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Conflictual Topography II _ Conversation with Heidi Ballet

Heidi Ballet talked with Xiang Zairong, a researcher, theorist, and sometimes curator, about Chinese farmer’s markets, the ongoing pandemic, food, and face masks in Europe and in China.



Heidi

I have been following your work for a while, especially your writing on decolonization. When Nikita, from Guangdong Times Museum, pointed out that you have been thinking and writing on the Western imaginations of Chinese wet markets, which have been identified as the place of origin of COVID-19 virus, I thought it would be great to have a conversation with you about this. As a first question, can you say something about how you experienced wet markets yourself while you were growing up in China?


Zairong

Well, my relation to wet markets is quite direct. My mom owned a small eatery in my hometown and she went to the local market every day. Now she’s retired, so she doesn’t go there anymore—and that market doesn’t exist anymore—but back then she went there every day to buy fruits, vegetables, and meat for the restaurant. My aunt, my mom’s older sister, was a vegetable farmer and she sold her vegetables in the small county where she still lives in the local “wet” market. I still remember how hard it was for her and how the business made her no money. She had to get up very early, at 4 a.m. or if not earlier, to pick the vegetables from the field, carry them to the market, and sell them there until midday. A whole long morning of hard work, if she was lucky, could make her something like 30 renminbi (ca. 4 euros). This was the early 2000s. 


Actually, my cousin-in-law is the daughter of the vegetable sellers in that market where my mom used to buy vegetables. Her family came from a different province and they started the business in a very modest manner, selling vegetables, making a little more than my aunt I guess as it is the capital city of the province after all. They became friends and now they’re family. So new kinship has developed from there, not out of some kind of abstract consumer exchange. So when I saw all these outbursts of exoticism and demonization regarding the so-called wet market, I found it funny and annoying at the same time.


Heidi

I can imagine. You wrote a very engaging text at the beginning of April which was called Covid-19: On the Epistemic Condition, which I found very significant. In the text, you give a reply to a text that was written by Alain Badiou at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, at the end of March, and specifically in answer to the racial prejudices in his text. To quote from his text, Badiou wrote that, “Chinese markets are known for their dangerous dirtiness and for their irrepressible taste for the open-air sale of all kinds of living animals, stacked on top of one another.” Can you say something about why you wanted to react to what he wrote?


Zairong

Yes, you can imagine the anger I felt when I read those lines amidst a rapid rise of anti-Chinese sentiment that across the world. I wrote the text against two kinds of violence: violence on the street and violence on paper. The first one we can find on the street and we can also read about in the media. Back then, street violence against Chinese or anyone who looked Chinese or East Asian was rampant. I was shouted at on the street in Berlin and some people of Asian and East Asian heritage got either verbally or physically attacked. This kind of Anti-Chinese/Asian sentiment invoked this old stereotype of the dirty, savage Asian, eating exotic stuff surfaced in the media. And of course, back in February and March China and East Asia were in deep shit caused by the epidemic. But instead of having sympathy for the tragedy that was unfolding on a daily basis, I saw this incomprehensible and cruel blaming of the victim: because we allegedly eat bat soup, we deserve to die.

The second kind of violence that prompted me to write that piece is for me equally, if not more worrying, and it is represented in the Badiou text: namely epistemic violence. It came from people who have some discursive power, or actually a lot of it. Badiou is not a random person, right? His text was published on March 23 and it was immediately translated into Chinese on March 24. That’s the level of influence he has. Instead of using this discursive power for good use, he just used it to perpetuate a racist trope he himself criticizes, like, two or three paragraphs afterwards. [Laughs] So these two kinds of violence, street violence and epistemic violence, prompted me to write a response, as I grew up with the wet market and with that kind of background, which have been so grotesquely misrepresented and hated. And now I can speak some English and I feel like I hold a bit of discursive power, to argue against Badiou and people like him.


The central point of my response was that, in the text that you quoted just now, Badiou has turned this whole question of hygiene into a question of taste and preference: “the irrepressible taste for the sale for all kinds of living animals.” Although in the French text actually the very word “irrepressible” is not there. So, I don’t know who wrote that . . . but, anyway, what I wanted to single out is that yes, those markets are not like Rewe or, I don’t know, Denn’s Biomarkt. They are not hygienic in a sense familiar to us here. But this so-called dangerous dirtiness is first and foremost an economic condition. Not a matter of taste. And that’s only the entry point.

