learning from the prd

This week in The Economist, an introduction to the PRD as China’s most dynamic, open, and innovative region. Good overview that introduces landmarks for navigating a landscape which has changed and continues to change China. And yes, Learning from Shenzhen gets a shout out!

nanting village, guangzhou

On Friday September 9, 2016, I had the privilege of visiting Nanting Village, Guangzhou with Professor Chen Xiaoyang, from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. The occasion for the visit was a screening of Zhong Shifang’s film, “From Border to Border,” a documentary on the Chinese community in Tangra Calcutta. I will discuss the film in my next post. Today, I would like to contextualize the screening of the film with a brief introduction to Nanting Village. Continue reading

digital soul: the 2013 independent animation biennale

Actually it’s called The World of the Soul: A Virtual Art Engineering Project (心灵世界:作为虚拟艺术工程) and it’s the first Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale. Interestingly, in addition to the usual OCAT sponsors, Southern Weekend and Youku, two leaders in China’s youth culture also contributed to the event, which includes lectures in Beijing and Guangzhou.

Curators Wang Chunchen, Zhang Ciaotao, and He Jinfang provide viewers with a smorgasbord of videos that range from short shorts through mid-length pieces to feature films. They have also selected styles that include virtual reality avatars, hand drawn characters, and experiments with Chinese ink painting. So, if you have a leisurely afternoon, a stroll through the exhibition offers much to sample. What’s more, if you decide to watch the longer pieces, you may decide to return for a second or third time.

In addition to the exhibition, the biennale offers a series of monthly lectures. On January 22, artist Lei Lei (雷磊) gave a talk on free and easy animation. Just after the Chinese New Year on February 26, artist Sun Xun (孙逊) will discuss “Animation is a Layer of Skin”. Clearly, animation is a way of life and digital soul as earnest as painterly counterparts.

Venue: B 10 Gallery, OCAT Loft North

Dates: Dec 22, 2012 through Mar 22, 2013

Time: 10:00 to 17:50 on weekdays; 10:00 to 20:00 Saturday and Sunday

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Chen Dong, the director of Da Ken Art Center (大乾艺术中心) commissioned me curate a performance for the Mayan apocalypse, December 21, 2012; Bardo was the result. Choreographers, Eagle Ho and Samuel Morales performed the split soul; composer Robert Copeland created the emotional landscape through which the soul traveled, and; Chen Yujun crafted its two faces. Photographs by Shan Zenghui, Chen Dong’s partner in bringing new kinds of art to Shenzhen.

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Online reviews, here and here.

impressions of floating color

飘色 (literally floating color; piaose) is a wonderful South China tradition. This past month, I’ve had the privilege of helping organize an updated and modernized version of piaose, working with artist Momo Leung (梁美萍), Tan Yuanxing (谭源兴),  and Tracy Lee of CultaMap (香港文化意图). Today, we tried on the costumes and put the girls up on the float. The story is fairytale happy — a flower princess and her froggy prince.

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the back side of the eye

It is one of the ironies of a human life that we experience history not chronologically, but through the cultural present. This is especially true in the arts, where although painting had historically preceded photography, nevertheless most of us saw and took photographs before having seen a painting, whether oil or ink.

Moreover, with the increasing availability of digital images, there is now a generation who has probably first encountered photographic images on a cellphone or computer screen, before contemplating an actual, printed photograph, let alone having viewed a painting. Irrespective of the fact that in point of fact ink painting preceded oil painting, which in turn arose before the invention of photography, in my personal experience, the history of the image has been: photograph, oil painting, ink painting, and then digital image. Other experiential histories are also possible: digital image, photograph, ink painting, and then oil painting.

The Back Side of the Eye, a creative collaboration between photographer Martin Zeller and painter Vai Keng Sou (苏惠琼) reproduces and challenges our experiential history and culture of the image. On the one hand, the production of the images for the series reproduces experiential history, moving from the most recent image technologies toward increasingly distant (and thus increasingly shocking) techniques. Zeller’s digital photographs of Berlin winter landscapes were first viewed on a small camera screen and manipulated on a computer before being printed on rice paper; only then Sou added interpretive brushstrokes. Thus, their creative process itself formulates a question for the era: how do we bring cultural tradition into dialogue with industrial modernity?

