Heidi Bryce drinks tea with a tablespoon of honey. In between cups, she hoards newspapers and found objects, consumes an unhealthy amount of internet content and photographically documents her experiences. Heidi took part in the Swatch Art Peace Hotel residency in Shanghai in 2014.
China Residencies: What motivated you to apply to the Swatch residency?
Heidi Bryce: I initially just graduated from FIU and felt stir crazy about the post-graduate lifestyle. I was tired of academia, but wanted to engage an environment where I could still learn and practice. I started looking into a ton of residencies I found on Res Artis and China Residencies, but felt insecure about being selected since I was considered an ‘emerging artist’. Swatch seemed like the most open-minded, comprehensive package; they had no age or expertise limitations and funded travel and housing, so I could really focus on my development versus qualifications and expenses. The information I found online seemed too good to be true, and I figured that I wouldn’t get in, assuming there must have been a catch. So I moved back to Jamaica and settled on giving myself some down time until I had a plan. Then, maybe two months after applying, I got an email from Swatch saying I was in; the moment was surreal, I think I went into physical shock.
CR: What convinced you the residency was real in the end?
HB: I broke out the internet-stalking handbook and looked up any info/press on Swatch in Shanghai. The search led me to a woman that created these intricate photographic pop-up books; her name is Colette Fu. I saw that she had just arrived to Swatch, so I messaged her on Facebook, really to just ask: “Are you real?”
CR: Did she reassure you?
HB: Yes! We clicked immediately. Colette ended up having a huge impact on my Swatch experience. She said she had felt the same way before arriving, and that it was indeed too good, but very true.
CR: What was the next step in getting there?
HB: I started talking with the people in Switzerland, and we worked out a time for me to go.
CR: Did you apply with a project in mind, or did you want to figure things out once you were on the ground?
HB: The application itself requires you to outline your intentions, but I was unsure about how much depth I could provide. I had a plan of action, but I knew being in China would definitely affect my process. How perceptive would I be in such a new environment? Would I be able to communicate? Will it be difficult to assimilate? My work revolves around society, so getting to know people on the ground was important.
CR: How did you prepare for the residency?
HB: I started learning Mandarin, it felt ignorant to go without some cultural immersion beforehand. I requested to arrive as soon as possible, and left within three months of getting accepted. One of my old fine arts classmates, Jatinder, was really excited and supportive; he persuaded me to challenge myself in NY before China, and offered me a place to stay. So I packed up, left Jamaica and spent the next three months in New York. I felt like I was practicing for the residency by navigating such a similarly congested city. It was the perfect place to stimulate and at times, overwhelm me, creatively. By the time I left for Shanghai, I felt bursting with newfound intent and expression.
CR: How did you go about learning about China before going?
HB: I reverted back into my political science background and devoured everything I could find online; I started buying books and maps until I ran out of money. It’s easy for me to get lost in research.
CR: So what was it like when you got to Shanghai?
HB: I landed at the airport and was picked up in a chauffeured car. I got to the hotel, right on the Bund, in the eye of the tourist hurricane. The Swatch staff explained the house rules and policies, brought me in to sign papers and give me a schedule of events, then took me on a full tour of the hotel. I then got into my studio — although I hadn’t considered the layout of the rooms when I accepted mine. Some are separate rooms and studios, others are combined live-in studio spaces, and I ended up with one of the smallest spaces. But in difficult situations, the staff is generally willing to help you swap rooms if necessary.
CR: How long were you there for?
HB: Late June to December, Christmas eve.
CR: Who else was there at the time?
HB: It was a full house, with 18 people. For me, it’s the people that will be the most lasting impression of Swatch. But that first group left after I had only been there for two months, so I felt a bit like a straggler from the old group, as artists come in on a rolling basis. It can be cliquish, especially when there’s one or two countries that are chiefly represented. I hope it becomes a bit more diversified over time; a nice blend of totally different cultures would make a more dynamic atmosphere.
CR: Do some artists ever come back?
HB: Yes, Kathryn Gohmert actually had been there before.
CR: How do you feel the residency fits in with Swatch, the watch company?
