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Towards a Social Sensibility (my experience within the Beijing Independent Art Scene)

by Alessandro Rolandi

I have been living and working in China and in Beijing since 2003. I did not have an agenda. Now this city is where I have spent most of my adult life. This time has changed and shaped my artistic and my personal quest. From memory, I would place the beginning of the Beijing independent spaces art scene, in the years 2007-2010, (beside Beijing, China has an earlier and longer history of independent artistic practices scattered in different cities), when in parallel to the explosion of the Chinese art market, several local and international artists directed their attention to the city with the desire of being more in contact with the population and start a different dialogue. This converged into a variety of grass root, research-oriented praxis, that, ‘despite’ or perhaps ‘because’ of their insularity, and their loose, spontaneous interaction, have been pioneering a lively, alternative, local scene.

Differently from the performative festivals of the earliest artists’ villages of Yuan Ming Yuan, Songzhuang and 798, that remained mostly confined to artists and art districts, this time, things moved to the Beijing’s city center, the hutongs area North-East of the Forbidden City. Some of these experiences have been linked to physical spaces, such as ZaJia Lab, Arrow Factory, Homeshop, Jiali Gallery and IFP, while some other were ephemeral projects, guerrilla interventions and performances in the public space (like Forget Art, and Sayizheng for example). Meanwhile, in the suburbs, other precious self-organized experiences of art and activism, like Picun community, were also already active under the radar.

Being part of this scene I witnessed a wide range of multi-disciplinary practices, and participated in different levels of interaction with the local community and its complex and sensitive socio-political situation. People’s instinctive curiosity and politeness in conjunction with a favourable economic climax, and a relatively tolerant political atmosphere, allowed this first moment to exist and thrive for few years, in an interesting suspended condition, without being ever completely integrated or dismissed. If the overall impact of this presence is difficult to assess, its spontaneity and its organic, daily negotiation of ideas and behaviours with the hutong residents, remains vivid, in time, as an original form of dialogue and neighbourhood relationship. Some of those experience are gone, few survived and passed the relay to the current Beijing independent art scene: a second wave of artist-run spaces and residences facing a quite different context of large scale ongoing gentrification and heavy political control and economic pressure enforced by the new leadership often with dramatic individual and collective consequences for the local population. Some potentially large-public forms of expressions such as independent film-making, documentary and music have been objects of increasingly stricter censorship.

My personal research’s trajectory evolved when, in 2010, I met Guillaume Bernard, the CEO of a family-owned industrial French company based in Beijing and in Paris-Gonesse. Because of his unbiased interest in experimental art, I was invited to carry on an 8-months long residency in his Beijing factory, and instead of producing anything, I requested that workers, managers and employees could be authorized, on a voluntary base, to use some of their working time to engage with me in short informal dialogic and/or creative acts. Along this time, during which, I had no formal role, I tested the tactics of intervention, previously applied to the public space, inside the complex and problematic power structure of a corporation delocalized in China. Suddenly I was at the core of a highly symbolic context – the “factory” in China and as a global reality – and this new situation, instead of resolving itself in an antagonistic challenge to a set of ideological boundaries, existed, since the beginning, in a state of contradiction and potentiality I had not experienced before.

In the company I remarked:

– an uncommon attention to people’s working conditions and dignity;

– the fact to look at China as an environment for experiment and innovation, instead of barely as a source of cheap labour;

– a scale closer to that of a large workshop than to that of a large corporation;

– an assembly line designed for workers to carry on flexible and sophisticated sets of combined manual and intellectual procedures instead of a typical alienating sequence of repetitive gestures.

Having witnessed and being motivated by the consistency of these basic situation, not just staged to sell an acceptable public image, I tried and reach out to the workers’ world, beyond the mere surface of courtesy and mutual respect.

In 2011 the first Sensibility R&D Department was created at Bernard Controls China. Instead of a temporary collaboration, it was born as an integrated transversal function of the company, providing a different economic and conceptual model to integrate the presence of artists as researchers in its functioning. Two assumptions were made:

1) that ‘relationship’ could be an artistic material;

2) that the presence of artists as a ‘disturbance’ in the optimized reality of a working environment could hijack ‘wired’ behaviours, fostering individual and collective sensibility and a form of ‘social imagination’.