On the other hand, viewing the images requires that the photographic and ink elements be engaged concurrently, as elements of a given whole, such that the object itself holds in tension two different aesthetics, which in turn, point to the ways in which human consciousness fabricates past and present out of experience. Indeed, the simultaneous presentation of a past created through digital photography and a past created through ink painting interrupts our appreciation of the image as an example of photography or ink painting. Consequently the result of Sou and Zeller’s collaboration reframes the question of productive process into one of receptive consumption, allowing us to ask: how might bringing cultural tradition into dialogue with industrial modernity enable viewer’s to otherwise engage what-has-been?

Consider, for example, the image “Uncertain Extension”. The underlying photograph is of a swathe of snow-covered trees and, in the background, a line of boxy housing, which evokes the streamlined precision of Cold War modernism. On top of this bleak stillness, Sou has overlaid a clouded spirit, muffled ink smear and trapped purple cloud. The image forces us to engage two past moments simultaneously, the hyper detailed what-has-been of the photograph and the ephemeral what-has-been of Chinese ink painting.

The enigma of a photograph is that a past moment – ‘captured’ on film, we say – is a product of a technological intervention, but is treated as a replica of what-has-been. In fact, no human eye sees the world with the same precision as revealed in a photograph, where details retrospectively emerge to be seen and having-been-seen, to be contemplated. Thus, in “Uncertain Extension”, as viewers note the pattern formed through the delicate wrap of snow on every branch and the rigid precision of housing blocks, we become increasingly sensitive to the atomized materiality of a winter’s day. At the same time, however, Sou’s boneless brushstrokes blur and activate the immobility imposed by photographic accuracy, enabling us to reconsider the psychological what-has-been of winter, not as snow white austerity, but rather as a time of dark sedimentation, of thick ink absorbed by paper already reshaped by printing.

Walter Benjamin asserts that the dialectical value of images, especially photographic images is that they create an analytic space in which to reconsider what has happened, “For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.” In contrast, Zhang Daqian scholar, Pai Tsung Jen (白宗仁) defines the yixiang (意象) of an ink painting outside of history, in terms of the intersection between interior and exterior realities, “創作者主觀意識(意),與外在客觀物象(象)”. In other words, the photographic what-has-been intentionally distances the viewer from the past, while the ink what-has-been purposefully sutures the viewer to the past.

Within their respective traditions, both photography and ink painting denote a particular moment in space and time. However, they emphasize different aspects of that moment. Photography makes the what-has-been relentlessly material, flattened into surfaces that can be endlessly reconsidered. In contrast, ink painting creates yixiang (意象), a sense of being in the world that is shared by both the artist and the viewer. Consequently, the juxtaposition of artistic techniques destabilizes the viewer’s culturally intuitive sense of the nature of what-has-been. Is what-has-been as meticulously concrete as represented in Zeller’s photography? Or is what-has-been as fluidly transient as realized through Sou’s brushstrokes?

The Sou and Zeller collaboration reminds us that although the dialectical contours of the what-has-been may be created and experienced through techniques such as photography and ink painting, nevertheless we use these techniques to make value judgments about what it means to contemplate the past. This is important because how we create the past and its relationship to the present defines who we are as historically and culturally situated people. For Benjamin, photographic pasts were deployed to critique an unjust present. For the ancient literati, ink brushed pasts recorded continuities between external and internal worlds, past and present.

Unlike Benjamin or Pai Tsung Ren, however, we live in an era where although digital images have gone global, nevertheless aesthetic conventions for understanding the relationship between the what-has-been and the present are radically different between  historical generations, let alone different cultures. We need different ways of thinking about the past in order to create a common present. The images brought together in The Back of the Eye beautifully hold the contradictory tension between pasts we create through modern technology and the pasts we create through more ancient forms of human creativity, offering one model for using art to bridge our different approaches to the past.

