Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Your Utopia Is Ours
Cao Fei and Jordan Strom

Speaking recently of the wooden sculptural city she made for the China Month Project at Robert Wilson’s Water Mill Center in New York, Cao Fei described the work, “like Shanghai or Manhattan,” in that it looked “very beautiful but empty inside.” Resembling the skyline of Guangzhou or the big box factories of the Pearl River Delta where she has situated most of her projects, Cao is transfixed by the spaces of urban capitalism and its effects on the lives of workers, youths, lovers, entertainers, and street hawkers that occupy them. Playing the seam of documentary and artifice with a good deal of agility, the artist is one of a younger generation of artists who is busy fusing digital technologies with traditional theatrical forms and contemporary cultural phenomena.

Unlike her father—a successful seventy-four year old State sculptor—Cao opts for a multiplicity of roles: filmmaker, playwright, photographer, composer, sculptor, and video artist. After she gave up the flared costumes and heavy makeup of projects such as COSplayers (2004) and PRD Anti-Heroes (2005) there was a transition in her work toward the shop-floor realism of her 2006 Sydney Biennale project What are you doing here? While still concerned with youth, Cao Fei’s work has recently taken another turn—this time toward nature, escape, and the environmental impact of tourism.

Recently in Vancouver for exhibitions at Artspeak and Presentation House in conjunction with Territories—a large group show which scattered itself across several of the city’s municipalities—the artist sat down late one summer night to discuss some of the recent shifts in her work.

Jordan Strom – If there is one element that seems to run through the majority of your projects, it’s dance. From the choreographed revolutionary dancing of PRD Anti-heroes troupe and the gangly proto-electro movement of Hip Hop (2003) to the onastic waltzing of the milk delivery boy in Milkman (2005), what is it about dance that is important for you to repeatedly include it in your work?

Cao Fei – Dance is part of my personal history. I used to do a lot of street dancing when I was an early teen. Not hip hop per se. I performed what is called street dance. I would tell my parents that I was going to night school, but instead I would take the money to go to dance on the street. We would go as a group. Some streets were more quiet than others. We would bring our ghetto blaster and dance all afternoon and night. Later it shifted to the clubs, but early on it was the street that was important.

Strom – You clearly took this experience of dancing and the theatre of the street for inspiration in your projects such as Hip Hop where you capture different individuals (workers, students, police, grandparents) dancing their own interpretation of a hip hop style. The echoes of American youth culture can be found in your other works too. Where did your knowledge of this youth culture derive from?

Cao – I saw lots of MTV when I young. I learned a great deal through TV, especially Hong Kong television that was broadcast in Guangzhou. It was a mix of Hong Kong and Western programming.

Strom – The curator and interview-raconteur Hans Ulrich Obrist has spoken recently about the manner in which you use pop culture. He says that you don’t use it in the common way that artists often deploy it as—a “ubiquitous orgy of appropriation or revival.” Instead, you use pop culture as a bridge between different ideas. Could you talk about this bridging—and the notion of hybridity—that the viewer finds in your work.

Cao – My generation grew up in a situation of hybridity. Many outsiders think that me and my peers were isolated, but hybrid influences have always been there. We were already hybrids. We cannot exactly differentiate that from what was the original and what was the traditional because, as in COSplayers, there’s nothing that we can exactly belong to.

Strom – Heroicism is certainly present in your work, but it is dealt with and expressed in a very different manner than with previous generations. I think of your father’s grand figurative sculptures of Deng Xiaoping in your documentary of him titled Father (2005). Whereas your heroic figures—the at once dissolute and steely-nerved teens of COSplayers or the transgressing milk delivery man, A Ming, in _Milkman_—are embodied in the urban youth of Guangzhou itself.

Cao – For my father’s generation, everybody had a hero. At one point everybody worshipped Deng or Mao. They shared these heroes as a group. The current generation has its own personal private heroes. For many it is manga, and the characters of manga who are the new heroes. Many of the younger generation identify to such a degree with these characters that they feel they have these heroic powers in themselves. For both generations the image of each hero—as conveyed through their poses—contain a great deal of meaning. Part of that power is symbolized through a set of poses that each character has. That’s why for me the pose plays such a central role in work such as COSplayers. The nation’s history always credits the good hero, like Lei Feng. I am more interested in the folk. I am interested in common people. Different jobs. History never remembers them. This led me to working with the factory workers in the project for the Sydney Biennale.

Strom – And this Siemens Art Project: What are you doing here for Sydney seems like a logical extension of your PRD Anti-Heroes project in many ways. Rather than working with actors playing the part of workers of the Pearl River Delta, you’re working instead with the actual PRD factory workers from the OSRAM factory to create an art performance piece. This is not dissimilar from COSplayers where you used actual teenagers that had previously participated in these same sorts of activities. Yet, in What are you doing here it isn’t the city that is the stage, instead it is the factory floor. Why did you decide to make this jump to the spaces and people of the factory?

Cao – It is an interesting thing. I have always been drawn to the theatricality of daily life. In PRD Anti-Heroes I change the story. I let the actor act like workers on the stage, and this time, the recent project, I got rid of the real actor and used the real worker. The theatre in effect went directly to the real. It was my first time collaborating directly with the worker, and not with other performing or fine artists. It was an extraordinary experience. I feel that I learned a great deal from them that I would not have been able to do through books, reports, or newspaper articles on their conditions and experiences.

Strom – Could you describe the process that went into the theatrical productions that you eventually staged?

