The Jing Jin City and Miracle Village exhibition, which opens at Daniel Blau gallery in January 2015, is likely to arouse discussions. Very important, and quite possibly very heated discussions. The gallery has invited two very ambitious and courageous artists. Andi Schmied and Sofia Valiente, who were among the winners of 5 Under 30 competition in 2013 and 2014 respectively, are more than just photographers seeking interesting shots. They’re passionate adventurers who collect stories in remote parts of the world and bring them to an audience in the form of skilfully presented photo essays and books.
The exhibition revolves around the idea of home: people who found an unlikely home and houses that are not likely to become homes.
Jing Jin City, which Andi Schmied unofficially inhabited for several weeks, is a satellite city an hour outside of Beijing. The development covers more than 54 square kilometres and boasts 3,000 villas, a five-star hotel, hot springs resort, golf course, museum, temple, two colleges, and entertainment facilities. What it lacks is people—most of the villas are empty.
Miracle Village, on the other hand, lacks any architectural sophistication; the priority here lies in its inhabitants, the majority of which are sex offenders. If it wasn’t for 52 bungalows, set amid vast sugar cane, bean and corn fields in south Florida, these people would have been homeless. According to the Florida legislation, sex offenders are required to live a minimum of 1,000 ft. from any school, bus stop or place where children congregate. In reality, this distance gets increased to 2,500 ft. which makes it extremely hard, if not impossible, to find a place to live. As a result, many of those people end up on the streets, with little chance to re-integrate into society. The village, founded in 2009 by a Christian minister Dick Witherow, seeks to help offenders that have no place to go.
Among the Miracle Village residents there are no medically diagnosed paedophiles or convicted child rapists, according to Lisa F. Jackson and David Feige, authors of Sex Offender Village documentary. The range of their crimes varies from serious offenses to consensual teenage relationships with an age gap. Yet to many people, those residents are monsters who should not be provided with a home, and Witherow’s community project is constantly a subject of criticism. The problem lies in the extremely broad definition of the term “sex offence”. Jackson and Feige think that “in the past 25 years, the laws governing sex offences have gone from punitive to draconian to senseless,” and that “our entire approach to dealing with sex offenders has gone tragically off the rails.” Among 747,408 people on the US sex registry (55,000 in Florida alone), there are people who had consensual sex with a younger partner when they were both minors, people convicted of inappropriately touching their siblings, people charged with the possession of child pornography, sometimes accidentally downloaded from the internet like in the case of Ben, No. 405.
On Valentine’s Day weekend, I had plans to get together with my girlfriend, however that’s when my life changed forever instead, and not in a good way. On the way to our date, I got pulled over. The cop said there was a warrant out for my arrest, on charges of child pornography possession. (…) It turns out that while I spent a weekend at my girlfriend’s in December, a thunderstorm was overheard outside my house. My roommate, according to his statement to the police, went in my room to turn off the computer. Instead of shutting it down, he was curious to see what I had on there. Apparently, he came across the folder where my porn was downloading to, saw some files which had people in it that were under 18, and called the cops on me, himself. Had my computer been password protected, he would have just shut my computer down, and none of this would have happened. As I’m pretty partial to large breasted porn stars anyway, I’d probably just have deleted the child porn along with the rest of the files I’d have deleted, and never given it a second thought… But I didn’t have my computer password protected, and now I’m a sex offender. Such is life. If the Buddhists are right, and we get reincarnated after we die, maybe in my next life, I’ll have better luck…
The aim of Sofia Valiente’s project was, in her own words, to portray the community’s residents in a way most people have never seen. For her book, published this year by Fabrica, she chose 12 stories of people who ended up sharing the same label as a result of very different circumstances. She doesn’t judge, condemn or defend any of these people. Instead, she invites the viewers to make their own judgement. Her portraits of the offenders and their personal, painful, and brutally honest stories bring back the human element that is missing from the public registry.
It takes a lot of work to adapt to a life with the stigma of the “sex offender” label. It’s a highly restrained life with very specific rules. On top of the distance restriction and publicly visible data, there is curfew, monthly home inspections and reports, prohibition of smartphones and computers, censorship of one’s books and films, random drug tests, GPS monitoring, weekly sex therapy. Gene, No. 404, says: “As a sex offender I cannot trust anyone because maybe someday they could be in a bad mood, tired of dealing with me or just mad. All they have to do is call 911 and say that a sex offender has bothered them and Bang! I am in jail. No questions asked.”
