Conversations

The Accidental Entrepreneur: Interview with a Bibliophile

On 21 January 2008, AAA Researcher for China Megan Connolly spoke with Robert Bernell at Timezone 8 bookstore and cafe in Beijing's 798 Dashanzi Art District.

 

MC. What brought you to Beijing?

RB. Let's see... Motorola brought me to Beijing. I was working in Hong Kong at the time as a Business Development Manager for North Asia and one of my primary markets was China. When my wife, who was working as a Legal Advisor for Nestle, moved from Hong Kong to Beijing, I asked Motorola if they had a position for me in Beijing. They said sure but it would be slightly different in nature. They gave me the position of Operations Manager for the Cellular Infrastructure group for China, which amounted to a raise and a significant increase in responsibilities. So I moved to Beijing in 95 with my wife.

MC. What spurred your interest in contemporary art from China?

RB. My interest in contemporary art in China began in 1986 in Nanjing. I was a student at the time and spent a lot of time at Nanjing Yishu Xueyuan, The Nanjing Art Academy. I translated a book called Zhongguo Xiandai Huihua Shi, A History of Modern Chinese Painting, which was authored by Li Xiao Shan and Zhang Xiaoxia. I would go to Nanyi once a week and visit with Zhang Xiaoxia. Through him, I met a lot of artists: Xu Lei, Ding Yi, Mao Yan and Zhu Xingjian. It was at the height of 'The New Tide Movement.' In 1986, Deng Lijun was no longer Spiritual Pollution. The students were protesting on the streets. They were throwing their water bottles out the dormitory windows-the water bottle being a symbol for Xiaoping, which is Deng Xiaoping. It was a very interesting time. There was only one restaurant at the time-a little noodle shop that served up noodles and Jiaozi. We spent a lot of time there, drinking beer, eating Jiaozi and talking about art.

I also began collecting art. I had been collecting since High school; I should say I had been receiving art as birthday gifts since high school. When I went back and got my Masters Degree at Stanford in Chinese Literature, three of the papers I wrote were on what was happening in Chinese contemporary art in as much as it was related to what was happening in contemporary Chinese literature.

MC. How did you conceptualize Chinese-art.com?

RB. As I recall, I was working at Motorola and traveling a lot. I didn't have much time to go down to the artist studios and visit with the artists much less really understand what was happening in contemporary art, so I commissioned articles from Yi Ying-an Art Critic that was introduced to me by Liu Xiaodong. The concept was that he would provide me with a kind of report on the state of art with up to a hundred images, or close to a hundred images-as many as he could get. Then I paid him a fee. I would read these things at the airport, on airplanes and in between meetings. They started to accumulate in my drawer and I thought I was really on to something. I was collecting Liu Xiaodong's, Yue Minjun's and Wang Guangyi's. I was collecting a lot at the time and learning a lot from Yi Ying. It was like a drug. I wanted to share it with my friends and I wanted to share it with the world. That coincided with the Internet boom and I thought what a great way to share it-just translate it and put it up on the web. After work I would translate the essays myself. Then we would take the slides to an output center and they would scan them, I think for ten renminbi each, and I would put them on the web. I learned how to FTP. A company called Red Fish or something like that designed the website for me. They designed it in such a way that I could FTP pages up along with images.

MC. When was this?

RB. The end of 97.

MC. Please expand on your inspiration to launch Chinese-art.com. Did you launch the site officially?

RB. No no... China was grappling with its own modernity. A friend of mine came from New York and said, "I came on a cultural tour and they took me to The Forbidden City and The Great Wall. I asked, is there something that I'm going to see during this cultural tour that dates beyond 1911 and they said no. Is there any contemporary culture in China? The answer was no."

When he asked me about it I said, "there is! It is very rich but you gotta go and find it. You gotta go into the artist studios, you gotta dig and get out there." That was one of the inspirations. I really wanted to get the information out there so people would have easier access to what was happening in contemporary art. I didn't want it to be Bob's website on contemporary Chinese art. I thought that would be pretty worthless in the long run.

The thought was to implement a guest editor system. The first guest editor was Leng Lin. He was given full editorial authority and freedom to do whatever he wanted. My role was just that of a Translator and HTML programmer. After Leng Lin was Yi Ying. Then I think Li Xianting, Zhu Qi, Pi Li, Wang Nanming and Wang Lin. Most of the independent curators and critics that are still practicing today, at one time or another, guest edited Chinese-art.com.

MC. Did the guest editors always have free reign to do what they wanted? Were you worried about censorship?

