Mr Democracy

A written constitution for the UK (made in China)

  • Welcome to Mr Democracy, the story of a British artist who set off to get a written constitution for the UK made.
    Understanding the changing balance of power in the world, and with a nod to Britain’s ‘democratic’ ventures across the world, he chose to get it written in China, and ship it back to the UK.
    Read more under 'about' and in the many blog entries.

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Posted by mrdemocracy on 25,11,2008

The Royal Standard
Mr Democracy Closing Weekend

== Featuring Oliver Walker artist talk Sunday 30th November 2.30pm ==

On Sunday 30th November, artist Oliver Walker will give a one-off talk, offering an insight into the processes and ideas behind his project, Mr Democracy, and a chance for visitors to raise questions and discuss issues relating to the work. The talk will include footage, images and anecdotes from the project, which took the artist to China to get a written constitution produced for the UK.

This will also be last chance to purchase a UK Constitution, one of 1000 editions specially manufactured and imported from China, and the last opportunity to see both exhibitions, Mr Democracy and NAVIGATOR, before the gallery closes until the new year.

Final week of the exhibitions: Wed 26th – Sun 30th November 11am – 6pm
Oliver Walker talk: Sun 30th November 2.30pm, refreshments will be served


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Her Majesty’s Funny Customs and Regular Exercise

Posted by mrdemocracy on 16,10,2008

If you’ve checked the ship tracking system link on the website over the course of the exhibition, you will have seen the progress of the AKINADA BRIDGE, the ship carrying the container carrying the 1000 dolls, The New Constitution. It just reached Felixstowe, its point of arrival in the UK, and the company doing the customs clearance have got in touch to reming me of their arrival, and that we need to clear customs. The problem is that they had said they would apply for Binding Tariff Information, a ruling on classification that you can apply for before the goods arrive to speed up their customs clearance. They didn’t, and now we’re doing it in a rush, and regardless of how many times I try to persuade them that the goods are an artwork, they want to classify them as dolls of some sort (most recently as ornamental dolls).

I called the customs advice line, where you can discuss your goods and how you should classify them. The problem is that HMCE have archaic definitions of art, which don’t cover much of the art produced today. From here

‘original sculptures and statuary, in any material, provided
that they are executed entirely by the artist; sculpture
casts the production of which is limited to eight copies
and supervised by the artist or his successors in title
(Tariff code 9703 00 00)’

Classic! Literally. I guess they think all art should look like Constable, such romantics. Unfortunately they are romantics who decide what is and isn’t art, for tax purposes.

Anyway, I was in luck. Haunch of Venison is a large commercial gallery, and they are currently importing a video work into the country, for which they also have no suitable classification. They have taken their case to court, and the HMCE said that as that decision seemed a similarly unclear classification, they would classify it as the above until this case is cleared. I think we should win, I don’t know how you can deny this is an artwork. Great success for the moment, anyway.

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Welcome home

Posted by mrdemocracy on 22,09,2008

This weekend was the opening of the exhibition here in Liverpool. I don’t want to go into too much detail of the project installation in Liverpool, because the project diary should mainly follow the progress of the production of the constitution and its doll-form.

However, I will allow myself a couple a positive reflections. The first came from John O’Shea, a Liverpool based artist who got in touch via Laurence Payot from the Royal Standard, as they’d been talking about the project. He liked the idea that the project uses law as a medium, drawing parallels with his Meat License Proposal project, in which he is trying to introduce a law obliging everyone who wishes to consume meat to get a license to do so. I’m proud and excited about my project and how it’s been realised, but lots of aspects of his project are just great. Through conversations with John about this and other projects he has been working on, I am really excited about the openess he has for the concepts driving the work to change during the development of the project. This seems a real strength to me, and I admire his way of working. But if I hadn’t made this project, I wouldn’t have had these conversations either!

On Saturday came a great accolade. I attended the a discussion on Biennials at the A Foundation, or at least caught the end of it. The discussion came to the relationship between the Biennial (‘official’) and the Independents, a loose collection of ‘off’ projects. JJ Charlesworth (art review) was speaking and said this was funny because in fact the two (or two of the, can’t remember!) the best things he’d seen were at the Ceri Hand gallery and the Royal Standard. I took the opportunity to ask him after and it was the Mr Democracy project that he was referring to. Its always a great boost to hear things like this, still need to make sure more people see it! Unfortunately, he hasn’t written this anywhere yet…

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See-saw shipping prices

Posted by mrdemocracy on 09,09,2008

Today is Monday, and the toys have to be at the warehouse tomorrow. I’ve been at the shipping agents all day. Really, all day. This was the first time I’ve been, although they are based in Gaungzhou. Its been complicated organising the shipping, very complicated. I haven’t been an easy customer, I wanted to get the goods directly into Liverpool, and it took a long time to explain this… ‘but its very normal that the goods go by road to Liverpool’, I know, but I want them to arrive by sea. I want to track the goods progress using an AIS system, and thats not so interesting if they’re in Felixstowe. We enquired about taking a full container too, as it should be easier to monitor and get into Liverpool, but in the end I went for the cheapest option, which wasn’t cheap at all.

