Aotu's Amelie Kahn-Ackermann: 'The creative flow never stops'

The Beijing curator navigating the changing hutong landscape

As bricking teams have descended on Beijing's hutongs over the last few months, we’ve lost some of our favourite haunts: joints like Más, Tiki Bar, and Rager Pie that added splashes of cosmopolitan culture to the city's dusty, diverse alleyways. Beixinqiao art gallery and hair salon Aotu Studio was among the most directly affected venues after an abrupt wave of renovations that also claimed many of their neighbours. Though their outlook seems grim, Aotu’s team is preparing for a new birth from the rubble, beginning with a crowd-sourced performance art series and crowdfunding effort aimed at redefining the space as a community centre for creatives and anyone with a stake in hanging on to hutong culture.

We spoke with photographer Amelie Kahn-Ackermann, Aotu’s barkeeper and chief curator, about the recent changes the venue has undergone, and where it’s going from here.

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Where are you from originally? What is your background in the arts?

It’s hard to say for me. I'm half-Chinese, half-German, but grew up in several different countries. I’ve spent most of my life in Beijing and moved to Berlin at the age of 17 to study photography. That is where my background in arts lies.

When did you come back to Beijing?

I came back to Beijing in 2016 because it is still something like my hometown. And I always got the feeling that in Beijing you may have many chances to build up something new. This is a bit ironic given the situation right now. But I still think that all the changes that Beijing is going through make it special. Everyone has to rethink and rebuild all the time. So the creative flow never stops.

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How did you become involved with Aotu at first?

I came to Beijing completely broke and just needed a job, any job. Through a friend I got a job as barkeeper at Aotu Studio. Ray, the owner, and I got along very well. I have to say, he's actually one of the most amazing bosses I’ve ever met. At some point I told him about my ideas for exhibitions. He said that he trusted me in my taste and ideas and gave me complete freedom for their realisation. We are a great team at Aotu, and we all put our ideas together in events, bar, food and exhibitions.

When did you find out that Aotu would be affected by the hutong demolitions? How was Aotu affected, specifically?

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We were informed in April, with very short notice. We only had a couple of weeks to prepare the space. We used to have two floors and a rooftop. On the second floor we had a hair salon, to which we had to say goodbye. Now we’re only left with one floor, but we will rebuild the rooftop as fast as possible.

How long did it take for the forced renovations to actually happen?

It is still ongoing. We hope it will be done by next week. In total it’s taken about two months.

More generally, can you comment on how the hutongs are changing, from the perspective of someone organising art events?

It makes me sad and angry what is happening here, and how it is happening. They didn’t talk to anyone, and didn’t explain anything. They just sent a last-minute announcement, and then bulldozers. It is a blow against Beijing’s creative spirit. They say it is good for the city and the people, but I don’t see any improvements of the real living conditions in the hutongs, it is just decoration. Going on like this, the hutongs will change from an urban space full of life and creativity into a dead place. What is important for me is that we all should stay in Beijing and find a way to come back and make it even better.

What exhibitions you've organised at Aotu so far? How have you found artists to work with, and what have you tried to accomplish?

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As I come from a photography background I mainly focus on that. I noticed that Beijing is still missing a place for young photographers. I want to give young, talented but unknown artists a place to show their work. A place where it is not about money and focusing on selling art, but giving talented young people a voice and attention. We started with the work of the Berlin-based photographer Jana Ritchie, which went quite well. It attracted a lot of attention, especially among young Chinese people. I got the feeling that they could connect better with a young and unknown artist like themselves, and they got inspiration from it.

Most of the people I exhibit are friends of mine, or become friends. During the last few years After reopening, we will show Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert’s work about transgender people, and Emile Duckes’ work about Aidara and Transnistria. We will also have a dark room to develop and print analogue film in the future, and will offer professional workshops about how to work with analogue photography. I’m very exited about that, because I myself prefer analogue photography to digital.

You’ve just launched a new performance series to make us of Aotu’s status of transition. Can you describe the project?

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Because we don't want emotions to pass away, and we don't want to simply sit and watch. In situations where unpleasant things happen, we must find another way around. And it's fun to play with such situations in creative ways. We will work with two performance artists and one musician.

Why did you choose the format of performance?

Performance comes up as a perfect way to capture those moments of change, with its strong sense of presence and tangibility.

Will the performance series help shape the future of Aotu?

This is the first step, and also the warming-up session for the whole crowdfunding program, which will directly influence how Aotu will exist in the future.

How will the crowdfunding campaign work? Do you have other projects planned for later in the year to help with Aotu financially?

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Yes! The crowdfunding program will go through three stages. The first one is the ongoing performance series. The second stage is an open call for professionals and people with great ideas in areas like architecture and interior design to join the Aotu team and work on the new Aotu space layout, because we want the new look of the space to be a joint effort, an art work by all involved. The third stage, which is crucial to Aotu's existence in the future, is the crowdfunding for financial support. We need help from the people who care, and with that we can be able to present a brand-new Aotu space to the public and society. And we believe this new Aotu will influence and bring changes to the existing art and cultural scene in China.

Anything else you want to add?

Aotu welcomes people with good ideas to join us and volunteer in the rebuilding of the space. It is an open call, and anyone who feels interested in being a part of Aotu and learning from it can contact us through aotustudio2014@qq.com. And keep posted for our update on the crowdfunding process! Thank you.

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