Presenting the Plant Way of Life
The Springtime Plants and Patterns ‘playshop’ series concluded last weekend with a little exhibition in Xiangyang Park, featuring drawings and notes of botanical encounters made by a jaunty group of kids over the past two months.
Like everyone, kids can easily overlook plants as they cast about for things of interest. Plants are stationary, for one, while the hunter instinct in us all is more drawn to things that scurry. Yet if one can entice kids to look, plants can help them develop a knowledge of themselves as participating in a connected and miraculously complex web of life. This is especially relevant for kids not growing up on the farm, rooted to laws of nature by habit. Drawing city kids into the plant world is a patient art and not always easy as our ‘playshop’ guides will attest. Below is a brief roundup of insights from our tour of city parks.
1. Elucidate Parallels
Stimulating interest in plants is partly a matter of elucidating parallels between the plant way of life and the animal way of life, better yet between a particular plant’s way of life and that of the person studying it.
Take the veins on a leaf. They are not visible from a distance, nor do they usually catch our attention just glancing at a leaf’s surface. But prompted to examine the leaf’s underside a child can’t help but to trace the delicate lines with eyes and fingers. There is no need to explain them: even the youngest investigator can appreciate their likeness to our own veins. One possible revelation in this simple activity might be an apprehension of mortality. However brief and indistinct, this kind of aesthetic experience of an individual plant can lay the foundation for a slightly altered, more relational frame of mind.
As one continues investigating, more novel parallels between ourselves and plants may become apparent. Wrinkles are more pronounced in the bark of some trees, the deep grooves home to colonies of moss and lichen. Why? “Because they’re older!” comes a chorus of voices. After comparing the skin of an older person in the group with a younger person, picking out the older siblings in a stand of camphor trees becomes an exuberant game.
2. Articulate Differences
A careful inspection of the ground around any tree will reveal bits of fallen bark, each piece an irregular shape with varied thickness, texture, color. In light of the parallels with our own skin these qualities become quite interesting. They tell us something about the tree, but they also tell us something about ourselves. Do we shed comparable volumes of detritus? Is our skin a similarly variegated patchwork? Why is our skin so soft in comparison? These kinds of questions point to differences perceived in the context of parallels. They may seem like idle musings, but they can also stir hidden connections that are the substance of creative breakthroughs.
3. Cultivate Playfulness
Since different qualities of plants will capture people’s interest differently, exploratory activities ideally give everyone the opportunity to interact with the botanical world on their own terms. Arranging situations conducive to directed play is a complex challenge. Here are just a few thoughts: 1) a playful attitude is infectious; 2) tools are invitations to play (e.g. pencil and paper, magnifying glass, specimen containers); 3) quality of mind reflects quality of space. Each of these bears elaboration but the first is paramount, and it just means entertaining your own flickers of curiosity towards botanical life you encounter.
Plants are replete with peculiarities that stimulate the imagination and – for adults especially — stretch our tolerance for bewilderment. Photosynthesis is the central puzzle, but everything from the way plants protect themselves, draw nutrients and water from the soil, breath, communicate and reproduce takes us on a journey from the familiar to the strange. Consider an abbreviated list of types of sexual expression among flowering plants: dichogamous, dioecious, gynodioecious, hermaphroditic, polygamodioecious, protandrous, subandroecious, trimonoecious, unisexual. Dioecious denotes the familiar arrangement where individuals are either male or female and remain so for life. The variety of creative alternatives and their physical manifestations are curious to say the least, maybe bewildering, or depending on your mood deeply humorous.
On a sunny May day in Shanghai we are presented with the spectacle of minute flowers and delicate seed pods raining down or sailing away on the wind, towering trees and tiny sprouts, outlandish fragrances and forms. Everything is on the cusp of morphing into something else. In this exquisite wonderland a simple word may be all that is needed to turn another’s mind onto the plant way of life.
It is a mild winter afternoon, kids and adults trickle in one by one. The windows have been shaded for the first shadow puppet playshop of the winter. A candle flickering brightly in the center of the room draws everyone into a circle.
Behind a rice-paper screen Erna and Jasamine are readying their puppets. Simple paper cut-outs are all that are needed to convey a day in the life of a lone fisherman with a crooked back, plying a windy winter lake in his skiff. Shadows appear on the screen and the small audience goes silent. A magical fish is transformed, the fisherman dances a dream-dance, a visitor from afar arrives… this is a story about the harshness of winter, old age and luck. After the short performance lights go on and the brief spell cast by the shadows dissipates. “Boorring,” one boy giddily declares. Another girl mischievously lifts the screen to reveal the hidden performers.
For many scholars the emergence of human culture can be traced to mastery of fire by our ancestors more than 400,000 years ago. By extending wakefulness into the night fire provided a context for attentive listening and closer attunement of individuals. Storytelling, in particular, fostered cooperation and coordination among early humans, giving them an extra edge over competitors and prey, aiding in the development of social learning traits manifested in evolving tool technology and the arts, and ultimately accelerating the formation of complex societies. (See studies of anthropologist Polly Weissner and of literary scholar Brian Boyd for two interesting perspectives on the story of storytelling.)
It is reasonable to guess that for the same reasons storytelling was transformative, shadow play was not a trivial technology for early humankind. We have no evidence of prehistoric shadow play, of course, but anthropologists believe that the flickering shadows of oil lamps, for one, were integral to the effect intended by early cave painters. By enhancing the affective power of narrative, shadow play may have supercharged group cohesion for tribes that had it.
Electronic media has a somewhat analogous effect today, connecting individuals across the globe and galvanizing the emotional and moral basis for vast regimes of coordination. The things that bind global society together—religious values, political values, markets, corporations, money— are all made effective through stories elaborated through our media technologies.
Imagination run amok?
The imaginary quality of stories gives them their connective power, making them meaningful across place and time. This same quality also raises a potential hazard however, for fictions and institutions associated with them can perpetuate despite shifts in the underlying circumstances which produced them. This potential for disconnect lies at the root of conflicts and crises throughout history. What stories are perpetuated today, so rooted in our minds we may barely notice them, that may be ripe for revision?