Their most recent collaboration New Gardens will be exhibited at the Goethe Institut Hong Kong, November 13 through December 18, 2012.

2012 guangzhou triennial

Yesterday, I visited The Unseen, the GZ Triennial exhibition and spent a pleasant 1/2 day engaging the works of 61 artists from China and the world, including Korea, Russia, India, and Indonesia, a diversity of representation much larger than the usual “global” expositions.

Curators JIANG Jiehong and Jonathan WATKINS have selected works in which what is seen directs the viewer’s attention to what is not. Sometimes the unseen referent is concrete, like the crank that twists a rope in XIAO Yu’s piece of twisting rope, Popularity 1. Sometimes the absent referent is more ephemeral, like the possible corpses buried beneath KAN Xuan’s Millet Mounds (大谷子堆). Sometimes, the unseen is a clever joke – Tim Johnson’s never seen flying saucers, for example. Nevertheless, as a viewer engages more works, the accumulation of unseen referents blurs the artificial division between concrete and ephemeral references, directing the viewer’s imagination instead to the illusive yet invisible worlds in which objects can come to signify relentless social pressure, cultural continuity, and comic book fantasy. So yes, it’s worth making the trip to the Guangdong Museum of Art (广州市二沙岛烟雨路38号广东美术馆) to see what else is there.

The Unseen will run until December 16. Impressions, below.

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after whose history?

As an anthropologist, I understand the question “what is history” to be empirical; history and its concomitant social value is what a group makes of it. I ask simple questions, such as – how does a group teach its history? Through songs? On game shows? In detective novels set in the Victorian age? As a museum exhibition or perhaps through national curriculum and standardized tests?

After I have a sense of the range of historical genres, I do close readings of a few exemplars, comparing and contrasting respective content. Based on what remains constant throughout the different texts, I come up with a working definition of core history for a particular group. In the US, for example, the Revolution is an unquestioned element of the history that makes us Americans; after all the Tories and their ilk ran off to Canada in order to remain British subjects. Indeed, 1776 as the defining moment of being American not only appears in classrooms and textbooks, but also in musical theatre, commentary during baseball games, and automobile commercials. Similarly, based on what varies in these same texts, I get a sense of ongoing debates how this history is interpreted, and by extension, how we should be using it to create particular kinds of Americans. Thus, the Civil War looms in American consciousness, precisely because we still grapple with the contradiction between the self-evident truth (to us as heirs to the Revolution) of all men being created equal and the historic facts of slavery and the disenfranchisement of women, not to mention contemporary debates over the status of First Nations and immigrants.

I contextualize all this analysis with respect to the relative status of sites where these texts are produced, disseminated, read, and sometimes debated. In the United States, universities have higher status but are less a feature of everyday life than are supermarkets. Consequently, I know that Americans recognize the texts used in university history classes to be more accurate, but not as accessible as the historical fictions sold in supermarkets. I know this because Americans read and enjoy pulp fiction – Abraham Lincoln vampire slayer, for contemporary example – more often than we struggle to make sense of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Likewise, I also know that accessibility is often confused with democratic practice, so that reading Louis Lamour’s western adventures can be considered as valuable as reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History.

I mention my intellectual predilections and cultural heritage because yesterday I attended the opening of OCAT’s exhibition After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer, which struck me as quintessentially European in its preoccupation with the philosophical status of history. Moreover, it raised questions about how this preoccupation might inform understanding history in and of and for Shenzhen, where the point of reform and opening has been to launch China into the future.

As curated by Boris Groys, the exhibit highlights the philosophical continuities and contradictions within and between Kojève’s public and private lives. On the one hand, as a philosopher, Kojève followed Hegel in understanding the desire for equal and universal recognition as being the motor of history. This was explicitly a political project that was realized through the French Revolution. On Kojève’s reading, our lives are post-historical precisely because once the French Revolution brought to consciousness the understanding that the role of the State is to facilitate the realization of universal desire, history as such ended. In turn, it is the task of those of us living in post-historical societies to perfect our States, so that forms of political recognition are increasingly equitable and just, allowing for individuals to achieve their desires. This understanding of history shaped Kojève’s public life in two ways. First, as a philosophy professor in Paris, he maintained that he was not teaching anything new, but rather transmitting Hegel’s thought to a new generation of students. Second, at the end of WWII, Kojève abandoned philosophy altogether and became a diplomat, working to establish the European Union.

