Our latest cloud conversation is an interview with the collective 上阳台 Soeng Joeng Toi (SJT), who run an open street-level space in Guangzhou that the team had the pleasure of visiting a few times before we all started staying inside. Described as a space "opening fissures towards a platform and a bridge," SJT is active in building a community grounded in mutual aid and outside of conventional structures. 

Opening day of Soeng Joeng Toi, 2017. Photo by Zhang Chao.

CR: Hello! It is so nice to catch up. Would you want to start with introducing the idea behind Soeng Joeng Toi?

Li: The official opening was on May 13, 2017, but preparations have actually begun at the end of 2016. Soeng Joeng Toi (SJT) is a platform-based, co-governed practice space. It is located near the Changgang subway station in the Haizhu district, part of the Xiaoyuan New Village.

The space is embedded in the local community, easily accessible and meshed in daily life: we're in such close proximity to our fellow residents and neighbors. With this in mind, SJT aims to provide a relaxed space for daily gatherings of friends and visitors. We also work off the idea of creating an intimate and collaborative practice. Unity is the key word for SJT. We hope that artists, writers, curators, planners, and practitioners of all different fields can get together in this space and have their ideas resonate.

To do this, we work hard to go beyond "practice," we are actually finding ways of organizing a space and providing services. We need to find ways to operate, organize, and make decisions to run this business. This means we need to work together to come up with new processes and ways of doing things that break through what we can inherently imagine, and through this process, SJT becomes a interconnected and continuously shifting living structure that is always making new connections and releasing energy.

hval: I feel like there are three distinct SJTs: the space, the organization, and the community. The three SJTs are deeply interconnected, and the tension between them also energizes the project. I can try to untangle all the three:

SJT as a space started initially in 2016 when HB Station was planning for a new space. In the founding phase, we collected key concepts from our previous projects, like the idea to work collaboratively through a woven network that spans languages and regions across China. The “Banyan Travel Agency” had been our main platform to gather people: we ran an open call for participants from different backgrounds in Guangzhou and went to different cities to visit independent spaces and go on walks through different neighborhoods and communities to learn about  local collective working experiences. Motivated by what we learned, we started condensing our observations and dreaming up a new space after we got back to Guangzhou. HB Station agreed to support the initial funding for build out.

Daily life at Soeng Joeng Toi. Photo by Zhu Jianlin.

Everybody who joined hands to create this new space became member of 新筹组 Xin Chou Zu, the “new planning team”, and was responsible for finding a location for the space, working on the rennovations, and so on. In this working process, we established the basic consensus for SJT to operate as a union of mutual aid. Most of the later "Owners" {SJT collective members refer to themselves as 业主 yezhu which usually translates as owner or proprietor} came from this "new planing team". In April 2017, we held the first Owners' Meeting, where HB Station officially transferred the management of the space over to the Owners. The Owners share responsibility for the rent, utilities, and various expenses over the long term. Some organizing principles proposed in the first Owners' Meeting that are still in practice today included one vote per Owner and an aim to reach consensus in decisions through conversations; a decentralized way to govern the space; a system for new members to join or for existing members to exit the collective . We set dates in advance to hold Owners' Meeting as regularly as possible, and share the resolutions we pass and record the meeting notes so there can also be asynchronous understanding.

After the SJT space officially opened, the people we knew from previous projects and exchanges, the Owners, and participants who came for events or just to kill time, all banded together to form the SJT community. The people who make up the SJT community all come from different backgrounds, but all share one thing in common: they are resisting the constraints of society and state, and reluctant to live as an atomized individual. Undoubtedly, this part of SJT is fluid, changing, becoming. If we had to define it, we may say that this SJT is the wider group of people who come to the physical space to run or take part in events happening. It's a free union of people and groups, filled with daily life's love/hate relationships. The physical façade of the space is also shaped through interactions within the community. Through constantly linking with other urban communities and spaces, SJT also belongs to a much larger scale network.

