were we ever here?

I’ve been thinking about memory and how narrative turns what we think happened into something we can use to change what we think might happen, which in turn had me remembering bits and pieces of Four Quartets, TS Eliot’s wonderful meditation on time and its meaning, time as a fundamental yearning to be complete despite transience, impermanence, this movement, this quickening which is also movement toward death:

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die.

Continue reading

Textual Logic: life as gerund

For me calligraphy has been one of the real pleasures of learning Chinese. Indeed, even when I can’t read what I’m seeing, I enjoy trying to following the line and figure out the character. Yesterday morning as part of the Textual Logic (书与法) exhibition at the OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal there was a calligraphy performance by Qiu Zhenzhong (邱振中) and Wang Dongling (王冬龄). So I was kind of “wow, calligraphy onstage. Fun.” However, it turned out that I had approached the event naively; calligraphers may or may not be fun, but the event felt like a cross between a movie star press conference and an art seminar.

The audience for the calligraphy performance was not OCAT’s typical audience who tend to have western aesthetics and a passion for conceptual art. Instead, the audience (not including the calligraphers’ respective entourages) was made up of calligraphers and folks who might be classified as calli-groupies, whose comments ranged from how the room had been set up through how the ink was mixed to how difficult it was or was not to write at this scale for so long. Indeed, it was a happy, almost fair-like event with pauses for watching and then commenting. Needless to say, the audience also complained that photographers and videographers had been given front row positions and could follow the calligrapher.

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The level of audience participation in the exhibition struck me wonderful.  Continue reading

2011 sz-hk biennale thoughts

Shenzhen photographer, Gu Yun (谷韵) has taken lovingly poetic images of Biennale exhibits. I appreciate these images for their intimacy. The biennale has presented massive projects at a scale that seems analytic and abstract; in contrast, Gu Yun’s images reveal her steps to engage individual works close up and personal, as we sometimes say. Indeed, Gu Yun has me thinking about the revealingly personal work of viewing, digesting, and appropriating objects. Enjoy.

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Zhao Shaoruo’s work, or, does solipsistic representation parody Mao’s cult of personality?

Visited the Wutongshan Culture Highland with friends, Jonathan and Gigi; resident artist director, Ryan Mitchell showed us the site. Of note, Zhao Shaoruo’s (赵少若) solipsistic exhibition in which he appears as every character in every painting and image. In addition to pieces in which he has substituted his face for Mao’s, Zhao has also produced work in the name of a variety of others, ranging traditional Chinese through Jews to insects. Telling, the only time that others appear in Zhao’s work, they do so as an extreme end of a continuum in which Zhao’s features are blended with his other.

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Solipsists argue that the idea that only one’s own mind exists, that knowledge outside one’s own mind is unsure, or that only one’s own mind exists. Zhao’s relentless substituting his own face for those of others reminds us that extreme forms of solipsism are brutally pathological; I exist therefore you cannot. Continue reading

Sou Vai Keng’s opening in Macau!

I recommend attending friend Debby Sou Vai Keng’s solo exhibition, “Lazy Days at Black Sands,” which opened November 11 and will be up through the 27th. Exhibition at St. Paul’s Fine Art, Macao. Video from the opening, below.

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. Continue reading

2 days in guangzhou – impressions

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ungodly creations

i have been thinking about the phrase “and god created the world in his own image.” i’ve also been wondering about how worlds get made and unmade in everyday life. a weekend of arts festivals prompted this speculation, which is necessarily permeated by the ongoing re- de- construction of shenzhen.

god’s gender provides a useful point of departure for thinking about what it means to create in one’s own image because, of course, there are (at least) two possible interpretations of “image”. image could refer simply to god’s face, snowy white beard and amazingly grecian and white toga. obvious and understandable target of feminist outrage. more interestingly and less exclusionary, image could also mean whatever happens to be going on in god’s head, which opens us to discussions that veer into dream interpretation. if we are every part of our dream, by analogy, god would be every part of the world as it was in the beginning, is now and every shall be…, begging the question: which part of god am i? and oh my god. you, too?

the play between image as what is visible and image as what we think was central to the subtlemob performance piece, as if it were the last time, which i saw saturday evening as part of the microwave new media arts festival.

the title of the piece itself, as if it were the last time is in the subjunctive, the tense where we suspend our disbelief and live the story as truth. the piece was created through the interaction of audience members with each other, a small commercial area of tsuen wan, and the other people in the area. the audience was divided into two groups, “lost” and “found”. both groups were given an mp3 with a mix of music, story, and instructions. throughout the 30-minute piece, the members of the two groups variously performed, watched each other, listened to the music and story creating a cinematic experience in the space.

last time played with both senses of image. on the one hand, none of the performers looked like an actor. on the other hand, in order for the piece to work, audience members needed enough familiarity with audiovisual conventions in order to appreciate what was happening. indeed, one of the more moving effects of this process was how the performance opened me more fully to those around me as if we were part of the same story and therefore the same world.