On the other hand, as a private citizen, Kojève remained fascinated by history, even as his methodology remained Hegalian. At the same time that he began his diplomatic career, Kojève began collecting postcards of historical important buildings and monuments. These postcards were post historical in that they ignored the present in favor of commemorating that which the French Revolution had already made obsolete. Importantly, these postcards became the template for Kojève’s photography, which, on Groys’ interpretation, aimed to bring the philosopher’s idiosyncratic vision of the world in line with that of the dominant vision of the era. Indeed, Kojève’s photographic practice manifested the Hegelian values of “objectivity” and “neutrality” as defined by the dominant trends of an era. Altogether, Kojève collected over 10,000 postcards and took over 5,000 photographs, none of which he displayed to the public. Instead, he filed the postcards and one slide of each image by location and time, creating a massive – but unknown – private visual archive that complimented and contextualized his public work.

At OCAT, Kojève’s importance as a philosopher of history is not evident from the displays themselves. Perhaps at the original installation at BAK-Utrecht (May 20 – July 15, 2012), visitors might have found Kojève’s private obsession to be intuitively interesting. After all Utrecht is just down the road from Haag (the Hague) and debates about the European Union must resonate in the Netherlands in ways that they cannot in China or the United States. Indeed, in a place where Kojève’s work in creating a new political public had concrete effects, I can also imagine a certain fascination with his private life, a desire to examine individualizing obsessions against the background of Hegelian neutrality. Moreover, Kojève’s itineraries began and ended in European cities. Consequently, visitors to the BAK exhibit could imagine themselves as departing from Ultrect and then on to Hong Kong, Calcutta and Madras before returning to Paris by way of Rome.

In contrast to my imagined BAK exhibition, at OCAT, Kojève’s appeal requires contextualization before it begins to make sense, let alone stimulate conversations about what history is and might be. His postcard collection has been represented on nine printed tablecloths and the photographic slides have been digitally reproduced and projected on concrete walls, but what to make of them? We might, for example, specify the question in terms of European history: how have Europeans conceptualized and deployed history such that it became a matter of philosophical debate, rather than say (as in Confucian societies) a matter of ordering the moral society? Moreover, in Shenzhen, we are aware that international journeys begin with the visas that may or may not be granted to Chinese nationals so the question is also practical and not merely academic. Even those with Shenzhen hukou, for example, need a travel pass to visit Hong Kong. In additin, political class and economic status also determine access to an education in western philosophy because international schools can only accept holders of foreign passports, while Chinese schools continue to prepare students for the gaokao, which emphasizes mathematics, science, Chinese, and English to the exclusion of all other subjects.

There are, of course, other challenges to bringing European concerns to a Chinese public. An important one is mutual recognition as an element of international politics. Crudely, the desire for political recognition within China was not the only motive for the Chinese Revolution. Instead, one of the motivations of Chinese revolutionaries was achieving national recognition within the capitalist world system. From this perspective, the establishment of Shenzhen marked the beginning of history in the area and thus Shenzhen’s futurism becomes legible not only as an effort to move beyond Chinese history, but also as making that history legible to those outside China.

It is not my intention to rehearse an argument of Chinese exceptionalism, but rather to elucidate the challenges inherent to any cross-cultural conversation, whether it takes place linguistically or visually or musically. Many have argued that contemporary art accommodates cross-cultural dialogue more easily than language does because languages constrict possible enunciations, while anyone with eyes can understand works of art. And that’s my point. When we think of cross-cultural discourse as a linguistic practice, we are forced to come to terms with the work it takes to learn our native languages, let alone a foreign language. In contrast, when viewing contemporary art, we often forget that just as we learn grammar in order to understand what we hear, we also learn conventions for understanding and evaluating what see. In other words, for a postcard to become a philosophical statement and an exhibition of touristic slides to become a political act, gallery visitors need more than two eyes; we also need history lessons.

