Art Center, from opening its borrowed doors a few weeks ago in Girona.

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For many Europeans used to fly on the cheap, Girona equals Barcelona or the Costa Brava. Ever since one of the most famous 'no frills' airlines chose the airport as one of their hubs, hordes of travelers land there, grab their luggage on the rotating belt and hop on an hour bus ride that brings them directly to Barcelona centre. They never get to see Girona. They miss a lovely medieval city. Its cathedral is celebrated as one of the finest specimens of Gothic architecture in Spain, there's a local tradition of climbing steps to kiss the butt of a stone lioness and people will invite you to eat chocolate flies. And now there's that new contemporary art space called El Bolit.

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The Bòlit was a game popular among children in Catalonia until the middle of the XXth century. "It's a metaphor for a dynamic center, one that is constantly moving and is pushed forward by people", explained its Director, Rosa Pera, to Spanish newspaper El Pais. The opening exhibition of the center proves that, if the center is still waiting for a proper building, it certainly doesn't lack a strong personality, a dauntless attitude and a very promising exhibition programme.

As the introduction to its current show, In Construction. Recipes from Scarcity, Ubiquity and Excess, states:Beyond the construction of a building, the creation of a contemporary art centre involves first and foremost the construction of a discourse, relationships and dialogue. This is why the first exhibition at the new centre focuses on processes that explore new methodologies to articulate narratives with the context as a starting point.

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Retrospective Cirugeda. Image courtesy El Bolit

Heading the party is Santiago Cirugeda whose Recetas Urbanas (Urban recipes) are lined up for a retrospective made of models, videos and a brand new intervention. The work of the Sevillan architect fosters the dialogue between institutions and citizens in order to come up with better ideas susceptible to solve the issue of housing and public space management.

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Retrospective Cirugeda. Image courtesy El Bolit

Santiago Cirugeda has sometimes been labeled as a "guerilla architect", "a subversive artist", "a urban hacker". His action/constructions are always adapted to the situation. Because his home town, Sevilla, would not authorize him to build a playground, Cirugeda obtained a dumpster permit and installed a playground on top of a dumpster container. In another intervention, he built and occupied a rooftop crane that passersby believed was there only to move building materials. He even posted on you tube a video to demo how to build a temporary flat in your rooftop. Cirugeda's recipes are cheap, fast, accessible to everyone and one of their key ingredient is that some of them exploit the gaps in administrative structure and official procedures. They intervene where the law falls short.

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Santiago Cirugeda, Niu. Images courtesy El Bolit

Cirugeda also developed a site specific architectural intervention on the roof of Girona's Sala de La Rambla (where half of the exhibition is hosted.) The temporary infrastructure has been designed with the aim of hosting artistic activities as well as providing a working space for Spanish and international artists invited to work at El Bolit. El Niu (the Nest in catalan) is made of several containers and covered with branches and leaves.

Probably more famous to the new media art community, Michelle Teran opens the second chapter of the exhibition, the one dedicated to Ubiquity. The artist is showing her recipes for making and re-making narratives out of everyday experience inside Girona's intimate Capella de Sant Nicolau.

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Screening of videos by Michelle Teran inside the Capella de Sant Nicolau. Image courtesy El Bolit

In her performance series titled Life: A User's Manual, the artist applies potential literature methodologies and uses video scanners to pick up images recorded on wireless security cameras (inside hotel lobby, private home, bank entrances, etc.) Scenes thus recorded in 17 cities around the world are projected in the exhibition space. I had seen the work of Teran in countless exhibitions but it was the first time i had the opportunity to see displayed next to one another not only the videos of her performances, but also the wide range of devices she uses to host the video scanners. Suddenly i realized the breadth and complexity of her work. I was particularly struck by A20 Recall, a collective exercise in cultural memory carried out by the artist over the course of three weeks with the help of residents of Quebec City. The result of the experiment is an online map of made of texts and images documenting situations that arose in response to the fortification of Quebec City during the FTAA Summit of the Americas in 2001.