this spirit of creative exploration continued on sunday, when i enjoyed an afternoon with friends at the shenzhen bay fringe, including fun mime by the trip of mime, a group from hong kong and then participated in the fifth shenzhen pecha kucha night, showing twenty images of the transformation of houhai since 2002. uncanny moment that. the slides were projected onto a screen in the middle of a decorative pond where once was coastal water now a coastal mall. indeed, it was the sense of displacement that foregrounded for me the slippage between images as what appears and images in the mind’s eye. houhai has been razed and reconstructed so many times that there is no there on which to hang a history. the place crumbles away only to re-emerge as another version of modernity from someone else’s sketchbook.

now, i don’t know if our creative conflation of what is and what the mind’s eye sees makes us divine. it would be nice to think so, but my experience in last time has me thinking otherwise. the success of the experience hinged on collaboration, more on the idea that we are all part of god’s unfolding, so to speak and less on the imposition of individual images onto that world. more explicitly, the history of reclaiming houhai teaches that when we impose one image onto the diversity of life, we end up with less life and more pollution, not to mention fewer refuges for spoonbills to nest and mangroves to flourish.

and there’s the ethical rub. it is so difficult to understand myself not as a source of world transformation, but rather as an expression of the world itself and the role i am assigned.

fat bird in hong kong!

On January 10-11, 2009 Fat Bird will perform “FBI: 2009 Shennong Plan” at the Fringe Club City Festival 2009. FBI is, of course, the acronym for Fat Bird Institution.

FBI: 2009 Shennong Project is organized as a series of public announcements, propaganda events, and onstage performances that are adapted to local audience concerns.

Organization of Public Announcement. During a pre-show press conference, FBI Chair Yang Qian explains how recent Chinese food crises are in fact signs that human evolution is entering a new stage. Specifically, toxic food allows the earth to weed out food dependent people, revealing the new human as the ones who directly ingest elements. All human beings are welcome to join FBI’s pursuit of a new and glorious future humanity.

Organization of Propaganda Events. At each of the onstage performance, FBI sets up an information table, where an FBI believer challenges passersby and audience members with the questions: “Are you afraid of China food?” and “If so, would you consider joining FBI?”

Organization of Onstage Scenes (for Hong Kong performance, January 10-11, 2009; time 30 minutes; 7 participants). Each scene is comprised of: multi-media and performance. FBI handouts and propaganda materials will also be available at each performance.

Images of the first FBI handouts from the December 4, 2008 press conference in Hong Kong:

fat bird red and blue

English translation of the handout:

FBI Report to Hong Kong Citizens: The Chinese Food Problem and a New Stage in Human Evolution

People of Hong Kong:

Greetings! Recently, under the pressure of population, environmental, rapid urbanization, and globalization, the quality of Chinese food has become increasingly questionable. Chemical residues in food and chemical additives with no nutritional value are now common. In addition, there are constant reports of industrially processed foods. This year, the “Three Deer Milk Powder Incident” transformed the question of food safety into a focus of social concern. “Three Deer” milk products carried the prestigious “No National Food Inspection” label because in previous years their products had all passed inspection. The contamination of Three Deer” milk products resulted in the collapse of confidence in national food safety regulation. This crisis and the high level of distrust of all food was the background for the appearance of a new illness—comephobia. Comephobics display high levels of anxiety, suffer from hallucinations, and are frequently aggressive. There is a danger of comephobic outbreaks in the richest of China’s eating regions. According to our information, health departments throughout the country are as yet unable to cure or control this disease.

However, the crisis in Chinese food safety is actually a signal that humanity has entered a new stage in evolution. Accordingly, FBI has a special announcement: the results of our research show that there is a special class of human being that does not depend on ordinary food in order to live. They are among us. We call the “elementals” because they are able to secure nutrition from other sources. Elementals are uniquely adapted to the current environment and do not suffer from comephobia. Given ongoing environmental degradation, they embody the hope of human survival and evolution.

FBI is the acronym of Fat Bird Institution, the department of the Global New Life Diversification Federation that is responsible for researching and optimizing the opportunities for human evolution caused by the pressure of the Chinese food environment. We have been secretly tracking the existence of elementals for a long time. However, we were unable to develop an easy method for distinguishing elementals from the rest of the population. The Three Deer Milk Powder Incident enabled a breakthrough in FBI’s work on identifying elementals. Our research shows that children who drink melamine contaminated milk powder and develop kidney stones are in fact elementals. When this research was extended to the adult population, our identifications were 99.46% accurate. FBI decided to announce our presence and research to offer an invitation to all people. Come to an FBI identification station and take the melamine milk test and determine your true nature. The mass distinguishing of human natures is the second core mission of the “2009 Shennong Plan”.

