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The Pursuit of Publicness: A Study of Four Chinese Contemporary Art Projects

by Bo Zheng

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy

Supervised by Professor Douglas Crimp

Department of Art and Art History Program in Visual and Cultural Studies Arts, Sciences and Engineering School of Arts and Sciences University of Rochester Rochester, New York 2012



This dissertation is dedicated to my parents.


Curriculum Vitae

The author was born in Beijing, China on July 19, 1974. He attended Amherst College from 1997 to 1999, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1999. He received a MFA degree in 2006 from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He came to the University of Rochester in the Fall of 2007 and began graduate studies in Visual and Cultural Studies. He pursued his research in contemporary art under the direction of Professor Douglas Crimp and received the Master of Arts degree from the University of Rochester in 2012.



I am deeply grateful to Professor Douglas Crimp, my adviser, for giving me enormous support over the past six years. He has shown me the true meaning of intellectual curiosity and kindness. I thank Professors Rachel Haidu and John Osburg for being on my committee and for giving me advice on this dissertation and beyond. I also thank Professors Joan Saab, Janet Berlo, and John Michael for their guidance. I spent the first year of my doctoral studies at Northwestern University. Professors Sarah Fraser and Hannah Feldman have remained supportive of my career. VCS has been a second home for me. Marty Collier-Morris and Cathy Humphrey are always patient and helpful. Sohl Lee has been a dear friend and intellectual companion. Many ideas in this dissertation were crystallized during our long conversations. Shota Ogawa, Iskandar Zulkarnain, Daisuke Kawahara, Qian Hua, Sohl and I formed the rochester asians meet 4 lunch group in 2009 and managed to meet regularly to talk about work and life. Gloria Kim, Yuichiro Kugo, Genevieve Waller, Lucy Mulroney, Berin Golonu, Alex Alisauskas, and Godfre Leung all helped me in various ways. Xiong Wenyun generously accommodated my research. Discussions with Geng Yan, Zhang Yuling, Zhang Hui, Steven Lee, Wenny Teo, Franziska Koch, Yang Guang, Dai Zhanglun, Astrid Wege, and Shingyuk Chow advanced my thinking.

Without the love and support of my family, I would not have been able to devote six years to doctoral studies. My sister Cai Jing and her husband generously let me stay in their apartment in Beijing to work on my dissertation. My partner Jiang Chao has tolerated my bad temper. His presence brings me joy.


Abstract This dissertation examines the meaning of publicness and its relationship to contemporary art through an analysis of four Chinese art projects. The four projects are Moving Rainbow (1998-2001) by Xiong Wenyun, Village Self-Governance Documentary Project (2005) by Wu Wenguang, Karibu Islands (2008) by myself, and Nian (2010) by Ai Weiwei. I demonstrate that these projects share a number of things in common: (1) the artists and participants acted as citizens and demanded citizens rights; (2) they organized discursive arenas outside the state; (3) they defined issues of common concern; (4) they mobilized both rational-critical and affective expressions, and utilized a wide range of media; (5) they fostered stranger relations; (6) they strove for visibility; (7) they focused on contemporary common action. These traits together constitute publicness. Publicness not only served as a goal for these projects, but also constituted a form through which these projects came into being. I argue that the pursuit of publicness has been one of the critical forces motivating the development of Chinese contemporary art. In the struggle against totalitarianism, Chinese artists have combined public and counterpublic strategies and contributed to larger social movements striving for freedom and justice.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Epilogue Bibliography

Introduction Four Basic Ideas Stranger-Relationality Visibility Fantasy

1 49 89 132 168 204 207


List of Figures Figure 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Caption The first Stars exhibition, Beijing, 1979. Ma Desheng at the demonstration, October 1979. The opening of Difference Gender, June 14, 2009, Beijing. Two photographs by Ren Hang were taken down before the opening. Overview of the public sphere model. The constituents of publicness. Huang Rui, The Will, 1979, oil on canvas, 65x80cm. Huang Rui, The Funeral, 1979, oil on canvas, 65x80cm. Huang Rui, The Rebirth, 1979, oil on canvas, 65x80cm. Wang Keping, Silence, 1979, wood, 48cm high. Wang Keping, The Idol, 1979, wood, 67cm high. Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, 1999, photograph, 130x130cm. Wu Wenguang, Village Self-Governance Documentary Project, 2005, video still. Bo Zheng, Karibu Islands, discussion held at the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center, July 27, 2008. Image altered to protect the identity of the participants. Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, 1999, photograph, 152x111cm. Xiongs site-specific experiment, Tibet, May 1998. A photograph taken by Xiong in Tibet in May 1998. A photograph of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, taken by Xiong in July 1998. A photographs taken by Xiong on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway in July 1998. Xiong painting the end of timber carried on a truck, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Sichuan-Tibet Highway, October 1998. Xiong hanging a piece of cloth in bright yellow on a door, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Sichuan-Tibet Highway, October 1998. Page 2 2 4 4 13 13 34 34 34 38 38 42 45 47

2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6

50 52 52 54 54 56




2.8 2.9

2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5

Xiong talking to drivers, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Queer Mountain, April 1999. Xiong convinced a few truck drivers to put the brightcolored tarpaulins on their trucks, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Queer Mountain, April 1999. The departure ceremony held in front of Southwest Jiaotong University, September 25, 1999. The Moving Rainbow motorcade on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, September 1999. Xiong and participants celebrating their arrival at the base camp of Mount Everest, July 22, 2001. Yin Xiuzhen, Washing the River, Chengdu, 1995. Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, 1999, photograph, 152x111cm. Commitment cards signed by drivers. Xiong speaking at a press conference held in Chengdu, 1999. Xiong directing drivers, 1999. Xiong showing me the amount of paperwork involved in Moving Rainbow, Xiongs studio, Beijing, August 2010. Ai Xiaoming, Citizen Investigation, 2010, video stills. All relationships in China are stabilized according to the persons status in the state pyramid. Zheng Bo, Untitled, 2008, digital photographs, dimensions variable. Liu Jiakun, Hu Huishan Memorial, 2009, exterior. Liu Jiakun, Hu Huishan Memorial, 2009, interior. Nian concatenates multiple stranger relations into one work. Pictures of Wukan election circulated on weibo.com, a popular Chinese twitter site, in February 2012. Video stills from the Village Self-Governance Documentary Project. The ten villagers learning to shoot video at Caochangdi Workstation in November 2005. Stills from A Welfare Council by Nong Ke. Stills from Land Distribution by Wang Wei.

56 56

58 58 59 63 67 79 81 81 85 96 106 111 121 121 125 133 134 136 144 153

4.6 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6

Shao Yuzhen being interviewed by a foreign journalist. Stills from Karibu Islands (seven videos). Stills from Karibu Islands (the Buddhas life reversed). The Beijing LGBT Cultural Center. The first Karibu Islands discussion held at the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center, May 11, 2008. Birth Certificates filled out by Chunchun (left) and Haishui (right). Age at birth chosen by the participants.

157 170 173 175 176 186 191

Chapter 1 Introduction On September 27, 1979, an outdoor art exhibition was held in a small park in central Beijing. (Figure 1.1) It was staged by the Stars group, an informal collective of young men and women whose artworks transgressed the socialist realism authorized by the state. The Stars were not full-time artists; many held factory jobs. After failing to obtain an official venue to show their artworks, they decided to organize an exhibition in the park next to the National Art Gallery. There were over a hundred and fifty works drawings, paintings, prints, and woodcarvings mostly hung on the fence between the park and the Museum.1 The artworks were executed in a wide range of styles not seen in official exhibitions. He Baosen used quick brushstrokes to render a quotidian scene of commuters on bicycles. Huang Rui painted the same view of Ruins of Yuanmingyuan three times, using disparate hues to suggest three different moods. Wang Kepings woodcarvings featured political satires and openly criticized state corruption. The exhibition soon attracted passersby: men and women, young and old, a few carrying children in their arms. Two days later, the exhibition was removed by the police. The artists responded with a demonstration on October 1, the thirtieth anniversary of the Peoples Republic, demanding democratic rights and artistic freedom. (Figure 1.2) After some negotiation mediated by the semiofficial Artists
Wang Keping, Xing xing wang shi (Stars Stories), in The Stars: 10 Years, ed. Chang Tsong-zung (Hong Kong: Hanart 2 Gallery, 1989), 23.

Figure 1.1 The first Stars exhibition, Beijing, 1979.

Figure 1.2 Ma Desheng at the demonstration, October 1979.

Association, the government allowed the exhibition to continue in November in Huafang Pavilion in Beihai Park. A year later, in August 1980, the second Stars exhibition was held inside the National Art Gallery, attracting over eighty thousand visitors.2 Three decades later, on June 14, 2009, some two hundred people gathered in a courtyard studio in the suburb of Beijing to celebrate the opening of an art exhibition. (Figure 1.3) It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. A band was playing in the courtyard. People wandered in and out of the galleries, looking, chatting, eating, and drinking. The scene was just like any other opening in Beijings thriving art market, except that the young crowd were mostly wearing t-shirts and jeans, not suits or dresses. In one gallery, two photographs were missing in a three-work series, with the frames and labels still hanging on the wall. (Figure 1.4) It was the first queer-themed art exhibition in China, titled Difference Gender.3 Sixteen artists presented works. Xu Tengfeis video transformed a kiss between two young men into an ink painting sequence. Xi Ya Die used folk papercutting techniques to portray erotic play between men. My video and text work, Karibu Islands, invited participants to re-imagine their lives on a fictional archipelago where time travels backwards. The exhibition was organized by Beijing LGBT Center and Tongyu, the leading lesbian group in the capital. It took the curators more than a

Wang Keping was told by the Gallery staff that there were over eighty thousand viewers in sixteen days, breaking the Gallerys previous records. (The Stars, 34)

The full title of the exhibition was The First Chinese Art Exhibition on Gender Diversity: Difference Gender. Hoping to avoid state interference, the organizers chose not to include in the title words like queer or LGBT.

Figure 1.3 The opening of Difference Gender, June 14, 2009, Beijing.

Figure 1.4 Two photographs by Ren Hang were taken down before the opening.

year to find a venue willing to host the show. The day before the opening, a man (call him Mr. X) from the Municipal Security Bureau showed up and questioned cocurator Yang Guang as to whether the exhibition had proper approvals. 4 Yang claimed that it would be a private event. Mr. X then examined the artworks and instructed Yang to take down two photographs that contained explicit sexual imagery.5 When Mr. X left, after casually signing his name in the guestbook, Yang decided to leave the empty frames on the wall to indicate that the exhibition had been censored. The opening proceeded smoothly on the following day and the exhibition was on view for a week, as planned. The 1979 Stars event has been widely regarded as the first milestone of Chinese contemporary art, a customary term referring to experimental art practices that, since the late 1970s, have developed largely outside the official art system sponsored by the state. Over the past three decades, Chinese contemporary art has grown from a small field with only a handful of artists struggling to survive to an enormous arena with thousands of artists, curators, and dealers producing solo exhibitions and biennials, art fairs and auctions, both in China and abroad. While the market which has grown quickly since the mid-1990s provides a valuable platform for many artists to realize their artworks, the states unceasing control over cultural expression and the lack of nongovernmental, nonprofit infrastructure skews the work severely towards profitable art activities, and poses continuing challenges to
4 5

Yang Guang was also the manager of Beijing LGBT Cultural Center from 2008 to 2010. The two photographs were produced by Ren Hang.

critical practices. As the aforementioned queer art exhibition suggests, the struggle initiated by the Stars group thirty years ago is far from over. What characterizes this struggle? What is the link between the Stars event in 1979 and the queer art exhibition thirty years later? In both instances, the artists and their allies strove for free expressions, in public, as individual citizens and collectives, to define and address issues of common concern. Public discourses were generated through communicative strategies integrating image and text, affect and reason. In short, what defines this ongoing struggle is the pursuit of publicness.6 It is my view that the pursuit of publicness has been one of the critical forces motivating the development of Chinese contemporary art. Publicness not only served as a goal for many artworks and exhibitions, but also constituted a form through which these projects came into being. In the struggle against totalitarianism, artists have developed public and counterpublic strategies and contributed to larger social movements striving for freedom and justice. The first wave of public pursuit started in the late 1970s and ended abruptly in 1989, when the government violently suppressed the June Fourth Movement. During this period, most experimental artists and critics worked outside the state system and the market. The state ignored but tolerated their activities. The market was almost nonexistent; the only buyers of experimental art were foreign diplomats. Through the

I use publicness instead of publicity because nowadays publicity is commonly used to refer to corporate advertising and media spectacle. In Chinese, publicness is rendered as gong gong xing, a word that has gained popularity in cultural criticism since the mid-1990s. To date there is no formal translation for publicity, because the industrial production of publicity is still relatively new.

formation of art collectives, group exhibitions, and regional and national conferences, experimental artists and critics built a dynamic public. Though they did not develop an avowed theory on publicness, they mounted shows and events in whatever venues they could access parks, schools, streets, courtyards and made repeated attempts to engage friends as well as strangers.7 In the 1990s, Chinese contemporary art made a dramatic turn to the market. First, after the suppression of the June Fourth Movement, the government tightened control over media and cultural activities. It became extremely difficult for independent artists to exhibit in public space. Some artists and critics sought support from the private sector and found this a viable route of survival and even prosperity. Some went abroad, gaining the attention of the global art market. Chinese society in general became increasingly disillusioned with idealism and worshipped material wealth as the only measure of personal and national progress. After two decades, the market has firmly established itself as the primary stage for Chinese contemporary art, with profitability as the ultimate criterion of value.8

For example, the Pond Society in Hangzhou, consisting of Zhang Peili, Geng Jiangyi, and others, posted a set of Taichi drawings on a wall along Luyang Street in 1986; Song Yongping and others organized many rural art activities (xiang cun yi shu huo dong) in Shanxi province; a large number of artists in Nanjing staged the multi-year project, Sunbathing (shai tai yang), in public parks in the city.
8 7

Independent curator Pauline Yao recently wrote, On the surface it would appear that support for contemporary art in China has reached new heights, proven by the influx of art fairs, exhibitions in state-run institutions, and even new forms of government funding. But the spirit that underlies these ventures remains solidly aimed at capital gain, market interests, and the business end of art production, with little, if any evidence of support for activities outside this sphere. (http://www.eflux.com/journal/view/74, accessed Dec. 15, 2010)

Below this tide, an undercurrent of public pursuit has been developing since the late 1990s. A number of artists, myself included, have situated our practice in the fledging civil society and integrated art and activism. This reemerging pursuit of publicness in Chinese contemporary art is the topic of this dissertation. Rather than trying to produce a comprehensive survey an unrealistic goal given Chinas size and the fact that the movement is still unfolding I will concentrate on four case studies: Moving Rainbow (1998-2001), Village Self-Governance Documentary Project (2005), Karibu Islands (2008), and Nian (2010). These projects address some of the most important social issues in China today. However, they have received little attention from Chinese critics, who often lament the rampant force of the market yet make no effort to look beyond it. This dissertation helps to document the second wave of public pursuit, which may nudge Chinese contemporary art towards a future that is not shaped exclusively by the market and the state but also takes root in a dynamic civil society. Research on Chinese contemporary art is still in its early stage of development. Existing literature is dominated by survey texts and exhibition catalogs; 9 only a handful of monographs have been produced. 10 Though a few
The key survey texts include Gao Minglu, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in TwentiethCentury Chinese Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), Lu Peng, A History of Art in 20thCentury China (Milan: Charta, 2010), and Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, eds., Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
10 9

Published monographs include Hung Wu, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005), Thomas Berghuis, Performance Art in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2007), and Hsingyuan Tsao and Roger Ames, eds., Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2011). Dissertations include Sasha Su-Ling Welland, Experimental Beijing: Contemporary Art Worlds in

Chinese critics have written on the issue of publicness, their writings are largely hortatory, dominated by theoretical arguments and foreign examples, not attending to how Chinese artists have pursued publicness in practice.11 This dissertation is the first in-depth study on the issue of publicness in Chinese contemporary art.12 This dissertation serves a second goal. I will demonstrate that recent developments in public sphere theory particularly Michael Warners theorization of publics and counterpublics contains valuable insights into socially engaged art, and that publicness can serve as a central notion linking together various key concerns of socially engaged art. In other words, I hope to reinvigorate the attention to public sphere theory in current discussions on socially engaged art. This chapter is divided into five sections. First I will explain what I mean by publicness. Next I will discuss the relationship between art and the public sphere. I will then describe Chinas state-society relationship to situate my research in the Chinese historical context. This is followed by a brief analysis of the Stars event.
Chinas Capital, (UC Santa Cruz, 2006), Fok Siu Har, Performance Art and the Body in Contemporary China, (HKU, 2008), and Zhuang Jiayun, Not Yet Farewell: Postsocialist Performance and Visual Art in Urban China (UCLA, 2009). For articles, see for example, Li Gongming, Lun dang dai yi shu zai gong gong ling yu zhong de she hui xue zhuan xiang (On Contemporary Arts Sociological Turn in the Public Sphere), in Yi shu xin shi jie, eds. Pi Daojian and Lu Hong (Changsha: Hunan mei shu chu ban she, 2003), 11931; Gu Chengfeng, Yi shu gong gong xing yu gong gong xing de wu qu (On Arts Publicness and Publicnesss Pitfalls), in Wen yi yan jiu 5 (2004); Zha Changping, Dang dai yi shu de gong gong xing yu ge ren xing (Contemporary Arts Publicness and Individuality), in Yi shu yu she hui, eds. Lu Hong and Sun Zhenhua (Changsha: Hunan mei shu chu ban she, 2005), 22435. For books, see Weng Jianqing, Gong gong yi shu de guan nian yu qu xiang: Dang dai gong gong yi shu wen hua ji jia zhi yan jiu (Public Arts Concepts and Tendencies: Research on Contemporary Public Arts Culture and Value) (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2002); Wang Hongyi, Gong gong yi shu gai lun (Introduction to Public Art) (Hangzhou: Zhong guo mei shu xue yuan chu ban she, 2007); and Wang Zhong: Gong gong yi shu gai lun (Introduction to Public Art) (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2007). This dissertation only studies the pursuit of publicness in the 2000s. I hope to cover the 1980s and 1990s in future research.
12 11


Lastly I will provide summaries of the four case studies that constitute the main chapters.

What is Publicness? By publicness I mean the properties of the public sphere. According to Jrgen Habermas, the public sphere is a realm of social life in which citizens assemble to discuss matters of common concern.13 In the kernel of the public sphere lies the fundamental idea for democracy the rationalization of power through the medium of public discussion among private individuals.14 As Miriam Hansen points out, the German term ffentlichkeit encompasses a variety of meanings that elude its English rendering as public sphere: it indicates a spatial concept, the social sites or arenas where meanings are articulated, distributed, and negotiated; it suggests a human grouping, the collective body constituted by and in this process, the public; and it denotes an ideational substance or criterion glasnost or openness that is produced both within these sites and in larger, deterritorialized contexts.15 In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas set the scale of analysis mostly at the national level. Since then, many scholars have treated the public sphere

Jrgen Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964), New German Critique 3 (1974), 49.
14 15 13

Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article, 55.

Miriam Hansen, Forward, in Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, trans. Peter Labanyi et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), ix, n. 1.


as a spatial concept, geographically bounded by national borders.16 Recently, in Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner made a methodological intervention. He shifted the perspective from geographical site to human grouping, treating publics as the main category of his investigation. By doing so, he was able to conduct analysis on a range of scales: from a group of drag queens gathered in a New Jersey house posing for each others cameras to the imagined public addressed by the diary of Winston Smith, the main character in George Orwells 1984.17 Many Chinese cultural critics have chosen to focus on the third aspect of ffentlichkeit, what Hansen calls the ideational substance or criterion. In their writings gonggongxing (publicness) appears more often than gonggonglingyu (public sphere).18 In my view, publicness is preferable to public sphere for two reasons. First, similar to Warners publics, publicness deemphasizes the spatial aspect of the public sphere and shifts the center of attention to discursive practices. Second, it offers the flexibility for us to discuss public qualities of specific activities even when the public sphere, at the institutional and national level, is yet to be realized in China.

Many titles reflect this phenomenon, for example, Defining the Public Sphere in EighteenthCentury France [by Keith Baker, in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 181211], The Public Sphere in Modern China [by William Rowe, Modern China 16.3 (1990), 309329], Colonial Governmentality and the Public Sphere in India [by U Kalpagam, Journal of Historical Sociology 15.1 (2002), 35-58], etc.
17 18 16

Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005).

For example, the anthology in which the Chinese translation of Habermass 1964 encyclopedia article on the public sphere first appeared, was titled Wen hua yu gong gong xing (Culture and Publicness). It was edited by literary scholars Wang Hui and Chen Yangu, and published in 1998.


The functioning of the public sphere depends on not one but many ideas and conditions. Based on research by Habermas, Warner, and Charles Taylor,19 I have grouped these ideas and conditions into three categories: social imaginaries, institutional conditions, and discursive conditions. They are summarized in Figure 1.6 on the next page. The pursuit of publicness consists in the struggle to establish the social imaginaries, to obtain the institutional conditions, and to create discussions that adhere to the discursive conditions. The case studies in the following chapters will be analyzed along these specific dimensions. According to Taylor, social imaginaries are different from social reality or explicit social theories. Social imaginaries are the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.20 The public sphere relies on two social imaginaries: that the people are sovereign and that the public sphere is self-organized. Prior to the bourgeois revolution, sovereignty did not belong to the people but to kings and queens who legitimated their rule in the name of a transcendental power. The public sphere as a unique realm distinct from the private sphere did not exist.21 There existed, however, a feudal form of publicity. The monarch displayed himself

19 20 21

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Taylor, A Secular Age, 171. Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article, 50.


Figure 1.5 Overview of the public sphere model.

Figure 1.6 The constituents of publicness.


and represented his power not for but before the people.22 One of the ideas that motivated the bourgeois revolution was popular sovereignty. The public sphere gave an institutional form to this idea. The proliferation of coffee houses and political clubs, newspapers and critical journals propelled the emergence of a new mode of social organization. Members of the bourgeoisie literate, propertied men assembled into public bodies and debated issues of general concern. The public opinion developed in these conversations acquired a rhetorically constituted power that provided the basis of legitimation for the bourgeois revolution and subsequently the democratic state. Today the public sphere continues to depend on the social imaginary that the people are sovereign. Otherwise, peoples views and ideas would seem private, losing the world-making power of public opinions. The public sphere is self-organized, meaning that it does not rely on state institutions, laws, formal frameworks of citizenship, or preexisting institutions such as the church.23 As Peter Hohendahl emphasizes, The state and the public sphere do not overlap, as one might suppose from casual language use. Rather they confront one another as opponents.24 The public spheres extra-state status is crucial. Because it is conceived as a realm free of coercive power associated with the state, public opinion emerging from the public sphere can be imagined as disengaged and rational.25 The state then is compelled to act according to public opinion, at least in theory, thus
Jrgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), 8.
23 24 25 22

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 68. Peter Hohendahls note to Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article, 49. Taylor, A Secular Age, 135.


fulfilling the fundamental premise of democracy. The public sphere is also imagined to be independent of the market. Although the media newspapers, television networks, and the internet may be operated by for-profit companies, public conversations circulating on these media cannot be motivated primarily by the profit logic. The public sphere is important to non-profit organizations and activist groups, because it is where they can voice opinions to oppose corporate interest and state violence. For public conversations to happen, citizens have to enjoy freedom of expression and access to public space and media. These two institutional conditions often constitute the most visible battlefront in the pursuit of publicness. They are more concrete than the social imaginaries and less complex than the discursive conditions. Prohibition can be direct and effective; protest can be specific and definable. Claude Lefort argues that the freedom to form and express ones opinion does not reduce man to an isolated monad, as a famous Marxist critique often used by totalitarian regimes to justify their disregard for human rights would have it; on the contrary, it enables a person to step out of himself and to make contact with others, through speech, writing and thought. 26 Of the two social imaginaries and two institutional conditions, the independence of the public sphere and the freedom of expression pose the most serious challenge to totalitarianism. As Lefort points out, they are fundamentally incompatible with totalitarianism, because totalitarianism is
Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 250.


built on the premise that the state hold[s] the principle of all forms of socialization and all modes of activity. 27 Therefore, the pursuit of publicness, of which the struggle for free speech and an autonomous public sphere is an essential component, constitutes a direct opposition to totalitarian power. Public discussions may be face-to-face or mediated. Although many of todays conversations happen on various media, access to space is still important, particularly for disadvantaged groups, whose bodily actions are sometimes the only way to attract media attention. Furthermore, face-to-face conversations enable nonverbal communication, making empathetic listening more likely to happen. This may explain why many socially engaged artists continue to focus on creating situations where strangers can encounter and talk to each other in person. On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that media play a critical role in contemporary public life. As John Thompson points out, mediated communication has created new forms of publicness which do not share the features of the traditional model. For example, mediated communication is not localized in space and time, and often does not take a dialogical form.28 Access to media entails both gaining entry to the distribution network (e.g., a youtube website) and getting hold of the tool of production as well as technology (e.g., a video camera and editing software). Public discussions adhere to a particular set of discursive conditions, different from those governing private conversations, state announcements, or market
27 28

Ibid., 246.

John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 244.


publicities. Based on his analysis of the bourgeois public sphere, Habermas identified three discursive conditions: public discussions should address matters of common concern, disregard status and coercive power, and take the form of rational-critical debate with the ultimate goal of reaching consensus. Oascar Nekt and Alexander Kluge, Nancy Fraser, and Michael Warner, among others, have argued that in his historical narrative Habermas overlooked the development of counterpublic spheres, and as a result, the normative ideals he put forward fail to take counterpublic forms into account. Counterpublic spheres are, in Frasers words, parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.29 The working class, women, queer and other minorities have long constructed counterpublic spheres that employ different organizational forms and communicative practices than those of the bourgeois public sphere. For example, Warner shows that glamour was often used as a public-making strategy by queer groups.30 The communicative practices of counterpublics are not limited to the format of rational-critical debate prescribed by Habermas, but open to affective and expressive dimensions of language.31 Furthermore, rather than treating identity as a private matter to be abstracted in the public arena, counterpublics often engage in embodied, performative struggles. Nonviolent collective actions, such as strikes and
Nancy Fraser, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, Social Text 25 (1990), 67.
30 31 29

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 13. Ibid., 58.


parades, bring to bear material force so as to demand attention from elites or the government, strengthening rhetorically constituted power.32 Douglas Kellner notes that Habermas idealized face-to-face interaction and the print media, which fostered modes of argumentation characterized by linear rationality, objectivity, and consensus.33 On a more theoretical level, Chantal Mouffe argues that the democratic ideal cannot be fulfilled with Habermas rationalistic and universalistic perspective.34 In actuality reason is often used as an excuse for exclusion, leading not to consensus among different social groups, but instead to antagonistic categorization, like us the reasonable folks versus them the unreasonable ones. Mouffe advocates instead an agonistic public sphere, where potential antagonism can be transformed into agonism, that is, a situation defined by a confrontation between adversaries regulated by a set of commonly accepted democratic procedures.35 In other words, the basis of a democratic public sphere is not consensus but oppositionality. In fact, struggle appears everywhere in the public sphere. For example, what constitutes common concern is not predefined but needs to be contested in the public sphere itself. In Publics and Counterpublics, Warner identifies several additional formal features of public address (listed as items 4 to 6 under Discursive Conditions in
32 33

Craig Calhoun, The Public Sphere in the Field of Power, Social Science History 34.3 (2010), 313.

Douglas Kellner, Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A Critical Intervention, in Perspectives on Habermas, ed. Lewis Edwin Hahn (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2000), 275-76. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London: Verso, 2000), 17.

34 35

Mouffe, For an Agonistic Public Sphere, in Democracy Unrealized, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 90-91.


Figure 1.6). A public utterance is always situated in a stream of discourse. We understand its meaning in relation to its temporality. Taylor notes that the public sphere is also radically secular in the sense that the validity of any argument does not depend on something which transcends contemporary common action. 36 The secularity and temporality of public address realizes the public spheres selforganized nature on the pragmatic level. Because public discourse is by definition open, an indefinite mode of address has to be employed. A listener has to perceive the speech as addressed to him as well as to others who are strangers linked to him only by the speech. Utterances form a discourse when they have inter-referential linkages. Public discourse will cease to exist if it is no longer in circulation or commands no attention. This is why media visibility is critical in contemporary public struggles. Lastly, public discourse is performative. Public discourse says not only Let a public exist but also Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way. It then goes in search of confirmation that such a public exists.37 It actively transforms social reality. In summary, the pursuit of publicness is the struggle to construct a particular form of discursive interaction based on certain social imaginaries and institutional conditions. It is a complex endeavor. No single factor will suffice to bring about publicness. This complexity and interconnectedness perhaps explain why it is difficult for us to conceptualize publicness, and more importantly, to realize it.
36 37

Taylor, A Secular Age, 192. Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 114.


Socially Engaged Art and Publicness For all intents and purposes, writes Suzanne Lacy in the influential anthology Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, published in 1995, the contemporary activity in public art dates from the establishment of the Arts in Public Places program at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967 and the subsequent formation of state and city percent-for-art programs.38 The term public art quickly became synonymous with large sculptures placed in outdoor spaces. Although many artists were creating works very much public in nature Allan Kaprows Happenings, Hans Haackes systems, and Adrian Pipers performances, for example they were excluded from the domain of publicly funded art. In the mid-1990s, a number of artists and critics, Suzanne Lacy and Rosalyn Deutsche foremost among them, argued forcefully that the restrictive notion of public art should be expanded. They pointed out that so-called public space is not necessarily public, and arts publicness lies more in its generative discourse than its physical placement. Deutsche contended that spatial forms are social structures and that any site can be transformed into a public or, for that mater, a private sphere.39 A private home in New Jersey would acquire a sense of publicness when a group of drag queens gathered to photograph each other. On the other hand, when certain social mechanisms are not in place, socalled public spaces in downtown San Francisco are nothing more than outdoor

Suzanne Lacy, Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys, in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 21.

Rosalyn Deutsche, Art and Public Space: Questions of Democracy, Social Text 33 (1992), 53 and 39.



cafeterias for corporate employees.40 Deutsche suggested that space should not be seen as a fixed object, but a realm of discursive interaction and political debate.41 Similarly, Miwon Kwon argued that modes of communication should be emphasized over the resulting site of communication.42 This shift of theoretical perspective has led to a more accurate understanding of the practice of many artists who for decades have developed public strategies of engagement outside the so-called public art domain.43 These artists take on political issues directly, integrating art with activism in various social movements. Projects are not only publicly exhibited, but also publicly produced. Artists do not work for the default audience largely white, with financial and cultural capital but cooperate with multiple, often marginalized, communities. They design collaborative methods to involve community members as active participants instead of passive viewers. They treat media appearances, classes, exhibitions, discussion groups, public demonstrations, consultations, and writings not as peripheral activities, but essential components of their practice.44 While Lacy and others focused on community-based projects, Deutsche argued that feminist works, such as those by Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger,
Kate Fowle and Lars Bang Larsen, Lunch Hour: Art, Community, Administrated Space, and Unproductive Activity, in What We Want Is Free, ed. Ted Purves (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004), 21-22.
41 42 40

Deutsche, Art and Public Space, 39.