Now another outbreak was found to have come from a market in Beijing, and I am not sure how wet the market is, but Xinfadi Market is one of the biggest food markets in Beijing, providing up to 80% of the city’s fruit, vegetables, and meat. And the coronavirus was said to be found in an imported salmon. When I was a teenager the idea of raw fish, sushi, was super exotic. Now, I am glad they haven’t made sensational jokes about sushi eaters around the world.


Heidi

With this closeness of humans to living animals, and the closeness of different types of animals and goods to one another, I had to think about how social anthropologist Mary Douglas analyzed different cultural perceptions of disgust in her book Purity and Danger, which she sees linked to an established order. The fact that things are considered dirty when that order is upset, when things are “out of place.” With some exaggeration, one could imagine that a Western culturally programmed mind is very attached to the type of goods and order of separation that you find in the supermarket and would consider other combinations dangerously out of place. In your text you also wrote that China becomes subjected to a very simple form of colonial observation and becomes a missing link of sorts. Can you say something more about that?


Zairong

Yes. So, what was in the back of my head when I wrote that response was something very disturbing—beyond the exoticism of the wet market—namely something Badiou said: “a double articulation between the modern and the archaic.” The notion of the missing link points to a specific history, and here I’m thinking of Sara Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus. I think you probably know about this story. Sara Baartman was from the East Cape, today South Africa, went to London with her employer Hendrik Cesars and a colonial army surgeon Alexander Dunlop. Cesars and Dunlop plotted to exhibit her as some kind of exotic Venus to solve their financial problems. Her consent in doing this was debated and also even back then, in the late 19th century, there was media outcry against this kind of blunt racist show. That show was soon shut down, I think. She then reemerged in Paris, performed in a theater, but later was sold to a man who was in the animal trade. 


Somehow she was made known to two French professors at the Museum of Natural History, Georges Cuvier and Henri de Blainville. Cuvier even published a text that was reprinted many times where he argues that Sara Baartman is the missing link between human and animal. She died of an undetermined disease in 1815, and after her death Cuvier dissected her body and displayed her remains against her will. This is the level of scientific racism in the 19th century. They even made a plaster of her body that was kept in the Musée de l’Homme until the 1970s. In 2002, her bodily remains were repatriated to South Africa. It is a famous case of postcolonial repatriation. 


I mean, I guess the Badiou text was not as much “in your face” as the Sara Baartman case, but the racism is creeping in there, you can feel it, together with what was surrounding us in that depressing moment of racist ridicule and Schadenfreude—the joy one feels when they observe someone else’s misfortune.


Heidi

In your text you are calling for epistemic “unhygiene,” which is great!


Zairong

Yes, that’s the proposal.


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Heidi

You have meanwhile been living in Europe for 13, 14 years. In a conversation we had in preparation, you mentioned that you have a different relationship to food in Europe in comparison to your relationship to food while living in China. How is the experience different for you in Europe, buying things in the supermarket, which is I guess a modern ideal of consumption?


Zairong

Yes, so I lived more as an adult in Europe, when I was in China I was more of an adolescent, and as a university student I did not cook. I only started cooking in Europe, when I came to do my master’s and then PhD in different countries in here, and also Mexico. As many overseas Chinese students, we perfect our cooking skills outside of China, with a bit of nostalgia but also due to the fact that most of us can’t really afford to eat outside every day, money-wise and well-being-wise. Anyway, every year I went back to China for summer vacation and so on … and I always wanted to cook for my parents. And before I even could begin in the kitchen, it always seemed quite difficult.


Heidi

Why was that?


Zairong

Well, my family owned this restaurant, so they are quite snobbish when it comes to food, in that they don’t usually buy groceries in the supermarket. They only go to farmer’s markets because they don’t trust the standardized seemingly hygienic packed product. I would say that they have a healthy suspicion of mass production. They need to go to the market to buy from farmers or people they know, who have been selling them stuff for the restaurant. But one thing I noticed is that I have zero knowledge of, for example, how to pick the edible part of a vegetable that farmers would just sell you in its entirety. So you go back home, you have to wash them and pick the more tender part. But for the untrained eye, you don’t really know where to start or even how to wash certain things. Not to mention, you know, how to kill a fish, how to break down a chicken … all this knowledge I took for granted because everything is cut nicely and washed in the supermarkets here in Europe. The only thing I think in Germany you need to wash is the potatoes. But it’s not that difficult to wash and peel potatoes I guess. This is a superficial observation of the phenomenon. But what I’ve been thinking about is, are the vegetables in the supermarket more hygienic than the vegetables and meat sold in open air, in the wet market? And as we are talking, a huge outbreak is found in the meatpacking slaughterhouse owned by the Tönnies in Germany. I do not find eating pork strange, but the type of gigantic slaughterhouse is somewhat science-fictional to say the least. But if we go back to that question of the economic condition, it becomes very complex. Let me just be reductive here. Those wet markets are probably one of the few remaining places that are at the periphery of global capitalism, which desperately tries to incorporate them into its system of standards and profitable capital.