RB. They had complete reign to do whatever they wanted. In the case of Wang Nanming and Pi Li, they guest edited during a particularly nationalistic period in China so their articles were really diatribes aimed at the international art community and the perceived invasiveness within the Chinese art scene. While I may have disagreed with things that went up on the website, I didn't intervene. The point was to provide a platform for expression from people who were working on the frontlines. Pi Daojian, Pi Li's father, contributed. Feng Boyi and Zhu Qi contributed. Everybody did something at one point or another. Francesca Dal Lago did the overseas exhibition. She did the Venice Biennale that Szeemann curated in 99. When there were reports on the Post Sensation shows that were curated by Qiu Zhijie involving Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's corpses and Zhu Yu's legend eating of babies, I stayed out of it. I thought... I hope this doesn't result in closure but the principle is to reflect what's going on in the world in the views of critics and curators. So I put it up.

MC. Were there risks putting these images up? Did you encounter any problems from Chinese officials or people who didn't approve of the site?

RB. We were always concerned about that. But we never had any problems. We never had any interruptions in the service of the site. I personally never had any problems. The artists that appeared on the site didn't have any problems. Maybe we were lucky. I'm not sure why it was the case. Like I said, I did not get involved in the editing. If the guest editor chose to put up works on Ai Weiwei's Fuck Off exhibition involving performance artists using corpses or kids, I stayed out of the editorial and focused on translation.

We didn't do anything in Chinese and we targeted the audience outside of China-the English speaking audience. I wanted to minimize its influence on the art scene within China. The thought was to be one-way traffic. In as much as it didn't have an impact on the domestic scene much less domestic politics, we were able to avoid getting into trouble.

MC. How did the local art community respond? Were people aware that you were transmitting this information outside of China?

RB. It took several years before it got acknowledged as being of any importance whatsoever. I think it was in 1999 that Zhan Wang and some other artists approached me and said that they had heard that people had read about them and seen their works on the website. Feedback was coming back to the artists from the West- a lot of people were learning about what was happening in Chinese art via the website.

MC. How about the international art community? How long did it take for you to build a following?

RB. That was just one of the frustrations we had. We had hit counts and a number of distinct users. We had all of the statistics but in terms of feedback from the readership, we didn't get much. Obviously I met you through it and you came and worked with us to help build the website. I met Britta Erickson through the website and Mathieu Borysevic. Fei Dawei of course was a regular reader and he got back to me and communicated with me on a number of occasions. Pamela Kember helped me do some editing of my translations when she was in Hong Kong. Through her and the likes of David Elliot we connected with other people in the art world. Barbara London was aware of the website and a lot of key people in the international art world were looking at it. For two years, The Art Newspaper ranked it as one of the five best art news websites in the world-not just Chinese art but art period.

Looking back, it was all consuming. We were putting up maybe 500 images a month. It was enormous! It was a very comprehensive, insanely comprehensive website. It was overkill given what was available elsewhere. I think in terms of sheer volume of content, it had to have been second only to Artnet.com.

MC. In addition to having a guest editor every month, did you work with an Advisory Board?

RB. In principle each guest editor would nominate the next guest editor. On a number of occasions however that didn't happen or the person nominated didn't have time so we would slip off track. It would basically fall upon some other independent curator who would nominate and it would pick up again. So in principle my objective was to stay out of it, stay out of the editorial and editorial decisions.

MC. When you started out, how many people did you have working with you?

RB. When it started I was the only one. I did it out of my home at night. I had a desktop and that was it. Like I said, I went and digitized the images at an output center but I did everything on a notebook. Later, we had 33 sqm that expanded to 66 sqm. I think at the height of the website we had 10 people.

MC. As the site and awareness grew, who were your biggest supporters?

RB. After doing it myself at home on a notebook for about 6 months it got too much. I was waking up at 6 o clock in the morning and working until 2 am. It got way too much so I brought on an investor. I gave him a minority share for investment and he sold his share to somebody else. There were private investors all along the way. In April 2001, I think that was the height of the Internet bubble, we received a verbal commitment to invest one million dollars for 25% of the company-an effective valuation of the company of 4 million dollars. But of course that was literally the month before the bubble burst and the market completely bottomed out. The investor kind of just went away. At that point we were faced with having to put together an alternative business plan. That led us to book publishing. That did well.

MC. When did Chinese-art.com officially end? Is the site being maintained?

RB. February 2002-the date that it was stolen. We had moved into this space and I backed up Chinese-art.com on another computer. I had anticipated bugs and viruses but what I didn't anticipate was that all of the computers in the office would be stolen. It had been taken off the web so there was nothing on any server anywhere. The site was lost. Its now back thanks to this very interesting website called Archive.org.

MC. Do you know how Archive.org found the site?

RB. They read about us briefly. They archive everything on the web, the entire web! In theory, anything that ever went onto the web is archived on Archive.org

MC. What is one of your most memorable experiences from the Chinese-art.com days (positive and negative)?

RB. Each issue was unique. Everyday I woke up and sprung out of bed. I was anxious to get to work because I was learning everyday. By translating, I literally learned one word at a time and was able to enter the art world, both literally and figuratively. I ended up spending a lot of time drinking, eating and socializing with the artists. I treasure that time as well. It was a wonderful experience.