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Technology is used as a tool to discover the significance of the trivial and to re-endow hidden stories with meaning, while fostering a critical spirit among citizens from their immediate surroundings. This is active, collective voyeurism used to combat indifference and oblivion.

The third part of the exhibition is From excess, recipes for an architecture of accumulative thought by Catalan artist Jordi Mitjà. The Catalan artist defines himself as an 'image collector'. He has carefully compiled and slightly edited images recorded by amateur film-makers in the 1970s in order to create a singular portrait of Empordà County in Catalonia.

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Installation of Jordi Mitjà. Image courtesi El Bolit

Mitjà has also composed a large-scale installation for El Bòlit. An accumulation of old photos, fragments, left-overs, video, and findings, the piece builds up the foundations of argumental architectures that welcome and rebuff those who, trapped perhaps between illness and therapy, dare to enter.

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The smart-looking little man up here isn't very concerned by the exhibition but i'd nevertheless like to introduce you to him. He is Sant Narcís (St Narcissus), Girona's patron saint, famous for having defeated French invaders by throwing swarms of flies at them.

More images from Girona and El Bòlit.

In Construction. Recipes from Scarcity, Ubiquity and Excess runs until January 11, 2009 at El Bòlit, Girona (SP).

The MACBA, the museum of contemporary art in Barcelona, has recently opened Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia, an exhibition that analyses the idea of a document in the history of photography on the basis of the study and staging of a number of debates about the genre during the 20th century.

This is a rich exhibition at the point of being almost encyclopedic but it's also amazingly good and fascinating. Maybe later on this week i'll find the time to put my thoughts together and blog about the show but if this doesn't happen here's a picture of one of the photographers whose work i discovered last week while visiting the MACBA.

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Xavier Ribas' Barcelona Pictures are miles away from your usual Gaudi facades and crazy Rambla postcards. The photographer turned his lens to the phenomenon of entertainment, of leisure, of what people do in their 'free' time, showing the extent to which such activities take place in the city's residual spaces. Quite spontaneously, people preserve, manage and recycle these spaces, effectively keeping them out of the efficient, productive order of the city: places for walking, sunbathing, picknicking, sport and exercise...It seems paradoxical that these spaces -not yet codified, as yet without regulation- are where people still have a chance to take the initiative. As Ribas concludes: 'Freedom can only flourish in a residual space that might, as a result, have a desolate appearance'.

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Image on the homepage: Xavier Ribas, Untitled (Bellvitge), 1994-1997.

Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia runs at the MACBA until January 6, 2009 and will then travel to the Museu Berardo de Lisboa.

Then 19th edition of Art Futura, the Barcelona-based festival of Digital Culture and Creativity, closed on Sunday with the Prize Giving Ceremony. Awards were handed to the creators of best pieces in 3D and digital animation and of the best Spanish videogames. Not one single girl climbed on the podium to receive a prize (that's ok, ladies, i'm not into 3D either) but most of the awardees thanked either their girlfriend or their mum for their support. There was even one 'gracias a mi abuela/thanks to my granny'. How sweet!

I'm back in my kitchen, so time has come to write a couple of posts and share with you what were for me the most interesting moments of the festival.

First one is the presentation of a sculpture called Splash.

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Image by Núria Jordán & Salvador Barceló

Mona Kim, Todd Palmer, Olga Subirós and Simon Taylor from Program Collective took the stage to share with us the whole process that lead to the spectacular sculpture they created for the Water for Life exhibition at the Expo Zaragoza 2008, a fair that focused on water and sustainable development.

The challenge was to fill in two entire floors of the Water Tower, the Expo's signature edifice. Two floors might not seem much until you add to that a huge empty space of 40 m high that the designers had to occupy with a work which could somehow balance the architecture and get people to walk up the ramps that wrap around the tower's interior.