HB: Swatch is fully aware of how incredible this opportunity is, thus believes it deserves significant exposure. There were private tours and high profile guests surveying the artists quarters; sometimes it feels like a zoo, but others welcome the attention. As a company, I was hoping the residency would be linked to the brand at some point. It would’ve been awesome collaborating with their designers, and to integrate their process on that level.
CR: Could you get a sense of what kinds of artists Swatch was looking to host?
HB: Everyone’s work was different, I really appreciated the wide-range of mediums housed under one roof. However, one theme that seemed apparent of most work was a certain commercial aspect that had a wide appeal across demographics. The more popular artists’ work came across as very agreeable and lighthearted or colourful. Extroverted artists are the dominant species at Swatch, this is the perfect setting for them to thrive.
CR: Did you interact much with the paying hotel guests on the upper levels?
HB: The 4th floor is the luxury hotel portion of the building. I wandered up there some nights to steal a few peaceful moments to myself away from the other artists, but I never encountered any guests.
CR: Who was on staff to help on the ground and in Switzerland?
HB: The go-to staff for any and everything is the concierge staff. They felt like family to me. They helped me with everything — from getting the morning newspaper to negotiating with cab drivers. You can literally call them on the phone from wherever you are in China and they’ll mediate on your behalf to make sure you’re not taken advantage of when you’re on your own. We even made plans for staff vs. artists basketball games. As for the Swiss team, the most supportive people that dealt with me were Rene and Anne-Christine; those two do more than the average human being is capable of. They are so sincerely invested in this program, and the happiness of the artists, it amazes me such wonderful people really exist.
CR: Did the residency provide a lot of resources about what was going on in Shanghai?
HB: For me, yes. I’ve heard other artists complain about a lack of facilitation between the artists and the local art community, but I think that just stems from a weird sense of entitlement. There’s a specific station setup that’s constantly updated with city guides for basic needs, upcoming exhibitions, and a newsletter about what’s happening that week. We also received email alerts about anything particularly imminent. The team from Switzerland comes in twice a month to touch base. This provided me, personally with more solace since I really connected with the staff. They were always so reassuring and accommodating whenever I felt personally or professionally disoriented.
CR: Did Swatch connect residents with the local scene and help you meet other artists, curators, collectors and so on? Or did you have to go out and make your own connections?
HB: We were connected to galleries and events, but no one personally. People make their own connections. A lot of artists end up relying on each other, working as a unit within the Shanghai art scene.
CR: To backtrack a little, once you arrived, how did you get your bearings? Where did you meet people, and what approach did you take to discovering different neighbourhoods?
HB: Part of my preliminary research was simply about where to go. On my very first night in Shanghai, I went out on my own and wanted to meet people who were actually from Shanghai, since the city is filled with people from all over the world. I probably walked 3 to 5 miles per day. That was my strategy, to pick a district, and experience every rooftop, eatery, subway, park, alley, mall, gallery, bar and school while documenting everything. Some days I went a full 24 hours without sleeping. It was incredible.
CR: How about on the art side of things? Was there a space or a group of artists you really connected with?
HB: As far as the art scene, I wasn’t too interested. My priority is always the community; that’s where I extract my ideas. I attended two or three museum exhibitions, but nothing impressed me as much as what happened on the fringe, beyond the galleries.
CR: What was Shanghai like as a city, and as a place to live and make art?
HB: The tourism can be overwhelming. We all have our own personal stories that involve some unbelievable incident that nearly escalated into a public brawl. As a place to live, I think Shanghai is…special. It smells, and its loud, and pushy but I love it. I miss the insane amount of LED lights affixed to everything, the unabashed personality of strangers, the endearing customs and norms. No other city is as enthusiastic as Shanghai; it never stops howling with intensity. All of this made my artistic process kinda scream in reaction. I had to psychologically level up in order to function in this new milieu or risk being swallowed whole. This was a great test of personal boundaries.
CR: Did you take some time to travel outside of Shanghai?
HB: I wanted to take a tour of Asia, but the visa issues were a deterrent. The other artists got around to it though. Many of them had already lived there before, so they were more familiar with how to get in, out and around with ease. I did however make it to Beijing, and fell completely in love with the city. Mongolia is still on my bucket list.