This weekend, OCAT has organized lectures to help contextualize the Kojève exhibition. All involved have worked to make the exhibit more accessible to the public, allowing the gallery to become a site of philosophical re-consideration of the meaning and practice of history. However, I suspect that making this history part of the exhibition itself – in addition to holding a series of lectures – might have been a more practical solution to the challenge of making the end of European history relevant to Shenzhen audiences, where we’ve launched into the future.

getting things done in shenzhen

This past year, I have increasingly collaborated with foreign artists, filmmakers, and scholars to create projects in Shenzhen. Often at stake in these projects is the form and breadth of necessary support. For example, to do any kind of project in a public site (performance, filming, showing an art film), you do and do not need papers to show guards. What does this mean?

If the project looks like a group of friends just talking or filming, or if you’re performing / filming in a private house or shop, no one will ask questions. Hence, the proliferation of coffee shop and bar events with sympathetic owners. However, if you set up a large set, have many people involved, and a crowd gathers to watch, then any local guard can stop you and ask to see your papers. And every building has employed guards, so you will encounter them. In urban villages, where there might not be building guards, there are neighborhood civil police, who will know you are in the area within about five minutes and show up (or at least that was Fat Bird’s experience when we did guerilla performances in Huangbeiling and Dongmen 1 and 2).

If you don’t produce performance permits, the guards will send you away. Sometimes, even when you have papers, if the area has a special event going on, the guards will work to send you away. This happened several times during the 6 > 60 bus film screenings, when guards who knew us and were used to our project became nervous because a leader was visiting that day and thus asked us to leave as a favor to them. This indicates how seriously onsite guards take enforcement because 6 > 60 was part of the Biennale and therefore a municipal level project. Nevertheless, guards took the attitude “one less concern is better than one more  (多一事不如少一事)”. Likewise, at a recent Shenzhen University event, a dormitory guard tried to shut down an approved project because approval had only taken the form of spoken agreement. When the project organizer went to confront the approving official, he denied that he had ever heard of the project.

When organizing a project in China, it bears remembering that upper level officials may agree to help (and often support a project in principle), but if they do not write a letter of support, sign papers or issue permits, their support is practically useless because enforcement takes place onsite. Moreover, in most cases the leaders that can approve a project and the offices that issue permits are separate. This means, of course, that what needs to happen is project directors need to work with leaders who are willing to call the people who do issue permits on their behalf.

The whole question of corruption happens at this overlap between needing political support to obtain permits and the fact that enforcement happens elsewhere. After all, why should an official make a phone call or pursue permit issuing officials for you? What’s in it for them? Likewise, permit issuing officials sometimes become a third site of obstruction, depending on the relative status of the caller — immediate leaders are very helpful in pushing permits through, but their office is usually not high enough to approve a project.

And so point du jour: getting things done in Shenzhen means being able to network as many levels as possible to get the permits necessary to make an onsite intervention. That done, you need to then work with or against onsite guards. One time events can usually be accomplished by arguing with guards, however long term projects require onsite negotiations with guards, and often their leaders, who are responsible to a different chain-of-command than the one that pushed through the permits, which in turn requires another round of explaining and securing agreement.

That said, sometimes bravado will get the same or better results, but it’s a gamble.

怀疑: A Cross Cultural Parable

This and next weekend, the teachers of the Shenzhen University Department of Acting are performing a Chinese adaptation of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, or 怀疑 as it is translated. After the show, several friends approached me and asked me what I thought of the acting. I said that I had enjoyed the performance. They looked at me strangely and pressed, “No, really, what did you think?” Evidently, they didn’t like it so I asked what they thought. Answers included, “I keep hoping that they’ll make me get nervous with the anticipation of waiting to see the show.”

“And you don’t feel that way?”

Flat out, “No.”

Another mentioned that he thought the actors were doing the best they could. But. But?