Miwon Kwon, Public Art as Publicity, 2002, http://www.republicart.net/disc/publicum/ kwon01_en.htm, accessed Sept. 11, 2010. Also see, Frazer Ward, The Haunted Museum: Institutional Critique and Publicity, October 73 (1995), 71-89.
43 44

Lacy, Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys, 19. Ibid., 40.


also contributed to a deepened understanding of publicness through a critique of vision. Through an analysis of the 1982 exhibition Public Vision, 45 Deutsche demonstrated that artworks illuminating the contingency and precariousness of vision and subjectivity are consonant with a radical form of democracy based in difference rather than harmony. As she put it, vision and sexuality are public matters.46 Over the past decade, participatory, durational, and multimedia practices, variously defined as socially engaged art, dialogic art (Grant Kester), or social practice (Harrell Fletcher), have flourished. Artists work with participants to create situations that foreground, confront, and sometimes resolve issues in the field of social relations. Public discussion, rather than remaining outside of the frame only to be activated in exhibition and criticism, is brought into the frame as part of the artwork. For example, in spring 2009, Jeremy Deller staged It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq in three American museums and more than ten public sites around the country.47 He recruited Iraqi refugees, American soldiers, journalists, and scholars to engage visitors in conversations about the situation in Iraq. The central feature uniting this diverse field of practice is collaborative discourse development on issues of common concern. In each project a portion of the public sphere or more often a counterpublic sphere is created.

45 46 47

The exhibition was held at White Columns in New York, July 2-24, 1982. Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 315.

The project was staged in the New Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. For more details, see http://www.conversationsaboutiraq.org/ and http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/408.


Theoretical understanding of this field of practice is still in its early stage. Grant Kesters Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, published in 2004, remains the most ambitious attempt to date.48 In this heavily theoretical book, Kester argues against the anti-communication tradition in modern and postmodern art theory, and proposes a dialogical aesthetic that is durational, intersubjective, and discursive. Much of the debate on socially engaged art since then has centered on autonomy versus embeddedness and aesthetic quality versus social efficacy.49 Earlier attention to the relationship between critical art practices and the public sphere, as exemplified by Lacy and Deutsches work, has been neglected. In this dissertation, I will turn to public sphere theory again, not the original Habermasian model but one greatly expanded by the writings of Fraser, Taylor, and Warner, and demonstrate that publicness provides a viable framework to integrate various key concerns of socially engaged art. Foregrounding publicness as the central intent of socially engaged art is particularly important in the Chinese context, as the next section will help make clear.

Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004). Shannon Jackson provides a good summary of recent debates on social practice in Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011). See Chapter 2 Quality Time: Social Practice Debates in Contemporary Art.
49 48


Chinas State-Society Relationship Since the public sphere is a concept rooted in European history, there has been much debate about whether it can be applied to studies of China.50 Michael Warner argues that the idea of a public has a metacultural dimension and has been one of the defining elements of multiple modernities.

Historical research also

demonstrates that, although an institutionalized realm of public opinion-making has never been established in China, various social movements since the late Qing have sought to expand the space for expression and participation outside the state realm. In this section, I will briefly review the relationship between the state and society from the late Qing to the Mao era (1949-1976), and then discuss the social conditions of the reform period (1976-present) that provide the context for my dissertation.52 Several developments in late imperial China were conducive to the rise of a potential public sphere. Thinkers like Li Zhi (1527-1602), Gu Yanwu (1613-1682), and Dai Zhen (1724-1777) attempted to negate the long-held condemning attitude towards self-interest (si), and argued that public well-being lies in the sum-total of the harmonized self-interests of all members of the community.53 The concept of

Xu Jilin provides a good summary of the debate in Qi meng ru he qi si hui sheng: Xian dai Zhongguo zhi shi fen zi de si xiang kun jing (How to Revitalize Enlightenment: The Dilemma for Modern Chinese Intellectuals) (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2011). See Chapter 3 Xian dai Zhongguo gong gong ling yu de xing tai, gong neng yu zi wo li jie (The Contour, Function and SelfUnderstanding of the Public Sphere in Modern China). Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 11.

51 52

The Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1911. It was succeeded by the Republic of China in 1912. The Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong established the Peoples Republic of China in 1949. Maos rule ended with his death in 1976. Soon after, responding to grassroots demand, Deng Xiaoping and the liberal faction of the Party initiated a program of economic reforms (gai ge kai fang).

William Rowe, The Public Sphere in Modern China, Modern China 16.3 (1990), 317.


society gradually emerged as a distinct political actor counterposed to the state.54 Growth of commerce and trade led to rapid urbanization in areas like the Yangzi River Delta. Merchant groups and local elites assumed a more active role in managing local affairs. 55 At the end of the nineteenth century, independent newspapers were founded by radical thinkers and stimulated debates in teahouses, political clubs, and schools.56 After the Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing Dynasty in 1911, lively political discussions occurred among urban residents, in places ranging from temple grounds and brothels to public parks and theaters.57 However, as David Strand observes, the urban elites never gathered the strength and will to institutionalize a fully autonomous public sphere. 58 Throughout the twentieth century, the burgeoning desire for social autonomy was repeatedly suppressed by authoritarian regimes. Yuan Shikais brief revival of the monarchy in 1915-16, the White Terror masterminded by Chiang Kai-shek in 1927-28, Mao Zedongs AntiRightist Movement in 1957-59, and the military crackdown on mass protests in 1989 were just some of the most bloody examples of state violence against critical public expressions. In light of colonial invasions since the mid-nineteenth century, individual rights and democracy were always considered less important than, or even
54 55

Ibid., 319.

See William Rowe, Hankow: Commerce and Society in a Chinese City, 1796-1889 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984) and Hankow: Conflict and Community in a Chinese City, 1796-1895 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989). See Xu Jilin, Xian dai Zhongguo gong gong ling yu de xing tai, gong neng yu zi wo li jie.

56 57

David Strand, Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s (University of California Press, 1989), 168.



detrimental to, the preservation of a strong state to mobilize resources to fight for the nations survival. After the Communist Party gained control of the Mainland in 1949, something strange happened. According to Marxist theory, the socialization of the means of production would solve the fundamental problem of capitalism, i.e., the contradiction between socialized production and private ownership. There would no longer be any need for the separation between public and private, between the state and the market and civil society. But in reality, the peoples democratic dictatorship quickly degenerated into the dictatorship of the political elite. Mao assumed the position of a feudal lord, and displayed himself before the people. 59 The totalitarian state penetrated all aspects of life, politicizing even the most intimate relationships.60 Routine political studies and periodic campaigns ensured that the people followed the ideology of the Party. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), radical youths (the Red Guards) employed communicative practices with seemingly democratic forms: wall posters, open debates, and self-published newspapers. However, as Yang Guobin and Craig Calhoun note, most of the Red Guards discourse simply followed the directions of the political wind on high. When dissenting views did appear, they were

A portrait of Mao was put on the south faade of Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) in 1949 and has remained there since. See Ezra Vogel, From Friendship to Comradeship: The Change in Personal Relations in Communist China, The China Quarterly 21 (1965), 46-60.
60 59


typically disguised in orthodox Marxist and Maoist rhetoric, and even so, few authors of dissent escaped the fate of repression.61 The Cultural Revolution brought China to the brink of collapse. Soon after Mao died in 1976, the Communist Party embarked on a new path: Reform and Opening Up. Over the past three decades the relationship between the state and society has been a delicate duet. The state has implemented a stream of policies to foster a market economy. Its primary concern has shifted from ensuring ideological purity to structuring a business-friendly environment. Political and social stability is portrayed as a precondition for economic growth, and political reforms are put off indefinitely. The state continues to restrict citizens freedom of expression and association through censorship, access constraints, and bureaucratic barriers. Control over public space has tightened over time. Take Beijing for example: Tiananmen Square is now fenced; bulletin boards on Beijing University campus have been removed; hundreds of CCTV cameras are installed in the city center; today the mere idea of a demonstration is almost unimaginable.62 The state continues to maintain a firm grip on print and broadcast media. All newspapers and television stations are still owned and managed by the government. The internet, owing to its decentralized nature, is more difficult to rein in. Regulations and filtering technologies are
Guobin Yang and Craig Calhoun, Media, Power, and Protest in China: From the Cultural Revolution to the Internet, Harvard Asia Pacific Review 9.2 (2008), 12. This is largely due to the fact that the state has been successful in projecting an image of control and willingness to use coercive power. For example, when messages encouraging citizens to gather in Wangfujing, a commercial district in central Beijing, started to circulate on the internet in spring 2011, the state immediately sent hundreds of police to the location and put the entire police system on high alert.
62 61


combined with increasing online presence of official propaganda organs.63 When soft measures fail to deter challengers, the state is always willing to resort to the repressive state apparatus. Sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng recently made the satirical remark that the government had made a huge improvement in 2009 by sentencing dissident writer Liu Xiaobo to only eleven years imprisonment, four years shorter than the term Wei Jingsheng received in 1979.64 On the other hand, Chinese society has gained more autonomy and manifested increasing expectation for freedom and participation in economic as well as political and social affairs. There are several contributing factors. The conversion to a market economy has validated private ownership and enabled the emergence of a private realm. This in turn leads to a stronger desire for economic rights. The once

homogeneous population has stratified. Serious disparity and injustice has triggered increasing social dissatisfaction among people occupying the lower strata. The internet has made it easier for citizens to speak and congregate. More people have studied and lived abroad and tend to compare China to Western democracies and thus demand more freedom.
See Hu Yong, Zhong sheng xuan hua: wang luo shi dai de ge ren biao da yu gong gong tao lun (The Rising Cacophony: Personal Expression and Public Discussion in the Internet Age) (Nanning: Guangxi shi fan da xue chu ban she, 2008), particularly Chapter 6; Yang Guobin, Hu lian wang yu Zhongguo gong min she hui (The Internet and Chinas Civil Society), Er shi yi shi ji 114 (2009), 1425. Zou Xiaozheng is a professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing. He made this remark in a talk titled About Chinas Social Problems on January 23, 2010. See transcript at / http://sunfowl.fyfz.cn/art 704095.htm, accessed Jan. 10, 2011. In 2008 Liu Xiaobo initiated the Charter 08 campaign. A manifesto demanding human rights, democracy, and constitutional reform was circulated among prominent intellectuals and signed by many. Liu was arrested in December 2008. Wei Jingsheng was an active participant in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing in 1978-79. He was arrested after posting his essay Democracy or New Dictatorship? in which he argued that Deng Xiaoping was embarking on another dictatorship after Mao.
64 63


Social movements before and after 1989 differ significantly. Before the Tiananmen movement in 1989, intellectuals and university students were the main actors pushing for social change. They held face-to-face discussions on campus and protested in the street. They demanded fundamental change, most importantly freedom and democracy. After the state suppressed the mass demonstration in 1989 with military force, social movements experienced a metamorphosis. In the mid1990s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) appeared and quickly became the leading force in pushing for social change. Now professionals lawyers, journalists, and full-time staff make up the core of NGOs, and students and young urban residents serve as volunteers. Rather than directly challenging state power, NGOs promote environmental protection, provide disaster relief, support migrant labors, and advocate queer rights. Often facing registration obstacles and harassment from police or tax bureaus, they work in an embedded manner, staging small-scale, nonconfrontational activities to push for gradual improvement. 65 They deliberately portray their work as apolitical, and actively seek media visibility in order to promote their causes and to make it harder for the government to shut them down. Calhoun cautions that there is a strong temptation to leap from the presence of business institutions, free housing markets, newspapers, and telephones [and now the internet] to the presumption that civil society prospers and democracy will

See Peter Ho, Introduction: Embedded Activism and Political Change in a Semi-Authoritarian Context, in China's Embedded Activism: Opportunities and Constraints of a Social Movement, eds. Peter Ho and Richard Edmonds (London: Routledge, 2008).


inevitably follow.66 The reality in China is a complex scene of stagnation and progress. There is no nation-wide demand for political change.67 The party-state continues its authoritarian rule. The market grows increasingly powerful, frequently aligned with the interest of the ruling elite. At the same time, activists are delicately pushing for incremental social change. These factors form the backdrop for the art projects that I will discuss in this dissertation. The next section contains a brief analysis of the Stars event, which is widely considered the beginning of Chinese contemporary art. The analysis serves two purposes. First, it gives some evidence to my hypothesis that the pursuit of publicness has been a motivating force in Chinese contemporary art all along. Of course, much further work is needed to substantiate this overarching argument. Second, it will help to bring out the newness of the four art projects realized in the 2000s, which will be analyzed in the main chapters.

Stars Event Revisited Almost any book on the history of Chinese contemporary art would include some account of the Stars event. There is little disagreement among historians on what the Stars artists were fighting against they challenged both aesthetic convention and political authority and delivered an implicit criticism of the status

66 67

Craig Calhoun, Civil Society and the Public Sphere, Public Culture 5 (1993), 276. Peter Ho, Embedded Activism and Political Change, 1.


quo;68 they sharply attacked official ideology, defining an unofficial position69 but few writers have articulated what the Stars were fighting for. As Laclau and Mouffe insisted in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, it is not enough to simply define an adversary. One also needs to know for what one is fighting, what kind of society one wants to establish.70 Clearly the Stars broke through some old walls, but they did more than that. They built a new platform, however transient. In this section I will demonstrate that many of the Stars efforts from the subject matter of artworks to the rhetorical style of statements, from the temporality of critique to the circulation of comments converged towards what I have described as the pursuit of publicness. Their unofficial position can be defined more positively it was a public position. Many critics have rightly pointed out that the park where the Stars mounted their first exhibition on September 27, 1979, was a public space. However, as stressed earlier, publicness is constituted in a discourse rather than tied to the nature of a space. The discourse of the Stars event was not constructed by the artworks alone. The artists issued several statements, organized a demonstration, created a discussion forum using guestbooks, and cooperated with other political and literary activists. All these activities fused into the events discourse.

Gao Minglu, Inside Out: New Chinese Art (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), 197. Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999), 1416. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2001), xix.
70 69 68


The Stars event was self-organized. Unlike professional artists, the Stars were not members of state-sponsored artist associations. The viewers, too, were not organized. They were either passersby or came to see the exhibition after hearing about it by word of mouth. The usual practice at the time was official exhibitions for organized viewing. Under the state socialist system, everyone in China had a fixed identity in the danwei (work unit) structure. Art production and appreciation, like other aspects of life, was managed collectively. The Stars event, in contrast, was organized outside the state. People gathered for nothing other than the event itself. The artists did not know to which danwei the viewers belonged, and the viewers did not know one another either. The event was open to strangers, producing discursive interactions among them. It was neither an official function choreographed by the state nor a private gathering open only to members. It was a public assembly. In this assembly, the participants behaved as private citizens. Publicness and privateness exist in a dialectical relationship. As Wang Hui notes, When artists or viewers lose their private subjective experiences, arts publicness is also lost.71 Between 1949 and 1976, the state attempted to eradiate all private notions: private properties, religious beliefs, and even subjective expressions. The Communist Party revived the Confucian ideology of da gong wu si, the annihilation of the private for the well being of the collective.72 No one was supposed to paint as a private artist, nor
Wang Hui, Introduction, Wen hua yu gong gong xing (Culture and Publicness), eds. Wang Hui and Chen Yangu (Beijing: San lian shu dian, 1998), 45. See Chen Ruoshui: Zhongguo li shi shang de gong de gai nian ji qi xian dai bian xing (The Concept of Publicness in Chinese History and its Modern Variations), in Gong gong xing yu gong min guan (Publicness and Citizenship), ed. Liu Qing (Nanjing: Jiangsu ren min chu ban she, 2006), 339.
72 71


view an artwork as a private viewer. The Stars artists openly challenged this ideology. In the statement written for the first exhibition, they declared: We have used our own eyes to know the world, and our own brushes and awls to participate in it. Our paintings contain all sorts of expressions, and these expressions speak to our own individual ideals.73 The exhibition had no unifying themes. The large number of artworks encompassed a wide range of mediums, styles, and subject matters. Huang Rui alone presented three different kinds of works. First, in a series of paintings titled The Funeral, The Will, and The Rebirth, Huang combined the familiar imagery of Yuanmingyuan Park with his own imagination. (Figures 1.7-1.9) A set of stone columns in The Will was transformed into five fingers sprouting up from the ground in The Funeral and then into human figures holding each other in The Rebirth. Next, Space was an abstract painting dominated by geometric shapes in various shades of blue and brown. Thin white curves were drawn on the surface to create a sense of dynamism. Lastly, there were four single portraits of unidentified individuals. The sitters were not depicted as engaging in a productive or political activity. They seemed to be sitting there simply to be painted. Featuring expressive brushstrokes, vibrant colors, and decorative patterns, these works departed from the socialist-realist doctrine that had dominated Chinese art since the 1950s. The heterogeneity of Huang Ruis portfolio affirmed his identity as an imaginative and expressive individual,
Di yi jie xing xing mei zhan qian yan (The Manifesto for the First Stars Exhibition), in The Stars: 10 Years, 73. English translation by Philip Tinari, in Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, eds. Hung Wu and Peggy Wang (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 7.


Figure 1.7 Huang Rui, The Will, 1979, oil on canvas, 65x80cm.

Figure 1.8 Huang Rui, The Funeral, 1979, oil on canvas, 65x80cm.

Figure 1.9 Huang Rui, The Rebirth, 1979, oil on canvas, 65x 80cm.


insisting on his right to paint freely. In other words, Huang Rui painted as a private artist. The lack of any apparent ideological code also allowed the viewers to focus on the works formal aspects colors, shapes, and rhythms and to read the human figures as individuals rather than revolutionary stereotypes. The viewers no longer needed to speculate what the Party wanted them to say; they could decide whether they liked the paintings and form their own opinions. Opinions, if kept only in the mind of each viewer, would not circulate to form a visible discourse. As it happened, in the later exhibitions, in the Huafang Pavilion in November 1979 and in the National Art Gallery in August 1980, viewers could write down their comments in guestbooks.74 In these comments several features can be identified as public. Firstly, the viewers not only addressed the artists, but also interacted with one another discursively. One persons rhetorical question (Will [they] be able to sell these paintings in China? What do the Stars count on to shine?) was answered by anothers assertion (Count on the meaning and value of her life to shine!). Secondly, while some viewers limited their comments only to the artworks (The woodcarvings were better than the paintings), the majority elevated the discussion to a higher level. They evaluated the event in terms of its position in the entire art field (I have encountered real art [here]; you are indeed the morning star!!) or even their impact on the nation (On you lies the hope of China and humanity.) Taylor calls such discursive realms beyond ones personal and local
Liang jie xing xing mei zhan guan zhong liu yan (Visitors Comments to Two Stars Exhibitions), in The Stars: 10 Years, 7072.


interests metatopical.75 The desire and liberty for citizens to engage in metatopical debate is a distinct marker of publicness. Lastly, and most importantly, the comments revealed disagreement. Though most viewers showed appreciation and support, a few disapproved of the art (Our society after all is bright. Please dont use dark, sad colors to portray her. What impressions have these works left in me? Other than fear, dejection, despondence [I dont] even have the strength to walk down the stairs ). The presence of disagreement may seem trivial, but it was a breakthrough given the historical context. For years, open discussion had been dominated by unanimous concurrence or condemnation, guided by the documents issued by the Party. One would be cast as an enemy of the state if she dared to differ from the party line. At the Stars exhibitions, the viewers could disagree with each other, partly because the exhibitions were seen as self-organized, without the state lurking behind with its repressive apparatus. Disagreement can be described as a confrontation between adversaries, who attempt to win the debate using reason and affect rather than force and threat.76 It distinguishes a public discourse from a publicity stunt. It is the basis of the transformative and world-making potential of the public sphere. Perhaps to some degree the viewers were emboldened by the artists own courage to differ. Of all the artworks, Wang Kepings woodcarvings stood out as the most direct and incisive critique of contemporary politics. The Backbone of Society depicted a despicable official, whose eyes had no eyeballs, nose had no nostrils,
75 76

Taylor, A Secular Age, 194. Chantal Mouffe, For an Agonistic Public Sphere, 91.


mouth had no lips, and crown had no brain. In contrast, Silence portrayed a powerless citizen. His left eye was banded with crosshatch, yet his right eye remained open. (Figure 1.10) A stopper was thrust into his mouth as if to prevent him from uttering any truth. The most daring work was The Idol, an amusing amalgam of the familiar imagery of Mao Zedong and the Buddha. (Figure 1.11) As Wu Hung describes, With one eye open and one eye half closed, the Great Leader seems both a benevolent deity and a trickster. The glossy surface of the sculpture adds an unpleasant feeling of sleaziness.77 It revealed Wangs disregard for Maos status. He treated Mao not as a saint but as a historical figure subject to criticism. The works temporal quality was decidedly public. First, by linking Mao to the Buddha, Wang made explicit the transcendental deification that Mao had masterminded of his own image. Then, by making Mao behave like a human being with a crooked look on his face and a mundane hat on his head, Wang brought Mao back to the secular realm. Second, Wangs critique of Mao was timely. Mao died in 1976 and the Communist Party did not officially acknowledge his mistakes until 1981. In 1979 and 1980, many citizens may have been berating Mao in private gatherings, but few dared to criticize him openly. To make a public expression through text, speech, or artwork means to comment on an issue of temporal relevance and demands risk-taking. Wangs critical and humorous works resonated strongly with the viewers precisely because he dealt with important topics of the time. (In contrast, criticizing Mao in the 1990s or later would have less temporal relevance to

Wu, Transience, 50.


Figure 1.10 Wang Keping, Silence, 1979, wood, 48cm high.

Figure 1.11 Wang Keping, The Idol, 1979, wood, 67cm high.


Chinas socio-political situation and incur far less risk.) One documentary photograph taken at the exhibition in 1979 shows a group of young people gathered in front of Wangs woodcarvings with hearty smiles on their faces a rare scene in that era as if saying Yes! Exactly! In the guestbooks, a textile worker wrote, Wang Keping is an artist with a lot of courage. Using his graver, he exposed the realitys vileness. Awesome! Another viewer wrote, Here, right here, I understood arts people-ness [renminxing]. Art is never a synonym for aggrandizing [leaders] or singing praises!78 The people, renmin in Chinese, appeared frequently in the discourse of the Stars event. Its active invocation suggests that the social imaginary the people are sovereign was critical to the legitimacy of the Stars audacious act. On the second day of the outdoor exhibition, a group of policemen came to the park and tried to shut it down. A few viewers objected: This is a peoples park. Why do you ask us to leave? We dont want to leave. The policemen then declared that qunzhong, the masses, complained about the artworks. The crowd responded: We are also the masses, and we feel this exhibition is good!79 The police could not win the argument and left. They then came back at night and confiscated the artworks when no viewers were around. The Stars artists also called out to the people. By hanging their works in the park many works portrayed everyday subjects the Stars solicited the attention of the people, embodied by the passerby. Their writings made it more explicit that
78 79

Liang jie xing xing mei zhan guan zhong liu yan, in The Stars: 10 Years, 7072. Wang Keping, Xing xing wang shi, 2425.


they treated the people as their addressee. When they organized a demonstration on October 1 to protest against the removal of the outdoor exhibition, they issued A Letter to the People.80 In the statement for the Huangfang Pavilion exhibition one month later, they wrote, Seizing this moment of the thirtieth anniversary of the nations founding, we give our harvest back to the land, and to the people.81 (I will discuss Leforts ideas of the people in Chapter 2, beginning on page 100.) The Communist Party had established its legitimacy on two social imaginaries: the people are sovereign and the Party represented the fundamental interest of the people. In 1949, the Party succeeded in adding the people to the name of the nation, replacing the Republic of China with the Peoples Republic. Although the institutional mechanisms that the Party implemented were not aligned with the social imaginaries that it preached, the Party continued to invoke the social imaginaries in its propaganda. Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Partys credibility had almost evaporated. A few events between 1976 and 1979 the arrest of the Gang of Four, the recognition of the grassroots 1976 Tiananmen Incident as a revolutionary event, and the initial tolerance of the Democracy Wall movement reinvigorated the two social imaginaries. The Stars event occurred at this opportune moment, and was closely linked to concurrent literary and political activism.82 The
80 81

The Stars: 10 Years, 19.

Ibid., 8, trans. by Philip Tinari, in Primary Documents, 8. Also note that in contrast, the artist statement for the first Nature, Society, and Man exhibition, also held in 1979, contained no explicit address to the people (Primary Documents, 7). See Xiao Xu, ed., Jin tian san shi nian (Thirty Years of Today) (Beijing: Jin tian wen xue za zhi she, 2008) and The Stars: 10 Years.


artists were even able to hold the second Stars exhibition in the National Art Gallery in 1980. The success of the Stars effort also reinforced, in however small a way, the social imaginary that the people are sovereign. But before long, the Party tightened its control again. Without any significant political reform, institutional conditions required to realize publicness guarantees of freedom of expression, access to public space and media were quickly taken away. It would take another nine years for publicly-minded artists to gain access to the National Art Gallery again.83

Chapter Overview In Chapter 2, I will address four basic ingredients of publicness: issues have to be defined as matters of common concern; people have to be able to speak critically about these matters as citizens; their discursive activities need to be self-organized, meaning outside the state; and lastly, their opinions need to enter media circulation. Although these four conditions have become normal aspects of social life in Western democracies, they are still suppressed by Chinas current regime to a large extent. Xiong Wenyuns Moving Rainbow project serves as the main case study in this chapter. (Figure 1.12) Between 1998 and 2001, Xiong made six trips to Tibet. Her initial personal pilgrimages gradually evolved into a large-scale environmental project, involving more than a hundred truck drivers traveling along the SichuanTibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways. Through iconic photographs and performative
I am referring to the China/Avant-Garde exhibition held in February 1989. The publicness of experimental art events throughout the 1980s, including the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, needs to be researched in the future.


Figure 1.12 Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, 1999, photograph, 130x130cm.

events, she drew media attention to the highways environmental impact on the Tibetan plateau. This chapter analyzes how Xiong, as an artist, managed to realize the four basic conditions of publicness through her art practice. It suggests that direct engagement with sociopolitical issues in our media age may demand a fundamental change in the temporality of art practice. In Chapter 3, I will focus on a central idea of publicness: stranger-relationality through personal and impersonal address. My particular interest is to show how participation, a defining strategy in socially engaged art, can help to construct


stranger-relationality. To recognize others as strangers we have to accept that they occupy a position between commonality and unknowability. In China this is particularly difficult because two powerful forces work against it: the political system that constantly attempts to organize all members of the society into a massive, stable structure of national belonging and the economic system that increasingly reduces relationality to mere market transactions. The main case study in this chapter is Nian organized by Ai Weiwei. In May 2008, a serious earthquake erupted in Sichuan province. A disproportionate number of victims were students in primary and secondary schools. It soon came to public attention that many school buildings in the affected area had been poorly constructed, and government corruption was at the root of it. The state was unwilling to investigate the issue. Ai Weiwei and his team, assisted by local volunteers, managed to compile the names of the students killed in the earthquake. Ai then distributed this list on the internet, via twitter messages. In spring 2010, he invited people to read the 5,205 names and send the recordings to him online. His team then edited the recordings into a sound work lasting 3 hours and 41 minutes. Against state censorship, the sound work has been circulating on the internet. In this chapter, I will also compare Nian to other artworks on the Sichuan earthquake, like Hu Huishan Memorial (2009) by architect Liu Jiakun, which did not rely on a participatory approach. I argue that Nian constitutes public mourning, something rare in Chinese history. Mourning has been either private, among family members and friends, or


state-sponsored, for political leaders or canonized heroes, though sometimes people have usurped state rituals by improvising upon an official script to make it serve subversive ends. 84 Nian, like other commemorative projects after the Sichuan earthquake, was initiated by strangers, for strangers. Mourning constitutes the very act that establishes stranger-relationality, because to mourn someone is to assume the existence of an attachment to the loss of that person. In Publics and Counterpublics, Warner demonstrates that stranger-relationality is achieved through a particular form of address that is both personal and impersonal. As Warner puts it, public speech must be taken in two ways: as addressed to us and as addressed to strangers.85 For example, when I hear the victims names in Nian, I understand that the work is addressing me and an indefinite number of people who also encounter it. Warner limits his analysis to the receiving end of the relationship: the addressee is imagined to be an indefinite public, but not the addresser. I argue that in Nian, participatory production in the form of a large number of online strangers participating in recording the names transforms the addresser into a public subject as well. When one reads the names aloud, one is reading both personally and impersonally. This expansion of impersonality to the addresser marks a critical difference between Nian and other artworks that are created by artists alone. Chapter 4 focuses on the issue of visibility, which is critical to the realization of publicness. The Village Self-Governance Documentary Project will serve as the
Rubie Watson, Making Secret Histories: Memory and Mourning in Post-Mao China, in Memory, History and Opposition Under State Socialism, ed. Rubie Watson (Oxford: James Currey, 1999), 71.
85 84

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 77.


Figure 1.13 Wu Wenguang, Village Self-Governance Documentary Project, 2005, video still. case study. In 2005, when filmmaker Wu Wenguang was asked to produce a documentary on village elections, he decided to help villagers document their own politics themselves. He invited ten villagers from different parts of China to his studio in Beijing and taught them how to use a video camera. The villagers went home and captured elections, discussions, disputes, and everyday life. Wus team helped them to edit the footage into ten short videos, which have been screened in film festivals as well as independent film salons. (Figure 1.13) In this chapter, visibility will be approached from several angles. First, Rancires notion, the partition of the sensible, points us to the political nature of rhetorical norms and video technologies. They condition what we can see and hear,


but are often assumed to be natural. The videos from the Village Documentary project help to highlight this issue. Second, I argue that the introduction of the video camera allows the villagers to assume an insider-outsider identity, and adds a kind of stranger visibility to rural politics. Third, leveraging Rancires insight on radical pedagogy, I suggest that, as the video camera enables reflexivity, it facilitates self-learning and cultivates a sense of equality. Lastly, I re-emphasize a point made in Chapter 2, that visibility depends on circulation. In the case of the Village Documentary project, limited distribution seriously curtails its efficacy. How to overcome or subvert state control of media remains a core challenge to the pursuit of publicness. No public sphere bourgeois, proletarian, or queer is established in China. Neither the social imaginary that people can organize themselves independently of the state nor the institutional condition that freedom of expression is a guaranteed right exists. This fundamental distinction between the Chinese political system and Western democracies leads to a central argument of my dissertation, that in China all public pursuits are both public and counterpublic, that public and counterpublic strategies are almost always integrated in Chinese public art. Affective, performative forms are not in opposition to, but in alignment with, rational-critical argumentation. The latter functions more as a radical challenge to arbitrary state power than as a hegemonic, exclusionary mechanism of the bourgeoisie to maintain its ruling position. The first three case studies will have demonstrated to some degree this integration of public and counterpublic forms; Chapter 5 will further substantiate this argument.


