conditions of possibility – grassroots discourse at the wutongshan arts festival

The title of this post shouts “academic theorization”, but in fact, the post itself is far less ambitious. I’m simply speculating about what conditions we need to put in place in order to cultivate cross cultural discourse in and about places with vexed histories, like Wutong Mountain, Shenzhen.

Creating models and forums for cross cultural discussions in and about places with vexed histories is difficult. On the one hand, most of us are not familiar with the values and concerns that inform the ethos of another people; indeed, even when we are relatively knowledgable about cross cultural differences, often we do not share our interlocutor’s priorities. On the other hand, cultural groups are not monolithic entities, but rather vexed by class, gender, and regional differences, creating what Bhaktin called “heteroglossia” – a situation in which context (including history and culture and politics and economy and one’s interlocutor) is more important in determining the meaning of an utterance than is the text.

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With the Wutongshan Arts Festival (梧桐山艺术节 – impressions above), organizers Gigi Leung and Michael Patte (founders of the riptide collective) aimed to generate conversations between village residents, local businesses (including Canyou), and artists who have moved there. The situation was clearly heteroglossic with both foreign and Chinese participants, who represented a range of different class backgrounds as well as different relationships to and with Wutong Mountain as well as Shenzhen. We came together to discuss future development in and of Wutong Mountain.

Wutongshan’s future is important for many reasons: the area supplies drinking water to both Shenzhen and Hong Kong; local villagers are looking for opportunities to share in Shenzhen’s economic prosperity; there are few places in the city both inexpensive and interesting enough to attract and nurture artist communities; Wutongshan is a natural Shenzhen environment that (as of the moment) is not eligible for extensive industrialization (because of the drinking water reservoir)and thus, it has become an important weekend retreat for people who inhabit more industrialized, commercialized, and yes, contaminated sections of the city.

Obviously, two days was not enough time to reach conclusions about Wutongshan’s future and how different groups might work together to shape that future. However, during conversations, both organized and informal, it became clear that we need to put in place a variety of conditions in order for conversation to go forward in meaningful ways. Moreover, what these conditions speak to our respective responsibility to learn about and find ways of respecting diverse and often contradictory values and priorities. So, an incomplete list of conditions for more inclusive conversations about the form and kind of grassroots participation in planning Wutongshan’s future.

  1. Translation that is (at least) tri-lingual – Mandarin, Cantonese, and English and also takes into account varieties therein. Problems that arose during the festival included the fact that immigrants to Shenzhen use Mandarin as their lingua franca, but Cantonese is the local language and yes, most Chinese and foreigners have not bothered to learn Cantonese. Of course, many of the Cantonese speakers at the event were not from Wutongshan or even Shenzhen, but from Guangzhou and Hong Kong making a complex situation even more complicated. At the same time, most of the foreign participants at the festival were not native English speakers and when we were, we split between US American and Canadian, British, and flavors of Colonial English. Thus, the most successful conversations seemed to happen in small groups, where we could accommodate individual specificity, rather than in large groups, where hodge podge mixes of Mandarin and English came to dominate in which speakers had little opportunity to figure out a speaker’s cultural background.
  2. Explicit articulation of diverse values and goals. As people conversed, it became apparent that most of us assume that our goals and values are clearly represented in what we say. However, often a speaker’s main point remained implicit in rhetorical forms that were not shared amongst participants.
  3.  Knowledge about the history of area. Few of the participants were local villagers and those talking had little knowledge of the area, village histories, and local cultural forms, including differences from mainstream Cantonese culture (represented by Guangzhou and Hong Kong visitors).

All this to say, cross cultural conversations in areas with vexed histories requires participants to commit to the process. Urban and regional planning and development takes time and a willingness to keep working within and against shifting landscapes. And this commitment would also include a decision to learn another’s language, to understand their values, and to familiarize oneself with local history. So not enough just to think globally and act locally, but also to embed one’s actions in (as yet unknown) webs of human relationships. 

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