The body is the site of primary knowledge, and philosophers of every era and stripe have asserted that the antidote to imagination run amok is a more conscientious attending to sensory experience. In this respect shadow puppetry and the electronic media that keeps us in trance today are very distinct. Like fire itself, firelight shadows have presence. They dance as the flame responds to currents and particles in the air. Existing strictly in the present, they cause us to open our minds to the present and expand our senses.
The living arts may not reveal where our imaginations have taken us astray, but by giving us the experience of beauty in our midst they can help to train our minds to attend to our sense perception with fresh curiosity and renewed aesthetic sensitivity. Shadow play, in particular, recalls a time early in our childhood as well as early in human history when our imaginative powers were just beginning to stir, sensory experience of our immediate surroundings still the dominant focus of our minds.
A feast for the senses
Six weeks after our first shadow puppet playshop, on a crisp day in mid-March, another performance is underway. This time the original audience is behind the screen. They are young and their stories are endearingly guileless, catapulting ahead through logical leaps, spiraling digression, inaudibility. The audience is nonetheless captivated. Many are parents who (given the importance of storytelling to our success) have a natural interest in the performers’ developing skills. But there are also touching triumphs and comical surprises. At one point an ocean horizon tilts uncharacteristically to the left. The puppeteers’ illusion is not completely broken, but the attempt to create an illusion is of equal interest. The light itself bends and brightens against the screen, a blue shadow cast through a filter drawing our interest, holding us momentarily in a soft spell and causing us to wonder.
For more about shadow puppet playshops please visit the archive.
The practice of bamboo handcraft spans millennia in China, generating products that are deeply embedded in cultural life. In our electronic age bamboo still has an intrinsic allure, engaging the senses and the imagination at even a casual encounter, and inciting a strong intuition that its possibilities have yet to be exhausted. A recent series of bamboo handcraft ‘playshops’ put this intuition to the test.
Fourteen kids and adults have gathered at the studio on a Sunday afternoon to make kites. Charlotte is already head down, working out how to tie together the center braces for a classic diamond kite. John too is already at work with William –they have in mind a snowman kite. Kitty and Joanna are not sure. Miranda is thinking, toying with the bamboo strips.
The strips are made by drawing a knife or chisel down the length of the culm (stem) and then making another split parallel to the first one. Each strip is about 2 millimeters thick and a half-meter long. They bend easily to 45 degrees, indicative of the natural flexibility of the bamboo plant that has adapted to survive typhoons. By turning the strips between thumb and forefinger the fibers can be further stretched until the two ends are joined in a circle. Stretch too far and they crack and splinter. The splinters are sharp and rigid: watch out! With finesse a crack can be controlled, however, so that the thickness of the strip can be peeled away in layers resulting in a more flexible piece.
Miranda weaves the strips into a form with three-dimensional curvature. Weaving creates a balance of counter-forces– mimicking the polylamellate structure of bamboo fibers themselves. With a little dexterity and patience a pile of strips can be transformed into a floating apparition of geometric beauty, entirely self-supporting without adhesives, bindings or fasteners. Woven too tightly, however, and the form is too rigid, too loosely and the strips fall apart. Everyone shares a common sense of humility in the face of something not yet entirely understood.
Perhaps the most distinguishing quality of bamboo is its hollowness. This anomaly confers an advantage in forests where the canopy is high and thick. The wide circumference provides stability for height, and with about a third the plant mass of a similarly sized solid tree stem, a moso bamboo shoot can reach the sunlight 25 meters above the forest floor within two months.
The hollow tube that has resulted from this evolutionary trajectory can happily serve many purposes. Ellen has used it as a container for putting insects; Ricard has turned it into a body cavity for a flying raptor figurine; Theo has conceived a launch-tube for missiles; it is employed as a base for several intriguing architectural constructions.
As with any hollow, air pressure within the tube wall can be isolated from pressure without, creating the conditions for resonance, e.g. amplification and modification of sound waves. Ricard’s rice-shaker, Charlotte’s clapper, Argos’ flute, Chen Lian’s chimes, Miranda’s erhu—blowy, brassy, stringed or percussive, the resonant quality of bamboo’s hollow interior draws the mind to consideration of all manner of inventive instruments.
Bamboo is considered to be one of the “four gentlemen” in the Chinese literati tradition, but a conception of bamboo as a marvelous young playmate may also be apt. After all, its rapid growth and evergreen coloration are symbolic of youth; its culms rarely grow older than 6-7 years (usually succumbing to fungi that colonize its short-term advantageous hollow); and it is a relatively young subfamily in the plant kingdom, having propagated a mere 15-20 million years ago. Most simply, it is an endlessly absorbing material for play, inviting explorations in balance, structure, sound, and much more to any inquisitive mind.
From a broader perspective, bamboo has a wondrous capacity to open our apprehension of the material world as a realm of possibility, not simply where designs are realized, but where interaction elicits impromptu discovery, taking us down unimagined pathways of learning.
To view more artworks and photos from past bamboo handcraft ‘playshops’ view the archive.
A potent artist (that abides in us all)
“Seeing Cinnamomum” is workshop series and book compilation that is part of the “Book of Leaves” program. The second family workshop was held this past weekend, during which participants created collages from ground camphor leaves and other detritus from the park. Not surprisingly several kids ignored instructions and went about creating artworks their own way. Joyfully piling on heaps of material one boy created what at first looked like an undifferentiated mess. “Very nice,” I said, “what does it mean?” A pause and then a shrug: “I dunno.”
Artists engaged in field projects sometimes experience a sinking feeling that they are failing to connect. This sense is usually short lived, displaced by absorption in strategies to correct and the continuous barrage of other stimuli. Nonetheless the momentary cloud signifies a range of risks which underlie any improvisational art. Are these risks actually meaningful? If so what is the reward that justifies them?