The department is now 7 years old in Beijing and 2 years old in Paris-Gonesse, where I invited a French artist, Blandine De la Taille, to develop it. Artists of different background and nationalities, from Beijing and elsewhere, underwent the sensitive process to establish a bond with workers and employees and most of them showed great generosity and commitment. On this relational base, all projects have been documented, independently by the fact that they succeed or not in producing a final piece or a deliverable of some kind. The impact of a project would depend more on the capacity to construct an empathic bond with a certain number of people than on the theoretical frame, the medium implied or the previous experience. The organic integration of the department in the company’s life has transformed the initial dynamics, mainly addressing the limits of communication within a hierarchical, optimized structure, into more subtle, layered situations, including elements like peer pressure, class, age and gender issues and hidden informal group behaviours.

After a long exposure to artists, a mayor change occurred when I invited the artist Tianji Zhao (who previously ran her own project and helped facilitating others) to join the department and contribute regularly. Reconnecting with the initial 8-months experiment, Zhao suggested to engage with people who showed more interest, and help them imagining their own artworks. We chose then a broad topic, ‘Work/Live’, around which, through several conversations with a person at a time, we would accompany him/her to articulate some ideas and issues, using the language of conceptual art.

When Mrs. Li Zhan, a worker, came up with the idea for her installation ‘I Like round things’, using recycled materials from work, and Arrow Factory, offered us to host it, a second dynamic started in our experiment: on one side, artists are invited to spend time and and with the staff inside the plant; on another, some people from the staff would conceive their own artworks. In a couple of years, we have exhibited a selection of multimedia artworks from artists, non-artists and hybrid collaborations in non-profit spaces and museums in Beijing and elsewhere; yet, this first-degree role-inversion is not a goal itself (as the public exhibitions are only a way to communicate about what we are doing) but a consequence of a process to test both art making and working reality, by provocatively merging the conditions in which they both happen. These informal creative exchanges raise the issue of how professionalism generates isolated, entrenched and ideological enclaves and re-introduce the notion of amateurism to balance and ‘hack’ the current logic of extreme competition and specialization.

The research on Social Sensibility is a practice-and-presence-based approach that privileges empiric field-experience and relies on theory as a feedback loop. It is conceived to react critically, continuously modifying tactics and strategies, with the aim to preserve the original “contradiction” by which it was born: the tension between criticality and sustainability. When it comes to measure “what this practice effectively does” to people, organizations, art and artists, we remain cautious and restrain from generalizing and/or emphasize results and we continue to value spontaneous feed backs more than technical surveys or indicators. The core value of the experiment is its being an original form of art usership generated through the first unnecessary encounter between artists, workers and employees whose rules of engagement need to be constantly negotiated.

People involved have appropriated the projects in multiple ways, individually and collectively: as a space for philosophical reflection, a form of education, a moment of leisure, all the way to an influence on internal politics.

Despite a limited impact and the constant risks of being tamed by the extraction logic of the late capitalist model or co-opted by a vacuous politically correctness, the department creates indeed some moments of critical and egalitarian exchange at the core of an environment where most codes and rules dismiss the possibility for this to exist. We observed that a long-enough shared experience of this kind enhances human dignity and equality because it provides a different language to people to speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them. And if these futures are not concrete (or utopian), what is real is the possibility of being someone else, of being in some other social space from the existing one in which one has already been placed.

During these 7 years, we faced tensions and accidents and still almost half of the population who has been exposed to the activities do not understand or fully grasp them, remains indifferent, or is openly rejecting them. This space for denial and non-participation is even more precious than the one in which enlightening and touching moments happen, as it grants people the right to choose ‘how’ and ‘if’ to engage. The silent space of waiting, being frustrated, doubtful, hesitating and confused, has been the invisible ‘dark matter’ of which most of the practice is made of. Being foreigner-initiated and sponsored, the research also faces the sensitive issue of colonial and post-colonial heritage and it is exposed to the paradox – despite the intentions – of causing damage and misunderstanding. As a protection for this we have our ethic and the fact that the research is now active in two very distant realities such as Beijing and Gonesse, where were obliged to deal with similar but also very different psychological, socio-political, historical and cultural tensions.