But despite having to carry this punishment throughout their lives, there is surprisingly little resentment and a strong sense of gratitude among the Miracle Village residents. “Honestly I’m the one who says thank you ‘cause being sentenced to prison saved my life from drugs. And I was blessed with a safe place to live and a place where I fit in at,” says David, No. 209. Doug, “The Kid”, No.401, is actually happy in the community: “I like living here. I have a home and a key and real friends that care about me.” Ben, No.405, a food enthusiast, is grateful for sharing his room with an unemployed Italian chef: “I actually eat so good now that I needed to buy all new pants, as my old ones became too tight!”.
Patti Aupperlee, pastor of the First United Methodist Church, talks about the perplexing irrationality of the legislation that makes it impossible for sex offenders to make a new start after having done their prison sentence: “There is no other crime that follows you for the rest of your life. You can kill a person and you get out of prison and you’re done. Our laws are not rational or even meaningful.”
There is a broader problem here, and the paranoia around sex crimes is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is the rejection of logical analysis and hypothetical contemplation on difficult and uncomfortable topics. In an article published a few months ago, Are There Emotional No-Go Areas Where Logic Dare Not Show Its Face?, Richard Dawkins described the problem very aptly: “When a show-business personality is convicted of paedophilia, is it right that you actually need courage to say something like this: ‘Did he penetratively rape children or did he just touch them with his hands? The latter is bad but I think the former is worse’? How dare you rank different kinds of paedophilia? They are all equally bad, equally terrible. What are you, some kind of closet paedophile yourself?”
Only last month, the best-selling author John Grisham stirred up a hornet’s nest, when he spoke of the US justice system and over-incarceration in an interview with The Telegraph. “We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who’ve never harmed anybody, would never touch a child. (…) But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn.” Grisham, who has spent a lot of time and money advocating for criminal justice reform and often criticized racially biased drug sentencing laws, became an immediate source of harsh attacks (“Dear FBI, please visit John Grisham and check his hard drive and brain while you are at it,” wrote M.C Reynolds on Twitter). Again, he didn’t say that child pornography is ok, quite the opposite: “I have no sympathy for real paedophiles. God, please lock those people up.” He merely questioned the disproportionate punishment, given the degree of the crime: “So many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that’s what they’re getting.” Even his later apology did little to calm down the aggravated public. As Richard Dawkins says, “rape and paedophilia had moved out of the discussion zone into a no-go taboo area.” A mere attempt to discuss whether the penalties are justified is unforgivable. Dawkins advocates the freedom to discuss all “spectrums of nastiness, even if only to reject them.” The hypothetical comparison between forms and degrees of a crime is neither its endorsement nor an insult towards the victims.
Contrary to what sceptics say about the Miracle Village, it does not victimise the offenders. Pat Powers, the executive director of Matthew 25 Ministries, who was convicted of sexual contact with 11 minors in the early 1990s, doesn’t deny anyone’s crime. In an interview with Linda Pressly for the BBC he says: “I can see through these guys’ stories. So if we get someone here and they say, ‘I’m not guilty, all I did was look at a picture. I say, no. You’re guilty, period.’ Because the only way you’re going to change is to admit you are wrong.”
In this light, Sofia Valiente’s project has a tremendous value in the sense that it invites us all to brave the taboo areas and talk about these sex offenders as individuals who made bad choices in the past, as opposed to some mass evil. “They would be lepers in society. Here, they’re not lepers,” she told Josh Sanburn from Time magazine. The assumption that someone who hasn’t been medically diagnosed as a paedophile or a psychopath will most certainly harm others again, if only given a chance, and therefore should carry the “sex offender” stigma until the end of his life, does nobody any good. Especially when you look at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s statistics which demonstrate that no sex crime has been reported in Miracle Village since it was founded.
Thanks to Matthew 25 Ministries initiative, 107 sex offenders have a place where they can feel human. There is hope that thanks to Sofia’s project people will begin regarding them as humans too.
While Miracle Village remains the desired home for many more sex offenders than it can accommodate, Jing Jin City, explored in Andi Schmied’s project, attracts a very small number of people. According to Guo Huaxu, one of the few residents at Jing Jin City, at any given time less than 20 out of 400 villas are occupied. The 800-room Hyatt Regency hotel has no more than 100-200 guests and a dozen or so staff. Most of the villas have been bought as an investment, for retirement or holiday use. But with very few amenities, and a long commute to Beijing and Tianjin, Jing Jin City isn’t an attractive place to live for anyone regardless of their age.