First let’s consider artists as agents of social transformation in the broadest sense, i.e. affecting the course of human evolution. “Double entrepreneurship” is a helpful term to understand how artists work in this respect, situating the artist in relation to his or her own inner circle of colleagues on the one hand (e.g. fellow artists, established audiences and affiliated arts institutions), and in relation to groups who are outside this circle on the other. Like entrepreneurs who entice groups of people into new ways of interacting with the world, artists entice us to new experiences that may influence cultural conventions. They are conceived as “double entrepreneurs” because they look for opportunities to exert influence in two directions: on the “external” participants in their practice and on their “internal” support base.
To activate social transformation, artists must simultaneously play on the conventions of their own “internal” culture as they play on those of the other “external” culture. In so doing they coax the emergence of something new. The conceptual simplicity of “double entrepreneurship” belies the difficulty of this working plan. Indeed, all artists fail at this to some degree, becoming either marginalized from art circles (cast for example as a social worker) and thereby losing legitimacy as “good artists”, or becoming marginal and irrelevant to “external” social groups as a result of adherence to complex art world conventions (e.g. a classical ballerina-in-training), or simply failing to entice anyone at all (e.g. the “crazy eccentric”). In the first two cases the artist provides services that presumably are valued to at least one group, but fails to live up to his/her full potential as an artist. The third case is a more conventional kind of career flop.
The personal risks are apparent: a great amount of planning and care goes into an art practice. The social risks may be best understood in terms of lost opportunities: lost opportunities to reconcile one culture to another, or the human sphere to the natural sphere. Artists are not saviors of the world— the responsibility for mending broken families, averting violent conflict or nurturing ecological integrity does not rest squarely on the shoulders of those who identify themselves as artists. Artists can have an influence in all these areas however, and the cost to society of their failure is indeed significant (albeit notoriously hard to calibrate).
Opportunities for artists to work productively arise partly by chance and partly through a balanced alchemy of personalities, social context, material resources, environment, and political setting. Given the potential social costs and risk of failure, how can we best cultivate a world where artists are more likely to succeed? A beautiful starting point is to embrace the notion that we are all artists. Acknowledging and honoring the artist within us opens a line of communication to artists all around us by which opportunities to work together productively may flourish.
Returning to the scene in the park where the collage artworks are gradually taking form, the undifferentiated mess is now looking to me quite palpably like a forest floor. The adults (parents, myself, Shi Xiang, as well as several student and teacher observers from Roots and Shoots) are alternately crouching down to push leaf debris and twigs around and leaning back to observe the irregular proceedings. The kids are absorbed in the wonderful artifacts of nature and their own gestures, not much concerned with their origins or effects, but nonetheless driven by a purpose. The whole scene shimmers with an indistinct but happy kind of promise, borne of the potency of the artist abiding cautiously in us all!
Thanks to the labors of generations of scientists, an extraordinary trove of information is available about events occurring over the giant span of geologic time. In approaching this immense body of knowledge, aesthetic experience can be a guide. The leaves of trees, for one, offer regular aesthetic encounters, provoking questions that can be entryways into the epic story of evolution.
For a wonderful example of the intrigue of leaves, take look at the Yulan Magnolia leaf (M. denudata) and the Tulip tree leaf (L. chinense) below, gathered during a bright fall day from sidewalks in Shanghai. Their similar textures and venation indicate common ancestry (they are both in the family Magnoliaceae) but how did the Tulip tree leaf get its distinctive shape? The American botanist Theodor Holm dwelled at length on this question in an 1895 monograph and concluded only that the Magnolia leaf was the likely predecessor. Is the curious angle at the apex of the Tulip tree leaf a trait that gave it an advantage in more humid climates, with more edge length for transpiration? If so, what were conditions like at the boundary of the Magnolia’s territory where edge length suddenly mattered? And why did the leaf split there and not in the usual places like the leaves of the maple or the plane tree?
These questions are not merely academic. To study a leaf is to regain a vivid interest in the human present, that is unfolding in correspondence with the rest of nature and in relation to our common past.
The Book of Leaves is an artwork-in-progress that further probes the narrative pathways opened through our aesthetic experience of leaves. It consists of a Chinese scroll on which leaves from common trees are arranged in order of each species’ appearance in the fossil record, paired with a gradually evolving field guide to commonly sighted trees around Shanghai. The first exhibition of the Book of Leaves took place last weekend at Shanghai’s Gongyi Xintiandi, a campus for civil society organizations run by the public-private partnership NPI, as part of their annual partner fair.
In preparation for the event, eight high school students from Xiwai International School affiliated with Roots & Shoots conducted a survey of trees at their school, gathering leaves fallen to the ground and separating them by species. Each student chose a leaf to research. Information was added to the growing field guide to common trees in Shanghai (click here to view). The following weekend at Gongyi Xintiandi the students led the public through a tree survey in the morning along with project volunteers. Leaves were combined with specimens from the prior weekend, separated by species and assembled on an 8-meter long scroll according to the geologic age in which the plant genus appeared (as indicated in the field guide).
Calligraphers Dong Xiaoxun (董晓迅）and Zhou Liying (周丽英）added text to the scroll, including names of each species and a poem composed extemporaneously by Frederick Zhang (张敏)，a member of the Roots and Shoots team:
By the end of the first day the scroll was nearing completion, with approximately 30 species represented. The following day the public was invited to choose their favorite leaf, draw it on the scroll using pencils, brush and watercolor, and take their chosen leaf back home in a card for pressing and further examination.
The residuals of this project to date include a scroll covered in individual renderings of leaves, that itself is the residual of a collection of leaf specimens, each of which is a residual of a tree, etc. They also include the photographic and textual documentation that can continue to be built on. More important are the questions left in the minds of all participants and the glimmerings of questions as yet unformed.
To view the Book of Leaves, the field guide and other leavings please visit the archive.