Figure 1.14 Bo Zheng, Karibu Islands, discussion held at the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center, July 27, 2008. Image altered to protect the identity of the participants.

Karibu Islands, a project from my own art practice, will serve as the case study. I started this project in 2004 as a set of experimental videos about an imaginary place where time travels backwards. In 2008, using the videos as a catalyst for discussion, I worked with the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center to organize a series of conversations. Participants, queer and straight, imagined their lives in this hypothetical place and debated issues of sexuality and progress. (Figure 1.14) My analysis will center on the documents generated by this project, including the Karibu Islands Birth Certificates filled out by the participants and their discussions.86
Here are a few reasons for writing about my own project. Karibu Islands, like other projects discussed in this dissertation, is not the creation of the artist alone. Its highly participatory nature accommodates partial renouncement of the artists authorial position. My role as a theoretically86


In Public Sphere and Experience, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge argue that the proletariat have always engaged in an unvalorized creation of fantasy, as a necessary compensation for the experience of the alienated labor process.87 The transformation of fantasy is critical to the organization of workers authentic experience into a proletarian public sphere. Nekt and Kluge suggest that, to transform the experience bound up in fantasy into collective practical emancipation, it is not sufficient simply to use the fantasy product; rather one must theoretically grasp the relation of dependency between fantasy and the experience of an alienated reality. 88 Negt & Kluges analysis, though centered on the labor conditions in postwar Germany, offers many insights to other counterpublics. In this chapter, I will analyze Karibu Islands discussions to show why the queer and straight participants responded differently to the hypothesis of time reversal, and how the queer participants voiced their protest against heteronormativity through both direct criticism and fantasy. I will also suggest that queerness and publicness share similar relations to time: both negate privileging higher times over common action and demand what Taylor calls radical secularity.89

minded analyst in 2011 is different from my role as the artist in 2008. The analysis in this chapter will primarily be about the documents and discussions created by the participants.
87 88 89

Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience, 33. Ibid. Taylor, A Secular Age, 192.


Chapter 2 Four Basic Ideas The photograph is dramatic. (Figure 2.1) Ranges of barren mountains dominate the composition. Eight trucks, covered with bright-colored tarpaulins, dot the winding road carved on the slope of the mountain in the foreground. Their toylike scale and intense colors emit a sense of joy, defying the seriousness of the sharp ridges and dense clouds in the background. This photograph, produced at Queer Mountain in 1999, came out of the Moving Rainbow project created by artist Xiong Wenyun. Moving Rainbow is more than a set of photographs. Over a period of three years, between 1998 and 2001, Xiong realized a series of art experiments along the highways leading from Qinghai and Sichuan into Tibet, culminating in two largescale events that involved not only truck drivers but also environmental activists, government officials, and journalists. Besides producing photographs of motorcades forming moving rainbows, Xiong and her supporters also organized other activities to promote environmental protection in the Tibetan region. They distributed leaflets, set up information displays, and collected signatures. The project contributed to an emerging discourse on environmentalism at the turn of the millennium. Moving Rainbow is a well-known project. It was widely reported in public media at the time, and Xiong received both emotional and financial support from many other artists and critics. However, since the beginning, its affinity to activism threatened its reception as art. Xiong recalls that the majority of her friends in the art


Figure 2.1 Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, 1999, photograph, 152x111cm.

world supported the project but considered it not art.1 Those few critics who have included this project in their writings and exhibitions have considered it exclusively from the perspective of photography or performance art.2 Zhang Li, who assisted Xiong in 2000 and 2001, is the only critic who has commented on the projects social dimensions. In his curatorial statement for the 2008 retrospective exhibition of
1 2

See Zhang Yuling, Xiong Wenyun zai gong zuo (Xiong Wenyun at Work), unpublished text, 2011.

For example, see Lu Hong and Sun Zhenhua, Yi hua de rou shen: Zhongguo xing wei yi shu (Alienated Body: Performance Art in China) (Shijiazhuang: Hebei mei shu chu ban she, 2006), 68-69; Lu Peng, Er shi shi ji Zhongguo yi shu shi (Twentieth Century History of Chinese Art) (Beijing: Peking University Press, 2009), 244.


Moving Rainbow, Zhang writes, This work integrates contemporary art, social, historical and cultural analysis, environmental protection, and interaction between the artist and the public. It is an experimental activity of trans-disciplinary art.3 In my view, Moving Rainbow is one of the most important public art projects of the last decade. Its scale and media impact remain unsurpassed. In addition to its historical importance as one of the first art projects to connect with emerging environmental activism, its complex relationship with the state accommodates a nuanced understanding of publicness in post-socialist China. Therefore, I have chosen it as the first case study. It will help to reveal several key constituents of publicness: issue formation, media attention, assertion of citizens rights and responsibilities, and selforganization. In the next section, I will provide a chronological account of Moving Rainbows evolution, which will serve as a foundation for further analysis.

Six Trips to Tibet Xiong was born in Sichuan province in 1953. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), at the age of sixteen, she was sent to work in the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.4 In 1979 she entered the Sichuan Art Academy to study traditional
Zhang Li, curatorial statement for the exhibition Liu dong cai hong shi zhou nian (The Tenth Anniversary of Moving Rainbow), held at Three Shadows Photography Art Center from June 15 to July 27, 2008.
4 3

For seven years, she worked on a farm, painted for local people, studied in a local normal school and taught painting in the school after graduation. (Chen Jie, A Rainbow for the Roof of the World, China Daily, May 19, 2001).


Figure 2.2 Xiongs site-specific experiment, Tibet, May 1998.

Figure 2.3 A photograph taken by Xiong in Tibet in May 1998.

Chinese painting. In 1987 she went to Japan to pursue further training and developed a passion for color field paintings. After exhibiting her paintings at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in April 1998, Xiong went to Tibet in May. She visited the Samye Monastery and the Kings Tombs in the Shannan area and realized a series of small-scale, site-specific


experiments. She painted pebbles in bright colors, using the same palette she had been using in her paintings. (Figure 2.2) Xiongs work attracted attention from local residents but did not surprise them. They have long used natural materials stone, mud, and even water and wind to make small replicas of Buddhist statues and pagodas.5 And bright colors are everywhere to be seen in Tibet, the land closest to the sun. Among the photographs Xiong took during this trip was one of a garbage dump, with stacks of Styrofoam lunch boxes, single-use chopsticks, and plastic bags. (Figure 2.3) Two months later, Xiong went to Tibet again. This time she took a road trip along the Sichuan-Tibetan Highway for over 1,200 kilometers, traveling from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Qamdo in the eastern part of Tibet. At Erlang Mountain, her luggage was stolen. However, she wrote, when we finally reached Qamdo after a treacherous journey, I felt at peace again.6 Besides continuing her painting experiments, she turned her attention to the highway. (Figure 2.4) She noticed that many trucks coming out of Tibet were carrying timber. During this trip she also encountered a rainbow, rising above the mountains into the clouded sky. (Figure 2.5) When she embarked on her third trip in October 1998, the highway was no longer just the road leading into Tibet, but had become the site of her focus. In the two previous trips, Xiong acted more like a keen observer. When she attempted

For example, they would swing a mold in the wind or in a river to produce copies of the Buddha that last only for a moment. Xiong Wenyun, text written for her exhibition at Three Shadows Photography Art Center in 2008.


Figure 2.4 A photograph of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, taken by Xiong in July 1998.

Figure 2.5 A photographs taken by Xiong on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway in July 1998.

artistic experiments, they were small and did not require interaction with other people. This time, however, she seemed to be more conscious of her identity as an artist at work. She invited photographer Luo Yongjin to travel with her, so her actions could be documented. She engaged in two series of works. In one series, she painted


the visible ends of timber carried on the trucks. (Figure 2.6) Again she used the rainbow palette: red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, blue, and purple. In another series, she hung a piece of bright-colored cloth on a door or a window of the shacks standing next to the highway. (Figure 2.7) To realize these works, she had to talk to the truck drivers and the people living in the shacks to obtain their approval. On one occasion, upon seeing the red paint Xiong was applying to the wood carried on his truck, a driver commented, yes, they are bleeding. According to Xiong, this was the first time that someone connected her actions to environmental issues. In March 1999, Xiong participated in a group exhibition and showed some photographs from her trips in Tibet. Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, published an article on her work and mentioned its connection to environmental protection.7 After this exhibition, Xiong decided to continue her project and to make it visually more dramatic. She made seven waterproof tarpaulins, each in a rainbow color and large enough to cover the back of a truck. She took them with her to Queer Mountain, 4,200 meters above sea level, and convinced a few truck drivers to put the tarpaulins on their trucks. (Figure 2.9) The first moving rainbow thus came into being. To her surprise, the drivers liked the tarpaulins and wanted to buy them from her. They told her that her products seemed more durable than those available on the market and would provide better protection for valuable goods like furs and cigarettes.

Anonymous, Xian dai yi shu zuo pin lian zhan: tan tao dang dai chuan mei ru he ying xiang she hui (Modern Art Group Show: Exploring How Contemporary Media Influence Society), Ta Kung Pao, March 13, 1999.


Figure 2.6 (left) Xiong painting the end of timber carried on a truck, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Sichuan-Tibet Highway, October 1998. Figure 2.7 (right) Xiong hanging a piece of cloth in bright yellow on a door, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Sichuan-Tibet Highway, October 1998.

Figure 2.8 (left) Xiong talking to drivers, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Queer Mountain, April 1999. Figure 2.9 (right) Xiong convinced a few truck drivers to put the bright-colored tarpaulins on their trucks, photographed by Luo Yongjin, Queer Mountain, April 1999.


Emboldened by the media attention she received and the truck drivers warm response, Xiong committed herself to increasing the scale of the rainbow idea. She sought and obtained support from Southwest Jiaotong University, where she was teaching as a visiting professor. She also found a team of drivers in Chengdu who agreed to participate on a planned trip. On September 25, 1999, a departure ceremony was held in the South Gate Plaza of the University, attended by university officials and the CEO of a civil engineering firm that contributed some funds. (Figure 2.10) Fourteen trucks were draped in the colored tarpaulins and left on an eight-day journey to Qamdo. This trip generated a set of photographs that are the most visually compelling, like the one described at the beginning of this chapter. Xiong directed the drivers, while Luo, the photographer, set up the camera at strategic positions, often far away and on elevated ground, so he could capture panoramic views of the motorcade moving through the mountainous landscape. (Figure 2.11) Xiong became more ambitious. She drafted a plan to recruit one thousand truck drivers to carry the Moving Rainbow along the Sichuan-Tibet and QinghaiTibet highways simultaneously into the roof of the world.8 She also gave the project a new name: Beijing-Everest Environmental Protection Activity. For the next year and half, she devoted herself to seeking support in China and Japan. She succeeded in building a partnership with two important Chinese environmental NGOs (China Environmental Culture Promotion Association and Green Earth Volunteers),

Xiong Wenyun, text written for her exhibition at Three Shadows Photography Art Center in 2008.


Figure 2.10 The departure ceremony held in front of Southwest Jiaotong University, September 25, 1999.

Figure 2.11 The Moving Rainbow motorcade on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, September 1999.

but failed to secure any major financial sponsorship. After several delays, she decided to reduce the original scope and finance the project with her own savings and donations from other individuals. On July 11, 2001, sixty trucks covered in colored


Figure 2.12 Xiong and participants celebrating their arrival at the base camp of Mount Everest, July 22, 2001.

tarpaulins left Golmud in Qinghai province for Tibet. Two weeks later, a number of trucks reached the base camp of Mount Everest, 5,400 meters above sea level. (Figure 2.12) A series of events were also held at several stops along the road and later in Beijing to spread the message of environmental protection. The project was widely reported, in both local and national media. In summary, Moving Rainbow evolved gradually as Xiongs initial personal pilgrimages to Tibet grew into ever larger participatory events. Xiong did not have a master plan when she embarked on her first trip to Tibet. She tuned her work according to what she experienced on the road and how others responded to her gestures. At the same time, it is clear that the project could evolve because Xiong did


not content herself with existing forms of art and existing platforms of publicness. In the next four sections, I will discuss how Xiong defined the highways as a site for public concern, how she called for and modulated public attention through photography and media events, and how her identity as a citizen and Moving Rainbow as a self-organized venture challenged Chinas totalitarian system.

Highway as Issue Publics are formed around issues of common concern. What constitutes common concern is not predefined but needs to be contested in the public sphere itself. Xiong was not the first person to define the environmental movement in China, but through Moving Rainbow, she contributed new and valuable perspectives to the agenda. Environmental ideas first appeared in China in the late 1980s. In 1988, New Observer, an influential magazine at the time, published Xu Gangs essay, Loggers, Wake Up! After describing the serious extent of illegal logging in China, Xu concludes, The human race still doesnt understand this principle: when they drive forests and other organisms on this planet into trouble, the biggest victim will be the human race itself. The human race has to liberate itself from this selfish mindset and learn to live with [other organisms] in harmony. When the human race treats each tree and each blade of grass with love, each tree and each blade of grass will also treat the human race with love.9

Xu Gang, Fa mu zhe, xing lai! (Loggers, Wake Up!), Xin guan cha (New Observer), February 1988. Translation mine.


Xus essay was widely cited and reprinted, casting a significant influence on public opinion and state policy.10 In 1994, Friends of Nature was established in Beijing as the first environmental NGO formally registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Its four founders, Liang Congjie, Yang Dongsheng, Liang Xiaoyan, and Wang Lixiong, were renowned intellectuals. According to sociologist Yang Guobin, the development of environmental NGOs took off in the mid-1990s and accelerated within a few years.11 The number of organizations increased from twenty-eight in 1996 to sixty-nine in 1999. Many NGOs focused their resources on protecting the natural environment in the less developed western part of China. For example, to save the Tibetan antelope, an endangered species on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Friends of Nature worked on mobilizing public support for anti-poaching efforts between 1998 and 2002. It also submitted proposals to local governments in Yunnan province on how to save the golden haired monkey. Moving Rainbow redefined the highways between Tibet and the Han region as a site of environmental concern. The Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways were both constructed in the 1950s by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Mao instructed the PLA to march and pave.12 Three thousand soldiers lost their lives in the process. Since then the state discourse has always portrayed the highways as

See Tong Zhifeng, Li cheng yu te dian: kuai su zhuan xing qi xia de Zhongguo huan bao yun dong (History and Characteristics: Chinese Environmental Movement in the Era of Rapid Transformation), Li lun yue kan (Theory Monthly), March 2009. Yang Guobin, Environmental NGOs and Institutional Dynamics in China, The China Quarterly 181 (2005), 50. In Chinese, yi mian jin jun, yi mian xiu lu.




extraordinary achievements in human history, claiming that they have catalyzed the historical transformation of the Tibetan social structure, contributed to Tibets unprecedented economic and social development, and strengthened the Motherlands border defense and ethnic unity.13 Although Xiong never explicitly criticized this official narrative, in practice she challenged its validity. She wrote in 2000, White trash [disposable containers and plastic bags] along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway is appalling. Trucks on both sides rush by: those going into the mountains are packed with consumer goods; those coming out overloaded with timber. City and nature are two ends of the human axis. This highway and those trucks racing on it are worrying me.14 The highways provide a strategic entry point for inquiry as several issues converge here. How has economic development affected the regions environment? What can be done to implement a more sustainable model of growth? What role can Tibets traditional culture play in defending the environment against the modernizing vision? Moving Rainbow effectively opened up the space for these questions to be raised, and redefined the highways as matters of public concern rather than symbols of national unity and state glory. Xiong was not the first artist to connect her art practice to environmental concerns. In 1995, American artist Betsy Damon, together with Chinese artist Dai Guangyu, organized a large exhibition in Chengdu. Titled Guardians of Water, the
Anonymous, Qing man tian lu: ji nian chuan qing zang gong lu tong che wu shi zhou nian (Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Opening of Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways), Lhasa wan bao, Dec. 24, 2004, http://www.china.com.cn/zhuanti2005/txt/200412/24/content_5738091.htm, accessed Feb. 8, 2012.
14 13

Xiong Wenyun, Dian feng shang de yi shu (Art on the Mountain Top), unpublished text, 2000.


Figure 2.13 Yin Xiuzhen, Washing the River, Chengdu, 1995.

event was intended to raise public consciousness about the degradation of Chengdus Funan River. They invited more then twenty artists to create site-specific installations. Yin Xiuzhen built a small citadel on the riverbank with ice blocks made of water from the river, and invited local residents to clean the river. (Figure 2.13) Dai soaked a set of photographs of local residents in the river for twenty-four hours to demonstrate the seriousness of pollution.15 In the next few years, Damon and Dai organized three more events, in Lhasa and Dujiangyan. What distinguished Moving
See Lu Hong, Yue jie: Zhongguo xian feng yi shu 1979-2004 (Avant-Garde Art in China) (Shijiazhuang: Hebei mei shu chu ban she, 2006), 211.


Rainbow from other environmental art projects of this period was Xiongs ability to expand the scope of existing discussion by bringing a previously unnoticed area into focus. Furthermore, by identifying the highways as an environmental concern, Xiong suggested that matters of the environment have to be looked at beyond local and even regional levels, and be connected to issues of economic development and ethnic relations. Much of the projects success has to do with its effectiveness in attracting media attention, which is the subject of the next section.

Media Attention According to Michael Warner, attention is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for someone to become a member of a public. Publics viewers of a photograph, readers of a text, listeners of a speech lack any formal membership structure. They possess no passport, wear no uniform, and swear no oath. The existence of a public is contingent on its members activity, however notional or compromised, and not on its members categorical classification, objectively determined positions in the social structure, or material existence.16 Lacking any institutional guarantee, publics commence with the moment of attention, must continually predicate renewed attention, and cease to exist when attention is no longer predicated.17 At the same time, a public is constituted through mere attention.18 Attention functions like an entry ticket; people become members of a public by
16 17 18

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 88. Ibid. Ibid., 87.


simply paying attention to its shared text. Warner argues that understanding attention as active uptake rather than passive reaction is important. He writes, Wherever a liberal conception of personality obtains, the moment of uptake that constitutes a public can be seen as an expression of volition on the part of its members. And this fact has enormous consequences. It allows us to understand publics as scenes of self-activity, of historical rather than timeless belonging, and of active participation rather than ascriptive belonging. Under the right conditions, it even allows us to attribute agency to a public, even though that public has no institutional being or concrete manifestation.19 For Warner, the cognitive quality of that attention is less important than the mere fact of active uptake.20 Warners arguments all concern the addressee. To develop a complete understanding of attention, we also have to consider the addresser. Art historian Hans Belting reminds us that whenever we see an image, there is also, visibly or invisibly, a body that proposes it to our attention.21 All artworks, when displayed, receive attention from indefinite viewers and create transient publics. But different artworks beckon different kinds of attention and create different kinds of publics. For example, the kind of attention called for by a Moving Rainbow photograph is surely not the same as that by a state-authorized historical painting, like The Founding of the Nation (1953), which depicts Mao Zedong standing on the Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949 to announce the establishment of the Peoples Republic. Perhaps the
19 20 21

Ibid., 89. Ibid., 87.

Hans Belting, Medium, Image corps and le lieu des images, in Pour une anthropologie des images (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), quoted in Daniel Dayan, Sharing and Showing: Television as Monstration, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 625 (2009), 25.


attention that the viewer gives to The Founding of the Nation, hung centrally in the giant National Museum situated on the east side of Tiananmen Square, reveals more ascriptive belonging than active participation. A range of factors who authors the image, what the image depicts, how the image is displayed, and what discourse the image participates in condition the viewers uptake. Media scholar Daniel Dayan has coined the term monstration to refer to the performance that calls for and modulates attention.22 Though his research primarily deals with television, the concept of monstration applies to other media as well. How did Moving Rainbow call for collective attention through showing, pointing, and performing? As I have written earlier, Moving Rainbow generated a complex array of objects and events. I will focus on two categories here: the photographs of the moving rainbow motorcades and the series of events Xiong organized in summer 2001. Moving Rainbow has been interpreted, both by Xiong herself and by journalists and critics, as a project promoting environmental protection in Tibet, particularly concerning the impact of the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways. Given this proposition, one might wonder, wouldnt it be better to show something like the trash dump Xiong photographed during her first trip to Tibet in May 1998 than the pictures of the trucks covered in rainbow-colored tarpaulins? Unlike documentary photographs, these moving rainbow pictures do not reveal any environmental problem directly. We know from Xiongs earlier experiments that timber was one of the main goods being shipped out of Tibet. In these photographs,

Dayan, Sharing and Showing: Television as Monstration, 25.


Figure 2.14 Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, 1999, photograph, 152x111cm.

with the trucks covered, we cannot even see what they were carrying. Instead of pointing to any concrete issue, Xiong employs a symbolic form that originates in nature and has been imbued with many cultural meanings, almost always evoking positive emotions. In Tibet, it is believed that rainbows are ladders to gods. Bright, intense colors certainly attract our eyes, and it seems that Xiong is satisfied with just that. With these pictures, she draws our attention to the highways, but she refrains


from giving us a speech. The photographs function like a flag, but not a sermon. With our attention turned to Tibet, we have to look for more information and decide what actions to take. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt writes, To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time. The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak. The weirdness of [mass society] resembles a spiritualistic sance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible.23 The moving rainbow photographs fulfill the purpose of the table in Arendts metaphor. They provide the common focus for our attention. Xiong acts as the table provider rather than a speechmaker sitting around the table to confront us. The photographs are more symbolic than argumentative. Though each picture was taken at a particular moment in time and space, under distinct weather and lighting conditions, together they seem timeless. The vehicles, representing a specific phase of human presence, have been transformed into something otherworldly, like drops of paint splashed onto the immense landscape. Despite human coordination, chance is at play. With the road winding through the mountains, it was impossible for Xiong and photographer Luo to construct the kind of regularity commonly seen in air shows.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 52-53.


Imperfection makes human effort salient. We are drawn into caring not because of convincing arguments based on rationality, but because of emotions like defiance, transience, and immortality. While the moving rainbow photographs achieved a certain quality of timelessness, the events Xiong organized in late 1999 and summer 2001 were clearly time-stamped. For example, here is the rundown of the events in 2001, as described by Xiong: June 29, 2001 We held the departure ceremony of the Beijing-Everest Environmental Protection Activity at the Beijing-Tibet Building. A ten-car Moving Rainbow motorcade [circled] Beijings Third Ring Road. June 8, 2001 More than ten volunteers, media, and Tibetan Environmental Protection activists were part of a team that met in Golmud [in Qinghai province]. In the center of Golmud, we organized a large-scale environmental awareness event. July 11, 2001 Sixty trucks displaying the colored canvases set off from the Golmud Nanshankou checkpoint along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway, traveling over the Karakorum and Nyenchen Tonglha Mountains toward Lhasa. Along the way, we organized environmental awareness events in places like Amdo. July 18, 2001 Before the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways Memorial in Lhasa, the Moving Rainbow motorcade held a departure ceremony, and the team continued on toward the Everest Base Camp. July 22, 2001 The Moving Rainbow motorcade traveled through Xigaze, Lhazi, and Tingri to finally reach the Everest Base Camp, 5,400 meters above sea level. August 2001 Pictures from the Moving Rainbow Beijing-Everest Environmental Protection Activity are exhibited at the Technology Plaza of Xidan [a major commercial district in joy,


Beijing]. The exhibition displayed pictures taken by project volunteers.24 Media coverage of these events generated far greater public attention than exhibitions of the moving rainbow photographs in art venues. Between 1998 and 2004, three years after the projects completion, photographs of Moving Rainbow only appeared in one art exhibition. The complete project was not shown in an art space until 2008. In contrast, Xiongs activities were reported in newspapers and on television in a timely fashion. Perhaps this helps to explain why, after summer 1999, Xiong devoted much of her energy to creating media events. As Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz note, in contemporary society, media events are stages that offer the highest degree of publicness, the highest available amount of collective attention.25 Xiong did not have full control of the media events. She had to work with two sponsoring NGOs, local governments, volunteers, and participating journalists to determine the form and content of these events. Unlike many of her peers, Xiong was comfortable with this loss of autonomy. The relation between autonomy and heteronomy has been an issue of intense debate in modern and contemporary art. Shannon Jackson, in her recent book Social Works: Performing Arts, Supporting Publics, argues that we have to be mindful of the contingency of any dividing line between autonomy and heteronomy, noticing the dependency of each on the definition of the other, watching as the division between these two terms morphs
24 25

Xiong Wenyun, text written for her exhibition at Three Shadows Photography Art Center in 2008. Dayan, Sharing and Showing: Television as Monstration, 23.


between projects and perspectives.26 By plunging into negotiations with various parties, especially the state, Xiong actually was able to enhance her profile as a citizen with agency. More will be said in the next section. First, lets take a closer look at the media discourse generated around these media events. On April 14, 2001, an article appeared on the lower right hand corner of the front page of China Womens News. Titled Beijing Mount Everest Will Fly a TenThousand-Kilometer Rainbow: Producer Ms. Xiong Wenyun Introduces

Environmental Art Project in Beijing, it described the press conference that Xiong and her NGO partners held in Beijing the day before, when they announced the series of events to be performed later that summer. The article had a formal style, filled with phrases commonly associated with official events. Two days later, the same newspaper ran a much longer article in its Women and Society section, titled Xiong Wenyun Paves a Rainbow Road. It was written in a more personal tone and told a more textured story. The author traced the development of Xiongs artistic experiments up to that point, and articulated how Xiong understands environmental protection and participates in it with an artists way of thinking.27 The impending events provided the occasion for the publication of both articles. In other words, the event form made Moving Rainbow newsworthy. The fact that Xiongs devotion was


Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Arts, Supporting Publics (London: Routledge, 2011), 29.

Zhang Qi, Xiong Wenyun pu jiu cai hong zhi lu (Xiong Wenyun Paves a Rainbow Road), Zhongguo fu nv bao (China Womens News), April 16, 2001, page 3.



considered admirable is only part of the reason; it also had to do with the unique temporality of public discourse. Warner points out that a public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse and that the temporality of circulation is not continuous or indefinite; it is punctual.28 The rhythms of publications daily newspapers, weekly magazines, seasonal fashions enable a sense of time and distance in modern society. Warner writes, The punctual time of circulation is crucial to the sense that discussion is currently unfolding in a sphere of activity. It is not timeless, like meditation; nor is it without issue, like speculative philosophy. The more punctual and abbreviated the circulation, and the more discourse indexes the punctuality of its own circulation, the closer a public stands to politics. At longer rhythms or more continuous flows, action becomes harder to imagine. This is the fate of academic publics, a fact very little understood when academics claim by intention or proclamation to be doing politics. In modernity, politics takes much of its character from the temporality of the headline, not the archive.29 What Warner observes above about academic publics also apply to art publics. Art, like research, operates on a more extended timescale than politics. Artists are not bound to pressing issues and artworks do not enter into circulation until they are fully formed and ready to be exhibited. This was precisely the case for Xiong before 1999. The three trips she made to Tibet were planned by herself and their temporality had no public relevance. She was concerned with finding spiritual peace in nature, an issue not deemed a collective urgency. She experimented at her own pace and only
28 29

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 90 and 95. Ibid., 96-97.


exhibited the photographs of her performative activities in March 1999. The first person to write about her work was Wang Nanming, one of the curators for the exhibition. The situation changed after summer 1999. As Xiong became more interested in environmental issues and decided to adopt a more activist approach, the temporality of the project shifted to a different gear. She was no longer lost in timeless and meditative experiments, but busied herself with organizing events according to a specified schedule. Her work became newsworthy because of its punctuality and its engagement with issues closer to the conventional understanding of politics. Newspapers started to report on her work, even before its realization. Articles mentioned not only her ideas on colors and aesthetics but also her views on the environment. For example, the April 16th article on China Womens News quoted Xiong saying, Coming from the perspective of nature, I oppose urban civilizations destruction of nature; however, on the road, [I] could also see the power of the human beings who struggle to survive, with body and flesh, in the cruel environment. Car and road are such expressions: they both destroy and nourish. Human existence is also a kind of nature. How should [we] establish some form of reasonable communication between the human race and nature?30 Xiong assumed the role of an activist and social commentator, in addition to that of visual artist. Zhang Qi, the author of this newspaper article, did not seem to be troubled by Xiongs hybrid identity. Zhangs attitude contrasted with that of many of

Xiong quoted in Zhang Qi, Xiong Wenyun Paves a Rainbow Road. Translation mine.


Xiongs artist peers. In June 2001, when she faced the difficult situation of not securing any corporate sponsorship, Xiong sought advice from her friends on whether she should continue the project. The majority of them held the view that the impending event would constitute an activist activity but not qualify as art. Their opinion made Xiong depressed, thinking that to embark on this journey would mean a farewell to the art world.31 For two days Xiong remained sleepless. Eventually she made up her mind. As Zhang wrote in the article, if having to choose between being an artist and being an activist, Xiong chose the latter.32 The anxiety that Xiongs friends had about her project was not unfounded. For one thing, by venturing into the sphere of activism, she changed the temporality of her practice. This fundamental adjustment would pose a serious threat to arts value, which has been built at least partially on the idea that art is timeless. A second concern was whether Xiong possessed the necessary skills to navigate the field of activism and politics. While most commentators supported the projects environmental message and concentrated on it, a few authors also took the opportunity to promote the official discourse of ethnic harmony between Han Chinese and Tibetans. For example, one article appeared on China Daily on August 2, 2001. A short text was accompanied by five large photographs, whose captions read: The Moving Rainbow propaganda motorcade heads for the Qomolangma, Local people from Anduo Town watch with interest a small exhibition on environmental
31 32

Xiong quoted in Zhang Yuling, Xiong Wenyun at Work. Zhang Qi, Xiong Wenyun Paves a Rainbow Road.


protection, Holy prays: a Tibetan Buddhist monk prays for the volunteers, A time to cheer: volunteers celebrate the Harvest Festival with local Tibetan farmers, and Collective efforts: volunteers and local people pass rocks to try to get the stranded truck out of the water.33 For her part, Xiong was not able to or perhaps not allowed to articulate the complex relationship between environmental protection, Chinas nationalism, and Tibets history and culture in any media. I am pointing out this limitation not to delegitimize Moving Rainbow but to suggest that, in their pursuit of publicness, artists like Xiong have to acquire new skills as their relationship with time and politics changes.