Cao – I began by composing fifteen questions and sending them to the factory workers to respond to. Not everybody from this group responded due to the sheer volume of questions and their busy work schedules. In the end about a hundred replied. I then averaged the responses. Some questions concerned their daily life. “How do you feel about the factory” or “Why did you decide to leave your home and go to the river delta” and “What do you hope to achieve in the future” This process gave me an interesting impression of their lives in the factory. In the end I selected fifty-five employees dictated by the nature of their responses. These employees were then divided into smaller groups and asked to build installations and orchestrate performances. In one instance, for example, a worker who demonstrates an interest in sound and music is encouraged to develop ways to use his product which he interacts with everyday to make noise music. These “products” are key to the project. On the production line, the product is their job; it is their everything.

Yet, at the same time they don’t think of it as a product. Through these workshops we make installations with each group. We also integrate performance and dance in the factory, which is generally banned from the factory space and the production line. I wanted to push the boundaries of normality within the spaces of the factory.

Strom – You have previously discussed how these activities are very much about releasing emotions and feeling of the factory worker. Could you talk about this?

Cao – Yes, it is about them having a chance to expose their ideas and feelings to their fellow workers and make that expression visible. The conditions that these workers live under is generally highly invisible to a broader public. What this project does is release the workers from a standardized notion of productivity. What we are doing is production, but a type of production that connects back to the personal. I am like a social worker. They don’t regard me as an artist. They think I’m an event organizer, a social worker. This is fine with me as it was always my intention to have the artist’s role disappear. What I noticed is that through these activities the workers become interested in things. Now they have a relationship to art. Their products are connected to art.

Strom – The newspaper, the Utopia Daily, which you produced in conjunction with the project, seems to refer or allude to a kind of early socialist worker papers—a factory workers’ news of sorts. Yet, the Utopia Daily talks not so much about collective utopia as individual ones, or how the individual imagines or experiences utopia. Can you expand on this notion of individual utopia?

Cao – The fundamental question is “Whose utopia” The slogan of the newspaper is “Your utopia is ours.” Cho-gan means “is ours.” What I mean by this is that it is everybody’s utopia. It’s the society’s utopia as a whole. It’s the government’s utopia. Generally, the government focussed strictly on economic production and GDP.

The majority of the workers immigrate to the big city, to the factory, and in doing so have no rights, no benefits, and no power. So what I am attempting to ask through this work is “Where is their dream” “What is utopia” As part of this I hope to make people inside and outside the factory conscious of this problem.

Strom – As you say you want the project to impact outside of this particular factory. Yet, you have described to me how the work is manifested strictly within that space. How does the work extend into the world How were these actions that took place in the factory realized in the 15th Sydney Biennale exhibition?

Cao – Yes, so the first phase of the exhibition is inside the factory. This aspect of the work is meant for the factory workers and their families only. The performances and installations took place in the factory’s basketball court. The second phase takes place in the Sydney Biennale. Here we installed video monitors which played the performances within the context of the exhibition. In addition there were stacks of the Utopia Daily newspaper for people to take away.

Strom – So you think the direct interaction and social interaction involved in the Siemens Project has more impact than the poetic theatricality of COSplayers for example?

Cao – I think it does.

Strom – Do you think then that this is a big shift in your practice and that you might not return to this earlier mode that is more reliant on artifice?

Cao – After doing the What are you doing here project I feel that it is really important that art have this social aspect, this function of trying to reach out to society, not just to be making something beautiful in your studio but to actually function as a bridge.

Strom – I would like you to discuss your most recent project. What is the premise behind the Yuannan Film Project?

Cao – Yuannan is a region in west China. It has not had a lot of industrial development around it. It has no capital interjected into it, so it is still very untouched and pristine. So many people travel there, whether they are foreigners or locals. Some people, like the Japanese or Americans, set up residences and stay there and kind of become a part of the local scene. So while it has become a major tourist province it is even more than this. It is a kind of a utopia within China. A place to search for paradise and reject the kind of rapid reorganization happening in society at large. With this project I wanted to make a feature-length documentary of sorts—a travelogue—using two young people—who happen to be rappers—both in real life and in the film. I am interested in a youth backpacking subculture that has formed in this region over the last number of years. Backpacking seems to be used by youth in order for them to prove their vigor and self-worth. I was interested in the way these two young men as rappers are already natural performers. Throughout the course of the film they spontaneously perform, rap, and banter back and forth with each other. For me this activity is about their seeking escape and fantasy.

Strom – But as with any drama, not everything is fine in paradise. How do these two young men fare in utopia?

Cao – Yes, as it turns out it is not a very fruitful trip. Much like the Three Gorges Dam, the local officials in that part of Yuannan want to develop a dam as a means to achieve widespread economic development. So that would mean that much of this area would get flooded about 200 meters and they have started to move—and of course this would have a devastating environmental impact. Equally devastating would be the social impact. Officials have already begun moving a lot of the ethnic minorities out of the region. This represents a significant loss of cultures because the specific qualities of their customs will be lost. I want the film to appear to the government like entertainment or promotion.

I have to be indirect in making these points because the project is sponsored by the Yuannan government. We need to get permission from the Film Department in central Beijing. The censors will look over it. You can’t be direct. Anyway, I am not looking to create opposition. If I take a very extreme or oppositional position, then it’s not fruitful. It doesn’t really reach the audience. It’s better to try to provide some sort of mediation, some sort of bridging. What is important is this exchange. In this sense it is not just a personal artist thing. It is my role to communicate with the different social strata of society.

Special thanks to Steven Tong and Sally Lee for their help with the translation of this interview.


About the Authors

Cao Fei is a Guangzhou-based artist whose practice includes performances, photography, film, and theatrical works. Her works have been included in many exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art including biennials in Sydney, Moscow, and Fukuoka.

Jordan Strom is a curator and writer based in Vancouver. He is Founding Editor of Fillip. He currently works as Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the Surrey Art Gallery.

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