thoughts on social possibility at handshake 302

Why Singleton Lunch? Why invite someone to Handshake 302, have them prepare a meal, share it with a group of friends and strangers, and call it “art”? What’s the difference between a Singleton Lunch meal and more traditional forms of art like painting or theater or even a happening?

Simply put, the difference lies in the goals of the artwork. Traditional art aims to produce different responses in its audience. Painting, for example, aims to produce an appreciation of beauty (or its opposite), while drama brings its audience through an emotional experience in order to share something about the human experience. During a happening, the artist brings our attention to the human body as a vehicle for aesthetic expression. In contrast, art events like Singleton Lunch belong to a category of art called “relational aesthetics.”

Curator Nicolas Bourriaud introduced the term “relational aesthetics” to describe an art trend that he found more prevalent in the digital age. The 1990s saw the rise of the internet and increasing isolation of people from one another. Before the rise of digital technology, most people completed everyday tasks through a series of human interactions. We shopped at local markets and talked with the shopkeeper, while at work we interacted with colleagues during breaks and meals in the canteen. However, with the rise of the internet, many of us now shop online, work from home, and play with virtual friends in virtual worlds. In other words, relational aesthetics is response to our increasing isolation from each other.

Importantly, relational aesthetics calls attention to lived loneliness, rather than actual independence. In our everyday lives, we continue to depend on other people. Farmers produce our food, workers assemble our furniture and cell phones, and urban planners design the complex cities in which we live. However, the internet and digital technology have increasingly mediated these relationships creating the mistaken idea that we are “alone” despite being surrounded by millions of other urban residents.

In Shenzhen, this feeling of being alone in a crowd is common. Who has not heard a relative or friend complain that our city “lacks human feeling.” In part, these feelings of loneliness are part of industrial urbanization. As early as 1893, French sociologist Émile Durkheim had already introduced the term “anomie” to describe the lack of moral guidance and sense of social belonging that many rural migrants experienced upon leaving their homes to find work in urban factories. Durkheim emphasized that when a person is cut off from family, friends, and familiar context often led to unsocial feelings of anxiety, anger, and despair, which in turn led to social unrest, crime, and often suicide.

At this basic level, the sense of loneliness that many experience after migrating to Shenzhen has been a normal (if unwelcome) aspect of urbanization since the late 19th century. At the same time, the rise of the internet has intensified this aspect of modern urban life. In modern cities today, migrants are not only cut off from hometown family and friends, but also from neighbors, shopkeepers, and even co-workers. Just take a look at commuters on the metro. Sometimes, more than twenty strangers can be packed together, arms and legs touching, but no one is talking to each other. Instead, we are looking at our cellphones. In the best case, we are simply ignoring the people in our metro car. In the worst case, we resent them for crowding us, coughing, or even breathing too loudly!

Relational art like Singleton Lunch attempts to ameliorate this situation through artwork that creates relationships. The completion of the artwork not only relies on the participation of different people, but also succeeds to the extent that participants are willing to break down the habitual barriers between people. Of course, Claire Bishop has criticized the kinds of relationships that this art produces, arguing that relational artworks connect people with similar backgrounds. Indeed, she suggests that relational artwork confirms our own biases as we end up talking with people who share our interests and social views, rather than exposing us to the lived heterogeneity of every city on the planet.

All this to say, life in a migrant city like Shenzhen presents its residents with interrelated but different conundrums.

On the one hand, as human beings we need relationships in order to thrive. It is not enough for one person to come to Shenzhen and simply work, go home, play on a cellphone, go to bed, and then wake up the next morning for more of the same. This kind of routine is antithetical to our natures; we yearn for connection and laughter and the security of belonging. Arguably, the popularity of pets in Shenzhen shows that we are making relationships with members of other species in order to compensate for the relative superficiality of our human relationships. In this sense, relational art that brings like minded people together helps ease the sense of isolation that many of us feel, helping the city as people (rather than as buildings) to take root and grow.

On the other hand, the complex heterogeneity in a global megacity forces us to figure out how to address and navigate all this diversity. In Shenzhen, society comprises  millions of people from different eras, different hometowns, different classes, and different professions. How can small scale interventions like Singleton Lunch help ameliorate the vast distances that seem to separate us, especially when we are seated next to each other and dare not say hello?

Perhaps, it is necessary to acknowledge that each of us can only offer small scale interventions. Over the course of a busy day, how many people can we genuinely get to know? One? Or does it take years of a life, carefully cultivating different relationships and accepting the fact that although human beings need human relationships to flourish, we can not force ourselves to easily make friends. A three-hour lunch with several strangers and several friends may be the right scale for feeling comfortable and taking a chance in learning about someone else’s experience.

We thank everyone who willingly opened their heart to come and listen to different stories. Over two and 1/2 months, we met people from Korea and Portugal, Sichuan and Taiwan. We talked about urban villages and living with parents after college. We ate many delicious foods, although truth be told that pot of seafood congee was the most joyful surprise of the series. And we realized that even if small scale events like Singleton Lunch can not transform the social problems created by immigration and urbanization, nevertheless, these activities do offer a means for finding companions in figuring out a way forward.

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