I can’t tell you exactly why I was in the shipping agents office for SIX hours, but it has something to do with the fact that if you change the cost at one end, it changes the cost at the other end too, and this cost is not controlled by the same company. I just wanted, insisted on, a full quote. And they made me wait. There was also a mistake, quite a big one, in that the company here in Guangzhou never actually gave me a quote compatible with a quote from the UK, but never they never noticed this (I should have?!?!). In the end the cost was several hundred pounds more than they had originally quoted.

Meanwhile they’ve been repairing the toys which weren’t right at the factory, and sourcing the new boxes. Marco tells me everything is ready. So we are on time, good.

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Expensive products are cheap

Posted by mrdemocracy on 06,08,2008

On my return from Shanghai, I met a man from Portsmouth University on the train. He was concerned that his pda would be constantly connected to the internet, ‘work’ had given it to him. I’ve grown up with a different impression of universities, not as corporations that send their employees round the world to meet business leaders and do consultancy work. We had that ‘you’re foreign too’ connection. He seemed relieved to see me, despite being on the way to meet his Chinese girlfriend in Guangzhou, some years his junior. We talked about politics, and he veered away again when we got too close to any view which might have been different from his. We did talk about China and the world though. I asked him about what the future held for the west, how we were supposed to compete with China. In doing so I reminded myself of another artical I’d read somewhere about cheap Chinese products, and ‘but we don’t make anything’ fears in the west. The article broke down the cost of products, as do the articles here and here, with the examples of trainers. The main thrust here is that yes, they make cheap products, but the profit goes to the west. Its ironic, the article I had read, and the man on the train’s arguments, were both to reassure westerners – its ok, depsite manufacturing lots, they don’t make all the profits. When I looked again for information on these breakdowns, you can see from the links that information about the injustices of sweatshops came up. He added that many of the jobs in the long chain of high-end products cannot easily be transfered away from the UK, such as advertising (culturally dependent), finance (based on a system which can be trusted) and sales (geographically located). Also, as Chinese wages rise, which they are (article a year old), this will make production in the west proportionally more competative, although that wasn’t the view 10 years ago. It predicted it would take decades before Chinese and Indian wages rise because the pools of cheap labour are so huge, but they have been. Its worth noting again on the other hand that the examples from the anti-sweatshop campaigns that these price breakdowns only work for high-end branded products, not for primark or ASDA stuff. I coincidently saw the exact same Clarks shoes in a shop next to my hotel in China, and they were roughly the same price. Now I got them for a bargain, as they were seconds, but its interesting that this can happen at all, and prices in ASDA or Primark are also not hugely disimilar in China.

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Expensive coffee

Posted by mrdemocracy on 02,08,2008

I am in Shanghai to meet the writers of the constitution, graduate students from the East China University of Politics and Law. Simon Kirby from SKAculture has put me in touch with them through Vernisa Yang who works with him, and studies there too. Before coming to China, I had tried to contact so many people to ask if they knew people who could work on this constitution. I had some other good potential writers too, there was a journalist who worked for the FT China, who held relatively critical views, and another who worked for the People’s Daily, the Sun of China. I had discussed many hours with all sorts of people who could write the document, and who I could try to approach at all. I had originally planned to run workshops in order to develop the constitution, but this seemed too far from the concept in the end, and I was right to leave this idea. It would have been interesting to get a staunchly pro-Beijing journalist, which could have produced a more critical constitution, but the only people with the knowledge in the end were these constitutional lawyers. They themselves of course had to put the time in to research the subject, and even with payment, it required a huge time investment.

I met Gracie, my translator, on the saturday afternoon, near the park. We went for a walk, and discussed the project, politics and China. She too shared this view critical of the western demonstrators and media around the world, and told me about her Chinese friend who had travelled down from Sydney to join the pro-China protests. She hadn’t considered the irony and hypocrisy of the demonstrators defending a country which didn’t allow them to demonstrate. The irony seemed double as we got onto this subject talking about this friend of hers in Australia because he wasn’t allowed to travel back to China, despite being a Chinese passport holder. She said it was difficult to get visas, I had to ask her about 8 times before I beleived her that a Chinese national needed permission to come back to China, and indeed, didn’t get it. What was also interesting was to hear Gracie say that they don’t have the language to talk about these things, to criticise the government. With whom could she discuss criticism? In what context? There is simply no culture of it. Our system is based on not trusting our government (although the American system apparently not – this would be ‘anti-American’).

I was later a little shocked to see she charged me for this time, I would never have chatted so long, had I known. I’ve never paid to go for a coffee with someone before. When she first met me, she was suprised that I wasn’t accompanied, and this was indicative of her view of me. It reminded me that despite her good english, she had never left China, and her view of foreigners was limited.

She took me on a little tour of their campus, next to the park and river, its fairly old and quite a retreat in the centre of Shanghai. The University on this site was founded in 1879, then called St John’s College. Most signs of the colonial times are in some way well hidden in China, its a subject of shame, and not good memories. This way this founding stone had been half built over for me was a sign of this attitutude, and talking with Simon Kirby later, he had heard of St John’s, but never knew quite where it was.
On our tour, we came across big images of momentous moments in China’s history on several of the outside walls of the sports courts.