This is our resistance: walking the uncomfortable and fragile path of empathy and contradiction, assuming the potential for emancipation exists in the highest degree of openness and participation in diversity. Looking at Western references in the closer past, they go from John Dewey’s landmark text Art as experience, to Ranciere’s The ignorant Schoolmaster, from Paulo Freire’s Theatre of the Oppressed, to Kryzstov Wodizcko’s Interrogative Design, and the work of the Artist Placement Group, yet if these are relevant, as a matter of fact, the seeds of the Social Sensibility are rooted into my 14 years in Beijing. They grew with the organizations, the artists, the activists and the intellectuals I met, and worked with, who introduced me to the reality of the local population: the artisans, the migrant workers, the farmers, the villagers and the factory workers. This convinced me that Chinese contemporary life, today, is the authentic ‘experimental avant-guard’, in which more than a billion and half people, are obliged to invent every day their ways to get by, navigating between authoritarian political pressure, disruptive internal and external economic forces, a long, complex and fragmented cultural identity and the need to combine efficient pragmatic solutions to survive the speed of change and a more intangible meaning to fill the spiritual and emotional void. The Chinese working class, for instance, continues to be threatened by exploitation, fragmentation and, now, by the danger of automation. Before, the workers were organized in work units – danwei – that were not only instruments of surveillance but also of working class’ everyday cultural and social life. According to the philosopher Wang Hui, this old working class linked its fate to that of the whole socialist system, rather than just protecting a class interest or that of individual workers, but in today’s China, this connection between political and social form is gone. Authoritarian capitalism has generated a fundamental crisis of political representation.

The research in Social Sensibility cannot replace that lost heritage, but somehow establishes a continuity with it, reinventing an emancipatory ideal in a hybrid, cross-cultural way, whose more elusive artistic-sociological quality is not obeying and not challenging directly any party policy but, is, indeed embedded in the socio-political context. Born in China, it displays elements that can be found in a variety of international emancipatory movements in which art and culture have been engaging to oppose inequality, negotiating agendas with politics and economics.

Wang Hui sees inequality as the result of the erosion of public policy and looks at it as possible starting point to rebuild a political representation, focusing on some well-known conceptual aspects such as equality of opportunity, of outcome and of capabilities. His view of the Socialists states is that they tried to overcome inequalities between workers and peasants, city and country, physical and intellectual labour, majorities and minorities and failed, but at least they had goals, yet, beside attempting the ambiguous and complex ask to think what can still be extracted from Chinese Communism, Wang also refers to other sources such as the work of Zhang Binglin on the equality of all things, which is drew from the teachings of Chuang-tzu and from Mahayana Buddhism. Quotes from Daoism, Buddhism and Confucian tradition, not in scholarly words, but in the language and understanding of today’s common people, often recur in the conversations at the factory between artists, workers and employees of different generation and social background, and it is not meaningless to imagine the Social Sensibility as an alternative space in which these and other influences, mediated by the artistic experience, can be re-interpreted in unexpected ways.

Going back to the 20ies, John Dewey, was well-received in China (and not in Korea and Japan) and his assistant, the scholar Hu Shi, developed a way to integrate is ideas into an influential current of thought. This disposition to exchange and absorb knowledge is the pivotal quality I observed in Beijing and a guarantee, despite the growing threats brought to the grass root initiatives by restrictions of any sort, that the example they set will resist and re-invent itself here and elsewhere.

The variety of mind-sets and agents in the independent art scene, share a common important message: on a small but diffused scale, artists and cultural operators don’t want to just observe and comment from their ivory tower any more. They want to commit, on a multidisciplinary level, to the task of exposing todays’ dangers and injustices, inventing strategies of resistance and alternative ways towards a more acceptable and sustainable civil society. I see the insularity of these realities as an advantage and not a limit: their ubiquitous and heterogeneous nature opposes the current economic standard of the scaling up model, protecting diversity without preventing diffusion and using internet for multiple levels of distant exchanges and coordination. Also, working with hybrid methodologies and transparent bottom-up collaborative tactics, most of these players suggest a departure from the elitist and egocentric logic of “the artist and his/her artwork” towards a provocative path in which the definitions of ‘oeuvre’ and of authorship become loose and their materiality questionable, while the encounter with ‘the reality of the other’ emerges as the core issue.

There is another difficult-to-catch dimension suggesting a shift of attitude: more ‘artists’ seems ready to give up art production (fully incorporated in the ‘spectacle’ as anticipated by Debord and Pasolini), to inject their tricksters’ energy directly into society and let common people appropriate and express it through their own voice and acts. This could protect ‘socially engaged art’ from becoming just another trend and, instead, open the way, for art, in general, to be socially engaged by necessity and choice. The obstacles to something so radical are huge and powerful, but the game is open. Paradoxically, disappearing in everyone’s creative flow, could be one last trick for art and artists to merge with life in a subversive way: a ‘via negativa’ to regain that unique critical stance lost once and avoid being found where the Leviathan expects us to be.

Alessandro Rolandi 29/08/2017

“In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us…”

Lin Yutang,

The importance of living