Artist as Citizen In all of the newspaper and magazine articles, Xiong was featured prominently as an artist who, through artistic exploration, developed a personal conviction about the importance and urgency of environmental protection. She came across as someone who could think independently and express her opinions publicly. An article published in 1999 recounts, When she entered Tibet via the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, she sensed acutely that modern civilization is invading the plateau at an unfathomable speed. She was convinced that here manmade disasters far outnumber natural disasters.34 This statement not only relays Xiongs environmental message,
Bian Ji, Driving High for Environment: Mission of Moving Rainbow Focuses on Awareness, China Daily, August 2, 2001, page 10. Mao Shouyu, Lv ri nv yi shu jia yong se cai bao zhuang chuan zang xian (Japan-based Female Artist Decorates Sichuan-Tibet Highway with Color), Tian fu zhou mo (Tianfu Weekend), June 25, 1999, page 5.
34 33


but also indicates to the reader that it is legitimate to come to ones own conclusion based on ones own observation. Furthermore, the reader would learn that Xiong was not content with just sharing her opinion with people around her. She took the initiative to organize events that had a wide public impact, even when her action could alienate her in her professional field. The story of Xiong as a publicly-minded and action-oriented citizen had an exemplary effect that would not be welcomed by the Chinese state. A public is an assembly of citizens. Without the notion of rights-bearing citizenship, the public sphere would be unimaginable. In China, the idea of the citizen remains an inanimate ideal. As Michael Keane puts it, In contrast with the Western democratic tradition that emphasizes sovereignty, participation in politics, and civil rights, citizenship in China is seen as a benefit granted by the State to persons born in the Peoples Republic. Rights emanating from citizenship are thus framed as economic, social, and cultural benefits. And, rather than empowering the individual, citizenship rights are programmatic. That is, they obligate citizens to participate in social programs linked to nation building.35 Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic, believed that only with a strong state and a disciplined population could China modernize.36 That view was later inherited by the Communist Party. The citizen, with its historical legacy of individual rights, was viewed as antithetical to the socialist goal of mass mobilization,

35 36

Michael Keane, Redefining Chinese citizenship, Economy and Society 30.1 (2001), 2. Ibid.


class struggle, and collectivism. 37 Under Deng Xiaopings reform program, economic rights were separated from political rights. Citizenship is thus primarily conceived of in economic and ethical terms.38 In the 1990s, the state started to encourage people to claim their rights as consumers and property owners, but continued to suppress any struggle that demanded political rights. In the governments version of citizenship formation, the new individual citizen is to be molded, as were the masses decades earlier.39 Seen in this light, the now pervasive individualism in the pursuit of material wealth is not so much an expression of bottom-up desire as a consequence of top-down programming. Unlike Ai Weiwei, whose work will be discussed in the next chapter, Xiong never articulated her practice within the theoretical framework of citizenship. Yet by voicing a perspective that strayed from the official discourse and by taking an initiative independent of the state, Xiong acted as a citizen with a natural right to speak on matters of common concern. By perceiving the environment as a matter of common concern, she also tacitly challenged the conception of state responsibility. In theory, since the people are the sovereign of the state, the state and the people are considered two interchangeable concepts. For example, Article 9 of the Chinese Constitution states, Mineral resources, waters, forests, mountains, grassland, unreclaimed land, beaches and other natural resources are owned by the state, that is, by the whole people, with
37 38 39

Ibid., 3. Ibid., 10. Ibid., 5.


the exception of the forests, mountains, grassland, unreclaimed land and beaches that are owned by collectives in accordance with the law.40 Yet without a functioning representative democracy, the correspondence between the people and the state is devoid of institutional reality. Individuals in general do not perceive themselves as having any power to influence state policy. Consequently they regard the management of collective wellbeing as an exclusive responsibility of the government. In other words, people are deprived of a sense of both rights and responsibilities. Claiming public responsibility always implies claiming public right. Xiong not only assumed the role of a responsible citizen herself, but also encouraged others to do so. She designed a Commitment Card to be signed by drivers who participated in the project. The following statement was printed on one side of the card: I promise not to engage in littering, in illegal logging, in illegal timber trade, and in poaching wild animals. On the other side, the name of the project, Moving Rainbow Beijing-Everest Environmental Protection Activity was printed in both Chinese and Tibetan against a rainbow background. Drivers were asked to write down their name and other basic information like the plate number of their truck on the stub of the card, and return it to Xiong. The commitment card had no legal or administrative power but served only a symbolic function. It was a kind gesture between Xiong and the drivers, indicating their agreement that all of them need to take on the responsibility to protect the environment.
Constitution of the Peoples Republic of China (adopted on December 4, 1982). English version at http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html, accessed Feb. 10, 2012.


Figure 2.15 Commitment cards signed by drivers.

Why did the media always stress Xiongs identity as a female artist who had studied and lived in Japan for over a decade? All three factors working as a professional artist, being a woman, and possessing overseas experience contributed social capital to Xiongs activist position. The Chinese political system does not prohibit activism outright, but deters it by making it enormously costly for most people, socially, financially, and emotionally. In order to survive, one would need to carve out a democratic enclave within the authoritarian structure. Political scientist Bruce Gilley has coined the term democratic enclave to refer to institutions or well-


defined spaces in society where the authoritarian regimes writ is substantively limited and is replaced by an adherence to recognizably democratic norms and procedures.41 The core feature of a democratic enclave is an enduring rejection of authoritarian norms and practices in favor of democratic ones.42 It is beyond the scope of this dissertation to determine the extent to which the entire field of Chinese contemporary art could be considered a democratic enclave. However, there have been clear moments in the past three decades when artists managed to build zones of substantial freedom. As I mentioned in the Introduction, the Stars group in 1979 made a public call for artistic freedom and citizens rights. Subsequently a large number of artists worked together in the 1980s to create a network of production, exhibition, and publication. They supported one another and exchanged ideas through personal correspondences and regional and national gatherings. The state largely tolerated their activities. Over time, experimental art acquired an increasing level of acceptance in Chinese society as an arena for unconventional ideas and practices. Framing a sensitive project as an artwork would lower ones political risk, though never provide complete immunity. Thus, art constitutes a strategic channel for social entrepreneurs to test and push the boundary of the civil society. In addition, the traditional obligation placed on the literati which include artists exerts a unique motivating force in Chinese activism. According to the Confucian ideal, men of great learning must ensure that their families be regulated, their states be rightly governed, and the
41 42

Bruce Gilley, Democratic enclaves in authoritarian regimes, Democratization 17:3 (2010), 390. Ibid., 391.


Figure 2.16 Xiong speaking at a press conference held in Chengdu, 1999.

Figure 2.17 Xiong directing drivers, 1999.


world be made tranquil and happy.43 Many intellectuals today continue to perceive social responsibility as part of their moral imperative. Therefore, Xiongs identity as a well-educated artist helped to make her commitment to environmentalism seem reasonable and legitimate. China Womens News, published by the All-China Womens Federation, was the first national newspaper to report on Xiongs ambitious event in 2001. A long article on Xiong was placed under the column Eminent Women on April 16. She clearly stood out in the political arena and on the highways, both dominated by men. Figures 2.16 and 2.17 are two examples showing her taking center stage among university officials and truck drivers. The newspaper also reported that Xiong would work with local environmental agencies and womens federations along the way.44 The All-China Womens Federation, established in 1949 as a mass organization supported by the Communist Party, belongs to the peculiar category of governmentorganized NGOs.45 It energizes womens activism while subjecting it to party-state control. The recognition Xiong received from the Womens Federation further enhanced the legitimacy of Moving Rainbow.

See The Great Learning by Confucius. English version available at http://classics.mit.edu/Confucius/learning.html, accessed Feb. 11, 2012. Xu Wei, Beijing zhu feng jiang piao wan li cai hong: ce hua ren Xiong Wenyun nv shi zai jing jie shao ci xiang yi shu huan bao huo dong (Beijing Mount Everest will fly a ten-thousand-kilometer rainbow: producer Ms. Xiong Wenyun introduces this art environmental project in Beijing), China Womens News, April 14, 2001.
45 44 43

See Guobin Yang, Environmental NGOs and Institutional Dynamics in China.


Self-Organization In the process of realizing Moving Rainbow, Xiong received support from many people and organizations. Photographer Luo Yongjin worked with her for almost three years, from November 1998 until July 2001, when the project culminated with a procession to the base camp of Mount Everest. Zhang Li, a young art critic at the time, helped Xiong with much of the paperwork. When Xiong failed to find any corporate sponsorship in 2001, many of her artist friends sent her donations at short notice. The event held in the fall of 1999 was organizationally sponsored by Southwest Jiaotong University. Two NGOs supported the series of events in 2001. China Environmental Culture Promotion Association (CECPA), a government-organized NGO, served as the projects managing organization.46 As individuals were not and still are not allowed to organize public events, Xiong had to find a registered NGO to act as the nominal organizer. Green Earth Volunteers, an NGO not formally registered with the government, was instrumental to Moving Rainbows media impact. Its media salon program gave Xiong access to a network of environmentally conscious reporters. Xiong also obtained a formal document issued by the Environment and Resource Protection Committee of the National Peoples Congress in May 2001, which asked local peoples congresses and environmental protection agencies to support and cooperate with the project.47 Yin Fatang, a retired general who was stationed in Tibet for many years, wrote a letter to
46 47

In Chinese, zhu ban dan wei.

Document issued by the National Peoples Congress, dated May 15, 2001, in Xiongs personal archive.


Tibet Autonomous Regions Vice Party Secretary Danzin. Yin praised Xiongs courage and asked Danzin to assist her according to reasonability and feasibility.48 The letter proved valuable when Xiong wanted to hold a ceremony for the motorcade in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, in July 2001. Though external assistance mentioned above was indispensable, ultimately Moving Rainbow was a project self-organized by Xiong. As one reporter described it aptly, Xiong is not only the projects initiator, producer, and main financial sponsor, but also the secretary, public relations officer, procurement officer, designer, and so on.49 Xiong quickly immersed herself in the unfamiliar territory of environmental activism, locating resources, building alliances, overcoming visible and invisible hurdles, and trespassing the conventional boundary of art. She did all these as an individual artist, without any position in the state, in the market, or in a non-profit organization. Warner points out that a public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself.50 A public must be organized by something other than the state, and cannot depend on state institutions, laws, formal frameworks of citizenship, or preexisting institutions such as the church.51 Furthermore, as a space of discourse, a public has a reflexive reality in that an addressable object is conjured

48 49 50 51

Zhang, Xiong Wenyun at Work. Zhang, Xiong Wenyun paves a rainbow road. Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 67. Ibid., 68.


Figure 2.18 Xiong showing me the amount of paperwork involved in Moving Rainbow, Xiongs studio, Beijing, August 2010.

into being in order to enable the very discourse that gives it existence.52 In short, a public is always self-organized. To be self-organized is not easy. No one can be born into a public, inherit it from ones ancestors, or purchase it on the market. On the other hand, precisely because publics do not depend on pre-existing conditions, they can be imagined as open, accessible, and world-making. Self-organization is inherently antagonistic to Chinas totalitarian system. The Chinese party-state considers it a fundamental threat to its rule. As mentioned earlier, Xiong had to ask the government-sponsored CECPA

Ibid., 67.


to act as the organizer for Moving Rainbow when she wanted to organize events in public spaces and push her discourse into public media.53 It took her one year to secure the arrangement that would satisfy the government. The head of CECPA also had to frame Xiongs project as something compatible with state policy. In one press conference, he declared that Moving Rainbow would contribute to Beijings Green Olympic Campaign and the Central Governments Western Region Development Strategy.54 In Avant-Garde Art in China, critic Lu Hong writes, environmental issues may be the area that [artists] and the state can most easily reach a consensus, therefore also an area that is relatively safe and secure, implying that environmentally focused artworks are not radical enough.55 Yet as Yang Guobin points out, the use of non-confrontational method is a strategic choice for [environmental] organizations at a fledging state of growth, when radical challenges against the state are out of the question.56 He further argues that Environmental action without explicit political aim may still be political. This kind of politics thrives on political ambiguities. 57 Most newspaper articles on Moving Rainbow made it clear to the reader that Xiong was the real organizer while CECPA only served as a shepherd organization as mandated. Many authors also praised Xiongs proactive-ness and perseverance. No one made an overt protest against the totalitarian
I am using public spaces and public media loosely here because no space or media is really public in China. Spaces and media are all subject to tight control of the state.
54 55 56 57 53

See Xu, Beijing Mount Everest will fly a ten-thousand-kilometer rainbow. Lu Hong, Avant-Garde Art in China, 216. Yang Guobin, Environmental NGOs and Institutional Dynamics in China, 55. Ibid.


system, but there is no doubt that the kind of self-organization embodied by Moving Rainbow challenged its very foundation.

Conclusion The analysis of Moving Rainbow has revealed several key ideas in the pursuit of publicness. First, people have to act as citizens capable of expressing critical opinions. This is not yet a given condition in China. In Moving Rainbow, Xiong performed an exemplary function by speaking out in public. Her identity as an artist helped to reduce the risk associated with citizen action. Second, an issue has to be defined as a matter of public concern. In China, it often means wrestling the issue away from the monopoly of state propaganda. This leads to the third point, that the discursive field has to be self-organized, meaning outside any institutional framework. In Moving Rainbow, although Xiong received support from NGOs and individuals linked to the state, the project consisting of the photographs, the motorcade processions, and the media events was not absorbed into any institutions organizational structure or discursive paradigm.58 Lastly, an issue has to generate attention, which nowadays largely depends on media uptake. The last point suggests that a fundamental shift may have to occur in terms of the temporality of artistic practice when artists want to engage with sociopolitical issues directly in mass media. An artworks entrance into public circulation is tied to
This is related to the distinction between the public sphere and the civil society, as Craig Calhoun argues in Civil Society and the Public Sphere (Public Culture 1993.5, 267-280).


its acquisition of a punctual quality. Traditionally this has been realized by means of exhibition. (While paintings do not expire, exhibitions do.) In Moving Rainbow, Xiong demonstrates that artists can bypass exhibition and create punctual events directly geared towards mass media. This approach heightens the publicness of an art project. The shift in temporality may have far-reaching impact on art, affecting its mode of production and reception, the role of the critic, the basis of arts value, and so on. This is an area for future research. Much of the analysis in this chapter has centered on Xiongs role as an artist, an activist, and a citizen. In the next chapter, we will move beyond the artist and look into how publicness is conjured through participation.


Chapter 3 Stranger-Relationality The sound file is played. Silence, for about two seconds. Cao Zi Yan, a female voice emerges, reading a name, pronouncing each character fully. The recording is so clear that we feel as if she were standing in front of us, reading the name to us. After a short break of silence, a male voice reads, Du Xin. His tone is just as formal as that of the first reader, but we notice the difference in sound quality. Du Xi Peng, a female voice continues, slow and meditative. We can hear a tail sound lingering on after each syllable. Perhaps she was recording in an empty room, in an effort to turn the simple reading into a weighty ritual. Yu Jing , a soft voice murmurs, and we have trouble making out the last character. It seems that the reader had pressed the recorders stop button too hastily, so the last syllable was truncated. He Chuan, an accented female voice follows. The way she pronounces Chuan is between Chuan and Chuang, typical of southern Chinese who cannot distinguish the sound of -n from that of -ng. By this point, the fact that we are listening to a sound file assembled from a large number of discrete recordings becomes apparent. Even though each reading event lasts for only two to three seconds, the difference in tone, pitch, volume, speed, rhythm, and accent is easily detectable. Or perhaps it is because we are listening attentively, for we know that the names belong to the students who were killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. We are only fifteen seconds into the work. The entire piece runs for 3 hours 41 minutes and 20 seconds. Every students name is read, 5,205 of them, one by one. This project,


titled Nian (in Chinese, it means both to read and to commemorate), was produced by artist Ai Weiwei in 2010, with the participation of thousands of anonymous readers. It will serve as the main case study for this chapter. This chapter is organized into two sections. In the first section, I will briefly document the activist activities that emerged after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and addressed the issue of student deaths. Nian was situated within this activism. I will explain how the activist struggle against totalitarianism centered on the notion of citizens rights, a precondition for the formation of publics. In the second section, I will analyze Nian in depth, focusing on the notion of stranger-relationality, a key constituent of publicness. In this section, I will make three comparisons. By comparing Nian to a state-sponsored newspaper article, I will demonstrate how stranger-relationality exists outside the state, which organizes peoples relationships into a stabilized hierarchy. By comparing Nian to the activist campaign Citizen Investigation (2009-10), also organized by Ai Weiwei, I will point out some of Nians formal features that can be understood as counterpublic. Lastly, by comparing Nian to Hu Huishan Memorial, a more conventional public art project which also commemorates the students killed in the earthquake, I will explain how stranger relations are concatenated in Nian to create something amounting to an expression of a public, rather than that of an individual artist. Existing literature has already framed Ais activist-artistic practice within the rhetoric of citizens rights. I will add to this line of argument by incorporating Claude Leforts analysis of totalitarianism, which provides a more theoretical articulation of


the incompatibility between rights and totalitarianism. My more significant contribution in this chapter lies in the identification of the relational aspect particular to project Nian. It represents a step beyond Ais usual practice of voicing opinions as a single, courageous individual critical of the state.1 In Nian, Ai helped to conjure stranger relations into being, made these relations evident through the sound work, and facilitated the expression of a transient public.

Rights-based Activism The earthquake on May 12, 2008 was a terrible disaster. Almost seventy thousand people were killed.2 Millions lost their homes. Several towns around the epicenter in Wenchuan County were completely destroyed. It was the largest earthquake in China since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. Throughout the rescue effort the central government assumed a leading role. Premiere Wen Jiabao flew to Sichuan on the same day and set up a command center in Dujiangyan, the closest city to Wenchuan. Soldiers from the Peoples Liberation Army were quickly mobilized. They took on some of the most difficult tasks, restoring roads into the affected area and rescuing survivors trapped in collapsed buildings. Other provincial governments also sent medical teams, resources and funds to Sichuan. The Chinese governments quick response and effective coordination won
See Ai Weiweis blog (http://www.aiweiweiblog.com/) and Ai Weiwei Speaks, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist (London: Penguin, 2011).
2 1

The final statistics issued by the government stated that 69,227 people were killed in the earthquake, 374,643 injured, and 17,923 missing (http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2008-09-25/183514499939s.shtml, accessed June 3, 2011).


much praise both in China and abroad. The state quickly seized the opportunity and used the media largely controlled by the state to spin the horrible earthquake into a story of glorification, that of the Chinese Communist Party masterfully leading the people out of calamity, into a bright future. One issue haunted the governments otherwise impeccable image. A few days after the earthquake, some careful readers, by piecing together various news reports, pointed out that a large number of collapsed structures were school buildings.3 In the town of Xiang-e, residents told one reporter that over three hundred students were killed at Xiang-e Middle School, more than triple the number killed throughout the rest of the town.4 Some parents started to question whether certain school buildings were poorly constructed and government corruption was the root cause.5 A critical concern quickly emerged on the internet and in printed media. Several signs, strengthened by expert opinions, suggested that parents suspicion might be legitimate.6 In multiple locations, while one school fell completely, another school
For example, see Zhou Kezhens blog entry, Xue sheng si de tai duo le Wenchuan di zhen zai qing ce ji (Too Many Students Have Died Some Notes on the Disastrous Condition of Wenchuan Earthquake), dated May 15, 2008, http://blog.sciencenet.cn/home.php?mod=space&uid=126&do=blog&id=25276, accessed June 3, 2011. Zhou wrote, For the past several days I have been paying attention to the disastrous situation of Wenchuan Earthquake, feeling heavy with deep grief because the catastrophe was so serious, and the number of students killed so numerous! Thus [I] have compiled the situation of school disasters according to news reports. James T. Areddy, China Stifles Parents Complaints about Collapsed Schools, Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2008, A10.
5 4 3

Almost all schools in China are run by the government. Private schools, a recent phenomenon, only exist in large cities where affluent parents can afford to pay higher tuitions.

See for example: Zhang Yingguang, Chen Zhongxiaolu, and Yang Binbin, Xue xiao dao ta yuan yu jian zhu zhi liang guo cha (School Collapse Due to Overly Poor Construction Quality), Caijing, June 1, 2008, http://www.caijing.com.cn/2008-06-03/100067212.html, accessed June 7, 2011.


next to it remained standing. Overall, schools suffered much more damage than government office buildings in the earthquake area. Industry experts stated that from photographs alone, they could tell that shoddy construction was involved. When the issue first came to light, the government promised to conduct a thorough investigation. One year later, however, the provincial government announced that After investigation and verification, until now no case of building collapse in the earthquake has been found to be caused by problems of construction quality.7 Since then, no more reports have been issued by the government, and the contentious issue has disappeared from public media. A few activists Ai Weiwei among them decided not to let the issue vanish from public view. Architect Liu Jiakun built a small memorial for Hu Huishan, a student killed at Juyuan Middle School. Ai Xiaoming, a professor at Sun Yat-Sen University, went to Sichuan twice in the summer of 2008. She collected videos shot by local residents and conducted interviews with parents and experts who were willing to talk to her despite pressure from the government. Risking personal freedom, she edited the footage into a documentary titled Our Children, and managed to screen it at several universities in 2009.8 After Our Children, Ai Xiaoming produced three
Sichuan gong ji 5335 ming xue sheng zai di zhen zhong yu nan huo shi zong (5335 Students Were Killed or Missing in the Earthquake in Sichuan), Xinhua Net, May 7, 2009, http://news.sina. com.cn/c/2009-05-07/111317764690.shtml, accessed June 3, 2011. She was stopped by border police from going to Hong Kong to attend a film festival on October 16, 2009. See Cao Guoxing, Bao guang Sichuan dou fu zha xiao she: xue zhe Ai Xiaoming zai shang hei ming dan (Academic Ai Xiaoming Blacklisted Again for Exposing Shoddy School Construction in Sichuan), RFI Chinese, Nov. 19, 2009, http://www.rfi.fr/actucn/articles/118/article_16897.asp, accessed June 8, 2011. To be blacklisted could mean a range of things in China: one could be barred from leaving the country, speaking publicly, making films, etc.; one could be monitored by plain8 7


more videos documenting parents ongoing petitions and concerned citizens investigations on the one hand, and the rise of state-orchestrated catastrophe tourism on the other.9 In February 2009, Chengdu-based activist Tan Zuoren posted an open letter on the internet, calling for the establishment of an independent archive about the students killed in the earthquake. He asked volunteers to visit the students parents, to confirm the actual data of each class, each school, each village, each county. He also asked volunteers to gather information on responsible officials to help parents enter their case into the legal system.10 In March, Tan published a report based on his own investigative work from December 2008 to March 2009.11 Tan was arrested a few days later on charges of incitement to subvert state power. In spring 2010 Tan was sentenced to five years in prison.12

clothed police around the clock (Ai was subject to this treatment before he was eventually detained); one could be under house arrest (for example, Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer and activist, was under house arrest in his village in Shandong province from 2010 to 2012).

The three documentaries are Citizen Investigation (Gong min diao cha), Why Are the Flowers So Red (Hua er wei shen me zhe yang hong), and Forgetting Sichuan (Wang chuan).

Tan Zuoren, Guan yu jian li 512 xue sheng dang an de chang yi shu (A Proposal on the Establishment of May-12 Student Archive), http://www.bullogger.com/blogs/eva5237/archives/288299.aspx, accessed June 8, 2011. Tan was assisted by Xie Yihui. The report, titled 5.12 Sichuan da di zhen sin an xue sheng diao cha bao gao zheng qiu yi jian gao (Investigative Report on Students Killed in the May-12 Great Sichuan Earthquake, Consultative Version) was published online on May 25, 2009. See Zhang Jieping, Tan Zuoren an yong liu si yan gai chuan zhen fu bai (Tan Zuoren Case: Using June-4th to Cover Up Sichuan Earthquake Corruption), Yazhou Zhoukan, Feb. 21, 2010, http://www.yzzk.com/cfm/Content_Archive.cfm?Channel=ag&Path=3118067761/08ag3.cfm, accessed June 8, 2011.
12 11



In spring 2009 Ai Weiwei was also working on compiling information about the students killed in the earthquake.13 Perhaps Ais global prestige as a preeminent artist protected him from being arrested and allowed him to recruit volunteers to join his campaign, Citizen Investigation. Ai and his team sent hundreds of requests to various levels of the government, asking for information related to student deaths. Their requests were repeatedly turned down. At the same time, more than thirty volunteers went to Sichuan in person, visited towns where schools had collapsed, and gathered information directly from local residents. After half a years difficult work they were frequently detained by local police they produced a comprehensive list of 5,205 students killed in the earthquake, documenting each students name, gender, date of birth, age at the time of death, school, and class. The internet provided a critical medium for the investigation to become public. As findings came in from volunteers working in Sichuan, Ai published them promptly in his well-followed blogs. He also posted requests sent to various governmental agencies and their formal but unhelpful replies, petitions filed by affected parents, diaries written by volunteers, and mobile text messages sent to his team from parents, expressing pain, frustration, and gratitude.14

Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren were doing similar work, but they did not know each other in person. When Tan was arrested, Ai and five volunteers went to Chengdu, hoping to testify on behalf of Tan. In Chengdu Ai was beaten by local police and prevented from going to court. Ai captured the clash on tape and included it in his documentary Lao Ma Ti Hua. See Ai Weiweis blog entry, Reng ran zai lu shang zou (Still Walking on the Road), posted on Sept. 5, 2009, http://desaigongyuan.appspot.com/blogs/aiweiwei/?p=35911, accessed June 9, 2011.
14 13

See Ai Weiweis blog, http://www.aiweiweiblog.com/, accessed June 9, 2011.


Figure 3.1 Ai Xiaoming, Citizen Investigation, 2010, video stills.

Nian was produced in spring 2010, on the occasion of the second anniversary of the earthquake. On April 24, Ai sent out a twitter message, asking people to read one or a few names from the list of killed students and email the sound file to his studio. Within a week, around two thousand emails were received and all the names were read. In the next three months, Ais team contacted some participants to rerecord the names to achieve a better sound quality. They then edited individual


recordings into a single mp3 file and posted it online.15 When announcing the work, Ais team stated, Nian is a work from twitter friends to the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake, expressing [our] mourning for the passing of innocent lives and anger for [the governments] covering up of the facts of tofu-dreg [projects]. Respect lives; refuse to forget.16 The sound file was circulated online using different technologies.17 I have recounted the activist activities surrounding the issue of student deaths because I want to make it clear that Nian was not all Ai Weiwei did, and Ai was not the only person working on this issue. Though framed mainly as an art project, Nian was closely linked to other activist activities. In the next section, I will discuss its difference from Citizen Investigation, a project organized by Ai that was not framed as art. But before drawing their distinctions, I will first discuss what these activist activities had in common in their struggle against the state. Tan Zuoren, Ai Xiaoming, Ai Weiwei and other activists did not consider their actions to be anything extraordinary. They claimed that what they did was
This process is described in an email sent out to every participant when the project was completed. See http://walk-for-a-while.posterous.com/39295392, accessed June 10, 2011.
16 15

https://profiles.google.com/xuesheng512/posts/8pUEjETmyLH/%E8%89%BE%E6%9C%AA%E6%9 C%AA%E5%B7%A5%E4%BD%9C%E5%AE%A4%E7%8C%AE%E7%BB%99%E5%9B%9B%E5 %B7%9D%E5%9C%B0%E9%9C%87%E6%AD%BB#xuesheng512/posts/8pUEjETmyLH, accessed June 14, 2011. Translation mine. Tofu-dreg project (dou fu zha gong cheng) is a common phrase used to describe construction projects of poor quality. It could be played online, downloaded from file storage websites, or obtained via peer-to-peer application emule. I was able to access the file in China in summer 2011. However, in spring 2012, I could no longer access the file without using a VPN service to get around the firewall maintained by the state.


simply what responsible citizens should do. Tan wrote in his open letter, Everyone of us Chinese still possessing some conscience should feel guilty about these children and shoulder some responsibility.18 Ai Weiwei stated in an interview, I always believe, the responsiveness and transparency of the government in handling public matters depends on supervision. If citizens do not ask for accountability, it will leave space for corruption and the abuse of power.19 By stressing the ordinariness of their actions, they provoke the question: if they simply have behaved as citizens, why did the government react so strongly to their words and activities, to the extent of putting some of them in jail? The legality of their actions is grounded in the legitimacy of citizens rights, more specifically, the right of citizens to obtain public information, to express views on public matters, and to subject government operations to the scrutiny of public opinion. On the one hand, citizens rights, including the right to access public information and the right of freedom of speech, are clearly stated in Chinese law. On the other hand, the state routinely installs roadblocks to prevent the realization of these rights. When it deems it necessary, it suppresses these rights outright. The root cause of this contradiction lies in the incompatibility of rights with Chinas totalitarian system.

18 19

Tan Zuoren, A Proposal on the Establishment of May-12 Student Archive.

Zhang Jieping, Chuan zhen gong min diao cha ju jue yi wang (Sichuan Earthquake: Citizen Investigation Refuses to Forget), Yazhou Zhoukan, Apr. 19, 2009, http://www.yzzk.com/cfm/Content_Archive.cfm?Channel=kk&Path=3625765052/ 15kk1.cfm, accessed June 18, 2011.


Although the Chinese government has implemented an array of economic reforms since the late 1970s, politically it has held onto the totalitarian system. Theoretically, like democracy, totalitarianism is also based on the idea of popular sovereignty. The Chinese constitution states that All power in the People's Republic of China belongs to the people.20 However, as Claude Lefort points out, for popular sovereignty to be sustained, the image of popular sovereignty has to be the image of an empty place, impossible to occupy, such that those who exercise public authority can never claim to appropriate it.21 Lefort warns, if the image of the people is actualized, if a party claims to identify with it and to appropriate power under the cover of this identification, then it is the very principle of the distinction between the state and society, the principle of the difference between the norms that govern the various types of relations between individuals, ways of life, beliefs and opinions, which is denied; and, at a deeper level, it is the very principle of a distinction between what belongs to the order of power, to the order of law and to the order of knowledge which is negated. The economic, legal and cultural dimensions are, as it were, interwoven into the political.22 This is precisely what has happened in the Peoples Republic. The twin structure of the party-state, through its identification with the image of the people, acquires limitless power. It wields power in the name of the people, penetrates every domain of life, and maintains ultimate control over all forms of activities. Nothing law, science, economy, art, sport can exist outside the state.
Article 2 of the Constitution of the Peoples Republic of China, see http://english.peopledaily. om.cn/constitution/constitution.html for English version, accessed June 18, 2011.
21 22 20

Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society, 279. Ibid., 279-80.


