A view of the entrance to Xindanwei (all photos by the author) (click to enlarge)

This post is part of the WTF Art Guide to Asia series on Hyperallergic.

It’s just a typical day at Xindanwei (新单位), a coworking space in Shanghai with a name that means “New Work Unit” in Chinese. Downstairs, Patrick Jost of vvvv.org is giving a talk, translated into Chinese when necessary, about vvvv and mapping. On the second floor, the EF Life Club are leading a workshop on self actualization through art, as attendees stick post-its on the wall describing their artistic goals. On the roof is a meeting of marketing gurus enjoying the summer air. And in between can be found mini-meetings in corners, in hallways, on the stairs.

Founded by Liu Yan, Aaajiao (aka Xu Wenkai) and Chen Xu in 2009 as a coworking space, Xindanwei has quickly become the center of Shanghai’s burgeoning technology and art community. I met them a couple months after giving a talk about social media art at the space. I loved the group’s energy and the natural mix of artists, marketers and researchers who asked questions afterward. But what surprised me most later was running into people both in Beijing and other parts of Shanghai who knew Xindanwei or knew the work of its founders. The name of the space seemed to slip off their tongues as soon as I mentioned technology and new media.

A view of the action at the mapping workshop.

Located at Yongjia Lu near the French Concession, Xindanwei  is one of a growing number of coworking spaces in Shanghai. It offers a font of creative activity in a city similar to New York or San Francisco as a hub of technological innovation in the region. Just an hour away by train is the China Academy of Art, whose famous new media program is led by Zhang Peili, a pioneer in Chinese new media and video art.

While the space supports the meeting of art and technology, Xindanwei’s success lies in the fact that it attracts people from all different professional backgrounds. Aaajiao, famous in China and abroad as a new media artist, was determined to ensure that, even while the space attracted artists, it didn’t limit itself to art. “I didn’t learn art from college. I learned computer science,” he explained to me in their ground floor cafe-and-work space. “I want to know other people. Artists only talk about art and art business. It’s so boring.”

Emlyn Wang, who started C’est La Chine, an art and fashion company whose offices are based in Xindanwei, follows the same model of creative commingling. After a career in business, she founded C’est La Chine  and invited Zhuang Bin, a sculpture graduate from the China Central Academy of Fine Art, to design their first collection. “We work with different artists and anyone who works in the creative industry,” she told me in a Skype interview. “A sculptor has designed clothing for industry designers. Fashion designers can design eyewear.”

C’est La Chine intends to exhibit both art and fashion in its coming events, and they plan on art exhibition tours in Venice and Shanghai. Xindanwei has been playing a critical role in fostering the group and introduce her to other creatives in China. “Liu Yan used to work in art management. She knows a lot of local design companies and shares ideas about how those local companies do things.”

The concept of coworking, of course, is familiar to Americans in creative fields, especially in urban areas. What makes Xindanwei unique from coworking spaces I’ve seen in the States is how it’s so quickly grown into a central hub of multiple disciplines, not just design, not just technology, not just art. It’s done this by improving both the facilities of the space and ensuring the right mix of people and events.

Between the floors at Xindanwei.

“For people using the space, the border is no longer definite or clear,” said Cozi Ge, who works for Xindanwei. She told me
about Xinchejian (新车间), which means New Garage, their hacker community and maker society. Xinchejian has led events like Roboracing Competitions and Android and Robots Workshops. “Xinchejian can be an art project,” continued Ge. “Mostly these kinds of art things happen in Xindanwei, rather than classic or traditional art forms.”

Events play a critical role in fostering community and bridges amongst artists and technologists, designers and marketers, expats and Chinese nationals.

“In 2009, we held events for free,” Aaajiao told me, but those who attended weren’t always focused or engaged on the topic. Despite the fact that paid events often struggle in China, they soon started charging and focusing on quality. Attendance grew, and most events are standing room only. For their latest workshop on mapping, attendees — some coming from as far away as Beijing or Shenzhen — sat on the floor and even in each other’s laps to participate.

And of course, Xindanwei functions as a regular coworking office. A number of companies rent out space by the month and make use of the meeting rooms and office facilities. Taking advantage of the different time service plans, freelancers and artists set up shop by renting a desk for a week or, like me when I visit Shanghai, just a few hours. The staff are friendly and helpful, and they’re quick to make introductions that they think will lead to creative synergy.

“We didn’t want to only show works,” said Aaajiao. “We want people to come here and talk about ideas.” If Beijing is the center of most of China’s art world, with an abundance of sculptures and paintings, then Shanghai is the center of China’s new media art world. And at the heart of its emerging creative scene, you’ll find a space like Xindanwei, a new work unit for artists and freelancers focused on creativity.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.