TS:  SJT was founded on both good fortune and an existing social fabric, which very important, but the subsequent developments have equally been shaped and influenced by different members, timing and environments. I have become increasingly wary about the notions of "explaining" our "how-did-you-get-started story“ or "founding principles", instead, I'd rather keep an "it-is-what-it-is" attitude about all of this. Because when we explain all of these notions in retrospect, it implies a linear development that emerged from a well-thought out plan, when actually, it was a chaotic, process filled with mistakes. Unconsciously, the act of summarizing often put the narrator and the listener into a logic of "proving oneself," which is almost always deceiving. So I do hope SJT can reveal its process openly, if that's even possible.

Evening view of Soeng Joeng Toi. Photo by Sheryn.

CR: I am curious, who are the collectives and members of SJT currently? I remember hearing that there were 13 groups doing their own projects through SJT when I last visited. Who are the artists who are part of SJT right now, and could you tell us a bit about what they are up to?

Li: There's a little less projects right now, nowadays, there are 8 groups or projects. These are Folded Room, HB Station, 唔同广告 Tongtong Advertising, Fong Fo Print Shop, 闷士多 Bi Shiduo, The Travel Agency, Bridge | Topic Society, and trA-Art Store. More than half of these SJT members of SJT are art workers. Although not everyone defines themselves as artists, everyone is an artist at heart. Here is a brief introduction for each project {existing translations provided by SJT}:

  • Topic Society is a plan of actions based on impulse as well as deliberation. It urges us to confront the complex and ever-changing contemporary society, and to join or lead the seminal discourses relevant to our life. Taking various topics as entrance, Topic Society aspires to create alternative space through sincere conversation and taste revolution. We also believe that the synthesis of thinking and practice, science and art could bring about new hope. Sharing a belief in connecting people from different backgrounds, Topic Society joined hands with Bridge in 2019 and became a joint-proprietor of SJT.
  • Folded Room, having evolved from a previous project OnPractice, is a nomadic enterprise roaming through different cities, and though entering some surprising spaces, it tries to promote a mobile network of action experiences and methods; some nodes in this network are flickering, but currently there exist both permanent and temporary “rooms” in Guangzhou, Shenyang, Guiyang, Wuhan, Shantou, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Changsha. Folded Room’s practice is based on certain presuppositions: even with different contexts (cities, communities, blocks, political environments or capital conditions), there still exists the possibility of two identical rooms. This presupposition acts as a better possibility than the mainstream presupposition of “authenticity”, which poses the question: “How can we link up all these points written on a piece of paper in the briskest and most lively way?” 
  • Fong Fo is the name of a monthly magazine that was launched in March 2013. Fong Waiking is the editor-in-chief, Zhu Jianlin is the CEO, BUBU is the publisher, Ou Feihong is the manager of the advertising department, and Ce Zhenhao is the brand ambassador. Taking the form of a general audience reading material, the magazine seeks to collect and inspire artists’ creation. Fong Fo Monthly is published on the 21st of each month. It costs one yuan per issue. There are three pages for advertisements each charges fifty yuan. The magazine is distributed in 16 places in 10 cities. 
  • HB Station (Contemporary Art Research Center) is a nonprofit art institution founded in 2012. Participants are composed of artists, writers, curators and practitioners from related fields. By the interdependence of the trifold combo of “research-practice-creation”, we try to construct a mutual work and knowledge exchange platform for contemporary scenarios and explore contemporary art educational approaches. 
  • trA-Art Store was found by Yang Licai at SJT in Guangzhou in January of 2019. The store is a real-world project in miniature.“Project Person” is best treasure of the trA-Art Store. Yang Licai’s art practice is often based on a long time of washing and subsiding. What are you seeing right now? It is just a touch spot between you and him. 
  • Traveller intends to establish or transfer a temporary relationship between space and time, by wandering in the cities. By investigating what city means today, and furthermore, distinguishing between “place”, “on-site”, “native” and “local”, it reconstructs its relationship with practice / creation and explores the possibility of collaboration. 

Zhu: At SJT, in addition to the above fixed long-term groups or projects, each Owner also connects with each other to form a new group or project combination. There is for example Da Fan Tai, Womens Heavenly Society, Hellkitty Band, woodblock printing classes, Info Shop, BOLOHO Studio, etc. These new groups come and go quickly and are always excitingly lively!

Music performance at Soeng Joeng Toi, 2018. Photo by Guo Yun.

