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Case study: “Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society”

Case study: Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society
Dinghaiqiao is a working class neighborhood in Shanghai that has not yet been “redeveloped.” In the summer of 2014, Chen Yun, a young curator who spent her childhood in this area, went back to Dinghaiqiao and rented a tiny old house in a narrow alley. She named the place “Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society.” She invited several young artists to Dinghaiqiao. They studied its history, collected stories from the residents, recorded sound samples in the neighborhood, and planned a community radio. In November, they exhibited their works in Power Station of Art, Shanghai’s flagship contemporary art museum.
The exhibition, seen by many in the art world as an affirmation, actually made Chen Yun and the participating artists a bit anxious. They felt that they had barely scratched the surface. Li Yafeng, a young artist who had become a core member of the Mutual Aid Society, organized two exhibitions in the rented house in Dinghaiqiao. They were absorbing displays of Shanghai’s historic industries, and attracted many outside visitors. Yet few neighbors came. Yafeng told us in an interview, “The residents did not understand what we were doing… The community had been self-sufficient. They didn’t need art nor artists.”
The core members of the Mutual Aid Society sat down and reflected on what they had learned over the past year. They thought about the idea of “mutual aid, “ and came to the realization that artists had come to Dinghaiqiao to collect materials and inspirations, but did not offer anything perceived by the residents as useful. Mutual aid, a form of community practice with a long history, can only arise out of mutual trust and reciprocal needs.
Zhao Yiren, another core member, decided to move into Dinghaiqiao to set up her bedroom on the second floor of the rented house. This way, the house was no longer just an art space used only for exhibitions and discussions. It became a living space. Yiren began to perceive the real needs of the residents. In January 2016, an after-school childcare service was started. It’s a real service and parents have to pay a small fee. Children could come to the Mutual Aid Society after school. They could get help with their homework, and participate in art activities. Parents appreciated this service, even though it’s not free. Gradually the neighbors started to come to the Mutual Aid Society.
Chen Yun and her colleagues continue to organize highly intellectual discussions at the Mutual Aid Society. Scholars and practitioners, from China and abroad, come to this tiny house to share their ideas and learn about this particular community. These events usually attract a young and educated audience from the city. At the same time, the childcare service and other activities like storytelling workshops attend to the needs of the local residents. It will take some time for these two worlds to come closer, to understand each other, and to help each other, and to become stronger together.

A group of young artists set up a “mutual aid society” in Dinghaiqiao, a working class neighborhood in Shanghai, to explore ways to create a lively cultural scene while meeting the residents’ practical needs.

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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