I have been reading this very nice book by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing called The Mushroom at the End of the World. At some point, she talked about the supply chain and focused specifically on Walmart and how they turned all these, what she calls peri-capitalist production from farmers and so on, through the supply chain, into a barcode—legible to the inventory that ignores the labor conditions or environmental impacts of the production process, be it from small farmers or big agricultural industries. In a way, I wish the seemingly dirty and messy and unhygienic production in the peri-capitalist wetness would never be translated into the hygienic plastic bags stamped with the very neat black-and-white barcode. There is nothing cleaner than some digits in financial capitalism; they don’t even seem to have a body. There is also nothing dirtier than these digits.


Heidi

That’s a compelling way to think about barcodes and the concept of dirtiness. In fact, it happens that my grandfather on my mother’s side was a local pig butcher who went from farm to farm to slaughter pigs, so I have witnessed the process of pig slaughter very often. And I can relate to what you say about a system of knowledge that gets lost. My grandfather would execute a kind of precise choreography, with swift movements, that had ritualistic qualities beyond the killing itself. I was mesmerized by it as a child, the drama, the killing, the organized system of meat processing and also the cheerful coming together of the family since it was a social gathering of a very specific kind. Such a difference with today, when we buy food in the supermarket, and it’s hard to find out where the meat comes from, which type of pesticides have been used on the vegetables, or let alone understand the social conditions that were created alongside the production of the cheap goods that we find neatly packaged in the supermarket.


Zairong

Ha! That’s where I found no difference between China and Europe. Your grandfather was the Belgian Paoding (庖丁); the only difference is that Paoding was an expert in dissecting cattle. One thing I vaguely remembered from childhood when I went to my maternal grandma’s village for Chinese New Year is the celebration of pig slaughter: normally each household had one pig that was reared for a whole year and then was killed on the New Year’s Eve. This one pig could normally provide the whole family with meat for up to the summer. You get the best ham and sausage and all that from this highly ritualized event. And ritual here also means coordination and traditional knowledge: the whole family would participate in a series of very detailed works to handle different parts of the whole enterprise, of turning a giant pig into different “meat products” that would last through the seasons and taste good or even better when they age (like smoked ham). It also means a profound ecology in tandem with religious underpinning. There is a very old tree in the middle of the village. On the second day of the new year, I think, many families will carry the head of the pig as a sacrifice to the “Divine Tree of the Dragon” to ask for protection and prosperity for the new year to come.


Heidi

Yes indeed! It’s very comparable. And this is very much what I remember too, my grandfather being the ceremony master, and then each family member having a role in handling the meat, someone making sausages, someone cutting the tenderloin etcetera. Actually, in countries like the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Slovakia, pig slaughter also traditionally takes place on specific holidays, like in China. 



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Heidi

If you don’t mind, I would like to divert the conversation to something completely unrelated, which has nothing to do with the wet markets. I have been quite flabbergasted by the reluctance toward wearing face masks in Europe in the past months. In my home country Belgium, for example, there has been a long and complicated discussion that included a bout of advising against the use of masks, and similar things happened elsewhere. Meanwhile in East Asia, since there has been a tradition of wearing face masks to protect others, it instantly helped significantly in combating the coronavirus. I found the European reluctance inexplicable since the urgency was so obvious, and it was as if bumping into an insurmountable cultural difference. It’s easy to think in clichés, that Western societies are more focused on the individual and on liberty, in comparison to Asian societies that are more focused on society as a whole, but that might be overly simplistic. I wonder whether you have noticed the same, and if yes, if you have any thoughts about it?


Zairong

Yes, the whole mask thing, it is very perplexing… the moment I wrote the text called “Superior Mask” in Chinese actually, for Times Museum in Guangzhou, to accompany the podcast we made with Nikita, there were very few people wearing masks here. I must have looked super exaggerated for many in the supermarket. In a way, what is kind of alarming to see was somehow that what happened in East Asia didn’t seem to have had any impact, let alone added any value to the broader “West,” Europe or the US. There doesn’t seem to be anything that one can learn from it. 


Heidi

Exactly.