CR: Last year, there was a massive shift atmosphere in the creative scene and beyond from the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, everyone must have felt all this deeply in Guangzhou. What was it like living and working in Guangzhou at the time? And have any structural issues poped up since the protests broke out over the summer?

Li: Some friends and I feel like we're riding big emotional roller-coasters. Sometimes, it is even difficult to just get by and try to live and work normally.

hval: I started to feel anxious from last July to August when Hong Kong's situation shifted. If there was a linear progression where face-to-face contact leads to shared understanding, then to mutual aid then finally, an alliance or union, I feel that the "shared understanding" is breaking apart, or that the possibility of mutual understanding is getting lost. When words like "union" are instrumentalized into to catchphrases deprived of their contexts, and used as tactical strategies, ‘mutual aid’ turns into a planned exchange of resources. ‘Face-to-face contact’, which before was the foundation for political solidarity, is also becoming more strained.

At that time, I felt like we were pressured by the whirling fog of a new Cold War, with a stark black-and-white framework re-emerging. Previously, there were still unspoken agreements that created space for communal work, in the same way Guangzhou's position on periphery of empire creates an ambiguous grey zone at the meeting point of land and ocean. Now, there's been a crack-down, or maybe we just can no longer take this space for granted as the self-evident underlying basis for understanding ourselves.

Last year, I was still unsure if the underground social unrest would swell into a tsunami. But after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic over lunar new year, the worldwide fracture of mututal understanding became self-evident. I have a haunting feeling that if SJT and the larger communities we're a part of don't step up to support each other and push harder to clearly assert ourselves and foster a new communal understanding that transcends the black-and-white, the motivational drive to continue the work we do might gradually wane. But will an unstable position where both parties don't get their desired outcome and only see things from their side even make it possible to get to the heart of the matter?

CR: This is such deeply moving response to this unsettling moment. Amidst the pandemic, we're almost better able to see the mechanisms used to divide us into separate sides, and better appreciate the collective ways we can work to transcend these divides and support each other. On our end, we're as ready as ever to keep working in solidarity, even as the systems we're in make it more and more difficult.

On a more logistical note: how do you adminster the day-to-day operations at SJT? For instance, how do you pay rent?

Li:  All the projects that take place at the SJT space need to negotiate with each other. We need to coordinate in terms of both time and space. Everyone agrees to share the rent in a way that feels fair, according to our consensus-based decision making process. This way of sharing the rent burden, especially in cities where the cost of running a space is high, actually provides a lot of space and possibilities for all kinds of people and groups who want to give it a try.

Excerpt: Instructions of Joining SJT.

CR: One project you mentioned over the summer was a visit and temporary exhibition at the collective SYNNIKA space in Frankfurt, Germany. It was fascinating hearing you describe their collective living system and organized resistance to commercial development. Given that so many plans shifted in 2020, what are some of your ideas for future projects?

Li: The epidemic is not over yet, everything is unknown, and we still rarely even go outside.

But SJT is about to celebrate its third anniversary, and we wish it good luck! I personally hope that SJT will last as long as possible, and I hope that more spaces like SJT emerge.

hval: Last night, I dreamy that an Owner who had already left the collected had made a movie, where many of the scenes were about SJT. In my dream, we watched the whole movie.

CR: That's beautiful. We've all been having such vivid dreams these days. And while some parts of the world are already over the worst part, the pandemic is still unfolding in many places. Are there any other projects or things you want to talk about? How has the situation changed in the last month, since we first started this cloud conversation? 

Li: We're still talking with SYNNIKA space, saying that we should cooperate more and maybe initiate some projects together. Turning these friendships into long lasting ones will always be one of our concerns, and during the pandemic, we started lots of online conversation with friends. That still gives me a lot of energy.

Post-script: SJT opened to public again on April 5th, after being closed for 3 months. 

This interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Xiaoyao Xu, with additional translation by Kira Simon-Kennedy, for China Residencies in March & April 2020.

With the current coronavirus situation and the ongoing lockdown in many cities in China and worldwide, people have been finding ways to keep in touch with artists and friends online, since they can't meet up in person. In lieu of our annual research trip, we are revisiting spaces we've met in the past seven years through in depth interviews over WeChat until we can meet again.