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My new partnership: REGIONAL

In the last months I have been working in partnership with Gwendolyn Floyd in our new venture called “REGIONAL.” We operate REGIONAL as an interdisciplinary design and research network that performs and applies original analysis of global society, culture and commerce, uncovering and developing opportunities for profitable innovation and meaningful cultural intervention.

It’s been a wonderful and busy time as our design, research and consulting work has taken us to Germany, the UK, China, Japan, Canada, the U.S. and now Cuba. We have a dedicated website that documents our ongoing work and thinking. It’s now featuring several projects, including the piece that recreated Shenzhen’s pre-urban topography for the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. That piece led us to work extensively and directly with local craftsmen and take up residence in Shenzhen for nearly two months. Have a look at that project and others on REGIONAL’s website here.

For an independent take on REGIONAL, have a read of Mary Ann O’donnell’s recent piece that took us as her subject. Mary Ann is a professional Anthropologist, Sinologist and Artist. After a PhD that saw her pioneer work in Shenzhen, she became one of the first international experts full-time on the ground there. Her research, guidance and insight were instrumental to our work in Shenzhen and Greater China. This piece appeared in translation in a notable Chinese cultural publication during out residency there.

Global Movement, Local Participation:
The Partnership of Gwendolyn Floyd and Joshua Kauffman

For Gwendolyn Floyd and Joshua Kauffman, thinking globally and acting locally is a passion, a way of life, and a job. They have recently founded Regional, an interdisciplinary design and research network which “applies original analysis of global society, culture and commerce, uncovering and developing opportunities for profitable innovation and meaningful cultural intervention.”

In their Bienniale installation Foreground, for example, Floyd and Kauffman have contributed to ongoing Shenzhen discussions about the relationship between urbanization and environmentalism. According to the designers, “Foreground is derived from GIS data of a recently removed Shenzhen mountain ridge.” Over the past twenty years, Shenzhen has aggressively reclaimed land from both its eastern and western coasts. In everyday conversation this process is called “moving mountains in order to fill the ocean (移山填海).” The result has been a general flattening of the landscape. With Foreground, Floyd and Kauffman respond to this transformation by using bamboo to re-construct a mountain that no longer exists. The mountain ridges soar above the central axis of the Biennale, lightly resting above late 1980s era factories. The contrast between the structure and the ground actualizes the difference between Shenzhen’s pre- and post-urban topographies, creating a visible and material history for the area. More importantly, the installation enables Bienniale visitors to imagine the lay of Shenzhen’s land before urbanization and, in doing so, re-imagine how the city might reproduce itself in the future.

The designers chose to use bamboo because bamboo simultaneously evokes the ancient and the contemporary, the constructed and the natural, the quotidian and the majestic. On the one hand, archeological evidence suggests that the Chinese have used bamboo for over 7,000 years. Indeed, during the Han Dynasty, craftsman used bamboo to build a palace for the Han Wudi Emperor. However, bamboo was also used to make arrowheads, chopsticks, musical instruments and furniture. On the other hand, as urbanization and industrialization degrade the environment, bamboo is an ancient, renewable, and low-cost building material. In southeastern China, where bamboo is abundant, many Dai people live in bamboo stilt houses, complete with bedrooms, kitchens, and balconies. Meanwhile in Shenzhen, bamboo scaffolding enabled the construction of many of the city’s skyscrapers.

Foreground provides a useful introduction to the designers’ very global, but locally realized passions, social commitments, and work. In a word, Floyd and Kauffman are ‘regionalists.’ They aim to create platforms for global and local collaboration, specifically cultivating spaces where local terms can be deployed and understood in global contexts. In their ongoing Cuba project, for example, they analyze and provide creative solutions to understanding the problem of self-representation in a global tourist market. During an interview, Kauffman explained that Cubans don’t have ready access to the internet, but visitors to Cuba do. What’s more, these tourists regularly upload images of and commentary about their Cuban experiences, with the result that non-Cubans are creating, manipulating, and deploying images of Cuba in an online context, which excludes Cuban participation. Thus, Regional’s Cuba project explores how contradictions between technological haves and have-nots shape global tourism and, by extension, local societies.

Regional’s projects represent a new generation of global engagement. When David Brower first coined the term “Think Globally, Act Locally” in 1969, internet access was not universal, international flights were limited and expensive, and the Cold War separated the world in mutually exclusive zones. Today, young Chinese watch Korean telenovelas, American sitcoms, and Indian movies online, international flights are common and cheap, and the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border is open 24 hours a day. Being global is no longer a question of imagining one’s place in the world, but actively engaging that world. Floyd and Kauffman represent a new generation of global citizens, who live and work abroad, defining themselves in terms of international understanding and cooperation.
They further elaborated these ideals during an online interview, “Wherever we investigate and create we employ the same cultural and historical sensitivity. To make ourselves conversant in the cross-contextual situations in which we operate, we re-situate our research and questioning long before we physically transport ourselves. In North America, Europe and Asia, our advanced preparation of coming into contact with experts and locals is the same. Where things feel most different is when we arrive in our new temporary homes and allow ourselves to be the subjects of cultural dialogue, where inevitably our appreciative inquiry, and intercultural absorption and interaction is fully exercised.”

Significantly, access to education, technology, and local resources enable this model of global localism. Floyd has studied architecture in Germany, cultural theory at Brown University and design at the Design Academy Eindhoven (the Netherlands), while Kauffman designed his own degree in globalization at Duke University and studied film at the Canadian National Film Board. To create Foreground, the team used GIS data to map design the installation. Moreover, much of their initial impressions of Shenzhen were formed through online research and interactions. In fact, I first met Floyd and Kauffman online; they sent me an email, after which we began a virtual dialog about Shenzhen several months before we met. At the Bienniale, Floyd and Kauffman worked with local contractor, Li Wenjing, who oversaw purchasing materials as well as project construction. Shenzhen University School of Architecture student, Huang Lu (Laura) provided translation and facilitated cross-cultural communication. She also gave Floyd and Kauffman Chinese names. Gwendolyn became Wen Linlin, nomenclature that whimsically echoes her English name, while Joshua became Shu Ya, literally “Book Asia”, a name simultaneously formal and fitting.

I close this essay on a personal note. When I first came to Shenzhen in 1995, globalization referred to export-oriented manufacturing. There were few foreigners here, and among that motley crew, even fewer interested in engaging Shenzhen society. The fact that Foreground has been built and installed in Shenzhen speaks not only to the globalization of young westerners like Floyd and Kauffman, but also to the profound and deepening globalization of Shenzhen’s culture.

Foreground is installed along the central axis of the Overseas Chinese Town bienniale grounds.

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