Zairong

And it concretely manifests in the whole debate on masks—I mean, it’s still going on and ever more politicized, like in the US. It is as if the wearing of masks by all these people, all these millions of people (not just in China, but in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore) were just a matter of style or taste—like “the irrepressible taste for open air sales of animals.” The more specific reason for the reluctance to wear masks comes from, I guess, a different understanding of the body. I’ve been working on how the body is conceived from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine where the body is conceived as a body of orifices. The body is not—for lack of a better word—phallic, which is enclosed to an exterior. Its very nature is its penetrability, virus or otherwise. So people are reluctant to wear masks perhaps because deep down they have a distrust of one’s own penetrability—and therefore others’ penetrability. The question was: Why would I need to wear a mask if I am not ill. That was the reason given by many people, including in some official guidelines. And the other reason is a very strange reason that was given by, for example the US CDC: the officials said people don’t know how to wear them properly. Therefore, the masks might give a false impression of protection while in fact not being properly worn.


Heidi

That’s interesting what you say in relation to orifices. In the European Middle Ages, religion was very much focused on orifices, but more from the perspective of policing the orifices, since they were considered vulnerable entry points into the body. It was believed that bad spirits could enter through the ears, or that the soul could leave the body through an opening, one of the reasons why the first medical operations were illegal. I find it interesting what you mention, that knowledge from Asia doesn’t transmit to the rest of the world in the same way that Western knowledge has been spreading, and still is spreading around the world as a kind of “standard,” a possible tool of Western hegemony. It took scenes from Italian hospital before many European governments acted.


Zairong

Yes, it’s interesting to look back to history and see how people dealt with other plagues in the past. It is pretty much the same thing. The authorities were late in response. And the virus is always from “the other.” No matter who this “other” is. And then all kinds of rumors start, all kinds of ridiculous ideas, be it the demon, or now 5G…

But then in the past people waited for some kind of divine intervention to send in a cure. There was faith in God, who will arrive to save people from the disease. Now we have a different kind of faith. Our coming messiah is the vaccine. So the way human society reacts to a pandemic has not changed very much schematically. One of the few things that has changed is the speed with which things, good or bad, go viral. Another thing is also the accelerated nature of transnational travel. Now you just hop on the plane and arrive in Frankfurt in a matter of hours from other parts of the world. But you know, even back in the 17th and 18th century, it was not like it did not spread, it just spread with a different speed. Now in our age it spreads with the same speed with which we live. And hopefully the making of the vaccine will also be accelerated, right, the coming messiah will come with a fast train instead of a chariot.


Heidi

Yes, exactly, while I guess the elephant in the room is that no one can guarantee that a vaccine will ever come, even if government leaders in the world are building on this narrative. Well, thank you so much for making time and for this interview!


Zairong

My pleasure, thank you for the invitation.





This woodprint illustration appears in Veridicus Christianus (A True Christian), published in 1601 and was accompanied by the caption: “The Cost of Careless Looking.” The image shows the dangers of a curious gaze penetrating into a person’s home. It was believed that the orifices of the body, and by extension the openings of the house and the borders of the village, should be carefully guarded against intruding dangers. 





Biographies


Xiang Zairong is author of the book Queer Ancient Way: A Decolonial Exploration (punctum books, 2018). He curated the “minor cosmopolitan weekend at the HKW Haus der Kulturen der Welt (2018), and is editor of its catalogue minor cosmopolitan: Thinking Art, Politics and the Universe Together Otherwise (Diaphanes 2020). He is co-curating the 2021 Guangzhou Image Triennial. He is working on two projects, respectively dealing with the concepts of “transdualism” and “counterfeit” in the Global South, especially Latin America and China. He is assistant professor of comparative literature and associate director of art at Duke Kunshan University. He was Fellow at the ICI-Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (2014–2016) and postdoctoral fellow of the DFG Research Training Group minor cosmopolitanisms at Potsdam University (2016–2020).


Heidi Ballet is an independent curator based in Berlin. She is the artistic director of the 2021 Beaufort Triennial in Ostend and recently co-curated the 2019 Tallinn Photomonth Biennial and the 2017 Lofoten Biennial (LIAF). In 2016, she curated the Satellite exhibition series Our Ocean, Your Horizon at Jeu de Paume in Paris and CAPC in Bordeaux, as well as the group exhibition The Morality Reflex at CAC Vilnius. Between 2012 and 2015, she worked as a research curator on the project After Year Zero that was initiated and shown at HKW in Berlin (2013) and later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw (2015). Her writing has appeared in Mousse Magazine, Randian, and Art Papers.


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This interview was first published by Times Center Berlin, in July 2020.

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