There's another anecdote. I remember the Guggenheim show. Mind you, I'm looking at it from the China perspective. The Guggenheim show began as a show of contemporary Chinese art or so I was led to believe, and so everyone here was led to believe. Certain artists were contracted and they were going to have works in the show. Then the Guggenheim was co-opted by people who own large collections of Ink and Wash paintings and antiques. It morphed into China 5000 Years and many of the contemporary artists had their contracts nullified. I'll never forget Yi Ying and I talking over Hunan food about Freedom of Speech, censorship, and commercialism and how this was the perfect case study. I said no no no that's not the case and he goes, "Robert I’ll tell you what, I'll write an Op-ed piece to the New York Times and we'll see just how free, speech is in the United States. I'm gonna blow the cover off a major institution in the United States that caved in to money and people, breached contract, and basically forwent all the principles for which it stood because of some very powerful people. Let's see what happens." I translated it and we sent it off to the New York Times. Of course there was no reply, it was clearly never published, just swept under the rug as something by some madman.

By the end of Chinese-art.com, things that were said by important people like Yi Ying actually carried some weight within the international art world. I like to think it was because they had a platform, an uncensored platform, which put them on a level playing field with the likes of Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim and some of the moneyed class, that at one point were able to manipulate the Guggenheim. I like to think that it had an impact and I'm very happy about that. I like to think it had some significance.

MC. Why did you decide to shift towards publishing?

RB. It was a money decision. We had lost any chance of building the company. I was pouring money into the website every month and it was going down a black hole. I'm not financially independent. I'm not a Rockefeller or a Carnegie. I'm not in the charity business. I don't have enough disposable income to be in the charity business. At that point and perhaps not by coincidence Asia Art Archive emerged. It just made sense that a non-profit should undertake this kind of venture. The website was not financially viable for the company to make a return on investment. The books on the other hand sold. The content was able to bring in money in a different form, a traditional form-that of books.

MC. How did you handle the transition from a virtual presence to physically being in a bookstore everyday? Was there a transition period?

RB. I've always liked books. I always collected books and they always piled up. Being surrounded by books was my dream, to get rich and run an art bookstore and a café. The rich part didn't work out so well but I'm running an art bookstore and a café, and doing some publishing. I'm happy.

MC. You always seem to be one step ahead of the local art scene. Do you think Chinese-art.com was ahead of its time?

RB. I am still very skeptical about the international art world's interest in Chinese art. I think that only a few people are truly interested in understanding in any great depth what is happening here. I don't think that readership could sustain a magazine even today for profit. The Chinese market on the other hand and the magazines that are developing today in Chinese like Hi-Art seem to be doing very well. There seems to be a market and a substantial advertising base for them.

MC. What inspired you to donate your Chinese-art.com archive to AAA?

RB. I collected over 150 artworks. At the end of the process, I would take the work home and put it in my garage. Similarly, after commissioning articles from Yi Ying for a period of time, my drawers started filling up. I felt it was a real shame that the rest of the world couldn't see these things. In the case of Chinese-art.com, the only thing that existed was two file cabinets in a dusty warehouse, and again I thought it was a real shame. I wasn't driven by profit. I don't want this stuff to be buried and lost so I donated it to the Asia Art Archive

MC. Did you keep anything from the files for sentimental purposes?

RB. No no I didn't want to do that. When I sold my collection of 150 works, I sold the whole thing to one person-probably for a discount, but I didn't want them to cherry pick. I didn't want to have to keep some works in my garage or in this case keep some works in the dusty warehouse. I wanted it all to find a home.

MC. Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur and a risk taker? How do you define yourself?

RB. Information provider. It began with the website and now it's publishing and a bookstore but in all cases it's about disseminating information and getting people to understand each other better. It sounds a bit utopian but it's kind of like creating mutual understanding. A bit of an idealist, but I do have a business background and I know that I've gotta put food on the table. I'm a reluctant entrepreneur-an accidental entrepreneur.

MC. What's next for Robert Bernell and Timezone 8? What projects are you currently working on?

RB. I'm working on a lot of publishing projects right now and that's my real passion. I really want to publish information. We're working on a number of books. I told you earlier about a book related to Andy Warhol coming to China in 1982. We're also working on a book about the airport-Norman Foster and Ai Weiwei's collaboration there. We're working on a number of different projects including a book on 798. We've got about 10 projects going. All are exciting projects for me. At the same time, I've gotta just keep an eye on what's happening here. It's hard work but all pleasure. I enjoy it.

MC. Is there anything you would have done differently?

RB. No, no...Never look back. Never look back! 

 



This text was transcribed and adapted by Megan Connolly from a forty-five minute interview with Robert Bernell. The entire interview is available in Hong Kong at  Asia Art Archive. Chinese-art.com can be found via Archive.org: http://web.archive.org/web/*/chinese-art.com

Photo Credit: KC Vienna

Imprint

Topic
Conversations
Date
Sat, 1 Mar 2008