During the January 2009 Hong Kong Fringe Festival, FBI will set up an identification station in the basement of the Fringe Club. We welcome every Hong Kong citizen to begin self-identification. We will also provide entertainment.

fusion food-scapes

This weekend a group of Swiss writers visited as part of the food-scape / 食事风景 project. Representing the four Swiss languages, the writers were: Vanni Bianconi (Italian), Arno Camenisch (Romanch), Odile Cornuz (French), Peter Weber (German), and Martin Zeller (German). Margrit Manz organized the project. Three film-makers also came: Xia Tian from Tianjin by way of Basel, Janos Tedeschi, and Milo.

The importance of food in creating and nourishing human relationships is a truism in both anthropological theory and Chinese culture. We don’t just eat with intimates, we also create intimacy by sharing food. Moreover, when a group lacks common topics of conversation, talking about food easily segues into childhood memories, strangest food I ever tasted bravado, journeys through cultural landscapes, and perils of world domination by American fast food chains.

Saturday afternoon, day one, started awkwardly but ended with the sensual pleasures of a Hunan restaurant,where I was most struck by how good food facilitated conversations that had previously been stilted and dry. Pre-food, we approached conversation intellectually, each of us rehearsing arguments and theses we had clearly developed in other contexts. However, the flavors, the baijiu, the chewing, the swallowing, and the communal digesting of Hunan food gave us a world in common. We talked about tastes, what was special about Hunan food, the different types of chili peppers in China. We enjoyed Peter and Vanni’s enthusiasm for new dishes and suddenly the distance between people dissolved into laughter, stories, and arranging another workshop, which would be held after visiting Dongmen and City Hall the next day.

Sunday morning, day two, Winnie Wong joined us for morning tea at the revolving restaurant at the top of the National Commerce Building (国贸). This building is a particular favorite of mine because the inexpensive morning tea (48 per person on weekdays, 58 on weekends) is not only tasty, but also an easy opening to talk about Shenzhen history (the National Commerce Building was the first skyscraper built in reform China) and view Shenzhen (at 49 stories the building is tall enough for great views but low enough to be able to see and identify other buildings). Again, food, its presentation, and the dim sum fun of selecting baskets of dumplings, braised chicken claws, and cow stomach created commonality, so that presence in the present could anchor conversations that might otherwise have drifted into the tenuous connections of abstract thoughts.

We then visited the street markets of the remains of old Hubei Village (湖贝村), an urban village that occupies downtown land as yet to expensive to appropriated. Rows of and two-story traditional houses create narrow lanes, which are wide enough for a person to walk through open onto wider main lanes, which are wide enough to accommodate small carts, bicycles, motor scooters, and tables of fresh meat, vegetables, seafood, fried breads, imported fruits, tofu products, and displays of preserved eggs. Most of Shenzhen’s migrant workers live with their families in inner city villages like Hubei Village and these street markets both reproduce the feel of local markets elsewhere and provide convenient access to food. More importantly, the street markets create food-scapes, where migrants can inhabit Shenzhen by making neighborhoods out of grocery shopping, haggling over prices, sharing recipes, or simply walking around and noticing what’s available.

These three very different food-scapes provided the backdrop to our short visit to experience the monumentality of the central axis, where Martin bought pastries for our afternoon workshop, which itself was a food-scape of another kind. Martin arranged the pastries in the center of the table, I added the box of Swiss chocolates that Xia Tian had given me as a meeting gift, and the hostel workers served cups of hot coffee and tea. The group was now ready to talk about art. And we did. The conversation touched upon individualism, Chinese familialism, the materiality of language, and the performance of written works. Odile and Janos provided an impromtu reading of my translation of Yang Qian’s “Neither Type Nor Category”, and then Peter read his poems in German and Yang Qian their Chinese translations.

I left the table thinking about the importance of shared intimacy through eating to nourishing mutual understanding. Indeed, eating together made spaces in which conversation was meaningful and viscerally pleasurable, allowing real cultural differences to explored, rather than skipped over. During the food-scape exchange, for example, two of the most obvious moments of cultural ignorance appeared as lack of knowledge about Shenzhen (among Western artists) and indifference to Dada (among Chinese students).

On the one hand, over the past thirty years, Shenzhen has touched the lives of every single Mainland person. To have lived through Reform and Opening is to have seen its possibilities tried out, tinkered with, and transformed in Shenzhen. Indeed, migrating to Shenzhen, especially before 1997, defined a particular kind of courage and ambition that all Chinese people recognize. Thus, in the context of the contemporary PRC, ignorance about Shenzhen is unimaginable because it would mean having missed an entire historical era.

On the other hand, modern art movements like Dada have impacted and made possible all kinds of Western lives, ranging from aesthetic experimentation to philosophical interrogation of the limits to objective truth. Many of us, including myself, have created lives out of these possibilities. Thus, in the context of Western individualism, indifference to Dada is puzzling because to learn about Dada is to deepen one’s understanding of the self.

Definite food for thought.