The fixed parameters by which we normally describe color — hue, value and intensity (saturation)— leave us strangely illiterate with respect to another of its beguiling qualities: motion. Motion and variability are inherent in the light waves that carry color information to our eyes, but the materials that we use to transmit light– paints, dyes, light emitting diodes, etc.– have stabilized color information to a degree that we no longer associate color with motion. Absent an intent to portray motion, green on the screen or green on a t-shirt is quite different from green on a leaf. This may matter little for practical purposes, but to regain a sense of color as motion is to rediscover something enchanting in the world.
Color is movement
It is mid-Autumn in Shanghai, and the yellow and brown leaves that litter the streets seem unrelated to the green foliage overhead. On closer inspection a fallen leaf is not completely yellow, however, but has traces of color across the spectrum mixed in including green. From this small clue I can grasp that while the leaf is simplistically “yellow” it is also in the midst of a change process unfolding in real time. As the cell structure of the leaf changes in correspondence with the rotation of the earth around the sun it emits varying wavelengths of light that I see as color. And just as the motion manifest in the leaf alters the movement of lightwaves, as its life processes wane it will blacken. By then, however, it will hardly be recognizable as a leaf.
The motion quality of color is captured no more plainly than in the pure color experience of sunrise / sunset, impossible to describe without the suggestion of change. Before the dawn the black sky fills with light of the smallest visible wavelength, refracted across the atmosphere as the earth in shadow turns towards the sun. We call this color blue, but really the sky is in the process of becoming blue. The first rays of light on the horizon are likewise easily described as yellow, orange, or red but perhaps better understood as in a state of flux between these colors. As the sun rises in the sky it becomes more unmistakably white, an incomprehensible density of all color, itself an unimaginably giant mass of atomic motion.
Color is not arbitrary
The color of the leaf is evidence of relationships that the leaf participates in, with the sun, soil and water, the wind, the world of insects, other plants, and people. Color in the living world always conveys a story. Surrounded by seemingly static colors that we can conjure up at random, our attentiveness to the meaning in color is dulled. This is not a matter of failing to know why, for example, the sky is blue, but of failing to ask what it means as the sky changes from one blue to another, for lack of a sense that it matters.
Why does it matter? One answer is that everything is connected, and therefore what we don’t understand may bite us in the end. A slightly different, parallel, reply is that stories are what we live for. It is not just practical, for instance, to know that when a traffic light turns red it is time for caution, it is also intuitive and aesthetic. The fact that our blood changes color when oxygenated is vitally linked to several million years of biological and behavioral evolution. Our sensitivity to red colors, whether arousing alertness to danger, sexual excitement, valor and battle-readiness, or joy and happiness, is fundamental to the human condition. As we blush, flush, bleed, or as we go pale and wan we are communicating information that is emotionally powerful. The movement of color, like a good story, can literally and figuratively move us.
Color is in the mind
If we are not moved by the colors in the sky — or on the leaves of trees, in rivers and lakes or on the wings of butterflies— the way we are by changes in the complexion of family and friends, we can at least be attuned to our kinship with the rest of the living world that communicates through the dynamic medium of color. A first step towards this sense of kinship is the apprehension of color as dynamic, not frozen in the abstractions of hexadecimal code, color charts and paint palettes. “Sun Spinning”, a public artwork and improvisational workshop series has developed in connection with this kernel of thought.
“Sun Spinning” is based on the magical experience of seeing a crudely colored wheel spin around fast enough to generate an almost hypnotic shimmering melange of concentric circles of color. This art work has been developed to date through three workshops and two exhibitions in partnership with iEnergy, 1001 Love • Living, Shanghai Ecodesign Fair, Shanghai heARTs, Fireflies Culture, Shanghai Girl Scouts and the Mad Curator. The experience raises questions about the physics of color perception, but more fundamentally it rekindles a sense of the beauty of color in motion. These simple spinning devices are a far more powerful draw to the contemplation of color than any words can excite. To see an archive of past “Sun Spinning” workshops and exhibitions click here. If you are interested in hosting a workshop or have ideas for collaborations please get in touch!
Still / Wild
Many people, about two dozen toads, a cat, some ants, and nineteen species of plants including camphor trees, a Gingko, 铜钱草，a Magnolia, 红花檵木（Loropetalum chinense), winter jasmine, a species of rhododendron and others less readily identified. This catalog of living things observed in the park this weekend is a small sampling of the local population. Most of the species are insects, inferring from general taxonomy. But we are more familiar with the plants: we select and cultivate them, arrange them in gardens and delight in their varied forms, colors and fragrances, not to mention their uses as food, medicine etc.
One beguiling quality of the plants that we grow is their persisting wildness. They are wild by virtue of their individuality, and also by virtue of their relationships with the rest of wild nature: especially the insects, the sun, the wind and the rain. Plants may seem like familiar and predictable fixtures of the environment, but they are also rich reservoirs of information about dynamic systems outside our control, and potentially outside our present awareness.
Take for example the leaf. I am holding the leaf of a Ginkgo tree, it’s fan-like shape so distinct from leaves of the maple or the locust or the willow. Why are the veins longitudinal and non-branching, the margins lobed, the surface soft and flimsy? The Ginkgo is a “living fossil” that has survived for millennia, the last extant species of a division of plants thought to have once been prevalent worldwide. Pushed almost to extinction by the profusion of flowering plants that occurred in the early Cretaceous era, the sole remaining species of Ginkgo persisted between glacier flows around present day Qinghai-Tibet, and survived there until its recent dispersal by human botanical enthusiasts.
The leaf of the Ginkgo does not exactly tell this story, but it’s plain to see that its evolutionary path is distinct from the broad leafed flowering plants with their interconnecting networks of veins, but different also from other gymnosperms (e.g. conifers). The leaf of the Ginkgo, sized so perfectly to the human eye, is a gateway to a maze of unanswered questions as well as unthought of possibilities.