“They just don’t get the story. I mean, I don’t feel it with them.”

“What about the story?” I started asking, “Is the question of Doubt/ 怀疑 important to you?”

A considering look and then, “The actors are supposed to make me care about the topic. That’s their job.”

As the title suggests, Doubt is a teaching story, figuring the incessant problematic of faith in rigidly dogmatic Sister Aloysius’s certainty that the personable Father Flynn sexually abused Donald Muller, the school’s first black student. The story is set in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964 and the historical background matters because the characters also function allegorically for larger social shifts and ruptures. In 1962, Vatican II opened, but would not close until 1965, when the Council famously challenged the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world, acknowledging that truth could exist outside the community and declaring that the mass could be given in vernacular languages instead of Latin. Sister Aloysius embodies these past certainties and the Church’s previously unquestioned authority in all things moral, which tended to be, well everything; she suspected children of harming themselves to play hooky and saw sexual abuse in slight gestures. In contrast, Father Flynn represents the newer, hipper face of the Church; he plays basketball, wants to sing secular Christmas carols, and likes his tea sweet, perhaps even, too sweet, hmm?

Similarly, even though Donald Muller never appears onstage, his shadowy presence signals that like the Catholic Church, New York society was also changing and nowhere more than the Bronx. In 1963, Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway was completed. The bridge displaced families and businesses, was a constant source of noise and air pollution, and catalyzed the decline of the South Bronx from a district of family neighborhoods and businesses to the poorest district in the United States, despite its proximity to Manhattan. In fact, the South Bronx erupted into American national consciousness in 1977, when during a baseball broadcast, Howard Cosell exclaimed, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning!” Sister James and Mrs. Muller are left to deal with the spiritual and practical aftermath, respectively. Sister James agonizes over the meaning of faith when innocence has been shatter and Mrs. Muller begs to protect her child despite his “differences”. Donald is black and may or may not be “that way” — his father and former classmates regularly beat him because they suspect he is — although Stonewall was only five years in the future, 1969.

Contemporary history also shapes reception. In 2002, the Boston Globe broke the story of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. Shanley first staged Doubt and won the Pulitzer in 2005. Soon, productions had been mounted in Australia, Singapore, the Philippines, and New Zealand. Roman Polanski directed the play in Paris; it was also staged in Venezuela and London. In 2008, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffmann performed the antagonists, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Clearly, Shanley’s nuanced exploration of moral ambiguity resonated with English-speaking audiences precisely because it resonated at so many levels — historically, spiritually, and personally. Or as an older Catholic friend summed up his response to the play, “Of course he did it and yes, she’s a bitch. But still, none of that changes the truth…” And implicit in this statement, reverberating through our souls is the desire to believe, to have faith. And yet, we doubt. As Shanley elegantly described our situation, “For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howls to the sky, to God: ‘Help me!’ What if no answer comes?”

And therein lies our cross-cultural rub. For my Chinese friends there was no story except as conveyed by the actors. 怀疑 means doubt and suspect, and is often used to describe situations when someone may or may not be lying, as in, “I suspect she’s actually dating him,” or “I suspect he’s hiding something.” In the final scene, when Sister Aloysius cried, “我怀疑!” the audience seemed confused, unmoved by the Sister’s predicament. Maybe had cried, “无地自容” the audience may have understood that the foundation of her life had shifted, and she would never again act from life-affirming conviction. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, for those of us raised Irish-American Catholic, a profound chasm separates religious doubt from secular suspicions. We are taught, after all, to render unto Caesar, but in the last instance, when forced to choose, to vote our conscious, so to speak, we move within and against the heart’s fragile certainties; we yearn to be one with God and he is silent, but we must act as if he had answered our call. Thus, in the final scene, when doubt brings Sister Aloysius to despair, I understand. I am with her regardless of the quality of the acting. The acting was sufficient to move me because, as Stanley reminds us, “Doubt can be as powerful a bond and sustaining as certainty,” which I amend with the cross cultural caveat, “especially amongst former Catholics…”