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From Villages to City: The Informal History of Shenzhen-DU Juan

2015.11.19

Established in 1979 as an experimental economic zone for China’s eventual sweeping reforms, Shenzhen’s transformation from a presumed tabula rasa into a metropolis is held as a miraculous success by local and international observers alike. How did a collection of villages grow into a metropolis of nearly 20 million in just 30 years? Through drawings, photographs, installation, and other media, this exhibit presents the hidden histories and informal urbanism of the ‘Villages in the City’, illegally built informal settlements that house half of the city’s current population. From the urban core to suburban regions, there are more than 300 of these enclaves distributed throughout the city, often in the most densely developed and populated areas.  Compressed due to a much higher population and spatial density, these tightly packed enclaves exhibit radically different social and formal characteristics than the city-proper. While many are deprived of basic civic infrastructure, the ViCs are full of colorful street life, small-scaled public spaces, and eventful pedestrian activities – a vibrant urbanity that is rarely found outside of these enclaves in Shenzhen.  Similar to Latin America’s Favelas or India’s slums, these enclaves operate in the grey zones of existing judicial frameworks and are representative of a unique type of urban informality in Chinese cities. The cultural and spatial history of the former agrarian villages has enabled them to become catalysts for the rapid economic growth and urbanization of the city.  This research challenges existing assumptions of the city’s developmental history by providing an unorthodox perspective of the villages as the historical foundations upon which the success of the contemporary city grew. The exhibit installation also actives engages visitors of the Biennale to communicate and records their personal experiences and perceptions of the “Villages” of Shenzhen.  Over time, the installation will transform and be enriched by the stories and textures of accounts left behind by the visitors’ own experiences of the city.