The Ginkgo is the national tree of China, called 银杏 (‘yinxing’, meaning “silver apricot” in reference to its tasty seed). Like its distinctive leaf, the strange name by which it is known to much of the rest of the world invites research. In this case the story opens onto a human drama of ocean trade and cultural and linguistic crossed wires. The Ginkgo is a beautiful case of a human-plant relationship that has mutually affected each species over the centuries, subtly influencing geographic, biological and cultural migrations. These kinds of relationships may be near to insignificant when contrasted with our family ties and social relations, but the plants around us should not be taken for granted. Like the air we breathe (and reciprocally implicated in the air we breathe) plants are alive with secrets and surprises.
Click here to read more about our investigation of vernacular plants around Shanghai.
What lies behind Halloween? Its beginnings are intriguingly obscure, thought to have evolved from an early Celtic observance of the end of summer, which falls halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. As with many other spirit festivals (Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the Roman Catholic All Soul’s Day, the Chinese Water Lantern Festival) the transitional period is significant, a time of instability when spirits were deemed more likely to appear. Layers of cultural practices, political interventions and inventions of commerce have elaborated on this early apprehension to make Halloween what it is today.
A not-so-recent development in the history of Halloween is its projection across the globe. In Shanghai, as in most places culturally removed from Halloween’s Celtic roots, the number of observers is relatively small. The festival exists through a mix of curious accommodation and avid exertion by adherents of local and foreign customs. Like the liminal periods of time between seasons, the cultural borderlands are rich with opportunities for the strange and unforeseen (the tradition of ‘trick-or-treating’ itself derives from an unlikely over-layering of druidic and family culture). What new things lie in store for Halloween as it encounters Chinese culture? What new things lie in store for Shanghai?
A small art experiment at a local kindergarten gives a minor indication. These masks were created in the aftermath of a visit to the zoo, in preparation for Halloween, but also using Chinese opera masks as loose model. They were exhibited during the week of Halloween at a local restaurant. Whether they seem frightening or hilarious, they are certainly strange. The teachers that planned the mask-making and the children themselves had only a rough idea of Halloween ‘masking’ custom, and used their imaginations with whatever materials were at hand (including heaps of play-dough) to improvise their response to a call for artworks.
Is cultural transmission detectable in this little case? The strong colors are perhaps suggestive of the character-types of Chinese opera. The introduction of animal spirits into the weird and evolving world of Halloween is also obliquely conveyed. It is fair to say that each of these kids has some new impression of Halloween, and that the transmission of these artworks makes some (albeit minute) impression on Halloween.
Four high school students teamed together under the appellation “95 后” and hosted a traditional paper cutting and seal making tent at this year’s Shanghai EcoDesign Fair. Below is their account of the proceedings. The charm of the resulting artworks is hinted at here, but what really comes across is the enchantment of handling tools in self-consciously creative acts, and the mutual exchange that occurs in the context of organizing and coalescing around such pools of cultural knowledge. The fair this year was a great success thanks to the initiative of the students of “95 Hou” and many others. This initiative is a gift, truly the beautiful and mysterious thing.
In the light drizzle of the morning of April 19 at Gongyi Xintiandi we opened up our demonstration event of traditional Chinese arts, taking “air” as our subject. A little cluster of tables under a tent served as the home for this happy meet-up of traditional paper-cut and stamp-making enthusiasts. Kids delighted by the spectacle surrounded the tables while many adults, glad for the chance to slip out of the headlong rhythm of daily life, enjoyed a moment of tranquility immersed in the delicate hand-work.
Morning preparations were actually quite a flurry, including setting out stamp patterns, paper-cut tools, color paints, etc. The four of us students donned our qipao and other traditional Han-style clothing, immediately attracting the eyes of several kids and their grandparents who stood watching amusedly fussing with their camera in front of the tent.
This is the second time we have conducted such an activity, and on this occasion we wanted to take things more slowly, allowing visitors to discover for themselves the artistry in these traditional crafts. However, most of the children do not stay long, spying the snack booth, while their grandparents continue to be preoccupied with their camera. We are beginning to feel a little lost, worried that these traditional arts are perhaps not as compelling as the tempting food on offer.
Then suddenly a father appeared with his son. “Would you like to make a rubber stamp?” he asked his son. The kid was noncommittal, but his father sat down and picked up the tools himself. “OK, then you can help me carve one,” he said. While his back was turned, without our interference or intervention the boy made a half-finished carving on the rubber stamp and held the strange thing out in his hand. “What’s that? A picture of the sun?” His father’s boisterous tone surprised us, but the boy was pleased, and his hesitation now dissipated, he took up a painting instrument and started adding colors. Meanwhile the surrounding crowd lost whatever initial reservations they had and joined in.
As for paper-cuts, our main activity, the challenge is to make a flat surface come alive. People arrive in twos and threes, and occupy themselves either drawing the meticulous patterns or cutting them out. Getting comfortable with the technique for cutting usually entails a moment of hesitation, but this goes away quickly as people become absorbed in the activity. Afterwards people hold up their works and admire them, chat a little and leave their contact information and comments.
Such coming and going gives us the sense of a timeless experience, occurring in ancient times just as today. The appeal of the folk paper-cut is universal. To let these good things into our lives again, this is probably the essence of modern-day practice of Chinese traditional arts.
Our activity came to a close just as the drizzle turned to rain. We had made many new friends and experienced an overall feeling of accomplishment, but also whetted our own appetite for developing new programs to explore tea culture, traditional Chinese medicine, ink painting, etc. We have a long road ahead, but each activity seems to open a door to new possibilities!
Something completely interesting
The uniform surface of a giant sheet of rice paper hanging floor-to-ceiling is suddenly interrupted by a splotch of black ink. The splotch moves upwards, creating a line that is growing like a miracle plant, then bending like a blade of grass. Another line rises then curves into a spiral, and then the spiral darkens and expands. A loopy, swirly forest is taking shape on the surface of the paper as the ink splotch dances about like an enchanted genie. This illusion, occurring during a spontaneous art occupation of an old house in Shanghai last month, is a serendipitous surprise, made all the more interesting by peering around the other side of the paper, to observe the brush, that is being guided by the hand, that is being guided by the person who is the actual genie performing this little miracle.