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Photo: Matias Costa for The New York Times

The result of that brief was a series of installations and a very photogenic hanging sculpture called Splash which freezes in solid form the kinetic properties of water hitting a surface, like the arrival of life on our planet. Video:

As visitors climb to the top of the tower, they can enjoy a panoramic view of the city but also discover all the layers and facets of the sculpture. Besides, Splash's shiny surface reflects the environment around it, becoming a distorted mirror of the video images playing below, and of the people watching it from the ramps that circle around it. The designers had to break down the sculpture into its most basic elements, ending up with 84 giant pieces that had to be suspended from the tower's ceiling by a total of 140 cables, some of them as thin as 3 mm.

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Image by plus arquitectura

The forms of this 22.5 meters (74 ft) high installation were generated through digital animation technologies that modeled the deformation and energetic scattering of a drop of water being acted upon by various extreme planetary forces - including gravity, wind and heat. The dynamic simulation systems were carried out by Pere Gifre from IKONIC ARTS.

Image on the homepage by Gallo Quirico.

The Influencers is a Barcelona-based event which explores controversial forms of art and communication guerrilla, presenting independent projects that play with global popular culture, infiltrate the mass media, and transform fashions, consumption and technological fetishism.

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One of Paglen's patches

It was one of the very few conferences i shouldn't have missed this year. Well... i did. But life has its little consolations and the videos of The Influencers have just found their way online. Most of them at least, the missing ones will be there in the next few days. In the meantime, hurray! There is Trevor Paglen (video) and Brody Condon (video). There's also wondrous Santiago Cirugeda (video), he speaks in spanish and one day, maybe one day, i will translate his talk and publish the text here.

0aaenterspanishr.jpgESC - Enter Spanish Creativity, edited by CLA-SE (Amazon USA UK).

Been lazy with the book reviews this month so i'm slowing going back to business with an easy one.

Publishers Actar says: Every system needs an escape valve, a decompression mechanism. In professional graphic design, this escape device is more than the 'escape' (esc) on a keyboard; it is the visual seduction by new and experimental formulas. This is the defining concept of emergent Spanish design today. Spain has become an international laboratory where creators from all over the planet retro-nourish and influence one another.

Works by Basedesign, Ipsum Planet, Enric Jardí, Paco Bascuñán, among many others.

I love Spain. They make my favourite food (tortilla de patatas), the most wonderful landscapes, some of my favourite activists (list is too long) and architects (or both as in the case of Santiago Cirugeda), some of the smartest blogs in my rss readers (again, way too long but you can try this one), etc. As my Italian (and slightly annoyed) boyfriend would tell you i could go on for hours.

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Design from the latest collection of José Miró (Pasarela Cibeles)

Maybe the most appealing characteristic of Spain is that while visiting it you keep on switching from the utterly ridiculold-fashioned to the very edgy. ESC has a lot of the latter and nothing of the former.

The design studios selected in ESC are ordered alphabetically. Each designer showcases up to 4 works and has a little bubble space to explain what the work is about and leave their website url for more if affinities. Easy, fuss-free, fast and delightful. Most of the designers are based in Barcelona though, does that catalano-centrism really reflect the state of graphic design in Spain?

Here's my pick:

max-o-matic. I have spent what? 40? 60 minutes? on his website, going from one image to the other and doing it a second time just for the pleasure.

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Ping-Pong Remix

Un mundo feliz for the 5th anniversary of Guantanamo detention camp (almost as great as those Agent Provocateur Fair Trial My Arse pants):

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Spy. For their "Interventions" and re-use of street furniture.

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Street Wars

Gregori Saavedra. I still have to master the art of navigating his b&w website but whatever...

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Pop-up wedding invitations hand-made by Fundición Gráfica:

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Oh! Look! i made a little trailer for you:

A last one that made me happy. Twopoints (who designed the very swanky book Super Holland Design) made a poster explaining how to cook a real "Tortilla de patata".

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