In a totalitarian society, the rights of citizens are not natural rights, but rights granted by the state. The state, itself limitless, can set limits to rights. When Ai Weiwei and his team asked for information related to student deaths, the government often rejected their requests by invoking Article 13 of the Regulations on Open Government Information. After specifying the types of information that various levels of the government should disclose on their own initiative, the Regulations state in Article 13 that citizens may, based on the special needs of such matters as their own production, livelihood and scientific research, also file requests to obtain relevant government information.23 The State Council advises lower governments to reject requests if deemed unrelated to the applicants special needs of production, livelihood, and research.24 Ai was asked to provide material evidence to demonstrate his special needs to obtain the requested information. His argument that obtaining accurate information, executing ones right to know, is a prerequisite for citizens to make correct judgments and to choose [the right] actions, an indispensable precondition for survival was considered inadequate, and no explanation was given.25 Ai then attempted to file a lawsuit against the government for violating the
Zhong hua ren min gong he guo zheng fu xin xi gong kai tiao li (Regulations of the Peoples Republic of China on Open Government Information), adopted by the State Council on April 5, 2007, effective May 1, 2008, http://www.gov.cn/zwgk/2007-04/24/content_592937.htm, accessed June 20, 2011, translation by the China Law Center, Yale Law School. See article 14 of Guo wu yuan ban gong ting guan yu shi shi Zhong hua ren min gong he guo xin xi gong kai tiao li ruo gan wen ti de yi jian (Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Various Issues of Implementing the Regulations of the Peoples Republic of China on Open Government Information), http://www.gov.cn/zwgk/2008-04/30/content_958477.htm, accessed June 20, 2011.
25 24 23

Ai Weiwei, Dui Beichuan xian jian she ju bu chong cai liao tong zhi de hui fu (Response to the Construction Bureau of Beichuan County), Jan. 6, 2010, http://www.aiweiweiblog.com/2010/01/default.aspx, accessed June 9, 2011.


Regulations, and the court refused to consider his case. The state effectively replaces the concept of public right with that of private interest. Citizens cannot request information based on public concerns, but only based on private motives. Any activity propagating the idea that something lies outside the state poses a fundamental challenge to totalitarianism. The activists were treated seriously by all levels of the government not simply because they may discover indisputable evidence that would pinpoint certain corrupt officials. More importantly, their activities send a dangerous message: citizens have the right to engage in activities independent of the state and critical of the state. They suggest that the states identification with the people is not automatic, the power of the state not absolute. As Lefort observes, the logic of the system prevents it from accepting any opinion which may be seen as a sign that social life is external to power, that there is an otherness in the social sphere.26 While the activists and the parents pursued the same goal both groups demanded thorough investigation of the issue the parents posed less threat to the system. They sought help within the existing state apparatus to address their private grievances. They petitioned higher levels of the government to investigate the issue and punish lower-level officials. They framed their struggle as privately motivated: they had lost their children. The activists had no personal connections to the victims, and they acted outside the state, treating the state as an equal, challenging its absolute authority.


Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society, 251-52.


Nian also forms a sharp contrast to the propaganda of the state. Ai Weiweis team consisting of his assistants and volunteers posted the sound work on the internet on May 12, 2010, the second anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. The intention of the project was made clear in the last sentence of the accompanying text: Respect lives; refuse to forget. On the same day, what occupied the official media was not remembrance of those who died in the earthquake but exaltation of the state itself. The state-run Xinhua News Agency issued a long article titled Great Strength to Create Earthly Miracle Revelations from Wenchuan Earthquake Reconstruction, which was carried in most major newspapers and television networks.27 Calling the speedy reconstruction in the earthquake area an earthly miracle, the authors declared that, This earthly miracle was created by the strategic maneuvers, decisive actions, and scientific actions of the Partys Central Committee and the State Council, which galvanized the strength of the entire nation, relied on the enormous advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics, relied on the selfless devotion of all constructers, especially the Party officials, and relied on the independent, indomitable national spirit.28 The core of this complex statement is that the miracle was created by the Partys Central committee and the State Council. A horrible earthquake, possibly worsened by human mistakes, was transformed into an opportunity to validate the Chinese state
27 28

Most newspapers and all television networks are still state-run.

http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2010-05/11/c_1290358.htm, accessed June 21, 2011, translation mine. CCTV is the major television network controlled by the central government. For its broadcast of the Xinhua article, see http://space.tv.cctv.com/video/VIDE1273578986808888, accessed June 21, 2011.


and strengthen the legitimacy of its rule. Inserting itself next to the states glorification campaign, Nian occupied a critical position. Its criticism of the state is not direct, but implied. It does not name the state as the target of its address. In a totalitarian society, criticism of the state cannot be explicit, and does not need to be explicit. Any statement different from the official version, any focus of attention beyond the official domain, is understood as an expression of criticism of the state, by both the state and anyone familiar with the operation of totalitarianism.

Stranger-Relationality Until now no critic, writing in Chinese or English, has analyzed Nian. In fact, of the literature I have surveyed, only an editorial appearing on July 2011s Art Monthly in Australia briefly mentions it. Perhaps this lack of attention is caused by the fact that Nian has only been circulating online among Chinese internet users. Ai has not included this work in any of his exhibitions; he has shown instead sculptural pieces using school backpacks that refer to the students killed in the earthquake.29 Inside China, Ai has a wide following on the internet, but the printed media, including art journals, have shunned Ais work owing to political sensitivity. Ais overall activist-artistic practice has been framed mainly within the rhetoric of rights. Lee Ambrozy, in the introduction to Ai Weiweis Blog, states that
In his 2009 exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, he assembled black and white backpacks into a giant snake crawling on a gallery ceiling. In Munich in 2010, he covered the faade of Haus der Kunst with thousands of backpacks to spell out in Chinese She lived happily in this world for seven years, a statement contained in a letter to him from a mother whose daughter was killed in a collapsed school building.


ideas and themes significant to [Ais] personal philosophy are simplicity, official responsibility, reconciling truth with facts, and a commitment to promoting basic civil rights like freedom of speech.30 This characterization is consonant with Ais own articulation. In an online interview with users of Tianya, a popular website that hosts user-generated forums, Ai explained his intention regarding Citizen Investigation: Our reasoning behind this investigation is to achieve the very minimal level of respect for the deceased. The most fundamental worth and civil right of any person is their right to their name; this name is the smallest, most basic unit that helps us attest to an individuals existence. As citizens, we should shoulder responsibility, ask the questions that should be asked these are necessary steps in social progress. This was our motivation for launching the Citizen Investigation.31 In other interviews, with Ai Xiaoming in China and with Herta Mller in Germany, for example, Ai also described his work as a struggle for individual rights against a totalitarian state.32 Although publicness is essential to Ais strategies, in his writings he has not used public sphere theory to theorize his work.. A few critics, like Lee Ambrozy and Karen Smith, touched on the issue of publicness, but they have only located

Lee Ambrozy, Introduction, in Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiweis Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), xxvii. Ai Weiwei, Zuo ke tian ya (As a Guest on Tianya), posted on his blog on March 24, 2009, http://www.aiweiweiblog.com/2009/03/default.aspx?page=3, accessed Sept. 30, 2011. English translation by Lee Ambrozy, in Ai Weiweis Blog, 211.
32 31 30

See Ai Weiweis blog, http://www.aiweiweiblog.com/2010/08/default.aspx, accessed June 9, 2011.


publicness in Ais avid use of blog and twitter.33 In this section, I will identify an important constituent of publicness in Nian. It goes beyond the notion of individuals rights. It concerns the relations among various parties involved in this participatory project. The kind of relationality in Nian is fundamentally different from that contained in the Revelations article issued by state propaganda. In the Revelations article, individuals are always referred to not only by their names but also by their official positions: Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); Jia Zhengfeng, Baoshan Village Party Secretary; Xu Zhenxi, Commander of the Shandong Unit of the Reconstruction Army. Even an ordinary villager like Wang Quan has a title-like descriptor: member of Unit 4 of Chaping Village of Daguan Township. It is as if the official position were forever printed on the forehead of each and every one. This makes it possible for the reader to quickly locate each individual in the social totality, organized in the form of a giant pyramid, with the Party Central Committee and the State Council occupying the peak and villagers like Wang Quan occupying the bottom. The path between any two persons in China can be traced in this pyramid. (Figure 3.2) For instance, Wang Quan, the villager, is linked to Hu Jintao, the General Secretary via layers of Party Secretaries at

Smith has remarked that Ai has turned his blog into a public space as lively as any church or grand piazza was in High Renaissance Italy. Quoted in Evan Osnos, Its Not Beautiful, New Yorker, May 24, 2010, online at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/05/24/100524fa_fact_osnos, accessed July 18, 2011.


Figure 3.2 All relationships in China are stabilized according to the persons status in the state pyramid.

village, town, county, and provincial levels. Orders are transmitted downward; on a few rare occasions petitions are submitted upward. Relationality in this pyramid is static. The interaction between Xu Zhenxi and Jia Zhengfang is not structured by their identities as citizens with some shared intention, but framed by their positions respectively as the Shandong Unit Commander of the Reconstruction Army and the Party Secretary of Baoshan Village. Since in totalitarianism nothing can exist outside the state, there is no need for any kind of relationality other than that permanently imprinted in this pyramid. It should be no surprise that this hierarchical system frequently resorts to a military vocabulary, as in this sentence: In the process of


rebuilding the homeland, commandos of party members charge in the front; party branch committees become battle forts; they are the bravest supporting force in the reconstruction of the homeland.34 In fact, many features of the totalitarian society consciousness of titles, pyramidal form, a single type of relationality are also characteristics of the military. In Nian three groups of people are present: the students killed in the earthquake whose names are read, those online participants who perform the reading, and the listeners of the sound work. The only information contained in the sound file is the students names. We could look up the names in the list published by Citizen Investigation and obtain some further information. For example, we would learn that Cao Zi Yan, whose name was read first, was eleven years old at the time of death, a student of Grade 5 Class 2 in Xinjian Primary School. Of the second group, the readers, we know nothing except the qualities of their voices. They remain anonymous, devoid of identities. We can only describe them as readers, derived from the form of their activity in this particular artwork. Unlike Party Secretary, reader is not a permanent title; it is associated only with transient participation. Doubtless these readers also live in the Chinese hierarchical system, like those individuals meticulously positioned in the Reflections article, but the readers status in the state bears no significance to their relation to the students. The readers and the students are linked only by the readers act of reading. Most likely the readers did not know the students personally. How should we describe this kind of relationality? It is not

http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2010-05/11/c_1290358_5.htm, accessed June 25, 2011.


kinship, friendship, comradeship, or partnership. Michael Warner has given it a peculiar name: stranger-relationality. With modernity, strangerhood has become a normal feature of social life. In modern society, a stranger is not as marvelously exotic as the wandering outsider would have been to an ancient, medieval, or early-modern town.35 With the help of newspapers, television, and now the internet, even if I do not know you personally, we still share a wide range of common understandings, from pop songs to fashion trends, from recent events to social imaginaries. On the other hand, to recognize someone as a stranger is to admit that there is still something unknown in that person. Strangers make us nervous because we lack any existing framework to structure our relation to them. To be willing to encounter a stranger is to be willing to discover potential agreements as well as differences. Stranger-relationality is never given and always carries risk. In contemporary China, several forces work against the idea of strangerrelationality. As discussed earlier, the totalitarian system does not recognize strangers. A persons position in the state pyramid casts him into a predefined character with stringent requirements of performance. Individuality is dissolved. How two persons should interact, regardless of whether they have known each other for decades or have just met, is determined by their relative positions in the system. During Maos era (1949-1976), the peak of totalitarianism, people wore the same uniform in the same blue, spoke the same language extracted from the same Little Red Book,

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 75.


believed in the same communist dream, worked for the same national plan. The notion of a stranger, someone who could have different preferences and alternative thinking, was eliminated. Those few who dared to be strange were declared the enemies of the people. A persons relation to the state, the so-called organizational relation (in Chinese, zu zhi guan xi), trumped all other types of relations: friendship, religious membership, kinship, and sometimes even marriage.36 After the market reform was initiated in the late 1970s, the state started to allow some freedom and flexibility, mostly in economic affairs. Gradually people gained mobility in their employment and residence. Economic development enabled different lifestyles in the material sense. A large portion of the population urban residents and rural migrant laborers untangled themselves from the fixity of the state pyramid. However, while the state has allowed the market to develop and gain a certain degree of autonomy, it has rejected calls for political reform. Freedom of expression and freedom of association are still largely prohibited. Grassroots efforts to build civil-society organizations are met with constant state suppression. A serious consequence of this one-sided reform is that, while strangerhood is now firmly established in urban consciousness, stranger-relationality is predominantly motivated by interest: would I gain something financially from my interaction with the stranger? This fixation on money was even evident in the reaction to the earthquake in 2008. Let me demonstrate with a personal experience. The day after the earthquake, the
See Vogel, From Friendship to Comradeship: The Change in Personal Relations in Communist China, and Thomas Gold, After Comradeship: Personal Relations in China since the Cultural Revolution, China Quarterly 104 (1985), 657-75.


death toll reached 12,000. I noticed that there was hardly any sign of grief in Beijing. To express my criticism of the lack of mourning both individually and nationally, I took two photographs, one on the newsstand in my neighborhood and the other on the flag pole in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of the country. I digitally turned the color images into black and white, added a banner in the newsstand image, and lowered the flag to half-mast in the Tiananmen image. (Figure 3.3) I emailed these photographs to my friends. One of them, an editor of a newspaper, posted the images on her popular blog. Many readers responded to the images furiously, mostly for one reason, as demonstrated by this comment, Is formalism [meaning obsessive concern with form instead of substance] really necessary? One yuan can move peoples hearts far more than a banner! 37 Warner notes that one of the defining elements of modernity is normative stranger sociability, of a kind that seems to arise only when the social imaginary is defined not by kinship (as in non-state societies) or by place (as in state societies until modernity) but by discourse.38 If people do not have freedom of expression and cannot participate in discourse freely, the most important means of modern sociability become unavailable to them. What we are left with is social apathy, each individual becoming an isolated monad, withdrawn into

Comment posted on May 16, 2008 by anonymous reader, http://theother.blog.sina.com.cn/comment.php?aid=68&page=1, accessed May 21, 2008. Yuan is the Chinese currency unit.
38 37

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 299.


Figure 3.3 Zheng Bo, Untitled, 2008, digital photographs, dimensions variable.

himself, concerned with only his personal gains.39 Marxs prediction of the capitalist nightmare becomes reality in Chinas state capitalism. While loosening its administrative control over citizens, the state increasingly relies on patriotism to repress difference and maintain social cohesion. In other words, it tries to reduce strangers to members of a national community. The central myth propagated by the state is that only as a unified people will we be able to regain Chinas lost glory in the world of nations. The trauma and vulnerability caused by the

Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, quoted in Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society, 245.


earthquake in 2008 created a precious opportunity for the state to strengthen its nationalistic agenda. State media frequently portrayed the disaster as a test of the strength of the Chinese people.40 As discussed earlier, the Reflections article issued by Xinhua News attributed the success of the reconstruction program to the the independent, indomitable national spirit. When I expressed criticism of the lack of mourning in the capital, many people took my images as an attack on the nation and the people as a whole. As Jean-Luc Nancy argues, the thought of community or the desire for it might well be nothing other than a belated invention that tried to respond to the harsh reality of modern experience, of which stranger-relationality is surely a part.41 The state still cannot comprehend the notion of stranger-relationality. The following example was taken from the diary of Keke, a volunteer who participated in Citizen Investigation. While she and two other volunteers were collecting information in Sichuan, they were taken to a police station and questioned: The fist question was, what is the relationship between you and Ai Weiwei. I said, just a human-to-human relationship. Plain-clothes A said, you, please be more serious. I said OK.42

See for example, Wan zhong yi xin, tuo qi sheng ming de xi wang xian gei ying yong kang ji Wenchuan di zhen zai hai de Zhongguo ren min (Ten Thousand People with One Mind, Holding up the Hope of Life To the Courageous Chinese People Fighting against the Wenchuan Earthquake Disaster), Xinhua Net, May 25, 2008, http://news.xinhuanet.com/newscenter/200805/25/content_8252092.htm, accessed April 27, 2012. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 10. Kekes diary on June 20, 2009, http://www.aiweiweiblog.com/2009/06/default.aspx, accessed June 15, 2011.
42 41 40


The plain-clothes policeman considered a human-to-human relationship something akin to a joke. It seems that to him interpersonal relationships have to be named, somewhat permanent, and probably framed by social institutions. Perhaps in his logic, since Ai Weiwei and the volunteers were engaged in a project critical of the state, they must have established an organization against the state. While the state cannot tolerate transient relationships within it and have a constant desire to stabilize them into memberships, it also projects its own image into the civil society and expects activities in the civil society to be centrally organized as well. In Nian, stranger-relationality was established through the act of mourning. Traditionally mourning occurs only among family members and friends. It depends on a preexisting kinship or friendship and marks the end of such a relationship. Socalled public mourning is always orchestrated by the state, mostly for political leaders and state-recognized heroes, like soldiers killed in combat. After the earthquake in 2008, the government for the first time set a date for national mourning for civilians killed in the disaster. Nian initiated a different kind of mourning: it was not based on private attachment, not organized by the state, and not for a collective body. Connections were established between individual readers and individual students. By recognizing the loss, mourning marked the beginning of a relationship rather than the end of it. Though the resulting work can be understood as a commemoration of the entire group of killed students, the specificity of each act of mourning is sustained through the identification of the students name and the texture of the readers voice. Nian constitutes public mourning also in the sense that the readers engaged in making


their expressions public. It was different from a parent reading his childs name at home. The readers understood that their recordings would be posted on the internet, to be listened to by indefinite strangers. The act of addressing an unknown public of listeners carried a higher level of risk than private mourning.43 Commemoration-as-protest is a long established strategy of popular struggle in China. However, historically, people veiled their protest in mourning well-liked state leaders like Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang.44 Nian is unprecedented in that a group of ordinary people mourned for another group of ordinary people. They no longer sought legitimacy by aligning themselves with benign political figures. In other words, they went outside the state to voice their criticism. Previously mourning, in itself, did not pose a threat to the state; it was the political demand coupled with the act of mourning that challenged the status quo. The state would probably have welcomed the mourning of Hu Yaobang in 1989 if students had not organized subsequent demonstrations and demanded freedom and democracy. In Nian, the act of mourning itself is already a threat to the state because stranger-relationality is fundamentally incompatible with the states inherent need to stabilize social relations. In Nian, stranger-relationality characterizes two other groups of relations in addition to those between the readers and the students. First, the relationship between the readers and Ai Weiweis team, which served as the projects initiator, coordinator,
43 44

Going public always involves taking risk. See Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 120.

The large-scale mourning of Zhou Enlai in spring 1976 provided an opportunity for many people to express their disillusionment with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The mourning of Hu Yaobang in 1989 marked the beginning of the student movement later named the June Fourth Movement.


and editor, was also based on the readers participation alone, without any external structural support. This relationship began when a reader paid attention to the twitter message sent out by Ai (and forwarded by others). It was extended when the reader made her recording and sent it to Ais team. It ended when she received an email from Ais team, informing her of the completion of the sound work and thanking her for her participation. She did not join any membership or receive any reward. The relationship was transient and situated within the project only. Second, when someone listens to the sound work, she also enters into a relationship with strangers: the students, the readers, and Ais team. She comes into contact with them without knowing them. This relationship too lacks permanence or institutional basis. The listener can choose to end the relationship at any time by clicking the stop button. No matter how many times she listens to the mp3 file, she does not become a friend, a relative, or a colleague. She remains a stranger to those in the work as they do to her, though a connection has been established by her mere act of listening. In the Chinese context, stranger-relationality might be called citizenrelationality. As discussed earlier, in the modern world strangers are not completely strange to one another because they share a wide range of common understandings. For activists, the notion of a citizen endowed with rights should be one of the fundamental principles underlying this shared horizon. Compared to strangerrelationality, citizen-relationality makes it even clearer that this is something between persons with equal rights, not determined by their status, class, gender, or other differential criteria. Citizen-relationality can only be formed outside the totalitarian


state, thus constituting a challenge to totalitarianism. Warner states that a public is a relation among strangers.45 We might rephrase this statement as a public is a relation among citizens. Interestingly citizen is translated as gong min, which literally means public person. The link between the notion of publicness and the concept of citizen is already present in Chinese on the etymological level. Both Citizen Investigation and Nian focused on the issue of student deaths in the Sichuan earthquake, advancing a counter-discourse antagonistic to the propaganda of the state, which aimed to erase the tragic issue from public memory and to direct public attention to the accomplishment of the state in the rescue and reconstruction efforts. The difference between these two projects is not simply that one was activism while the other was framed as art, but that, compared to Citizen Investigation, Nian took on a more counterpublic form. The goal of Citizen Investigation was to collect accurate information. The process of investigation was filled with emotions sadness in interviews with parents, anger in confrontations with police but the final output was presented in a form that excluded these emotions and stressed objectivity. Names of the killed students were sent out in twitter messages; an excel file containing additional information (gender, birthdate, age at death, school, and class) was circulated online. Nian, on the other hand, was produced in the medium of sound rather than text. Affective dimensions of the human voice were captured and preserved. The concatenation of over five thousand individual recordings into a linear sound work defied any statistical analysis that was afforded by the tabular form of the

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 74.


excel file produced in Citizen Investigation. In Nian, mourning, a ritual practice with a history prior to modernity, constituted the main strategy. At the same time, the internet served as the primary platform for communication, from the initial announcement made by Ai Weiwei, to the transmission of recordings from participants to Ais team, to the circulation of the resulting sound work. Warner argues that the oppositional character of a counterpublic is not a function of its content alone. 46 Counterpublics not only invent and circulate counterdiscourses, as observed by Nancy Fraser,47 but also mobilize different speech genres, modes of address, and mediums of communication. In the bourgeois public sphere, rational-critical debate is considered the most appropriate form of discourse because it enables the conception that expressions are propositionally

summarizable.48 It allows opinions to be transposed from local acts of reading or scenes of speech to a general horizon of public opinion, acquiring a volitional agency to deliberate and then decide.49 In this process, the poetic or textual qualities of any utterance are disregarded in favor of sense.50 Counterpublics often cannot afford this kind of abstraction. Imagine, in the case of Nian, if we were to strip away all of the poetic-expressive qualities of personal recordings, the sound work would be reduced to nothing but a cold, accentless narration of the students names. It
46 47

Ibid., 118.

Nancy Fraser, Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy, in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 123.
48 49 50

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 115. Ibid., 115-16. Ibid., 115.


would lose its oppositional flavor, becoming identical to a standard broadcast of the state, just as the aforementioned Reflections article was delivered by CCTVs robot-like anchors.51 The sound work cannot be summarized, re-stated, or transferred to another medium such as printed text. We tend to treat the voice as if it were only the material support of bringing about meaning and that the voice itself is like the Wittgensteinian ladder to be discarded when we have successfully climbed to the top that is, when we have made our ascent to the peak of meaning.52 Yet it is clear that the significance of Nian lies in the materiality of the voice. The voice is not a ladder that we can discard because it is both the ladder and the goal. As Mladen Dolar notes, voices are the very texture of the social, as well as the intimate kernel of subjectivity.53 As each name is read, we can perceive the distinct quality of the readers voice, its accent, pace, timbre, pitch, resonance, cadence, and so on.54 The voice is like a fingerprint, instantly recognizable and identifiable. 55 Thus we understand each reading as something personal. In Aristotles words, voice is a sound of what has soul in it.56 The linkage between voice and soul also points to a traditional ritual in China. Jiaohun, calling out the name of a deceased person or a

CCTV stands for China Central Television, the network directly controlled by the central government. Adopting the standard format of CCTV News could be perceived as satirical if the form is made salient, as in Zhang Peilis 1992 video work, Water: Standard Version from the Ci Hai Dictionary (Shui: ci hai biao zhun ban), for example.
52 53 54 55 56 51

Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 15. Ibid., 14. See the beginning of this chapter for a description of the sound file. Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, 22. Aristotle, De anima, 420b 6, quoted in ibid., 24.


sick child so that her lost soul could return to the body, has long been practiced in many parts of China.57 While the form of the work alludes to Chinese traditional culture, its production relied on recent technologies. The internet as a platform was strategic for the creation of Nian because, among existing media, it offers the highest possibility to evade state censorship, to engage strangers, and to mobilize a critical discourse. Furthermore, unlike traditional media, the internet allows different formats text, image, sound, video to be carried on the same platform. In particular, it has greatly reduced the cost of transmitting and circulating non-textual materials, thus benefitting counterpublic forms of expression. The networks distributed architecture is essentially antithetical to the hierarchical organization of the state. In most situations information is spread laterally, from a user to his social network, rather than vertically, from a higher level official to his subordinates.58 Ais team could receive over two thousand recordings within a week because people re-posted Ais original message in different websites, greatly extending its reach. Once the final work was posted online, it was quickly duplicated via peer-to-peer download. The replication of the file ensured its accessibility against impending state censorship. I want to emphasize that I do not mean to suggest that counterpublic forms of expression are necessarily better than public forms of discourse-making. In fact Nian was made possible by the very output of Citizen Investigation. The two projects
See Jiang Shaoyun, Zhongguo li su mi xin (Chinas Ritual Practices and Superstitions) (Tianjin: Bo hai wan chu ban gong si, 1989), 166.
58 57

For a description of the internet situation in China, see Hu Yong, The Rising Cacophony.


complemented each other and strengthened the cause. In recent years critical thinkers in the West have devoted much attention to the antagonism between publics and counterpublics. In China, the situation is different, since we do not yet have an established bourgeois public order. The totalitarian state remains the hegemonic power, against which activists often integrate public and counterpublic forms in formulating a counter-discourse. I will discuss this integration further in the chapters that follow.

Nian was not the only art project that addressed the issue of student deaths. Next I will compare it to anther art project, Hu Huishan Memorial, to explain how Nian differed from the more conventional model of public art. Hu Huishan Memorial was built by the studio of architect Liu Jiakun, a wellknown designer in Sichuan, in spring 2009.59 Situated in the compound of Jianchuan Museum Cluster,60 surrounded by trees, the Memorial is a small brick house in the shape of a single tent, similar to those used for temporary shelter after the earthquake. It was dedicated to Hu Huishan, a student killed at Juyuan Middle School, who had dreamed to be a writer.61 Liu Jiakun met Hus parents when he went to Juyuan two weeks after the earthquake and was deeply moved by their sorrow and love for their
For complete project data, see http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_49e53b730100ebvm.html, accessed July 5, 2011. Jianchuan Museum Cluster is a large private museum established by real estate developer Fan Jianchuan in Anren, Sichuan. Liu Jiakuns blog, quoted by architectural critic Zhu Tao, at http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/ blog_49e53b730100ebvm.html, accessed June 30, 2011.
61 60 59


Figure 3.4 Liu Jiakun, Hu Huishan Memorial, 2009, exterior.

Figure 3.5 Liu Jiakun, Hu Huishan Memorial, 2009, interior.


daughter.62 Lius proposal to build a small memorial for Hu was received by the parents with gratitude. The finished structure contains a simple room with the interior painted pink, Hus favorite color. A few items that she had used a book bag, two badminton rackets, some notebooks along with her photographs and various certificates were displayed on the wall. The room is well lit, with a skylight bringing in natural light. The project has been widely reported in the Chinese media. Liu received a nomination for a special award in the 2010 China Architecture Media Awards. However, the local government has forbidden the memorial to be open to the public. Hu Huishan Memorial conforms to the conventional model of public art. Materialized in a sculptural form, placed in an open space, it communicates with the public in a visual language that can be easily understood. The memorial serves as a sign pointing to Hus life, which in turn stands in for the entire issue of student deaths in the earthquake. Though images of the project can be reproduced, the physical work remains a unique object with a known author. Its perceived publicness is mostly an effect of its intention and exhibition. From the moment of its conception, the work has been endowed with a public intention. The subject matter is associated with an issue of public concern rather than private contemplation. The work is meant to be exhibited publicly, to indefinite strangers rather than private collectors.

Liu wrote in his blog, As I recall now, it was Liu Lis [the mother] detailed thoughtfulness in keeping her daughters umbilical cord and deciduous teeth as well as Hu Mings [the father] toughness and pride that moved me. Ibid., translation by Lin Fanyu.


While Hu Huishan Memorial foregrounds the individual relationship between Liu Jiakun and Hu Huishan, Nian encapsulates thousands of stranger relationships between the readers and the students. It is difficult to determine Nians authorship. Ai Weiwei initiated the project, his team took charge of coordination and editing, and about two thousand people, who remain anonymous, sent in their recordings. One might argue that Hu Huishan Memorial too was not created by Liu Jiakun alone. Three architects working in Lius studio, a structural engineer, and a number of construction workers were involved in the process. However, there is one critical distinction. In the Memorial project, only Lius participation was motivated by stranger sociability. Other peoples involvement was due to employment or contractual relationships. Their primary identities were as professionals with certified skills rather than citizens with rights. In contrast, in Nian, stranger-relationality underlay Ais creative effort as well as the anonymous readers participation. Even if we manage to find out those participants names and professions, we would still perceive them, within the context of Nian, primarily as citizens who mourned for strangers as a way to express their critical concerns. Hu Huishan Memorial is a single expression by a single citizen. Nian, on the other hand, is a collection of multiple expressions by multiple citizens. Warner points out that not texts themselves create publics, but the concatenation of texts through time.63 He adds, between discourse that comes before and the discourse that comes after one must postulate some kind of link. And the link has a social character; it is

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 90.


not mere consecutiveness in time but an interaction.64 The meaning of Hu Huishan Memorial lies in its relation to the entire discourse concerning the issue of student deaths in the earthquake. Imagine someone visiting the memorial but learning nothing else on the issue both before and after the visit. He would not be able to comprehend the critical position taken by the author; most likely he would perceive the work as an open display of personal attachment, devoid of any further meaning. We can grasp the critical intention of Hu Huishan Memorial only if we recognize its association with a stream of arguments the positions taken by the government, the petitions made by the parents, the investigations conducted by the activists and its relative position to these arguments. Our interpretation of Nian also depends on our awareness of other arguments. However, concatenation is already present within Nian and adds an important dimension to our experience of the work. When we hear the first students name read aloud, Cao Zi Yan, we understand the readers act as an expression of mourning. When we hear the second name, Du Xin, we understand this event as an expression of mourning and as an expression of agreement, the second reader concurring with the first one. The sense of endorsement builds up as more names are read by more individuals. This is achieved through linear editing. Both space and time are compressed to assemble distributed recordings into a chain of linked events, with regularized rhythm. The short intervals of silence between the recordings, though seemingly insignificant, signal the beginning and end of each utterance, allowing us



Figure 3.6 Nian concatenates multiple stranger relations into one work.


to perceive concatenation. The aggregation of a large number of like-minded acts, coupled with the fact that the readers are anonymous and apparently belong to no particular interest group, transposes Nian into something close to an expression of a public. A public is a group of individuals linked only by their transient participation in a discursive arena. Both scale and strangerhood are important attributes of a public; they are indicators of its openness. In Nian, the magnitude of participation made it unlikely that the participants were united by any particular self-interest. Their anonymity ensured that they remain strangers to one another and to any potential audience who join the public temporarily by listening to the sound work. In Nian, the role of the artist was fundamentally different from that of the artist in a more conventional work like Hu Huishan Memorial. In Memorial, the primary task of the artist was to craft a powerful object to express his own critical response to the issue. In Nian, the artist concerned himself with creating not an object to represent his individual opinion, but a discursive space for other people strangers, citizens to make their expressions public. Some participants may already have formed their judgment on the issue of student deaths before their involvement; what the project enabled them to accomplish was the transformation of private opinions into public expressions. Risk is always involved in making things public. The artist had to calibrate the level of risk to achieve criticality on one hand, and to ensure safety for the participants on the other. He did not devote himself to documenting his personal encounter with strangers but to building a platform for other citizens to forge


relationships with strangers, and furthermore, to make such stranger-relationality visible. Nian constituted a challenge to the state not only because it refused to forget about the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake; it mounted this disagreement by creating a public of strangers to mourn for the students. It was not a single artists defiant gesture, but a concatenation of discrete oral performances that foregrounded stranger-relationality. Its publicness is central to its contestation of state power.