This blog entry is about ‘play’ and the value of continued play throughout our lives. Adults at play get little solicitude from their neighbors, employers, spouses, other peers, etc. There is greater latitude, of course, for children. Scores of prominent educators have extolled the virtues of open play during childhood, nurturing cultures that encourage and delight in children pushing food around, scribbling and scrawling, and balancing on fences. Yet it is still conventional to understand play as a part of “growing up”.
The dozen or so artists that participated in the house occupation were all fully grown adults. In addition, an unspecified number of visitors passed in and out of the rooms, fondling the peculiar installations, testing them, lying on them, drawing on them. There was a field of miniature cactus plants made of the most inviting green felt. There was a large brain that emanated modulating tones in response to controlled gesticulation. More sounds were emanating from a derelict bathroom. There were some motors and strings that didn’t seem to be working.
The fact that some rules were broken in the course of the day (such as the rule against occupying empty houses) might suggest that this haphazard coalescence was just about blowing off steam. There certainly was no press in evidence, no “vernissage”, no VIP tent or sponsor logos overtly indicating commercial or professional ambitions. Yet something more than a party was going on. Or, depending on your point of view, more purely a party.
One of the early voices in the extensive scholarship on ‘play’ was the American philosopher John Dewey, who wrote that “work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art — in quality if not in conventional designation”. This formulation nicely challenges the assumptions behind the notion that play is mostly for children. Yet it doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the house occupation. “Play with a work attitude” might be closer to the mark, conveying the essentially haphazard quality of the proceedings.
In either case, art –and its potency– is what is at stake. Is ‘play’ always implicated in a ‘work’ of art? Returning to the ink splotch and its strange autonomy, the Daoist term 无为 “wuwei” seems also to apply –usually translated as “non-action” but meaning something more like “acting naturally”. This description eclipses the disjunctive aspects of “work” and “play”, but in the context of the house occupation it sounds a bit austere. “Emergence” is a scientific term with a similar drift, indicating the new thing produced by dynamic processes, like a thought or an organism or a trend. But this term carries the baggage of dry academic detachment. The theatrical lexicon offers “yes-anding”, an invented gerund that connotes moving an improvised scene along unimpeded by critical attitudes, self-doubt or pre-determined goals. This seems appropriate for what is indeed a very theatrical atmosphere, even though it’s not a very elegant word.
In the end, “play” may be the most apt description of these proceedings, especially if this word is understood not in juxtaposition to “work” but in agreement with it, tending towards some of the generative concepts mentioned above. Art may be described in various ways depending on the circumstances. Where the circumstances fit, let’s not be averse to play!
Cities and bodies
Scientists might approach this question by isolating cases where biological evolution is accelerated (for instance animal breeding programs) and observing changing social behaviors, or conversely isolating cases of accelerated social change (i.e. cultures disturbed by foreign contact) and observing signs of biological change. Sociobiologists have a special interest in this kind of inquiry. Whatever the approach there are wide possibilities for discovery.
Separate from this deductive line of thinking, however, one might just consider the individual, who constitutes simultaneously a body composed of mutating genes and dividing cells and a person who through continuous decisions and interactions is composing society. From this perspective, the distinction between biological and social is subverted by an awareness of a continuum of relationships. For the biologist Gregory Bateson “news of difference” (i.e. information) is the basic condition of all life on which these relationships are established.
[To become aware of this principle operating within oneself] “is to become in a curious way much closer to the world around you. The word “objective” becomes, of course, quite quietly obsolete; and at the same time the word “subjective,” which normally confines “you” within your skin, disappears as well. (quoted from his afterword to About Bateson (1977))
The artist in each of us
Cultivating this ecological perspective is specially relevant for creative societies, for what is revealed when “objective” and “subjective” drop away is the domain of the creative. Essentially, there is an artist in each of us that is called upon to create composite pictures from the shower of information that comes from “within” and “without”, and thereby provide a footing for our actions. Whether we are aware of it or not this creative process is perpetually at work, putting in motion changes in our society as well as our own biology.
As such, the challenge for creative societies is not so much learning to be creative but learning to be more so, and most especially learning to creatively influence our own creative processes. As Bateson suggests, becoming aware of this process is a good start. Artists are especially helpful in this, for among the acts that take place around us those of artists are unique in symbolizing creativity itself. Watching an artist at work is like peering into some aspect of ourselves: aside from the specific manifestations of their creative visions, they turn us back on the question of what is the nature of all creativity?
To take a concrete example, the sculptural installation Urban DNA was erected by the artist Xu Zhifeng recently in an outdoor courtyard in Shanghai as part of the weekend-long Ecodesign Fair. Since the sculpture was not actually completed until the final hours of the fair, the scene that was revealed to most visitors was of a gradually emerging semblance of order imposed on a field of chaotic disarray. Steel pipes, wire, garbage, assorted tools and hardware were strewn about at the start of the weekend. Even so, visitors lingered, captured by the striking form of the artist moving purposefully about in his overalls. Various conjectures and suggestions were voiced as the structure began to take shape. Around noon of the first day the center pole was mounted on a tightly designed base, and it became evident that the artist was creating something very high.
A DNA strand is very remote from our senses, but what we know of its structure has such a strong aesthetic resonance that even a textbook illustration makes an indelible imprint on our minds. The juxtaposed swirls that answer the paradox of stability and dynamic change seem almost intuitive. Yet of course the processes underway there are deeply complex. Side by side with the miracle of evolution lie the mysteries of cancer, alcoholism, obesity, bad complexion, unruly hair and so on.
Through the second day of the fair Xu Zhifeng could be seen leveraging himself against the cross-bars at the upper reaches of his armature, straining to adjust a double helix of plastic bottles, candy wrappers and other residual items of the city. His improvised movements and the materializing spiral of forms itself shook any impression that this was some kind of protest statement about careless waste. Instead a more elemental suggestion was emerging: that our cities and our bodies are, for better or for worse, what we make of them. His creative presence throughout the weekend was a joyful demonstration that we can actively embrace this work, as well as a distracting stimulus for reconsidering the many possible ways to evolve.
