Sunday, July 03, 2011

Outbreaks of eccentricity in the hutongs

A little while ago I happened to meet a visiting New York artist called Stephanie who is spending the summer in Beijing and is running an 'alternative travel agency' here - touting unusual themed tours of the States, such as a camping trip around secret military bases in the South-West and a demonstration of how to 'live off the land' in Central Park.

It's not clear if there's any serious commercial intent behind this venture - although Stephanie assures me that "all the tours are genuine"; and they are, ahem, rather high-value tickets, so she probably wouldn't be averse to making a fortuitous sale or two here and there. But I rather think it's mostly a teasing provocation, a stimulus to meditation on the nature of the tourism experience and its place in our modern world. Everything connected with this quirky little 'business' - down to a recent round of interviews to find an office assistant - seems to evolve into some kind of art event, whether it was originally conceived that way or not. There's a 'promotional activity' of some sort most weekends, usually involving performance artists flaunting their weirdness on the streets, to the amusement or bafflement of local residents and the occasional annoyance of drivers attempting to manoeuvre their cars through the narrow hutongs (so, that's a good thing!).

And yes, this is all practically on my doorstep: the 'office' has been set up in a tiny shop space on Bell Tower Square, right next to the Bell & Drum bar.

This week, Stephanie is promising a little barbecue cook-up to celebrate the 4th July. It is the only event I've seen scheduled for the 4th this year, rather than the 2nd or the 3rd - so, I'll definitely give it a look (if I manage to shake off the second horrendous dose of food-poisoning I've managed to pick up in just over a week). However, I experience niggling doubts as to whether this is going to be a 'straight' party.... or another of her trademark subversive, perspective-challenging 'happenings'. Are we going to be offered hotdogs made of otter's noses, I wonder? Or required to sing The Star-Spangled Banner in Chinese? We shall see.

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