VAN May/June 2014: ‘Scale & Difference’, Saoirse Higgins Residency at Swatch Art Peace Hotel Shanghai, China

Saoirse Higgins, Overview, Bund, shanghai, July 2013

Saoirse Higgins Describes her Residency at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Shanghai, China

The Swatch Peace Art Hotel residency in Shanghai is a three to six month residency opportunity sponsored by Swatch, the makers of 1980s retro-cool plastic watches and worldwide owner of much of the watch movement manufacturing industry. The residency is widely advertised and I came across it by simply googling ‘residencies in china’.

Following a juried assessment of my work and my project proposal, I was offered a six-month residency. However, I wasn’t able to take that length of time out, so I opted for a three-month stay. In hindsight, I think the full term would have been better in order to properly get to grips with the overwhelming scale and difference of Shanghai.

The residency provides return flights, visas, studio space and accommodation – along with a buffet breakfast every morning, free espresso coffee and as much bottled water as you can drink. As plush as the residency is, it isn’t suitable for artists with families, as it is not set up to accommodate children, partners or visitors.

Saoirse Higgins, Overview, Bund, shanghai, July 2013

They also don’t organise exhibitions or studio visits by curators. Establishing contacts and networking has to be done by the artist, which I actually found quite easy to do – via artists already on the residency. I developed enough connections with local curators to have a couple of exhibitions during the time I was there. The only thing Swatch asks for in return is for you to leave some sort of ‘trace’ for the Swatch Art Collection before you leave.

During my time in Shanghai (18 June –18 September 2013) there were approximately 20 artists at various stages of their residencies present in the building. I was lucky enough to become good friends with some of the artists who had arrived roughly at the same time as me. The resident artists came from all over the world: Italy, Hungary, Macedonia, China, UK, Germany, Switzerland and Brazil. Everybody had different plans and reasons for being there. Some went off travelling to gather research material or had specific projects they needed to complete and some people had no end goal for the residency apart from experimentation.

I was there because of a fascination with China: its diverse culture; its increasing wealth and expanding economy; the giant scale of the architecture; and intriguing cultural attitudes to both technology and nature. The size of China is difficult comprehend. 23.9 million people live in Shanghai – the entire population of Taiwan in one city. During my stay, the second highest building in the world – 2,073 feet high – was being built directly opposite the Swatch Peace Art Hotel.

Saoirse Higgins, Overview, Bund, shanghai, July 2013

The day I arrived, a limousine picked me up from the airport – exactly the type of treatment I could get used to. The residency hotel is right on the Bund and the main up-market tourist street in Shanghai. The Bund is the promenade running alongside the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River. Every weekend a huge number of Chinese tourists, mainly young families from other parts of China, walk down the street to go and look across the river at Pudong, an uber-modern, space-age-style cityscape. Not surprisingly perhaps, this location is featured in Her, Spike Jonze’s recent sci-fi movie.

Air pollution wasn’t too bad when I was there, but I was told that come winter it gets severe. The American embassy has an independent monitoring facility and you can download an app to check the pollution levels.

Saoirse Higgins, Overview, Bund, shanghai, July 2013

The project I developed was a response to the environment I found myself in, along with broader considerations of future human survival – in terms of climate change, over-population and dwindling natural resources. I was also interested in the idea of the ‘overview perspective’, a particular feeling of euphoria and profound connectedness experienced by astronauts when viewing the earth from space.*

Entitled Overview, the work comprised a set of wearable technological elements, intended to offer users a kind of out of body experience and, quite literally, a new perspective on their situation. These included a custom made headpiece with headphones that was attached to a helium balloon suspended several meters above the user’s head. The balloon was equipped with a webcam, which transmitted video and sound via a local wi-fi network to the user’s tablet or smart phone.

In July during the residency I showed Overview with the Shanghai- based Little Victories project – a mobile exhibition space comprising a converted waste collection bicycle, with an ethos of “bringing the art to the people and building a foundation for greater acceptance and accessibility of different creative practices”. The work was also featured at the city’s International Art and Technology Exhibition (28 August – 2 September).

The residency premises are located in beautiful 1930s art deco building. My space comprised a studio with a double bedroom, an all- glass bathroom and an ample storage area. At first I was paranoid about the cleaning staff having listening devices in their mops; they always seemed to ‘look busy’ as I walked around the corner. I managed to persuade myself that they were not government spies, but we were certainly monitored in a subtle way. I think it would be difficult but not impossible to be overtly political in your work within this residency. The building is government owned, so you are inevitably under a spotlight. I went out with my Overview headgear on to walk the Bund and the street police looked on at me with a mix of curiosity, surprise and wariness.

Saoirse Higgins, Overview, Shanghai Exhibition Centre, international Art & Technology exhibition

The electronic markets in Shanghai are geek heaven. Everything can be made up and copied. I really got into the whole concept and I got pretty good at drawing out what I wanted and miming the rest. It was fun to negotiate the purchases and bargain for them, despite the fact that even counting on your hand is different to western counting. I found a friendly guy in the local electronic market and handed him my list, which he took to his colleagues and came back with everything I wanted and charged me very little for the lot.

There are markets and shops for everything and anything. I came across a market that sold every type of elastic band you could think of. I also bought a lot of kit off Taobao – the equivalent of ebay, but much better – including helium and various screens and electronics.

It seemed to me that the Chinese people get used to new and different ways of doing things very quickly; they seem to have no fear of adapting and trying out new gadgets. Their culture is naturally hacker-friendly. I saw a lot of DIY culture there, with mopeds literally taped together with gaffer tape and very individual attempts to repair and customise things in general.

Getting around China is difficult if you do not have the language. I went on a trip to Xiamen, a city south of Shanghai, two weeks into my residency, which was an adventure and a test. I took the train there and flew back. I realised when I was in the train station that I had no clue how to read any of the departure boards, but luckily there was somebody to help me and I managed. Google Chrome’s translator app was also really essential. The staff at the residency reception also assisted me in translating travel plans and any websites.

I’m planning to return this summer and travel further out into the countryside – despite the fact that it is hard to manage without Mandarin. I may hire a translator to travel with me, ideally a person drawn from the network of artists I made contact with. I also have a short residency lined up in Iceland, connected to the Overview project.**

Saoirse Higgins



*Frank White, The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Houghton-Mifflin, 1987
**Another outcome from the residency was a presentation of overview as part of the exhibition entitled ‘seamless’ at the Museum of design, Llubiana, slovenia (17 sept – 7 nov 2013). At the time of writing i will soon be travelling to iceland to utilise a version of the work on a mountain walk in Listhus. Later this year the piece will also feature in the Asia Triennale in Manchester (sept – nov 2014).

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