“Thread” is a verb
All works of art are experiments, really multiple experiments at multiple levels of experimentation. At one level, for instance, artists experiment with the way they interact with society. How does this activity relate to the more “normal” kind of experimentation that occurs when an artist doodles, paints or molds clay? What is at stake for an artist actively experimenting at this level? The installation “Thread”, commissioned for the Good Gift Fair and created by a duo of artists previously unacquainted with one another, provides a nice case through which to examine these questions.
“Thread” is comprised of clothing lines that converge on a bamboo structure built by the Swedish artist Robin Andersson and threaded with clothing silhouettes made by the Dutch artist Loes Venker-de Noo. The installation is a fluttering, dreamlike procession of shapes that variously enclose and reveal the people moving about throughout the fair.
At the level of materials, experimentation proceeds for each artist in a similar way. “I dyed some fabric pieces with different kinds of tea, black tea giving a stronger color than green tea. I think it is nice,” says Venker-de Noo. Andersson cuts incisions in a pole in order to bend it into a curve, but then rejects this technique. He needs to cover more ground in learning the basic capabilities of the medium, but both are making adjustments according to practical and aesthetic criteria.
Neither has been in this kind of artist partnership before. Testing one another’s aesthetic criteria in dialogue is itself a form of experimentation, a way of learning how this collaboration may be viable. Emails fly back and forth, images are exchanged, all the preparatory work is completed, and on the morning of the event the two artists work side by side to assemble and fine tune the installation. In retrospect, they make the same guarded remark about this way of working: “it is interesting.”
In truth this partnership has been remarkable for its absence of conflict. This is either due to an overlap in aesthetic sensibilities or their tolerance for aesthetic tension. After all artists take their work seriously. Aesthetics is not just a matter of the superficial appearance of things, but something that connects deeply to personal values and notions of morality.
And therein is the linkage between artists and society. Representing personal values in outward form is an act of trust which when reciprocated puts values in play. In the case of aesthetic overlap there is harmony and reaffirmation. In the case of conflict there is repulsion, but the resulting tension is subtly charged with the possibility of personal growth, and by extension social change.
Installed in such a way that it is literally threaded throughout the event, the artwork negotiates demands of the physical site (in fact eclipsing them and spilling out into the street), as well as those implicit in the motivations and expectations of fairgoers, organizers, and other stakeholders. Unlike a work of commercial art it does not so much serve these demands as acknowledge them. Yes, the installation seems to fulfill the role of decoration, providing a festive aura conducive to generosity towards the participating NGOs. Yes, the installation seems to provide a creative aura which fulfills the expectations of participating artists and others seeking affiliation with a creative scene. It may provide an aura of domesticity too, responding to expectations of the host authorities and neighbors. The fair itself is an experiment, however, and the meanings that are ultimately attributed to it emerge from the artists’ aesthetic realizations as much as from anything else.
Those aesthetic realizations are worthy of further discussion, but for starters their mere choice to work with one another and furthermore extend their practice into this contested field, where harmony and tension occurs within complex layers of inter-related social engagement and experimentation, indicates a concern for connectivity coupled with action.
For more information about the Good Gift Fair and photos of the event please visit the website.
Visual Art in Shanghai
PART I – Two Days of Immersion in the City
The Shanghai Biennale, which opened this year during the national celebrations of Golden Week, is remarkable for its conspicuous presentation throughout the city. The surge of performances, exhibitions, talks, and other arts programs during the holiday period was exciting– thrilling, in fact, for a ‘cultural worker’ such as myself. What does this flurry of activity signify in retrospect? For me, what lingers most seductively are not impressions of art persay, but a flickering apprehension of the complex ecology of the city itself. Below is an account of two days in motion, my attempt to convey an idea of this general awareness.
It is the day before the Biennale’s opening and a small group of academics and book lovers have gathered in the slightly cramped surroundings of XinDanWei to hear about a new series of contemporary art books published in quick succession by the recently hatched Beepub Books (蜂蜜文库). The atmosphere is erudite while not completely eclipsing the former concession area’s tenor of commerce.
Gao Shiming, director of School of Inter-Media Art from China Academy of Art, leads off on the theme “The Book of Action”. During his talk I am struck by the realization that Professor Gao has been curating exhibitions for a decade; ten years ago very few art professors were doing anything so socially active. Boris Groys follows, tackling another seemingly unassailable theme, “What is ‘Contemporary Art’?”. Groys concentrates on the way time is implicated: “Why has this notion of ‘contemporary’ never appealed to people before? Why are we so aware of this ‘contemporaneity’?” His talk parallels an essay of his in which I was surprised to find an imprint of a Song dynasty painting by Ma Yuan with this line of poetry:
(“Shirtsleeves absently brush wildflowers that enliven their dance / Dodging man’s gaze a solitary bird withholds its song”)
This encounter with Groys is full of beguiling contrasts – contemporary art and traditional painting, Western scholasticism and Eastern philosophy. Yet I think that the common experience of the present as replete with mystery connects all the ways we have ever had of making sense.
Roy Ascott was beginning to read from his new book The Future is Now but I did not stay, spurred to action by the promise of another event just a few blocks away. Down a lane off Changle Lu where Feng Zikai(1898-1975) once lived a gathering is taking place at the home of Chris Connery. It is a world apart from the previous academic encounter: a heated discussion in Chinese among the young members of Grass Stage Theater who are planning an urban walking experience. Using ideas drawn from psycho-geography, “巷子戏” (“Alleys Play”) engages participants’ direct perceptions — auditory, visual and olfactory — on a slow tour through the lanes. To accentuate the context the group stages appearances along the route, like a series of small ambushes.