In many ways, Nian is similar to the American project the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Both used public mourning as a strategy to protest against silence and suppression. Both centered on making public the names of the victims whose deaths were caused at least partially by government inaction. Initiated by Cleve Jones in San Francisco in 1985, the NAMES Project achieved a landmark breakthrough in 1987 when 1,920 handcrafted panels, each three-by-six-feet, were displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C. during the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. In Charles Morris words, the event constituted an extraordinary rhetorical turn, a reversal and transformation of the meaning of AIDS in the US.65 The project is ongoing. There are now more than 46,000 panels bearing more than 91,000 names.66
65 66

Charles Morris, Introduction: The Mourning After, Rhetoric & Public Affairs 10.4 (2007), 560.

For more details of the NAMES project, please see Cleve Jones, Stitching a Revolution: The Making of an Activist (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000) and Charles Morris, ed., Remembering the AIDS Quilt (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011).


In addition to visual display, the NAMES project also has an oral component. Whenever the AIDS Quilt is shown, the names of those individuals whose lives the panels pay tribute to are also read aloud in a ritualized ceremony. According to Cleve Jones, this is what happened on Oct. 11, 1987 when the Quilt was unfolded on the National Mall: As dawn became day, thousands of people lined the perimeter and I stepped slowly to the podium in the shadow of the Jefferson Memorial. I have almost no memory of walking to the podium, no words to describe the emotion flooding my heart as I read those twenty-four names, each so precious and containing in a few syllables entire lives. I began with Marvin Feldman. It was extremely difficult to speak slowly and deliberately, pausing between each name, and my voice began breaking down at the end of the list. Other readers were Art Agnos, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Blake, Lily Tomlin, Harvey Fierstein, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, ended his list of names with a tribute to my dear friend and colleague Michael Bennett.67 In this description we notice an important difference between the NAMES project and Nian. Those who went up to the podium to read the names in 1987 were prominent figures: activists, artists, and politicians. Their participation in the reading event was arranged by the organizer. Their connection to those being mourned cannot be characterized as stranger-relationality. Instead, emphasis was placed on personal relations, like the friendships between Jones and Feldman (Jones called him my closest friend in the world68), Papp and Bennett. In this sense, the NAMES project approaches publicness via a different route. As Peter Hawkins observed, by over
67 68

Cleve Jones, The First Displays: D.C. and S.F., 1987, Rhetoric & Public Affairs 10.4 (2007), 588.

Cleve Jones, Power of the AIDS Quilt: Comforting, Consoling and Convincing, San Francisco Chronicle, June 1, 2001.


dramatizing intimacy, by taking small gestures of domestic grief and multiplying them into the thousands, the Quilt makes a spectacular demonstration of the feminist dictum: the personal is political.69 This is most evident in the making of the panels. As Carole Blair and Michel Neil note, A remarkably high percentage of the AIDS Quilt panels assert the identity of their subjects in terms of personal, rather than public, relationships. Quilt panel makers often sign the panels. Many mark the individual by familial or social role lover, father, son, brother, child, friend, husband, wife, sister. Some bear messages to the deceased, such as I didnt get a chance to say goodbye.70 Douglas Crimp has pointed out that the political efficacy of the NAMES project lies in its integration of the private mourning ritual of a person or group involved in making a panel and the collective mourning ritual of visiting the quilt to share that experience with others.71 When describing his own response to the AIDS Quilt, Crimp emphasized relations other than close friendships: Seeing a panel bearing the name of Michel Foucault, who was an intellectual idol, whose writings I had depended on for much of my own work, and who had agreed to be a reader of my dissertation less than a year before he died seeing that panel had less emotional impact on me than seeing, every now and then, a name I recognized as that of someone Id only dimly known, or known about. It was those moments that most brought home to me the full extent of my own loss not my good friends Craig, Dan, Hector, Ren, Robert , whose loss I had directly experienced, but others who, because I didnt know

Peter Hawkins, Naming Names: The Art of Memory and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, Critical Inquiry 19 (1993), 777.

Carole Blair and Michel Neil, The AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Contemporary Culture of Public Commemoration, Rhetoric & Public Affairs 10.4 (2007), 608-09.


Douglas Crimp, The Spectacle of Mourning, in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 197.


them well enough, I hadnt event known had died. In other words, I had lost not just the center of my world but its periphery, too. Reflecting on these feelings, I remember at the time saying to friends that it was the symbols of the ordinariness of human lives that made the quilt such a profoundly moving experience.72 Crimps account of his experience focuses on the relations between himself and those deceased, not the relations between the panel makers and those being mourned. In contrast, when I described my response to Nian at the beginning of this chapter, I paid as much attention to the names of the students killed in the earthquake as to those anonymous participants who read the names. This distinction again points to the unusual relationality constructed in Nian. The relations between the readers and the students were not private relations of lovers, friends, or families, but public relations of strangers as citizens. While the NAMES Project made private mourning public, Nian emphasized public mourning throughout. In this sense, Nian stands in opposition to some recent American projects, like the Oklahoma City National Memorial, that have made public mourning more private. At the Oklahoma City National Memorial, only family members are allowed access to the area called the field of chairs, where each of the 168 stone and glass chairs names one of the individuals killed in the bomb blast.73 This design privileges familial relations over all other kinds of relations, reinforcing an archaic notion of the private, and

72 73

Ibid., 195.

Blair and Neil, The AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Contemporary Culture of Public Commemoration, 618.


prioritizimg the private over the public. In Blair and Neils words, this is a rather troubling development.

On April 3, 2011 Ai Weiwei, along with four of his staff, was detained by the Chinese government. Although the state claimed that Ai was being investigated for economic crimes, it was clear to most observers that he was yet another victim of the crackdown on activists. Since early spring dozens of civil rights lawyers, dissident writers, and performance artists have been arrested throughout China. This campaign seemed to be triggered by the democratic protests in the Middle East and the increasing domestic discontent caused by steep inflation. Ais arrest attracted global attention; foreign politicians as well as artists petitioned vigorously for his freedom. Ai was finally released on June 22. It is difficult to pin down any specific project that precipitated Ais detention. He has worked on many sensitive issues, from cultural censorship to AIDS patients rights. Ai has always operated within the current legal framework, using laws instituted by the state to counter the states own corruption. His detention is a clear indication that the state considers his critical, public endeavors a serious threat. He has not only demanded his own rights as a citizen, but also urged others to do the same. It is projects like Citizen Investigation and Nian that worry the state because they help to build relations, however transient, among those who act as citizens.


Chapter 4 Visibility On February 1, 2012, Wukan, a small village in Guangdong province, captured many peoples attention on Chinese social media. Over five thousand villagers went to the local primary school to cast their ballots. They had kicked out the villages former party secretary, who was deemed corrupt by many but managed to hold on to his power for decades, and initiated a self-organized election. This election was the result of an extended battle that the villagers fought with the state. Over a period of six months, they staged protests, fended off police interventions, and leveraged foreign media and Chinese social media to broadcast their cause. The state finally gave in to their request after an eleven-day confrontation between the villagers and armed police in December. Yang Semao, one of the protest leaders, told the New York Times, Im proud to see the passion for democracy among my fellow villagers. From now on, its unlikely that anyone will dare rig an election in Wukan.1 Pictures of the Wukan election circulated widely on the internet. They instantly reminded me of the videos from the Village Self-Governance Documentary Project, organized by Wu Wenguang (born 1956) in late 2005. 2 Those videos introduced me to scenes of a village election for the first time. Wus project

Andrew Jacobs, Residents Vote in Chinese Village at Center of Protest, New York Times, Feb. 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/world/asia/residents-vote-in-chinese-village-at-center-ofprotest.html, accessed Feb. 2, 2012.
2 1

The projects name in Chinese is Cun min zi zhi ying xiang ji hua.


Figure 4.1 Pictures of Wukan election circulated on weibo.com, a popular Chinese twitter site, in February 2012.

fascinated me because, unlike most public art projects of the past decade, it focused on rural China, where over half of the Chinese population still reside today. How does the rural figure in the pursuit of publicness? How should we understand the Village Documentary project, framed as art, in relation to political activities often considered more real, like the protest and election in Wukan? This chapter is organized into four sections. First, I will describe how the Village Documentary project was developed, and provide a brief account of the


Figure 4.2 Video stills from the Village Self-Governance Documentary Project.

history of village elections in China. Next, I will describe the videos and argue that their bounded clarity constitutes a form of counterpublic expression. I will then analyze how the digital video (DV) camera introduced visibility to village life, and how those who gained access to the DV camera were affected by it. Lastly, I will


explore how these videos were screened and distributed, in order to highlight the importance of circulation in the pursuit of publicness.

Village Self-Governance In 2005, the EU-China Training Program on Village Governance, a joint project established in 2001 by the European Union and the Chinese Government, approached documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang and asked him to produce a feature-length documentary on the topic of village self-governance.3 Wu proposed an alternative plan: he would help ten villagers to document their own village politics. Wu told a reporter, After all, its better to have ten more people making documentaries than doing it alone.4 In September, Wu placed a call for proposals in several newspapers, including the popular Southern Weekly. Out of the forty applications received, Wu selected ten, taking into consideration proposal quality as well as gender, age, and geographical distribution. The ten villagers, two of them women, were living in nine different provinces, and their ages ranged from 24 to 59. In early November, they traveled by train from their villages to Beijing and attended a three-day workshop at Caochangdi Workstation, Wus studio and home. They learned how to operate a basic DV camera and discussed their ideas with Wu. At the end of
The EU-China Training Programme on Village Governance ran from 2001 to 2006. Under this program, over 280 workshops were conducted on village elections and transparency in village affairs. See Democracy Program a Success in Rural Areas, China Daily, Apr. 6, 2006, http://www.china.org.cn/english/government/164775.htm, accessed Feb. 18, 2012. Zhou Wenhan, DV jing tou dui zhun cun min zi zhi jin cheng (DV Lens Focusing on the Progress of Villager Self-Governance), Xin jing bao (The Beijing News), Sept. 7, 2005, http://news.sina.com.cn/o/2005-09-07/09576882668s.shtml, accessed Mar. 17, 2009. Translation mine.
4 3


Figure 4.3 The ten villagers learning to shoot video at Caochangdi Workstation in November 2005.

the workshop, each villager received a DV camera, a tripod, and ten blank video tapes. They returned home and shot footage for two weeks. They then went back to Caochangdi Workstation, and Wus assistants sat down with them to edit the materials into ten short videos, each about ten minutes in length. The project generated immediate interest both in China and abroad. The compilation of the videos was accepted to several international film festivals. Much to Wus surprise, two programs of China Central Television (CCTV), the monolithic network run by the state, also decided to broadcast the videos in spring 2006.5

The videos were shown in Fa zhi shi jie (Legal Vision) on Channel 12 and Guo shi DV (National DV) on the Education Channel (Zhongguo jiao yu dian shi tai).


The project did not end there. Four of the ten villagers Shao Yuzhen, Zhang Huancai, Wang Wei, and Jia Zhitan have continued to use their DV cameras to capture village life, and have learned to edit their own videos at Caochangdi Workstation. Each has produced one feature-length documentary every year since 2007. My analysis in this chapter will primarily concern the ten short videos produced in 2005. They have circulated far more widely than the subsequent featurelength documentaries. Unlike the latter, which are credited to individual authors, the ten short videos have always been shown together as the output of a collective project. Furthermore, for our purpose of understanding the projects publicness, the villagers initial taking up of video-making is more critical than their ongoing engagement. The Village Documentary project was not the first participatory image-making project in China. In 1991, supported by the Ford Foundation, the organizers of PhotoVoice gave cameras to 53 women in Yunnan province to document their own lives so that their stories could influence the local governments procreation and health policy. In 2001, as part of the Sustainable Future Scenarios For Chinese Settlements project, villagers in Jiangjiazhai (Shaanxi province), Beisuzha (Hebei province), and Wanyuan (Yunnan province) learned DV skills and produced three documentaries dealing with a wide range of topics, including womens rights and sustainable growth. Several other projects, mostly in the area of environmental


protection, also involved media-based participation.

What sets the Village

Documentary project apart is its direct engagement with village democracy, a topic considered more sensitive than environmental protection in China. Furthermore, framed as an artwork, it has generated a far wider media reach than previous projects, which were usually framed as research or NGO activities. The Village Documentary project was scheduled to coincide with nationwide village elections in 2005. In 1980, 85 families in Hezhai village in Guangxi province got together and decided to elect their own local village council by ballot. This was an unprecedented move. Two years later, the central government decided to roll out direct elections at the village level, the lowest administrative tier of the Chinese state. In 1987 the National Peoples Congress passed the Provisional Organic Law on Village Committees and made village elections mandatory every three years. The law was refined in 1998. By 2005 almost all village councils in China were elected directly by villagers. Researchers views on the effectiveness of village elections range from celebratory to highly critical. For example, sociologist Bruce Gilley believes that village governments in China constitute a democratic enclave. He writes, village elections are institutionalized, democratic, irreversible, and at odds with the norms of the regime itself concerning direct competitive elections.7 Political scientist Tan Qingshan disagrees. In his opinion, village elections have remained largely
See Han Hong, Can yu shi ying xiang yu can yu shi chuan bo (Participatory Image-Making and Participatory Communication), Xin wen da xue (Journalism Quarterly) 2007.4, http://academic.mediachina.net/article.php?id=5464, accessed Aug. 6, 2009.
7 6

Bruce Gilley, Democratic Enclaves in Authoritarian Regimes, Democratization 17.3 (2010), 391.


irrelevant to effective village self-government, due to the dysfunctional village governance structure, township re-assertiveness over villages, and the village dual leadership factor.8 Part of the difficulty in forming a comprehensive view of village governance is the sheer scale of the problem. There are more than 620,000 villages in China and they vary greatly in size, kinship structure, economic development level, literacy, political tradition, and so on. In Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections, He Baogang, a leading scholar in this field, writes, Rural China is often the subject of incongruous and paradoxical descriptions that range from peasant rebellions, daily resistance, rampant corruption, social disorder, kinship fighting, dark force in village politics, and extreme poverty, through rapid economic development, increasing wealth and prosperity, and surprisingly, deepening democratization processes. Each depiction contains a partial truth individually or even collectively.9 Although the ten villages covered by the Village Documentary project amount to only a tiny fraction of Chinas countryside, the stories shown in the videos reveal the kind of complexity described by He. The videos topics range from a village meeting on the distribution of a poverty relief fund to an election nullified because of unbalanced representation, from a portrait of a village head self-branded as a rebel to the

resolution of a dispute on the ownership of a quarry. The videos are not in-depth case studies conducted by sociologists or political scientists. And they do not encompass the whole range of village politics. They contain no organized protests, like what

Tan Qingshan, Why Village Election Has Not Much Improved Village Governance, Journal of Chinese Political Science 15 (2010), 153. He Baogang, Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 1.


occurred in Wukan recently, nor experiments of deliberative democracy, like the participatory budget meetings conducted in Zeguo in Zhejiang province. 10 They provide only a glimpse of Chinese rural politics. The significance of the project lies as much in its demonstrative value that the introduction of visibility is crucial to empowering villagers as in the actual stories that the ten authors managed to capture and tell.

Partition of Visibility In early May 2006, the villagers videos were screened at Caochangdi Workstation and an award ceremony was held. According to one Chinese reporter, A foreigner excitedly asked the villagers, through this project, what has changed in the way they think. The reply from the granny who got the first prize [Shao Yuzhen] was excellent: Not much difference; the DV camera is like my eyes. Another peasant brothers answer was even better: My status in the village has clearly gone up; folks think I have become a reporter.11 How should we understand Shaos claim that the DV camera is like her eyes? And what does it mean that the other villager has acquired the status of a reporter? In this section, besides articulating the change that the project has brought to the lives of the villagers in the ten participating villages, I will also analyze how the project affected village politics and urban viewers like me. Central to my discussion is the notion of
See Sean Gray, Wenling City Deliberative Poll, 2009, http://participedia.net/cases/wenling-citydeliberative-poll, accessed Feb. 20, 2012. Wu Dongyan, Ou meng bang Zhongguo cun min zi zhi (EU Helps Chinas Village SelfGovernance), May 30, 2006, ftchinese.com, assessed from http://www.chinareform.org.cn/cirdbbs/dispbbs.asp?boardid=6&id=94242, Feb. 15, 2012.
11 10


visibility, understood visually as presentation and reception, and politically as representation and recognition. I will rely on Jacques Rancires theorization of subjectivity formation what he terms subjectification and identify the link between this concept and the notion of reflexivity in Warners theorization of publics. In his 1996 article, Ten Theses on Politics, Rancire begins with the following definition of politics: Thesis 1. Politics is not the exercise of power. Politics ought to be defined on its own terms, as a mode of acting put into practice by a specific kind of subject and deriving from a particular form of reason. It is the political relationship that allows one to think the possibility of a political subject(ivity), not the other way around.12 In other words, politics is the struggle for recognition as a political subject. The exercise of power the counting of actual groups defined by differences in birth, by different functions, locations, and interests does not constitute politics but belongs to what Rancire calls the police. 13 Politics, according to this formulation, is motivated by the fundamental principle of equality, specifically opposed to the police.14 In his differentiation of politics from the police, we can already locate a connection to the notion of publicness. As Warner notes, the existence of a public is contingent on its members activity, however notional or compromised, and not on its members categorical classification, objectively determined position in social

Jacques Rancire, Ten Theses on Politics, Theory & Event 5.3 (2001), http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/theory_and_event/v005/5.3ranciere.html, accessed Feb. 21, 2012. Ibid. Ibid.

13 14


structure, or material existence.15 Publics are political precisely because of their lack of institutional permanence and disregard for status. Furthermore, since publics lie outside the field of the police, they do not connect to the exercise of power directly. In Thesis 7, Rancire states that the police is primarily a partition of the sensible, a partition between what is visible and what is not, of what can be heard from the inaudible.16 The partition can be realized by brute force, as illustrated by the police command, Move along! There is nothing to see here! But more often, it is ingrained in cultural practices that determine the boundaries of meaning, rationality, and ethics. As Oliver Davis notes, to say that the sans-part [those without a share in the political community] are excluded from the socio-political order is that when they try to voice their grievances there is a tendency for their speech not to be heard as rational argument. This does not just mean that these complaints are understood then disregarded, but rather, in a more fundamental sense, that they are not heard as meaning-bearing language.17 Politics, in its opposition to the police, is first and foremost an intervention upon the visible and the sayable.18 Subjectification is precisely the process in which those yet to be counted as political subjects struggle to become visible and audible in other words, to become recognized. This is linked to two aspects of publicness: access to the public sphere, and a normative mode of public speech. By insisting that public speech adhere to the rational-critical form, the bourgeois public sphere has been able
15 16 17 18

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 88. Jacques Rancire, Ten Theses on Politics. Oliver Davis, Jacques Rancire (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), 90-91. Rancire, Ten Theses on Politics.


to legitimize its exclusion of those who do not speak in this way. Therefore, it is essential for counterpublics to reconfigure the partition between speech and noise, between text and doodle, between meaning and nonsense. When I watched the videos from the Village Documentary project for the first time, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2006, I was both excited and frustrated. The opportunity to see villagers participating in elections, arguing in meetings, and gossiping in bedrooms was precious. Although more than half of the Chinese population still live in the countryside, rural life is underrepresented in the Chinese mediascape. Furthermore, rural life is often considered apolitical. Villagers are portrayed as uneducated and simple-minded folks, unable to speak, to write, and to reason. They exist but are invisible, having no existence as a real part of society. Ironically the fact that direct elections are only implemented at the village level and that urban residents have no access to such democratic processes is hardly known. The Village Documentary project enabled villagers to appear as political subjects on screen. In the first video, Nong Ke, a 59-year-old farmer from Dujie village in Guangxi province, captured how the residents of a neighboring village determined the distribution of 10,000 yuan that they had received from the county government. More than a hundred villagers men and women, young and old gathered in an open place. Some had brought small stools while others sat on rocks or stood. A piece of cloth bearing the name of the meeting was tied to a clump of bamboo. After the village head briefed the crowd, they engaged in a lively discussion.


Figure 4.4 Stills from A Welfare Council by Nong Ke.

They then decided to put the matter to a vote. Names of potential recipients were chalked up on a blackboard. Empty bowls were placed under the names. Each villager was given five beans to place into five bowls of his or her choice. Voting proceeded quickly and twenty families were chosen according to the result. Each would receive 500 yuan. The process appeared to be open, fair, and efficient. (In 2010, when I needed to engage gallery visitors in a simple vote, I incorporated this beans-andbowls method into my own art project.)


While watching the videos in 2006 I also felt anxious. Out of the ten videos, I could only understand the dialects in three of them. And even in these three, I had to rely on subtitles from time to time. Shao Yuzhens video was the easiest for me to follow because she was from a suburb of Beijing. Since I had learned to associate political address with Mandarin, the literary and official form of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect, characters in Shaos video seemed more articulate and politically savvy. Zhang Huancais video, A Nullified Election, made me acutely aware of my own tendency to correlate political subjectivity with speech capability. The video began with Zhang trying to engage a few fellow villagers in a conversation about the impending village election. The other villagers, however, seemed more curious about the camera he was holding. A few boys approached the lens and shouted, Monster! This is the monster in the magic world! A female voice was heard offscreen. All village comrades, please pay attention. I will broadcast and propagate again the arrangement set by the county government on the sixth village committee elections. It was the village party secretary broadcasting via the loud speaker system installed along the road. She spoke slowly and clearly, in complete sentences with proper grammar. Onscreen a few women were washing clothes in a creek. Their conversations were made inaudible by the loud broadcast. The party secretarys speech also showed up onscreen as subtitles, making it effortless for me to follow. Later that evening, a meeting was held in a classroom at the local primary school. The village party secretary, along with a few officials from the county, sat behind a long table in the front of the room, facing a crowd of villagers. The only woman in the


room was the village party secretary. Her hair was clipped short. She spoke first, and then the county officials addressed the crowd in turn. Even though the officials all spoke in the local dialect, I was able to understand them with the aid of subtitles. When the video cut to the villagers sitting in the back of the room, I could see that some of them were chatting, but it was impossible for me to figure out what they were saying. Their words were not transcribed on the screen. After the officials finished giving speeches, voting proceeded. Ballots were counted, and the party secretary announced the results. By this time, most of the villagers were standing in the room. Suddenly someone offscreen shouted, East Village has an official, then West Village must also have an official. Other villagers chimed in, If West Village does not have an official, if things come up and West Village does not comply, then no solution. If the village head is re-swapped, the village must be divided. Even in constructing this building, West Village people did not have a share. One did not even vote for oneself, and still raise opinions here.19 These four statements appeared onscreen as subtitles in succession, but it was clear that several villagers were talking simultaneously and passionately, and not everything they uttered was transcribed into subtitles. A county official wearing a
According to He Baogang, The word village (cun) has two meanings in Chinese: either a natural village or hamlet composed of residents who live together (ziran cun) or an administrative rural area (xingzheng cun). (Rural Democracy in China, 2) Shijiazhai Village the subject of this video is an administrative region composed of two natural villages, East Village and West Village.


nice black coat intervened, Considering the interest of people in West Village, how about [we] also identify one or two officials from West Village? The matter was left unsettled. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt notes that Aristotle defined men citizens of the polis as living beings capable of speech.20 Rancires notion, the partition of the sensible, suggests that we continue to divide people into two camps: those capable of speech, thus eligible to participate in public discussions, and those incapable, thus ineligible. Similarly, Warner points out that the unity of the dominant public depends on a hierarchy of faculties that allows some activities to count as public or general, while others are thought to be merely personal, private, or particular. 21 When I watched Zhangs video for the first time, I was able to understand everything that the officials said, but only a small proportion of the villagers words. My reflex was to blame my lack of comprehension on the villagers: they chatted in small groups in the back of the room, instead of speaking aloud as the party secretary did; and when they finally spoke up, they talked at the same time, giving me and the person doing subtitles a difficult time. It seemed reasonable to hold the villagers accountable for not being able to conduct public speech in a reasonable form. It only occurred to me later that my inability to understand them is not so much biological as social, and that my frustration implicated me as one willing participant in the policing of the hierarchy of faculties. In this hierarchy, subtitles, as
20 21

Arendt, The Human Condition, 27. Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 117.


texts, are given far more attention than sound. Formal vocabulary, clear pronunciation, turn taking, and impersonal address are considered properly public, whereas cursing, muttering, speaking all at once, and personal address are deemed inappropriate. Video, often considered just a technology, is produced and consumed according to this partition of the sensible. For example, subtitles are designed to work well with turn taking, since if only one person is speaking at any time, we will have no trouble figuring out who is responsible for that line of text placed on the bottom of the screen. We have become so reliant on subtitling that it is not uncommon for us to read the subtitles even when we can understand the language spoken in the video. We rarely question what has changed when spoken dialogue is transformed into text. We seem to value what is said more than how it is said. We expect to understand everything in a video by watching it once, in a linear fashion from start to finish. If many people were speaking at the same time, we would not demand multiple subtitles, nor would we rewind and re-watch the segment, a practice well accommodated by the technology; instead, we would blame those fools for not conforming to a proper way of speaking. Overlapping speech is not unique to Zhang Huancais segment. In one scene in the video produced by Fu Jiachong (from Jiguan village in Henan province), two village committee members engaged a few senior villagers in a discussion about the local school building. Onscreen we see two elders talking passionately at the same time. The one closer to the camera has extended both arms forward, indicating the severity of the problem with the gap between his hands. The other villager in the back


has raised his right arm, pointing a finger to the problem in midair. No one in the room seemed to be bothered by these two mens simultaneous speech. However, only the words shouted by the villager in the front appeared onscreen as subtitles. Should we criticize villagers for not talking in turn, or should we understand their duets and choruses as expressions of excitement, concern, and anger? Should we educate them so that they can speak properly, or should we abandon the notion that public speech has to be rational and disengaged? Should we invent technologies to accommodate social practices, or should we mold social practices to meet the constraints of technologies? Village Documentary project made these questions salient.

Insider/Outsider In the last section, I focused on how the partition of the sensible is realized through an alignment between rhetorical norms and video technologies. In this section, I will turn to the material impact of the DV camera. Zhang Huancais video reveals that, whereas the village party secretary could broadcast her message on the loud-speaker system, the villagers could not; whereas the officials could determine the spatial layout and sit comfortably in the front of the room, the villagers had to settle for the back; whereas the officials could determine the agenda of the meeting and allocate more time to their spiels, the villagers had to wait until the end of the meeting to express their dissatisfaction. The introduction of the DV camera has a material impact on the villages media infrastructure. Although its effect is not immediately visible in the video produced by Zhang, his fellow villagers seemed to


grasp the machines potential instinctively. When Zhang told one middle-aged woman on the street that he was shooting television, she warned him, Dont you dare show it recklessly! The literal translation of the womans warning is Dont you dare release [it] recklessly to the outside!22 She seemed to suggest that to screen the video captured by the little machine would be like letting the genie out of the bottle, bringing change to the village in an unforeseeable fashion. The outside in her statement could be interpreted in two ways. First, it could refer to the outside of a privileged space that is not accessible to all. For instance, showing what happened in the classroom to villagers who were not invited to the meeting may give rise to many questions: Why wasnt I told about the meeting? Why didnt they let more villagers from West Village attend the meeting so there could have been a balanced vote? Why did that person blame people of West Village for not contributing to the school project? The video would in effect undermine the control maintained by the village and county officials. In Rancires vocabulary, the outside is external to the partition maintained by the police. Second, the outside could refer to the world outside the village. The video could be screened in other villages, in the provincial capital, in Beijing, or even abroad. It would subject the way of life in this village to the gaze of strangers. In other words, the videos potential is to engender stranger-visibility. As discussed in the last chapter, stranger-relationality is a defining feature of publicness in the modern era. It may be established through face-to-face encounters, but more

In Chinese, ni ke bug an wang wai luan fang chu lai.


often it is realized through media. The video produced by Zhang links his village to the outside world. Once the video is out there, no one could control the exact contours of its audience. Neither the village party secretary nor the villagers could prevent someone like me who had not even heard of Shijiazhai before from watching the video, analyzing it, and connecting it to some theoretical ideas on democracy proposed by a French philosopher. I may not be able to go to the village and try to influence its politics directly, but no one could predict the effect of my writing, and that of other texts triggered by the video. Village politics in China have long been shaped by two forces: one from within, largely structured by kinship and tradition, and one from above, exerted by the higher levels of government. Post-Mao economic reform has brought a third force, the profit motive, into the dynamic. Cultivating a discourse on village life in the emerging public sphere may introduce a public force to village politics. The Village Documentary project suggests that video, with its potential for stranger-visibility, could bring a new mode of address to the countryside. When people speak about matters of common concern, they have to address potential strangers in addition to those present. This is precisely what has happened in the Wukan incident described at the beginning of this chapter. The ten villagers who participated in the Village Documentary project acted as both insiders and outsiders in regard to their villages. As insiders, even with the DV camera in hand, their identity as video-makers was secondary to their identity as locals. Yet by partaking in the project and traveling between their villages and Beijing, they were also made aware that the viewership of their output would be more than


their families and neighbors. The DV camera encouraged them to observe their villages attentively. For example, in Wang Weis video, titled Land Distribution, two kinds of scenes are mixed together. In about half of the shots, Wang guides the viewer around his village, Guanyinsi Wangjiacun in Shandong province. The viewer is taken to see the stone slab bearing the villages name, the villages most fertile piece of land, and the compound where the village committee, the clinic, and the womens activity room are housed. The office doors are closed, Wang says in voice-over. This is the villages clinic. But the doctor is not here; he conducts business at home now. The video cuts to the locked door, with two panes of glass missing. The glass has been broken for a long time. It was broken by someone during SARS, never repaired since. The camera then turns to a gap in the wall enclosing the compound. Wang informs the viewer that the breach has been there for two years, and someone was able to enter the compound earlier that spring to steal the flour sent to the village by the Civil Affairs Bureau for poverty relief. His dissatisfaction with the decrepit condition of the villages collective infrastructure is obvious. Wang delivers his commentary informative and critical not in the local dialect, but in perfect Mandarin. The village tour is intercut with a second set of scenes, in which Wang interacts with his fellow villagers. He talks to two women, one of them identified as Sheng Bos wife, as they sit on a large heated bed, legs covered in quilts, doing needlework. They tell him that they voted for the current village head because the


Figure 4.5 Stills from Land Distribution by Wang Wei.

village head had promised to divide the villages land. Wang then goes to talk with the village head and his deputy about land division. The conversations take place in their homes, and on each occasion, the official is seen sitting on a bed and leaning against a pile of quilts. Their relaxed posture and casual language befit the close relationship between them and Wang, as the village only has about 440 residents. Wang participates in these discussions earnestly, speaking in the local dialect, providing no more commentary to the potential viewer.