Discussing them, Gracie said she’d never really considered them before, but I found them quite striking – military displays, world leaders meeting. Trying to think of our equivalents. We might have Churchhill, that would be fairly uncontroversial (ignoring the questionable activities of his early career) but I’m not sure if there were images of the Falklands being taken back. I feel fortunate we don’t have military parades, or at least they’re limited – the red arrows are decommisioned, not ‘heroes’ just back from Iraq.

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Wholesale markets

Posted by mrdemocracy on 27,07,2008

Sarah and I have been looking on the internet for chip and toy suppliers. Sarah calls it ‘toys ‘n’ chips’ – you also also get sick of it after too much. We decided to check out some wholesale markets on Tom’s advice, to see if we could just look at the thing directly, maybe find some suppliers. In the meantime, Gregg called up to say he’d got in touch with his friend, who said the money was too little for him, but we should know that all the toys are made in Shantou (see map), about 250miles east of Guangzhou, at the edge of Guandong province.

We had to visit the wholesale markets a few times. We found some walking and dancing dolls which are pretty bad, but make you laugh.

The original idea was not to use dancing dolls necessarily, but they are funny and they could be good.

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Gaungzhou, China

Posted by mrdemocracy on 25,07,2008

I got in. Clean shirt, clean shaven. On the other hand, I was carrying a backpack and plastic carrier bags, so I wasn’t that sophisticated. On the train I met Gregg, a Brit who has been living in Guangzhou for 5 years, and Hong Kong for 12 years before that, designing plate glass doors for metros all over China and Asia. We got talking and he kindly offered to call a friend of his who used to source toys, a Guangzhou local with thick scouse accent called Billy. Sarah was waiting for me at the station, had been for half an hour, and she showed me the way to the hotel via the Metro. I think most of the metro has been built since I last visited Guangzhou (2000), including line 2 which features Gregg’s plate glass doors.

The people in the hotel don’t speak English, at all. Its pretty nice, I’m not used to staying in hotels, air conditioning, TV complete with CCTV 1-10 (Central China TV, great acronym), and the cochroaches seem quite shy. I though of James Bond in the shower, I’m sure he saw off some assailent by electrocuting them a hotel bathroom, should also be possible here with the plug next-to-showerhead set up I have.

We nipped out for some sort of steamed pancakes, cooked on a cloth, in a simple place furnished with metal tables and stools, it was tasty.

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En route

Posted by mrdemocracy on 22,07,2008

My flight from Frankfurt (I live in Berlin) came into Beijing Terminal 3, just weeks after its inauguration. The roof is amazing, but the place is still…an airport. The Olympic welcomers were already there, but I didn’t think there’d be too many Olympians already arriving. Funnily enough, the security wasn’t as tight as in Frankfurt.

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China is not an evil empire

Posted by mrdemocracy on 10,05,2008

I’ve just been reading Georg Blume’s China ist kein Reich des Bösen: Trotz Tibet, Muss Berlin auf Peking setzen, which I would translate as China is not an evil empire: Why Berlin, despite Tibet, has to engage with Beijing. Blume is a German journalist who has been working in China for many years, and the views expressed in the book are really interesting. His basic point is to accept much of the criticism of China, but he is frustrated with the monologue of western media towards China: Tibet/human rights. His book really made me see how one sided my views had been and that I have repeated cliches too, and what kind of problems that gives rise to. He explains something of why so much of the chinese population is fairly happy with the job Beijing is doing, especially considering the huge task they have before them, mentioning some of the superlatives involved, such as the rural to urban migration, claimed to be the biggest migration in human history. Meanwhile many Chinese, both government and the general public, start to see this criticism as fear mongering, and I started to understand the diversion of attention that this criticism is. If western leaders such as Bush criticise China for human rights abuses, this implies that the west protects human rights. This is simply not the case if you look at American foriegn policy since world two, where America and the west have time and time again supported dictatorial regimes, and while their human rights record is if anything getting worse: think Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, PATRIOT ACT. While we’re on the subject, you should also see Taxi to the Dark Side (please excuse the first minute – nothing to do with me!)
and Convoy of Death, both films about atrocoties in Afghanistan. Both have been shown on mainstream TV in the UK, yet still relatively unknown.

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Chinese nationalism

Posted by mrdemocracy on 24,04,2008

The Olympic flame reached Australia. There were pro tibet protests, as has now come to be expected. Even if there were hardly any, they would stilll have been be reported. I’ve been to demonstrations with 10,000s that don’t either don’t or only barely make the press, but the pro-Tibet /anti China protests do enjoy a media privilidge. More interesting though were the pro China protests from chinese people leaving in Australia, most of them students. They had gathered from across the country with red flags to defend for their country. I have to say, nationalism is ugly in whatever form it comes, and I can never disassociate it from a ‘war-enabler’ – you can’t fight a war without nationalism (or another strong identifier, such as religion).

But something other than my blanket distaste for nationalism struck me, the frustrating contradiction of Chinese people demonstrating in support of a regime which violently bans any … demonstration.

Chinese Nationalism

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