College of Design & Innovation at Tongji University Shanghai

MUSEUM 2050 Dispatch

Updates from College of Design & Innovation at Tongji University Shanghai

Azinta Plantenga

My office is at the College of Design & Innovation at Tongji University Shanghai, but I am writing this from home, where I still work most of the time since we were banned from campus at the start of the pandemic. While we have long since been allowed back to our offices, I’ve gotten too used to working either from home or one of Shanghai’s many cafes, where Covid-19 seems pleasantly far away. China’s zero tolerance stance towards the virus allowed life to return to pretty close to normal more than a year ago. However, strict controls and restrictions are still enforced on campus, unwelcome reminders of the not-so-normal reality outside of our bubble, that I try to forget about when possible.

With all cultural endeavours being a struggle over the past year, we were lucky to have teaching to fall back on. But this came with its own degrees of complications, with extra scrutiny on universities as the government remained protective of student health throughout the pandemic. When I finally made it back to China in February 2020 (returning from one of those unplanned extended holidays many people found themselves on due to flight cancellations) everything had ground to a halt. No exhibitions, no activities, no classes, no students. No one was allowed on campus so all work was done from home. Once cafes slowly started opening up around March-April, I cautiously moved my work outside, excitedly seeing more and more people emerge from home confinement. In May 2020, when we held our research studio, students zoomed in from their various home towns across the country and abroad, still banned from returning to campus. Our studio was named “Art, Shopping & Entertainment,” examining public spaces at a time when ironically anything public was discouraged. We added “in the post-pandemic age” to the title, considering the new reality we found ourselves in, but by the end of the studio it already seemed redundant, with many public places back to pre-pandemic normal.

Exhibitions started back up again, though some projects were put on hold for safety or lack of foreign visitors. In the age of Zoom, talks became the next best thing. We made grateful use of the increased availability of international speakers, organizing talks for the Suzhou Design Week, the Power Station of Art Shanghai Biennale and the Centre Pompidou x Westbund Museum Project. I loved how everyone embraced the audio problems, freeze frames, embarrassing backgrounds, and especially the awkward endings; just a wave, thank you and leave meeting.

Now, more than a year later it’s pretty much business as usual on campus, at least on the surface. Things still feel a little flat. Our cafe never reopened and deliveries still have to be picked up at the main gates. Visitors are deterred and staff still needs to provide daily updates and request permission for every single trip out of the city. But what makes me most sad is the absence of the foreign students, who left at the start of the pandemic. While Chinese students were gradually let back on campus, there is no return in sight for the foreign ones. They resignedly join classes online, overcoming time differences and the ever-changed classroom dynamic, while joining discussions about local situations they have never had a chance to experience in person. It’s a far cry from the university’s former energetic, international dynamic.

And we are constantly reminded how fragile this current state of “pretty normal” is. In the last few weeks China saw a sudden outbreak of the Delta variant. Just a few cases, spread over a few cities, but the response was immediate and very severe. Travel restrictions and cancelled public gatherings returned overnight, putting a stop to most events. While it feels temporary, with tight control meaning a faster return to normal, it does make us feel less hopeful of borders opening or foreign students returning sooner rather than later. But this seems to be the price we pay for being able to lead relatively normal lives.

As much as I have been grateful that my work and life was no where near as much affected as most others around the world, not being able to leave China has started to chafe. For many foreigners here, return home means the risk of not being allowed back in. From time to time I contemplate taking the leap, to see family and friends for the first time in two years. But with the looming risk of getting stuck outside—like so many foreigners living in China have experienced already—It’s a scary decision. But as months turn into years, with no clear end in sight, I do wonder if it’s time…

However, I also feel this is such an interesting place to be. To see how local cultural practices evolve, especially now, with closed borders and the lack of “cross contamination” from outside. While the rest of the world stood still for a year, China marched ahead. It has always been fascinating to me how fast China develops; if you leave for a few months, It’s a shock how much has changed when you come back. I can’t imagine what it will be like this time when borders do finally reopen and we can visit each others’ worlds again.

So for now I guess I’ll stay put, ever-hoping things will get better, while enjoying Shanghai’s recent rise to official coffee capital of the world from the various quirky cafes around town.

About the Author:

Azinta Plantenga is the associate director of the Curatorial Lab at Tongji University College of Design & Innovation, where she also teaches design history. The Curatorial Lab, which was launched in 2019, explores the role of curation as a tool and way of thinking about an increasingly complex global landscape, by identifying, investigating and formulating curatorial responses to compelling questions about the role of design and culture in shaping our relationships with each other and the planet. Prior to this, she was a curator at Design Society Shenzhen. She holds a degree in Chinese Studies and Design History from Leiden University.

About the Series:

Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together through our community’s shared passion for museums and institutional development. As the world slowly and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our broader network to share personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.