Wangs accent-switching makes his insider-outsider duality salient. Furthermore, those scenes in which he appears as an engaged discussant are always shot indoors and framed tightly, suggesting intimacy, whereas those in which he assumes the role of a guide talking to the viewer are shot outdoors and framed widely. The rapid alternation of these two kinds of shots seems to suggest that Wang is actively merging an insiders interested participation with an outsiders critical observation. Making things public requires not only technology and infrastructure but also agents like Wang who can connect the inside with the outside. There are still too few such agents who can push rural politics onto discursive platforms, which exist mostly in urban media. Over 200 million farmers work as migrant labors in cities and suburban factories. Often their children are left behind in the village and cared for by the grandparents. Although migrant laborers usually keep close ties with their families, sending money back to relatives and traveling home during the Chinese New Year, they are unable to maintain political ties to their villages, not to mention developing discursive connections between the countryside and their city dwellings. One video in the Village Documentary project highlights this problem. Yin Chujian, a 26-year-old villager working in Jiahua city in Zhejiang province, interviewed a few friends also working in the city, asking them if they had gone back to the village to participate in recent elections. Some of these young men and women had become successful shop owners in the city, selling computer software or providing photography services. Their unanimous answer was no. When pressed to give a


reason, they replied, No one informed me that I should vote, Im too busy, or Elections have nothing to do with me anyway. Politically they have become complete outsiders to their village. The insider-outsider identity acquired by the ten participants in the Village Documentary project can also be related to the notion of the stranger. The DV camera symbolized their connection to the world outside their villages. This connection allowed them to see themselves as no longer completely immersed in a closed structure. They acquired the freedom to look at their villages as if they were standing outside temporarily. As media scholar Wang Yiman notes, For them, obtaining and then learning to use a DV camera is empowering. They not only gained the ability to record detailed everyday happenings in their villages, but also learned to be more perceptive, to defamiliarize routine, to capture mundane details now viewed afresh.23 To become a stranger is not to turn into an alien. Unlike the young migrant workers in Yin Chujians video who have become detached from their village, Wang Wei and other video authors only became more curious and concerned. Perhaps they have long possessed inquisitive minds, but only with the DV camera in hand could they transform themselves into avowed strangers.

Wang Yiman, I Am One of Them and They Are My Actors: Performing, Witnessing, and DV Image-Making in Plebian China, in The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement, eds. Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu, and Lisa Rofel (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 224.


Reflexivity and Rupture In addition to examining their own surroundings, the villagers also directed their cameras to the outside world when opportunities arose. Shao Yuzhen, the 55year-old villager from the suburb of Beijing, has developed a habit of carrying the DV camera with her all the time. In a video posted online, we see her being interviewed by a foreign journalist at a European film festival.24 While the journalist captures her on video, she is seen with her own DV camera turned on and filming the journalist. After getting this machine, her right hand pointing and touching the camera perched on her left hand, she says, since [I] started shooting, Ive walked outside, outside of my village. Asked if the machine has empowered her, she replies, Yes, through learning Ive gained more confidence. She repeats the Chinese word for confidence twice to make sure it is pronounced clearly. The camera held steadily in her hands substantiates her statement. The returned gaze of her camera seems to claim that she is entitled to treat the interview as an opportunity for her to capture the foreign journalist on her tape, to be viewed later by her friends back in the village, as much as the journalist is entitled to film her. The mutual filming confirms an equality of visibility, and an equality of intelligence. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Rancire proposes a theory of radical equality based on the pedagogical experiment of Joseph Jacotot (1770-1840), an exiled French schoolteacher who managed to guide his Flemish students to acquire French on their
Interview de Shao Yuzhen, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cp5lYcq0jbo, accessed Feb. 10, 2012.


Figure 4.6 Shao Yuzhen being interviewed by a foreign journalist.

own. Because Jacotot and his students had no common language Jacotot did not know Flemish he could not resort to the conventional method of transmitting knowledge by explanation. Instead, he gave the students copies of a bilingual edition of Tlmaque, a 24-volume novel by Fnelon, and asked them to learn the French text with the help of the translation.25 To his astonishment, he discovered later that the students, left to themselves, managed to write critical essays in French as well

Jacques Rancire, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 2.


as many French could have done!26 From Jacotots story Rancire extracts a critical lesson for emancipation: What stultifies the common people is not the lack of instruction, but the belief in the inferiority of their intelligence. Essentially, what an emancipated person can do is be an emancipator: to give, not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what an intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself.27 He believes that the equality of intelligence is the common bond of humanity, the necessary and sufficient condition for a society of men to exist.28 Pedagogy is also central to the Village Documentary project. The villagers had to learn how to use a DV camera, a machine that most of them had never seen before. Perhaps time constraints, like Jacotots inability to speak Flemish, played a productive role. The villagers only spent three days at Wu Wenguangs Caochangdi Workstation, so Wu had very little time to train them as professionals and had to leave them on their own to figure out how to produce videos according to their villages specific situations. For Wu, helping the villagers to acquire technical skills was considered less important than helping them to feel confident, to see their videomaking as legitimate. He always addressed them as villager-authors.29 Though widely respected as the foundational figure in Chinas independent documentary field, Wu was willing to learn from the ten participants as they were from him. He made it clear
26 27 28 29

Ibid. Ibid., 68. Ibid., 73. In Chinese, cun min zuo zhe.


to them that while he knows more about documentary filmmaking, they know more about village life. He wrote in his diary on November 6, 2005, The film screened on the last night of the Villager-Authors Workshop was Before the Flood, a documentary lasting two and half hours, without voiceover, without music. In the ensuing discussion, [the village-authors] talked eagerly and passionately. When the young professional directors saw this video, they focused more on its aesthetics and documentary techniques. The villager-authors, on the other hand, associated [the film] with their own feelings and experiences. The first thing Nong Ke said was, those being flooded are us poor folks. Sitting among these villagers who previously could have been the subjects of my camera, now jointly in charge of the lens, [I] learned a lot.30 As one commentator wrote online, Wu Wenguangs greatness lies in the fact that he treats peasants as equals, so he can come up with a pioneering approach to let peasants take charge of the mirror.31 The mirror in the comment above, presumably referring to the DV camera or the practice of video-making, is an apt metaphor. The mirror allows us to perform like putting on make-up, moving the body, or rehearsing a speech and to confirm that we are capable of performing. It creates a feedback loop; it allows reflexivity. According to Rancire, Jacotots success lies in the fact that his students were forced into pretending that they were already intellectual equals to their master, and they were able to verify the equality in the pedagogical encounter. As Davis articulates, political subjectivation resembles acting because both involve the ruse of pretending
Wu Wenguang, Gong zuo ri ji (Working Diary), Nov. 6, 2005, http://www.ccdworkstation.com/ videosvillageprojectworknote.html, accessed Aug. 7, 2010. Anonymous comment left on Wang Zhengs blog on Aug. 5, 2007, http://wangcheng.blshe.com/post/2932/49225, accessed Aug. 5, 2009, translation mine.
31 30


you are something you are not in order to become it: for the sans-part this means pretending you are already equal participants in the political process from which in fact, by virtue of the wrong of the miscount, you are excluded.32 This idea that something can only become true if it is first pretended is also central to the notion of publics. A public can only exist reflexively. Its reality lies in just this reflexivity by which an addressable object is conjured into being in order to enable the very discourse that gives it existence.33 One has to pretend to be speaking to a public in order to conjure that very public into being. As Warner writes vividly, Run it up the flagpole, and see who salutes. Put on a show, and see who shows up.34 Publics, like radical equality, can only be realized performatively and poetically. From a technical point of view, the DV camera encapsulates the idea of reflexivity. A fundamental difference between the film camera and the DV camera is that the latter permits instant verification. It houses both the lens and the screen, allowing the holder to watch the video and show it to others right after the video is captured. The rapid uptake of the DV camera cannot simply be attributed to its low cost. It enables autodidactic learning by providing immediate feedback, much like the mirror or the bilingual edition of Tlmaque. It installs confidence into its user. Moreover, when deployed collectively, it facilitates a kind of political verification: Are you going to realize the promise you have made before the election to us and on tape that you would redistribute the land? Were the delegates present at the
32 33 34

Davis, Jacques Rancire, 86. Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 67. Ibid., 114.


meeting last night representative of the village population? Was the election process fair and transparent? To pretend and to perform, one has to create a rupture from what has become the norm and the routine. For the ten villagers, the opportunity to go to Beijing and to return with a DV camera constituted only the prelude to a rupture. The critical moment occurred when they turned on the camera to capture an election, a meeting, a dispute, or even just a piece of gossip. They became filmmakers by pretending to be filmmakers. They became political subjects by pretending to have the rights to look and to be seen, to speak and to be heard. Rupture is bound to cause anxiety, unease, or even suppression. Wu and the ten villagers have consistently downplayed the criticality of their joint venture. Wu claimed that he was only helping villagers to capture their quotidian experience, and that the project had no political aim. When Shao Yuzhen was asked by her fellow villagers why she was holding a video camera, she replied, just for fun. Wu and the villagers chose to engage in tacit transformations rather than open protests. The strategy is not to articulate the political thinking behind their actions, and even to deny their political intention when asked. Adapted to the authoritarian situation in China, this rhetorical method itself is political. For example, in August 2011, when residents in Dalian, a costal city in Liaoning province, wanted to protest against a toxic chemical plant, they organized a group stroll. There is no doubt that both the residents and the government understood the event as a protest more than ten thousand people strolled along the same street on a Sunday afternoon


but the word game made it more difficult for the government to prevent the message from spreading on social media and to crack down on the organizers. Pragmatic stutter is preferred to idealistic eloquence. Wu Wenguang and Ai Weiwei are neighbors; both live in Caochangdi village in the northern suburb of Beijing. Both are politically-minded, but have taken two very different approaches in practice. Ai has often worked on sensitive issues, adopted confrontational strategies, and voiced sharp criticism of the Chinese state. For a while his family background and his fame in the West seemed to have protected him from the kind of harsh treatment that many civil rights activists have suffered,35 but his 81-day detention in the spring of 2011 has seriously limited his ability to work in China. This may appear to be a strong argument that the quiet, pragmatic, and gradual approach taken by Wu and many other activists working in China today is more effective than the direct, articulated, and radical approach favored by Ai and Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to prison in 2009 for drafting the pro-democracy

manifesto, Charter 08. However, as Cui Weiping, a literary scholar who has translated many East-European writings on the civil society into Chinese, reminds us, The officials think of us as moderates because of them [the radicals]. They are the reason we are not in prison. For this alone we are grateful.36

35 36

His father, Ai Qing, was a poet canonized by the Communist Party.

Cui Weiping, quoted in Zha Jianying, Enemy of the State, New Yorker, Apr. 23, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/23/070423fa_fact_zha, accessed Mar. 2, 2012.


Circulation In Disagreement, Rancire argues that when, at a trial in 1832, the socialist revolutionary Auguste Blanqui gave proletarian as his profession and announced that it is the profession of thirty million Frenchmen who live off their labor and who are deprived of political rights, it was a watershed moment because it exposed the founding wrong of politics, the difference between an inegalitarian distribution of social bodies and the equality of speaking beings.37 Rancires analysis focuses exclusively on this particular incident, and makes no mention of the chain of events both before and after. As Warner notes, no single text can create a public.38 Blanquis speech had to enter circulation, maintain its argumentative force, and form concatenations with other speeches through inter-referencing.39 The notion of the proletarian did endure for more than a century. It traveled to China in the beginning of the twentieth century and only started to fade out of circulation in the late 1970s. In the West, when Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge wrote Public Sphere and Experience in 1972, proletarian was still the best word to express their idea of a counterpublic.40 In our highly mediated world, a speech can hardly be considered public without wide circulation. In Chapter 2, I discussed how Xiong Wenyun utilized the
Jacques Rancire, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 37-39.
38 39 37

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 90.

See Charles Taylor, Modernity and the Rise of the Public Sphere, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 1992, http://www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/documents/Taylor93.pdf, accessed Oct. 30, 2010.

Negt and Kluge, The Public Sphere and Experience.


format of media events to enable the Moving Rainbow project to enter mass media. For the Village Documentary project, the circulation issue might seem straightforward video is a medium designed for multiplication. Yet it has been difficult for the villagers videos to enter distribution, thus seriously limiting the projects publicness. According to Wang Yiman, when Wu Wenguang conceived the project in 2005, he intended the villagers videos to introduce Chinas rural situation to an international as well as an urban domestic public.41 Right after the videos were edited in December 2005, Wu sent the compilation of videos to film festivals in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Europe, and scheduled a screening tour at four American universities.42 In spring 2006, the videos were also shown in Beijing twice, first at an international conference organized by the projects sponsor, the EU-China Training Program on Village Governance, and then at Cherry Lane Movies, an independent film club. When I watched the videos in Beijing in spring 2008, it was also organized by a film club. The event took place at a nice restaurant on a weekday afternoon. About twenty people showed up, most of them students from universities nearby. Wu attended the event and answered questions after the screening. Such film salons have become the main channel and often the only channel for independent films to be seen and discussed in Beijing. Participants are usually young, well-educated, and
Wang Yiman, I Am One of Them and They Are My Actors: Performing, Witnessing, and DV Image-Making in Plebian China, 223. See Caochangdi Workstation website, http://www.ccdworkstation.com/english/Public%20Screenings%20and%20Exhibitions%20and%20the %20Viewers%20intro.html, accessed Feb. 18, 2012.
42 41


interested in the arts. The Village Documentary project has only been included in one art exhibition in Beijing.43 The videos have never circulated on the internet, nor in the pirated DVD market. Consequently, the projects discursive reach has been limited to a small portion of the capitals academic and art community. This is caused by both the states tenacious control on media and Wus low-key approach. Media scholar Han Hong faults the project on two fronts: it failed to generate participation on a larger scale, and the videos were never shown in the villages where the ten authors live.44 Yet two villagers, Shao Yuzhen and Wang Wei, have both indicated that, after their participation in this project, their fellow villagers started to see them as reporters. Shao told a journalist in 2006, folks believe that you are a reporter, and come to you for many things.45 This suggests that others in the village have become aware of Shaos video-making and understood the potential public pressure that her videos might bring to their matters of concern. On the other hand, the videos limited circulation means that they can never achieve the kind of media impact assumed by the villagers. Among the ten participants, Wang Wei was the most idealistic in the beginning, confessing in his video that he had come back to his village in Shandong province after serving in the army for three years because he wanted to do something, for instance, to help alleviate poverty. In 2010, I witnessed him crying at a workshop at Caochangdi Workstation. He had become discouraged;
It was included in Grassroots Humanism (Di ceng ren wen), curated by Wang Lin, in December 2007. The exhibition took place in Songzhuang, a remote artist village in the eastern suburb of Beijing.
44 45 43

Han Hong, Participatory Image-Making and Participatory Communication.

Shao Yuzhen quoted in Li Hongyu, Cun min zi zhi, cun min zi pai (Villager Self-Governance, Villager Self-Filmmaking), Nan fang zhou mo (Southern Weekly), May 11, 2006.


the videos he had been making could not change his village to the extent that he had hoped. Perhaps he has to push his work into wider circulation, both inside and outside his village, so that his videos do not appear as single texts with a very short life span, but connect with other utterances to form live discourses, to gain enough scale to exert pressure on policies and other social institutions. But there is a second, and perhaps more fundamental issue. Warner suggests that publics acquire agency only through their imaginary coupling with the state, when they enter the temporality of politics and adapt themselves to the performatives of rational-critical discourse.46 But this is problematic for counterpublics, because it means that they will have to leave behind the kind of performatives that make them counterpublic in the first place. It may be the case, as Craig Calhoun suggests, that more radical struggles social movements, strikes, threats of armed insurrection are needed to connect counterpublics with the larger field of power.47 Wu Wenguang seems more patient than Wang Wei. Perhaps three decades of working as an independent documentary filmmaker have given him enough time to understand the relation between art and social change. He understands that the social impact of art is real, but bounded. Since the Village Documentary project, Wu has focused primarily on participatory video-making, turning Caochangdi Workstation into a center where individuals, young and old, professional and amateur, come to attend workshops, critique each others works, and show their videos in annual
46 47

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 124.

See Craig Calhoun, The Public Sphere in the Field of Power, Social Science History 34.3 (2010), 301-335.


festivals. More importantly, the participants go back to their cities, towns, and villages to capture stories excluded from official view. Since 2010, he has been working on the Memory project, building up an oral history archive on Mao-era political movements, including the Land Reform (1950-52), the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), the Great Famine (1959-61), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). These periods remain taboo subjects in printed and visual media. Wu has also started to utilize the internet, uploading interview transcripts onto a blog and distributing short texts and images via twitter.48 However, videos still cannot circulate online. The struggle for visibility continues.

The public sphere is not yet an institutionalized reality in China. In our pursuit of publicness, we have to ask ourselves: what kind of publicness we want? Should we strive for one universal kind of publicness admitting only rational-critical dialogue, or strive for a pluralistic conception where alternative forms of expression are seen not as threats but as assets? The Village Documentary project serves as a powerful reminder that the rural should not be left behind, as it can provide a fertile ground for public practice to flourish, and to challenge and inspire the urban.

The URL for the blog is http://blog.sina.com.cn/ccdworkstation, and for the Chinese twitter page: http://weibo.com/u/2181292250.


Chapter 5 Fantasy I often think of publics as clouds. No one can deny the existence of clouds we have all seen them but no one can pin down the exact contour of a cloud either. Like clouds, publics are dynamic systems, constantly in flux. They form, develop, merge, dissipate, and occasionally transform into storms. If clouds are created when certain meteorological conditions are conducive, publics are created when certain social conditions are present. Some of these social conditions, such as freedom of speech and association, can be clearly stated and indeed are often written into the legal code, while others largely depend on tacit understandings collectively held by a large portion of the population. In fact, many aspects of publicness discussed in the previous chapters belong to this latter category. For example, those who encounter Nian may not be able to articulate that the works publicness lies in its aggregation of stranger relations, but they can probably sense that the project is different from both state mourning and private mourning because its numerous participants do not seem to belong to any particular organization or to be connected personally to the students killed in the earthquake. Charles Taylor, among others, has argued that much of our social world is built on widely-held tacit understandings. He calls them social imaginaries. If social imaginaries are tacitly held, how can we locate them? And furthermore, how can we attempt to change them? These questions are especially important for counterpublics as the latter are often prohibited from equal


participation in social life because of prejudices motivated by deep-seated but unarticulated ideas and images. In this chapter, I will propose fantasy more specifically, counterpublic fantasy as an avenue to approach social imaginaries. Karibu Islands, a project from my own art practice, will serve as the case study. It may be unusual for an artist to write about his or her own work, but this projects highly participatory nature means that it is as much about what the participants did on the stage as about how I set up the stage. The analysis in this chapter will center on the discussions and documents produced by the participants. This chapter is organized into five sections. I will first describe the development of Karibu Islands and its relation to Beijings queer movement. This is followed by some theoretical ideas on social imaginaries and fantasy. I will then analyze how a number of participants in the Karibu Islands discussions used fantasy to reveal and criticize current social imaginaries. Next, I will discuss the notion of radical secularity, which underlies both queerness and publicness. In the last section, I will describe the form that this project took when it was exhibited in the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, and explore the relation between participation and exhibition.

Karibu Islands and the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center Karibu Islands began as a series of experimental videos that Perry Ling and I created in the fall of 2004. I was an MFA student at the Chinese University in Hong Kong and Perry was an undergraduate student. We decided to create a joint work to be shown at the foyer of the Universitys main lecture theater. Unlike most exhibition


Figure 5.1 Stills from Karibu Islands (seven videos).

venues, the foyer was not a white box. On the wall facing the entrance hung a large sculpture made of ten pieces of black marble, with a golden line cutting across. We had no idea who created the piece and why it was there, but since it was impossible for us to remove it, we had to incorporate it into our work. The sculpture looked like a group of islands to us, and we soon settled on the idea of creating a work about this


hypothetical archipelago. What if time there flowed in the opposite direction to ours? we asked. This time-reversal hypothesis became the bedrock of the project. We created seven short videos, using both new and appropriated footage. The first video functions as an introduction and features the slogan Karibu Islands The Vanguard of Human Civilization. The names of the ten islands Flower Flask, Void Shape, Lifting Moon, Double Shadow, No Solution, Single Body, Temporary To, Necessary And, Singing Return, and Shadow Zero are extracted from the famous poem, Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon, by Tang-dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762).1 The second video is composed of fifteen reversed movie clips, assembled in an antichronological order, including a Filipino maid rushing past the main post office in Hong Kong (2004), Yamaguchi Momoe running backwards in clogs (1977), captain

The poem reads, Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine. No one else here, I ladle it out myself. Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon, and facing my shadow makes friends three, though moon has never understood wine, and shadow only trails along behind me. Kindred a moment with moon and shadow, Ive found a joy that must infuse spring: I sing, and moon rocks back and forth; I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces. Sober, we are together and happy. Drunk, we scatter away into our own directions: intimates forever, well wander carefree and meet again in Star River distances.

Two characters are taken from each of the first ten lines of the poem to form a name. I have underlined the chosen characters in the Chinese text above. English translation from The Selected Poems of Li Po, trans. David Hinton (New York: New Directions, 1996), 43.


Bowman jogging backwards in the space station (1968), two European men trekking along the Alps (1938), and a train leaving La Ciotat (1895). The next video concocts a disease called Time Split Syndrome (TSS), a sickness afflicting those traveling between two time systems. This is followed by an advertisement for Karibu Islands Railway, an announcement prohibiting any timepieces onboard, and a trailer for a new mystery film. The last video contains a monologue. A tomboyish woman wearing a sports jacket sits behind a long desk, reading a letter to her parents: Ive been here in Karibu Islands for half a year. Im living well. You dont need to worry. She then tells them about the strange things in Karibu Islands: computers are becoming ever slower; kids are fascinated with a new way of communication talking to their friends face-to-face. When you see me in the future, maybe youll feel that Ive become a bit lazy. But people here also say that I lack motivation. Anyway, you dont need to be sad, because I think, I think I want to stay here. Staying here is good. Its just that Im a bit missing you. The following year, I appended to this set of video sketches a reworked documentary of three historical figures transposed to Karibu Islands: John F. Kennedy, Andy Warhol, and the Buddha. As time is reversed on Karibu Islands, the life process would be opposite to that in our world. People would come to life in many different ways. Kennedy would be born when a bullet flies out of his head; Buddha would awake from his meditation. Some would recover from serious illness; some would appear in a battlefield. People would grow younger, go to work, attend


Figure 5.2 Stills from Karibu Islands (the Buddhas life reversed).

school, and turn into babies. All would die in the same manner, by crawling into a mothers womb. Unlike science fiction, the videos we created were not intended to construct a time-reversed world based on a coherent set of assumptions. The materials were


culled from various sources, both Chinese and foreign, both old and contemporary. The tone of the videos was suggestive and reflective, rather than objective and logical. One could easily spot gaps and even contradictions in the hypothesis, like how a human body could exist there in the first place. We implied that Karibu Islands may be the exact mirror image of our world, so our history is reenacted there in the reverse order, but we did not rule out the possibility that what happens on Karibu Islands could be entirely unrelated to what happens in our world. In short, we did not supply a cohesive picture to be consumed, but left much space for the viewer to question and to amend. In spring 2008, I was living in Beijing and decided to develop the project further by situating it within the local queer community. I was no longer interested in making videos alone in my studio; I wanted to organize discussions where people could come together to brainstorm about Karibu Islands. For the first two months I tried to recruit participants through gay websites, like boyair.com, but made little progress. Just when I was losing hope for the project, I learned through an activist friend working in an AIDS NGO that a new organization the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center had been founded. For more than a decade, queers in Beijing had been able to chat online, cruise in parks, and dance in nightclubs, but up to that point there had been no place for people to hold meetings, discuss politics, and watch films. The Center was a critical step for the queer community to expand from private computers to public discussions, from intimates to strangers, from night to day.


Figure 5.3 The Beijing LGBT Cultural Center.

The Beijing LGBT Cultural Center was set up by three organizations: HIVAIDS advocacy group Aizhixing, lesbian coalition Tongyu, and information clearinghouse Aibai. 2 Located in an apartment duplex in a high-rise residential building near Beijings West Railway Station, the Center started to operate in April 2008. It was the first non-commercial space for queer gatherings. Much like

Aizhixing is the leading HIV-AIDS NGO in China. Established in 1995, the group relies on funding from overseas foundations, such as the Open Society Institute. Tongyus formal name is Beijing Tongyu Lesbian Community Working Group. It was founded in January 2005. Aibai distributes Chinese language materials, including news and legal information, to the LGBT community. Founded in 1999, its website is http://www.aibai.com/.


Figure 5.4 The first Karibu Islands discussion held at the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center, May 11, 2008.

Caochangdi Workstation Wu Wenguangs private home turned into a training center, a performance stage, and a library the Center belonged to the category of public spaces with private looks. The location was discreet. There was so sign in the lobby or in the hallway. One had to know its exact address before visiting. But once inside, one would be greeted with rainbow flags, queer magazines, and a homey atmosphere. The Centers inaugural manager was a young man named Yang Guang. Yang had just graduated with a philosophy degree from Nanjing University. He was enthusiastic, hardworking, and passionate about both queer and cultural activism. We immediately bonded and valued each others work. With support from Yang and a number of volunteers, I was able to organize three discussions at the Center in May, July, and August.


The first discussion was attended by eleven gay men in their 20s and 30s. The session started with them watching the videos about Karibu Islands, made by Perry and me in 2004 and 2005. Next, each participant was given a Karibu Islands Birth Certificate to fill out. (These certificates will be analyzed in the third section.) The group then reassembled, examining the certificates and discussing the choices that people had made. The next two sessions were attended by nine lesbians and thirteen straight people, respectively. They followed the same format as the first session, except that a documentary video of the previous discussion(s) was also screened so that the group was able to see what the previous group(s) had discussed. The project in its documentary form was exhibited later that year in the Third Guangzhou Triennial. It was the first time that an art project with an explicitly queer theme was included in a national exhibition in China.

Social Imaginaries and Fantasy Media scholar John Thompson, building on French theorists Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Leforts work, states that the imaginary element of the social-historical world has to be freed from the confines of a crude materialism.3 This is particularly pertinent to China since a crude version of Marxism has dominated the political discourse for over half a century. The Mao-ear idea that the ideological superstructure is causally determined by the economic base has only been

John Thompson, Ideology and the Social Imaginary: An Appraisal of Castoriadis and Lefort, Theory and Society 11.5 (1982), 659.


reinforced by the reform eras fervid focus on GDP growth. The argument that political and social changes have to follow economic buildup is not only championed by the government but also genuinely embraced by many citizens. In L'Institution imaginaire de la socit, published in 1975, Castoriadis argues that social institutions are shaped by the imaginary of the society or period concerned. He writes, This element, which endows the functionality of each institutional system with its specific orientation, which over-determines the choice and connections of symbolic networks, which creates for each historical period its singular way of living, seeing and making its own existence, its world and its relations to it, this originary structuring, this central signifier-signified, source of what is each time given as indisputable and indisputed sense, support of the articulations and distinctions of what matters and of what does not, origin of the augmented being of the individual or collective objects of practical, affective and intellectual investment this element is nothing other than the imaginary of the society or period concerned.4 More recently, Charles Taylor has argued that much of our social life is guided by our implicit grasp of social space.5 Such understandings are largely unstructured and inarticulate, and are carried in images, stories, legends, etc.6 He calls them the social imaginaries. He writes, What Im trying to get at with this term is something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how

Cornelius Castoriadis, L'Institution imaginaire de la societe (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 203, quoted in Thompson, Ideology and the Social Imaginary, 664. Taylor, A Secular Age, 173. Ibid., 171-73.

5 6


things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.7 Taylor compares social imaginaries to our implicit understanding of a familiar environment: we do not need to resort to a map to orient ourselves if we know the place well. Similarly, in most social situations, we do not need to consult rules and theories in order to know what to do or why certain actions make sense. Taylor points out that our ability to grasp the background which makes sense of any given act is much more complex than it might seem.8 For example, for those who participated in the Karibu Islands discussions to make sense of their act, they would need to have some idea of the time and space that they occupied, the kind of language and interaction appropriate to the assembly, and the relation between them and the wider world how they stood in relation to queer situations in the past, to current mainstream values in China, and to queer movements abroad. Social imaginaries are both descriptive and normative. They are tied to what actually happens around us, and to what we think should happen. For example, my understanding of what constitutes a discussion is derived from past experiences and observations, and this knowledge, together with what I think discussions should look like, will guide how I will organize a discussion in the future. Thus, social imaginaries are constantly revisited, consolidated, and modified. They seem to occupy the intermediate layer between avowed theories and practices. In contrast to
7 8

Ibid., 171. Ibid., 174.


theories, social imaginaries often do not crystallize into rational-critical discourse but remain as rough pictures, intimately linked to affects. Rancires notion of the partition of the sensible, discussed in the last chapter, can also be understood in relation to social imaginaries. What we can see and hear is determined not only by our physical capacities but also by what we consider seeable and hearable. Yet often we are not aware of the decisive role played by our normative framework. In other words, we tend to imagine that our social world is a purely physical and material place rather than an interplay between practices and imaginaries. Urbanization and mediatization have placed a great demand on our abilities to imagine our social world. Processes are extended over ever further distances, involving more individuals who are strangers to one another. It is impossible for anyone to witness in person how the market transacts, how the state governs, or how public opinion emerges. We have to rely on the imaginary to prevent our modern world from collapsing. For the institutionalized public sphere to exist, or for any specific public or counterpublic to be conjured, we need a wide range of social imaginaries. Warner argues that a great deal must be postulated in order for [publics] to work in the world: not only the material conditions of a circulating medium, but also corresponding reading or consuming practices as well as the sort of social imaginary in which stranger-sociability could become ordinary, valuable, and in some ways normative. This constitutive and normative environment of strangerhood is more, too, than an objectively describable Gesellschaft; it requires our constant imagining.9

Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 76 and 105.