The project was built by Hopson Development, the Hong Kong-listed developer, in collaboration with Tianjin’s Baodi district government for a sum of 20 billion yuan (over 2 billion pounds), according to Time Weekly. Zhao Yuting, Hopson’s regional general manager, says that it was much more than just a housing project: “We are not just building houses, but a city instead. It’s not that we can create a city within 10 years”.
Just like Sofia’s documentation of the Miracle Village remains impartial, Andi Schmied’s project isn’t criticising the Hopson Development’s unsuccessful endeavour either. Her interventions are merely a “response to the current state of these empty buildings that populate this utopian resort. (…) Constructing Nothing emphasizes the Sisyphean nature of their labours.” The “strange stillness” of the city is most visible in the winter time, “when temperatures plunge, transforming the river moats surrounding the gated communities into frozen roads – giving us access to the empty properties.”
Jing Jin City (Volume I), a publication which accompanies the exhibition, consists of five space interventions into the emptiness of the Jing Jin City buildings. Andi inhabited the place and created installations with materials she found lying around in the houses, abandoned and unused. The Wall House, located on one of the most luxurious parts of the island, was full of concrete blocks. The Tile House had four stacks of concrete tiles waiting to be assembled into a floor. In the Glass House, empty window frames were waiting for the glass to be put in, and the Grass House had an overgrowing garden which had just been cut and was waiting to be cleared. The fifth space, Curtain House, got decorated with curtains of a different colour for each room.
There isn’t a defined purpose to these constructions. As Andi says, they are “a trace that may or may not be legible to future visitors. A guard, a gardener, an estate agent, or an investor might enter the interior. To them, we will be anonymous and our role as authors will be unknown. For them, the construction will be a manifestation of a place whose reason for existence is unclear.”
Perhaps the absurdity and futility of ghost cities like Jing Jin, where guards go to sleep in the empty houses they are meant to guard and sheep graze corn on the balconies of luxurious bedrooms, mirrors the futility of heated debates between people who condemn the project. It is easy to juxtapose 400 empty villas with the problem of homelessness and shortage of housing in overpopulated areas, and chastise the existence of Jing Jin City since there are people with no place to live. But one should not forget that a building, no matter how big and fancy, won’t be inhabitable for a vast majority of people unless is surrounded by good infrastructure. “Compared with thriving districts in China’s great cities, these lifeless urban areas had no established industries, and people were unwilling to move there given the lack of job opportunities and poor infrastructure,” says Many Zuo in an article for South China Morning Post. In that light, the only upsetting element is that the development was partially subsidised by the district government, so effectively Chinese citizens helped fund a project that doesn’t benefit them. If this involved private money only, then aside from a general waste of resources, it would be the investor’s loss.
But then again, if one digs deeper, more questions and dilemmas arise. Questions about the disproportions in wealth between different society groups, which manifest themselves in the fact that while one family can barely afford a small suburban flat, another will own a villa in the city centre and three summer houses. A quick read through internet forums shows that a great number of people would want the wealthy owners to pay extra high taxes or have their houses repossessed if it’s not used for more than 6 months. But without a deep understanding of economics, one should be careful in these speculations, as we can see by looking at examples from other countries. A large portion of older properties in Portugal are derelict, and therefore unoccupied, because rent controls prevented the landlords from ever increasing their charges. Trevor Abrahmsohn, an estate agent specialising in the famous Bishops Avenue aka “Billionaires Row” in London with several empty mansions, says that the way to tackle housing shortage is by making changes to the planning system, not by imposing control over private properties: “One of the things people love about this country is its freedom and liberal views. You can’t start affecting what people do with their assets.”
Both Sofia’s and Andi’s projects are likely to inspire difficult debates. Although the Miracle Village happens to expose very specific problems of current legislations, both projects are successful at addressing a very important issue: humans as individuals and humans as communities. Sex offenders suffer from being treated as a group of identical elements. Jing Jin City, created with wealthy individuals in mind, suffers from lack of understanding about developing communities: a city won’t be built around a few individuals. Understanding the mechanism behind the unsuccessful development in China and a faulty legislation in Florida is a step towards a greater understanding of humanity.