HB: We had very little advance notice about the events, and it was a really hectic time with so many events happening simultaneously. I was invited to do a live painting performance on the pier of The Bund; it was collaboration between myself and artist Lianhong Feng. Our piece was unfortunately ruined due to the rain and mismanagement afterwards, but it was still a day I’ll never forget. Between the press conferences, interviews, ceremonies, photoshoots and live showcases — it felt like a day in the life of a celebrity. I remember feeling so awkward and grateful and appreciated. Unforgettable.
CR: Crazy. What else was going on that day?
HB: Each floor of the hotel had six or seven events happening at once. It felt a bit like a circus, complete with contortionists, yodellers, fire-breathing dragons, etc. Some of the events were are related, some were Swiss or Chinese traditional cultural performances. On top of it all, we were hosting open studios!
CR: Did a lot of people come through and engage with the works in your studio?
HB: So, a few concerns arose about my open studio, since some of my work is politically motivated. Swatch has an in-house office of Chinese staff to help mediate between the hotel/residency and Switzerland. Their attitude towards the artists is a little different from the Swiss team, assuming they’re more concerned with policy and operations. The event guest list included some 600+ people, including government officials, so my work was previewed by the staff beforehand. I wasn’t outright censored, but a few comments were made, denoting their surprise at my interest in such sensitive subject matter. There wasn’t a clear mandate that this wall was banned or that corner is offensive, but I was given a strong sense that the work was too controversial and that in order to not get the hotel in trouble, I shouldn’t show it.
CR: How did you feel about that whole situation?
HB: From day one, I felt conflicted about where my sensibilities should lie. I knew China imposed limitations on a lot of content, but I also thought the program being Swiss owned and operated insulated me from that suppression. In the end, I put my feelings aside, and tried to be diplomatic about it; I was grateful to Swatch for hosting me, and didn’t want to jeopardise that relationship.
CR: What did this work consist of?
HB: It was actually the same work I had proposed in my application, and it dealt with issues of society, class and history. The protests in Hong Kong had just broken out, and I created some collages that confronted Tiananmen with Occupy HK. I re-contextualised a bunch of vintage propaganda posters and cross referenced them with present-day figures. It was really exciting work for me, I didn’t hold back.
CR: How did people respond?
HB: Everyone who saw the work had a pretty loud reaction, be it shock or amusement. Even the housekeeping staff would glare at it and whisper to each other. A few Shanghainese friends I made told me it was the type of risky work that needed to made. I could grasp the limitations of it not being seen in China, but I was surprised when Dazed magazine in the UK interviewed me, and chose to feature my ‘safer’ photographic work instead. On the other hand, Nick Hayek, Swatch’s CEO was so encouraging; we had a great discussion about modern art, film, the birth of Swatch and creative liberty in general. He’s the mastermind behind the residency. Talking to him explained a lot about the ambitions for the program.
CR: Overall, how did China end up affecting your practice?
HB: China wasn’t on my radar before going, but it really altered every aspect of my art. Above everything, I miss it. Shanghai is like a shot of espresso, I often find myself wanting more of what it offered. I satisfy that craving by applying the same adventurous attitude toward my current environments, regardless of how familiar they are. I walk more, I see more, and I estrange myself from my surroundings so I can see it alternatively.
CR: Swatch asks artists to leave a trace for their Virtual Museum. What did you end up leaving?
HB: My trace was a photographic print that documented daily Shanghainese life.
CR: What is going to happen to the work you make in Shanghai? Has it been or are there plans to show it elsewhere?
HB: Apparently the residency receives a bit of press in Europe, so there were some ongoing showcases that featured the artists, and samples of their work. In Shanghai, we also had a separate installation in one of the luxury shopping centres. And of course, the trace left behind is permanently on display within the hotel itself. Every floor features past artists work; it makes an interesting walk around inside the historic building.
CR: Anything else you’d like to add?
HB: I’d definitely do it again. I’d love to go back once my work has evolved even more and face Shanghai a second time, as a more mature artist.
This interview was conducted over Skype and email by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.
All images by Heidi Bryce.