Anyone who is making a public utterance has to postulate an impersonal addressee and project a space of circulation. However, perhaps because we have much difficulty in imagining the indefinite, the circulation of public discourse is consistently imagined as dialogue or discussion among already present interlocutors rather than multigeneric circulation.10 Warner acknowledges that this way of imagining publics is constitutive, because it allows us to attribute agency to publics, but he is also wary of the impairment of this misrecognition.11 He writes, The modern hierarchy of faculties and its imagination of the social are mutually implying. The critical discourse of the public corresponds as sovereign to the superintending power of the state, so the dimensions of language singled out in the ideology of rational-critical discussion acquire prestige and power. Publics more overtly oriented in their self-understandings to the poetic-expressive dimensions of language, including artistic publics and many counterpublics, lack the power to transpose themselves to the generality of the state.12 Warners critique applies to Western democracies where the correspondence between the critical discourse of the public and the superintending power of the state is well established. This is not yet the case in China. The idea that the public sphere lies outside of the state and public discourse possesses sovereign power is far from a firmly established and commonly shared imaginary. The party-state is believed to be omnipotent. When challenging state power, ordinary people often have to resort to performative and even violent acts, ranging from veiled ironies and incessant
10 11 12

Ibid., 115. Ibid. Ibid., 116.


complaints to self-immolation. Rational-critical discourse in China does not enjoy the hegemonic status as it does in the West. Yet Warners critique is relevant to us in the sense that we have to ask ourselves whether we want to replicate the existing model in the West, where public sovereignty is coupled with the normative status of rational-critical debate, or we want to strive for a different model. The case studies I have discussed so far Moving Rainbow, Nian, and the Village Documentary project suggest that at least in the limited space of an art project, it is possible to express critical concerns with non-textual media, to accommodate various ways of dialogue, and to integrate reason with affect. How are social imaginaries transformed? One route is through revolution. As Taylor notes, during revolutionary times, what is originally just an idealization grows into a complex imaginary through being taken up and associated with social practices, in part traditional ones, but often transformed by the contact.13 The 1949 revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party is a good example. A large set of social imaginaries, from equality to etiquette, was rapidly changed within a short period. This kind of transformation assumes the primacy of theory, not to say violence, and infiltrates society in a top-down manner. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, in Public Sphere and Experience, published in 1972, hint at a different route. They suggest that counterpublic fantasy possesses the potential to unsettle the dominance of the bourgeois public sphere. Their approach is a sharp departure from traditional Marxist theory, which favors revolution and material struggles, and

Taylor, A Secular Age, 175.


dovetails with Castoriadiss emphasis on the importance of the imaginary. They write, In all previous history, living labor has, along with the surplus value extracted from it, produced something else fantasy. The latter has many layers and develops as a necessary compensation for the experiences of the alienated labor process. The intolerability of his real situation creates in the worker a defense mechanism that protects the ego from the distresses an alienated reality imposes. Since living, dialectical experience would not be able to tolerate this reality, the latter's oppressive dimension is taken up into fantasy, where the nightmare quality of reality is absented.14 Though fantasy constitutes an unconscious practical criticism of alienation, it largely remains at the level of the individual, detached from the general social production process. At the same time, it faces the risk of being adulterated as the consciousness industry tries to develop techniques to reincorporate fantasy in domesticated form.15 To turn individual fantasy into collective emancipation, the proletariat has to perform some kind of integrative work. Negt and Kluge suggest that an analysis in the social and historical sense is needed to re-appropriate the repressed portion of the proletarian experience. This kind of analysis cannot be conducted via language alone; it needs to embrace all mimetic, cultural, and social relationships as means of expression.16 Furthermore, while the bourgeois class can organize their interests into separate private and public spheres, the workers interests can only be organized if they enter into a life-context, in other words, into a
14 15 16

Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience, 32-33. Ibid., 36. Ibid., 37, n. 58.


proletarian public sphere.17 In short, individual fantasies have to be synthesized publicly into counter-productions.18 Negt & Kluges analysis deals exclusively with the proletarian situation in advanced capitalism, yet the transformative potential it locates in the proletarian fantasy is applicable to other counterpublics. In the next section, I will analyze how the queer participants in the Karibu Islands discussions expressed criticism of the existing social imaginaries through dialogues prompted by fantasy. Their ideas constitute the first step towards queer counter-productions.

Karibu Islands Discussions In the last section, I discussed two theoretical concepts, social imaginary and fantasy. Although both are related to our creative faculty, they do not refer to the same phenomenon. As Warner notes, All public addressees have some social basis. Their imaginary character is never merely a matter of private fantasy.19 Social imaginaries are normative in the sense that we expect things to happen in a certain way. Of course, things may not always happen in the way we want, but our expectations have to be met in many, if not most, situations. In contrast, we do not expect fantasies to be easily realized. Another important distinction is that social imaginaries are common understandings, collectively held, and reinforced by social

17 18

Ibid., 38.

Miriam Hansen, Unstable Mixtures, Dilated Spheres: Negt and Kluges The Public Sphere and Experience, Twenty Years Later, Public Culture 5.2 (1993), 204. Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 74.



institutions, whereas fantasies remain largely private, and are often suppressed by social institutions. In this section, I will analyze the Karibu Islands Birth Certificates filled out by the participants and their subsequent discussions. The participants were asked to imagine their lives in a fictional place with an impossible premise: because time in Karibu Islands flows in the opposite direction to that in our world, life processes, along with social processes, are reversed. The Birth Certificate includes seven sections and twenty-three items. It asks the participant to describe his or her biological condition at birth (age, height, weight, health condition), identity (gender, sexuality, mannerism, openness about sexual orientation), family (partner, children as time is reversed, children might be born before parents), asset condition, wisdom condition, values and beliefs (definition for success, signs of social progress, desired career), and life plans. The discussions were precipitated by the videos and the questions raised in the Birth Certificate. As mentioned earlier, the videos screened at the beginning of each session do not supply a watertight, comprehensive system of knowledge about Karibu Islands, but rather a collage of evocative ideas. Many assumptions made in the videos cannot be explained by logical deduction. The participants could interpret the lifeworld in Karibu Islands either as a mirror image of our lifeword, or as something totally unrelated. Consequently they could project either social imaginaries or fantasies, or a mixture of both onto their fictional lives in Karibu Islands. Furthermore, the videos and the Birth Certificate touched on a wide range of issues, ranging from personal life choices to social values. They prompted


the participants to consider sexuality not as an isolated issue but one embedded in the larger social context where human desires, economic transactions, and political ideologies are intertwined. My primary goal in this analysis is to suggest that fantasies can be a productive tool for revealing, critiquing, and potentially transforming social imaginaries. But before I proceed to the main task, it has to be noted that the relation

Figure 5.5 Birth Certificates filled out by Chunchun (left) and Haishui (right).


between social imaginaries and fantasies is not unidirectional. To a large extent, fantasies are bounded by existing social imaginaries. Our collective understandings can be so strong that it is difficult for us to stray from the prescribed path even when we find ourselves in a purely hypothetical exercise. For example, when asked about their desired career on Karibu Islands, many participants expressed a romantic outlook: painter, reporter, dancer, NGO worker, or globetrotting photographer, grave keeper, organism, independent writer, public being, etc. Yet when asked to describe the assets in their possession at birth, their answers were not far from the kind of expectations pervasive in Chinese society today: middle-class, ten million, house, cash, gold, ten million (savings) and a small house, a normal home, must have two bedrooms; a decent amount of savings, in fixed-term account; abilities to make money, etc. This suggests that the middle-class lifestyle has deeply penetrated the Chinese social imaginary, queer and straight alike. The words of Maizi, a young lesbian, captured the dominant attitude: If one wants to find happiness, an economic base is a must. If two people just sit across from each other munching manto [plane steamed bun], they will not be happy. So [we] have to make enough money, and then we can enjoy life. Of course, not everyone was susceptible to the tenacious grip of the middle-class ideal. For example, two people wrote nothing. Yang Guang, the Cultural Center manager, interpreted asset not as something material but experiential. He wrote, rich in experience, but mostly forgotten.


The atmosphere was notably different between the first two sessions, attended by gay men and lesbians, and the last one, attended by self-identified straight people. The queer discussants in the first two sessions smiled a lot, joked around, and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to share their fantasies with one another even though they had just met. They were curious about how others shaped their fictional characters in Karibu Islands, and engaged in animated conversations to understand the reason behind different choices. In contrast, after filling out the Birth Certificates, the straight group showed little interest in one anothers answers and plunged directly into an extended debate on whether homosexuality should be accepted in China, not Karibu Islands. There was a significant amount of anxiety and frustration, mocking laughter and raised voices. After about half an hour, one participant tried to interject, Are we here to discuss issues about homosexuality, or about temporality? The group paused for a few seconds, and then a young man started complaining about his gay colleague again, so the debate on homosexuality continued. It seemed easy for the queer participants to imagine themselves living in a hypothetical place. The great majority assumed that Karibu Islands would be a better place than contemporary China, although no one, except Bai Yongbing, a lesbian activist, was able to provide a sound explanation for this optimistic outlook. (More about Bais reasoning below.) Among the eleven gay participants, five envisaged that they would have children when they were born on Karibu Islands; seven out of the nine lesbians imagined the same. This is far from the reality in China today. Although no law prohibits queer adoption, the Central Government has stated clearly that even


queer foreigners cannot adopt children in China: According to Chinas traditional ethics and customs, homosexual behaviors are against public ethics and are not accepted by the society. Based on the Adoption Laws requirement that adoption should not violate public ethics, foreign homosexuals cannot adopt children in China. 20 Local queers could try to overcome this obstacle through personal connections or fake heterosexual marriages, but they would have to face enormous risk as well as social pressure. Three participants, two gay men and one lesbian, stated that they would have multiple partners at birth. Their answers went against both the law and the dominant attitude within the queer community, where a one-toone romantic relationship is considered the only path to happy life. It seems that Karibu Islands allowed the queer participants to articulate their expectations, desires, and fantasies. Lian, a gay man who was working as a human resources manager in real life, stated that he would like to be a dancer in Karibu Islands. To the question the first thing you want to do after birth, he wrote, drink a sip of water; breathe in a mouthful of air; travel around the world on foot. In his life plan, he stated that he would travel around the world for a second time between age 52 and 36, after having spent the first three decades planting a garden and learning to play piano and to dance. When someone asked him why he would travel around the world twice, he replied, not everything has to be logical. He added, [the Certificate] represents an ideal state for society and for myself. I believe there are many things that I cannot achieve but this is my ideal. Yang Guang was the only one who believed that

http://www.gov.cn/banshi/2005-10/12/content_76246.htm, accessed Feb. 11, 2012, translation mine.


Karibu Islands would be a place of horror because you will be born knowing everything that will happen to you, so its like you are dead already Karibu Islands is a place where death awaits. Yet unlike the straight participants in the third session who largely avoided talking about Karibu Islands, Yang was fully engaged in contemplating this dystopia. He pointed out that the only good thing about knowing ones life in advance is that one would be more likely to find inner peace. The queer participants spoke primarily in the first person singular and plural. They were immersed in imagining their own lives in Karibu Islands, and paid little attention to who else might be there. Although most of them were strangers to one another, their differences were subservient to a collective sense of hope and joy as if they were newly acquainted companions about to board a cruise to a queer paradise. Their optimism about Karibu Islands also spilled over occasionally to a future China. When Wenfeng, a gay man in his 30s, explained why he set 2018 as the birth year for his fictional self, he did not talk about Karibu Islands but China instead: Now is 2008. After ten years of efforts, I think the Chinese government should have developed a correct attitude towards the queer issue. Many countries have embraced homosexuality. After ten years, [China] should have no problem. The social atmosphere then will be one of tolerance. Negt & Kluge note that fantasies tend to turn around and face up to real situations once they have reached a certain distance from reality. 21 Fantasies will remain segregated from reality only if they are


Negt & Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience, 36.


deliberately organized and confined there by a valorization interest.22 Even when the queer participants made no explicit mention of China, their fantasies nonetheless have to be understood in relation to Chinas current social imaginaries, which always were present in the background. Therefore, when River indicated harmony decorated with opposition as signs of social progress at Karibu Islands, or when Justin wrote democracy, freedom, tolerance, and plurality, their remarks constituted critiques of the states position, that harmony and stability trump all other values.

Figure 5.6 Age at birth chosen by the participants.

The straight participants showed little interest in traveling to Karibu Islands to examine Chinas reality at a distance. Perhaps most of them did not find the premise of time reversal intriguing, or they simply lacked an appetite for fantasy in general. In their Birth Certificates, even in areas unrelated to sexuality, their answers were less diverse than those of the queer participants (see Figure 5.6 for an example). In their discussion, they talked less in the first person, about their own choices and ideas, than



in the third person, about the homosexuals. The center of their concern was not Karibu Islands, but China and the future of humanity. The mere existence of queer people seemed to disturb some discussants, whose reactions ranged from discomfort to a strong urge to police. The majority of the straight participants held the view that the general attitude towards homosexuality in China would not change significantly in the foreseeable future. Eddy, a stylish young man in his 20s, admitted apologetically that he still found homosexuals a bit difficult to accept. When asked if time reversal and being born old would make any difference, he said no. A girl concurred, her eyes scanning left and right, as if trying to look for some clues to why one might think otherwise. Another girl jumped in, Perhaps we would still live that many years, and we dont think that we would see much change in our lifetime. Most people would still hold the same opinion as now. Eddy added, Those who agree will see some change, but those who disagree will not. Hu Yushan, a recent graduate with a degree in philosophy, tried to intervene: Time matters in the way that, as you grow older, time will make you wiser; you will become more tolerant towards things in life. Zhang Zhong, a marshal arts trainer, interrupted Hu and said, Wisdom is hypocrisy; tolerance is frustration. He went on to claim that too much tolerance would lead to overindulgence, just like what has happened in the West. Among the discussants, he was the most vocal opponent of homosexuality, adamantly defending his position against alternative views. His central argument was that the survival of the human species requires reproduction, which can only be achieved through heterosexual


relationships. He framed his position as scientific, natural, and inevitable. Supported by a number of other discussants, his view was representative of the mainstream values in China today. In an online survey participated in by nearly 180,000 people in the summer of 2011, 75% selected homosexuals are disgusting, not acceptable.23 Many comments left on the survey page expressed the kind of reasoning articulated by Zhang. For example, one person wrote, You call such ills lifestyles. If you all go on to become homosexuals, the responsibility of human reproduction will fall upon people like us. You use various excuses to avoid the human responsibility and obligation. The expansion of the homosexual crowd will ultimately lead to the extinction of mankind!24 The idea that reproduction is an obligation to be fulfilled by every individual still reigns supreme in the Chinese social imaginary. While Karibu Islands presented an opportunity for the queer participants to fantasize, it constituted a challenge to many straight participants worldview. Negt and Kluges observation that the proletarian has always channeled part of their unfulfilled desires into fantasy finds its parallel in the queer situation. Queer people learn at an early age from personal experiences and mass media that it is taboo to talk about ones desire for the same sex. If a straight boy fancies a girl, he is considered a coward if he takes no action; but if a boy expresses his liking to another boy, he will be cursed and condemned. Largely deprived of role models and
Online survey conducted by ifeng.com, August 5, 2011, http://survey.news.ifeng.com/ result.php?surveyId=12894, accessed March 27, 2012.
24 23



blueprints for life, a queer person has to invent a large portion of her life through fantasy. As Judith Butler notes, Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home.25 Karibu Islands provided an opportunity for the queer participants to share their fantasies, but not all of the queer participants showed the same level of optimism. For example, Chunchun and Haishui, both gay men in their 30s, were remarkably different in their conception of personal lives and collective destinies. In his Birth Certificate, Chunchun describes his fictional self as a gay man born in 2050, at the age of 73, with high cholesterol and heart disease, living with an adopted child but no partner. He would keep his sexual orientation a secret and only disclose it to his close friends. Haishui, in contrast, imagines his fictional self as a gay man born in 2080, at the age of 100, healthy and strong, with two children and multiple male partners. He would be completely free and completely open about his sexual orientation. In group discussion, against the majority, Chunchun insisted that Chinese peoples attitude towards homosexuality would not change in a hundred years. Interestingly, among the participants, Chunchun was the only one working full-time as an activist. He was in charge of coordinating volunteers for Aizhixing, the largest HIV-AIDS NGO in Beijing. At the same time, he was managing several dozens of gay groups via QQ, the most popular online instant-messaging platform, and organizing weekend trips for their members. I joined a hiking trip organized by him

Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 29.


in April 2008. Ten people showed up. We climbed a small hill next to the famous Fragrant Hill in the western suburb. Littered with trash, the small hill was not scenic but free.26 We all brought our own food. After we reached the peak, there was nothing to do, so we sat down on a large piece of rock and started chatting. When someone found out that I was 33 years old, he asked me if I were married, meaning married to a woman. Surprised by the question, I asked other peoples opinion on marriage. Everyone said he was planning to get married. One person declared that he would marry a girl, let her give birth to two children, and then divorce her. I thought since Chunchun was an activist, he might be against the idea of a heterosexual marriage. But he said he too would marry in the near future. Because he was reaching 30 and still unmarried, his parents, living in a small village in Shandong province, were facing enormous pressure from relatives and fellow villagers. Going to the market was becoming a dread for them. Of the ten people present, I was the only one from Beijing. The others all came from the countryside and were working in Beijing in manual or service jobs. They had little hope of leading a gay life in the long run. Seen against his likely future in reality, Chunchuns decision to let his fictional character on Karibu Islands to live alone not married to a woman was already a bold fantasy.

Queer Temporality and Radical Secularity As one lesbian participant noted, the biggest pressure for queer people in China comes from the institution of the family. Everyone is expected to get married

A ticket to the Fragrant Hill park would cost 10 yuan, about $1.5.


and have children by a certain age. Parents are usually the most adamant enforcers, considering their childrens compliance to the natural order their own responsibility and ultimate evaluation of their parenthood. They make inquiries, arrange dates, and even devise threats. Other people relatives, colleagues, friends, and sometimes strangers chip in, helping parents to inquire, coax, persuade, or coerce. The pressure to conform is usually much greater in the countryside than in cities, and may vary depending on a range of factors like class, education, and family structure. Several forces weave together to make this institution almost untouchable. The famous saying of Mencius There are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them27 is one of the most robust Confucian ideas that have remained in the popular consciousness, never purged by the political campaigns during the Mao era or the economic transformations since the late 1970s. In fact, economic growth only seems to have strengthened it. Progress is taken as a proven fact, and the future is always brighter than the past. So why wouldnt you want to procreate so that the bright future can be enjoyed by your heirs? At the same time, family is still the most important institution for resource sharing and crisis relief. It is not unusual for parents to give money to their adult children so they can buy an apartment or afford a comfortable living. On the other hand, children are expected to take care of their elderly parents and pay for their medical bills towards the end of their life. The lack of adequate social welfare reinforces the mindset that family is the
Mencius, The Works of Mencius, trans. James Legge (New York: Clarendon, 1895), online at http://nothingistic.org/library/mencius/, accessed March 31, 2012.


most reliable line of support, if not the only one. Lee Edelmans notion, reproductive futurism,28 is applicable to the Chinese situation. In the second Karibu Islands discussion, attended by nine lesbians, Bai Yongbing raised one idea: as people on Karibu Islands are not created through heterosexual intercourse and their critical link to their parents is not birth but death one climbs into the womb of ones mother to die it may be the case that sexual orientation would no longer matter there. Her inference about Karibu Islands can be understood as a criticism of the hegemonic status attributed to procreation, futurity, and heterosexuality in our society. As Edelman points out, what makes queerness intolerable in our society is a nonteleological negativity that refuses the leavening of piety and with it the dollop of sweetness afforded by messianic hope.29 Queerness opens up the possibility to refute the life process prescribed as normal. As mentioned earlier, the straight participants showed a surprising concentration in their imagined age at birth on Karibu Islands, which can be read as their desired longevity in this life: ten out of twelve people chose between 80 and 100 years old. Their consensus points to the fact that our society creates longevity as the most desirable future and applauds the pursuit of long life (under any circumstances).30 A number of the queer participants gave their fictional selves considerably shorter lives; half of the
See Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).
29 28

Lee Edelman et al., Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.2-3 (2007), 195. Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 4.



lesbians chose under 60. While the desire for longevity could be easily translated under the time reversal hypothesis, the normative attitudes towards children were more difficult to transfer to Karibu Islands. Would parents replace children as the hope of future, the ultimate redemption of toil and sacrifice? No one, queer or straight, was able to imagine such a scenario, perhaps because time reversal had caused procreation to vanish from view. This may be one of the reasons why the queer participants enthusiastically imagined their lives on Karibu Islands, whereas the straight participants expressed anxiety and annoyance. Queer temporality challenges reproductive futurism by focusing on this life, here and now. In this sense, queerness shares one important feature with publicness: both negate previous conceptions that societies are founded on a transcendent time. As Taylor notes, The public sphere is an association which is constituted by nothing outside of the common action we carry out in it: coming to a common mind, where possible, through the exchange of ideas. Its existence as an association is just our acting together in this way. This common action is not made possible by a framework which needs to be established in some action-transcendent dimension: either by an act of God, or in a Great Chain, or by a law which comes down to us since time out of mind.31 Taylor calls this unprecedented aspect of the public sphere radical secularity. Because publics are not sustained by any external framework, they can only act in the present tense. He further suggests that this secular understanding allows us to imagine society horizontally, unrelated to any high points, where the ordinary

Taylor, A Secular Age, 192.


sequence of events touches higher time.32 In China, traces of transcendent principles can still be detected in our conception of time and society. For example, in recent years, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has become a prominent discourse in official propaganda. The Chinese nation is imagined not as a people organized by our common action in secular time, but as a transcendent entity traveling through time to realize a preexisting destiny. The obsession with marriage and children, mentioned earlier, functions in a similar way, only at a smaller scale. Families more precisely, clans are pictured not as temporary associations with a limited lifespan but as immortal beings carrying historical lineage into eternity. While the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation often is used to contain publicness by trumping disagreement with the seemingly natural mandate, chuan zong jie dai to carry on the clan by continuing the generations serves to suppress queerness by pressuring everyone to conform to a lifestyle founded on reproductive futurism. In their demand for radical secularity, the quest for queer freedom and the pursuit of publicness converge.

Participation in Exhibition When Karibu Islands was shown in the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial in September 2008, it was installed in an empty apartment in a high-rise residential building in the suburb of Guangzhou. I liked the fact that the exhibition space was similar to the Beijing LGBT Cultural Center, also located in a high-rise residential

Ibid., 209.


building. The apartment had two rooms in sequence, allowing me to create a temporal order in the viewing experience. When visitors approached the apartment from the dark hallway, they would be greeted with a simple graphite drawing, a map of Karibu Islands, spotlit from above. In the first room, the set of video sketches on Karibu Islands were being played on a flat-screen television placed on the far end of a low table. People could sit around the table comfortably on thick straw pads. On the tabletop there were stacks of empty Karibu Islands Birth Certificates for people to fill out. Entering the second room, they could sit down to watch the documentaries of the discussions previously held in Beijing, or walk around the room to look at the birth certificates hanging on two walls. Furthermore, they could add their own certificates to the display. The two-step experience encouraged visitors to imagine their own lives in a reversed time-world before encountering the imaginations of the queer and straight participants in the Beijing discussions. My hope was that, by spending a little effort to reflect on one ones own life first, one would treat the choices of others with more care and curiosity. In participatory projects like the ones discussed in this dissertation, the artwork interacts with two groups of people: the participants who take part in the creation of the artwork, and the viewers who encounter the finished work when it is exhibited. In this dissertation I have focused on the participants the truck drivers in Moving Rainbow, the readers in Nian, the villager filmmakers in Village Documentary Project, and the discussants in Karibu Islands and demonstrated how publicness is realized through their participation. Certainly the exhibition of artworks


also gives rise to publicness. I have not dealt with publicness through exhibition because it is widely assumed. Habermas points out that the establishment of public museums was critical to the cultivation of a bourgeois subjectivity, a consciousness functionally adapted to the institutions of the public sphere in the world of letters.33 While public display establishes objects of common attention, the core of publicness lies in criticism: strangers engage each other in critical discussions about art. However, as Fraser Ward argues, the art museum has been haunted by representative publicity since the very beginning.34 Artworks are displayed to impress visitors, much like the emperor used the royal collections to impress visitors to the court. In China, during the Mao era, art predominantly served as a form of propaganda, generating publicity for the party line. Expressing views alternative to official interpretations was a risky business and could easily result in political prosecution. As mentioned in the Introduction, an important element of the Stars exhibitions publicness is the provision of guestbooks for visitors to write down their opinions. For the first time in decades, people could engage in debates about art openly. However, it would be wrong to assume that since then art criticism has become an established practice. Exhibitions do not automatically lead to critical discussions. Today, although visiting an art exhibition is no longer a collective experience orchestrated by the state, it has transformed into a private experience, much like consumption of commodities. One contemplates the artwork alone,
33 34

Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 51.

Fraser Ward, The Haunted Museum: Institutional Critique and Publicity, October 73 (Sumer 1995), 76.


conversing only with ones companions. The existence of strangers in the same space causes not interaction but a sense of annoyance. Few people participate in any form of public debate, whether face-to-face or via media. How can we extend participation into the exhibition space? Can we create stranger relations and visibility among museum visitors? These were the questions I wanted to address in designing the form of Karibu Islands for the Guangzhou Triennial. The final installation consisted of not only the videos and birth certificates, but also a spatial and temporal experience that encouraged visitors to interact with the work. In fact, interaction was the artworks ultimate form. Objects in different mediums drawing, video, and text functioned as props for the interactive process. During the discussions held in Beijing, I was present and facilitated the flow of activities. Without my presence or a facilitator onsite, the interactive process had to seem intuitive and relied on the experiential design. The casual atmosphere was deliberate, helping to dilute the awe associated with art exhibitions. The apartment space, the low table, and the straw pads were important because they invited people to slow down, feel comfortable, and participate in the work. Stranger relations were established not by dialogue but by the juxtaposition of birth certificates. The exhibition of Karibu Islands also marked the first occasion that queer issues were openly addressed in a national art event, contributing to queer visibility. Many socially engaged artists have moved away from the museum and situated their practice in sites more directly linked to issues of concern. However, museums and exhibitions remain indispensible to the sustainment of public life. The


focus of this dissertation has been on how publicness is created through participatory art-making. How publicness can be strengthened in the exhibition space is not fully explored. In recent years, the Chinese state has started to invest enormous financial capital in building up national and provincial museums. Thus it is urgent for us to turn to museums and exhibitions and treat them as a critical ground for the pursuit of publicness.


Epilogue In this dissertation, I have studied four recent art projects in China to understand what publicness entails and how it has been realized by the artists and their collaborators in the past decade. I have focused on select aspects of these projects in individual chapters, but in fact, they share a number of things in common: (1) the artists and participants acted as citizens and demanded citizens rights; (2) they organized discursive arenas outside the state; (3) they defined issues of common concern; (4) they mobilized both rational-critical and affective expressions, and utilized a wide range of media, including image, text, sound, and video; (5) they fostered stranger relations; (6) they strove for media visibility; (7) they focused on contemporary common action. These traits together constitute publicness. There is much left to be done. We need to look both into the past and into the future. In terms of the past, I have only touched on the Stars event (1979-80). The 1980s was a period of tremendous experimentation and risk-taking. Art activities blossomed all over China, not limited to a few megacities. Recently much work has been done to compile the primary documents from this decade, preparing the ground for more in-depth studies.1 A keyword that artists and critics used during this period was feiguanfang, meaning unofficial. Linking up the publicness framework with the wide range of feiguanfang activities of the 1980s will be productive for both.
For example, Fei Dawei, ed. 85 xin chao dang an (85 New Wave Archive) (Shanghai: Shi ji wen jing, 2007), Hung Wu and Peggy Wang, eds., Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), and Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, Asia Art Archive (http://www.china1980s.org/tc/Default.aspx).


Chinese experimental art in the 1990s was characterized by a market turn. The rise of the market since the mid-1990s has profoundly changed both China as a whole and the so-called Chinese contemporary art field. In this dissertation, I have not dealt with the relationship between publicness and Chinas particular form of market economy, and the global art market. Perhaps global market success has been one of the factors that allow Ai Weiwei to challenge the Chinese state in a way unparalleled by other Chinese artists. More importantly, the market is a space for strangers to meet and interact. A study of the 1990s may provide insights on how markets, both national and international, have been leveraged by artists in their pursuit of publicness. Going back even further, we can juxtapose recent efforts with the avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1930s, when arts relation to society was fervently debated and fundamentally reconfigured. 2 We can also contrast the notion of publicness in contemporary art to the idea of art-serving-the-people in the Mao era. Such a comparison will likely sharpen our understanding of publicness, and help us avoid the pitfalls of collectivism. Looking into the future, I sense three major challenges. First, it seems that the almighty party-state is not going away any time soon. How far can we push publicness within Chinas totalitarian system? Will we soon reach the limit, thus having to decide whether to escalate to some political form beyond publicness? Second, we need to think more about the changing media landscape. Currently the

Tang Xiaobings book, Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), studies the relationship between art and society in the 1930s, but does not adequately deal with the issue of publicness in this period.


states control of mass media seriously limits the effectiveness of our efforts. Of the four case studies in this dissertation, Xiong Wenyuns Moving Rainbow generated the greatest media impact for several reasons: its environmental message was deemed less threatening by the state; Xiong skillfully worked with activists, journalists, and supportive officials, and created events geared towards media; she persisted over time, gradually expanding the scope of the project and its media reach. Yet to a large extent, her use of media was conventional. Ai Weiwei was quick to tap into the potential of the internet, but when he became the target of state control, his online presence in China rapidly diminished. Tactical media remains an underexplored area in Chinese contemporary art. Third, as mentioned at the end of Chapter 2, when artists move away from the production-exhibition model and engage with sociopolitical issues directly in the mass media, a fundamental shift may have to occur in the temporality of artistic practice. This can only happen if we develop better theoretical models as well as support infrastructures.


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