“Everyone arrives here with different motives, but a shared enthusiasm definitely emerges,” says Connery. The artists, actors and scholars are hunched around an old map of the area, charting the course of the tour. Conversation turns to the way walking is depicted in the 清明上河图 (Along the River During Qingming), to the strolling of an urban flaneur, to the passage of the everyday pedestrian, to the self-aware participant in public space, to the aesthetic delight in decay. Throughout, there is a mediation taking place between the purposive, individualistic way of dwelling in the city and the almost meditative opening-out of psycho-geography. For those present, walking affords a way of connecting with layers of urban history, and also of revealing the alienation and schizophrenia buried in the corners where narrow lanes and modern high-rises crowd together.
At the conclusion of the “巷子戏” workshop I proceed to the Goethe Institute to peruse the exhibit “Alternatives to Ritual“. Afterwards I slip outside again and turn in the direction of the Bund. It is the beginning of the official Golden Week holiday, and my senses are keenly attuned to the energy in the street, to the swirl of tourists young and old converging from all over, many wearing flashing bunny-rabbit headgear. A warm glow of familial affirmation and mutual joy to be Chinese envelops the crowd and me along with it. The parade of people casts silhouettes against the austere colonial architecture, traipses merrily over the old war-worn streets and beneath the radiance of luxurious shop windows. In the moonlight I discern the outline of the Palace Hotel — now the Swatch Peace Hotel Art Center — an array of security personnel standing in front, like comical apparitions from the day in 1937 when a bomb struck the building.
Now damp with perspiration, I enter through the building’s massive revolving doors and into the main hall, the old-world charm mingling with the Swatch display lighting. Taking the elevator to the top floor I stride past a bar shrouded in Champagne glasses and out to the balcony which commands an extravagant view. The towers on the opposite bank of the Huangpu shimmer towards the teeming crowds of people below, the river’s muddy waters reflecting a paper harvest moon.
On the terrace, an exotic bartender asks some friends and I if we need drinks. A few participants of the Swatch Art resident artist program who are living on the fourth floor of the building join us, checking their phones frequently, remarking that it is morning in Europe now, their families and loved ones just rising. I glance at them, wondering about how I feel now in their company. I find myself thinking about my family, and a mild sort of austerity. It seems an inherent attribute of art in the city to diffuse the concentrated substance of traditional holidays. Returning by bicycle back to the former French Concession area, I’m accompanied by thousands of others. Drowsiness is sinking in, but just like the song says, “the city comes alive, it simmers in the night, it’s wounded with desire.”
It is National Holiday (国庆节) and the bright sunshine puts everyone in good spirits. I return to the Bund in the evening to attend a book-launch party at Glamour Bar. Outside thousands of people crowd toward the bustling Bund, but up on the sixth floor the atmosphere is genteel as guests fill the clean, tranquil space to sip more Champagne and discuss issues of the arts. Institution for the Future is the title of the new book. The mostly-foreigner audience is politely listening to an account of the conditions, designs and achievements of the contemporary visual arts, and the different possibilities for art institutions in the future. Afterwards everyone breaks up to rush to the Biennale opening event. Proceeding downstairs, I spend a long time traversing the 100 meters to Guangdong Road through the throngs of people, to be whisked south to the Power Station.
A large chimney yawns impressively overhead, with neon lights signaling that the temperature is a pleasant autumnal 18 degrees. Up on the rooftop the beaming lights illuminate an opening that is gathering momentum. A few familiar faces burst forth. Professor Qiu is there with his little daughter, goading her like a kid, “have you been missing dad?” She holds his hand in shy embarrassment. Chris Connery is there, prodding me, “you’re late– someone dressed as Xu Jiang just gave a speech.” I understand this is an obscure inside joke as Xu Jiang himself, the president of the China Academy of Art, starts to deliver his address. It is a long speech. Glamorous beauties elegantly officiate. At the end the crowd disperses and bar-room sounds of techno music begin to pulse. We seem like a clique of art animals awakened in perfect night. With this acoustic stimulus the “Biennale” has suddenly turned into a strange and unusual occasion, nothing to do with art, not even to do with entertainment. There on the rooftop, the festival night scene is carried away on the evening breeze. Some members of Double Fly, after getting their fill of sausages and wine, head over to the giant chimney with us. The space, and especially the artwork inside, are not to be missed.
First a note about the space itself. The Power Station of Art is a reincarnation of the former Shanghai Art Museum, which was relocated from the old Jockey Club building in People’s Square for the Biennale. The building is a former thermoelectric plant situated outside the city center, south along the river. Facing the China Pavilion across the water and surrounded by a low-rise industrial landscape, the building’s towering chimney is visible from all around. Transportation is straightforward, with little traffic to contend with and a straight shot down Zhongshan Road toward the chimney. Leaving the Power Plant, however, one must walk out to the main road to find a cab. All this seems consistent with most people’s impression of contemporary art: remote, aloof and a little arrogant.
For his artwork inside the chimney Roman Signer unleashes the mischievous spirit of a grown-up child. The space spirals upward in a tight circle, and the floor is splattered with the evidence of a violent impact. Time itself seems strangely eradicated, and together with the vertiginous height and sealed off space the psychological experience is very confrontational. But one also senses the warm draw of addiction, inside that belly of the industrial age.
…to be continued
Questions of waste
The group installation “City of Questions, City of Stuff” occupied a brave little storefront space inside the Anshun Road small commodities market for two weeks in August. The busy passageway provided a dynamic laboratory for civic engagement and aesthetic commentary, not to mention marketing. How could passers-by be enticed to compose questions about waste and add them to the wall? Some anecdotes convey the overall experience of serendipitous success.
Day 1: For the opening ceremony, a small group of friends and passers-by gathered at noon to stomp jauntily on top of biodegradable packaging cushions, causing them to explode with great report. Mr. Zhou, who operates the household goods store opposite, regarded the activity across from him with quiet detachment. When the call went out for someone to inscribe the title of the installation on the entry banner, however, he stepped forward, picked up the brush and with large competent strokes wrote out “问物之城” (“City of Questions, City of Stuff”). When prompted for a question, he added: “这个展览本身的垃圾如何处理” （”What are you going to do with the garbage left over from this exhibit?”), and then sat back down among his cornucopia of dust pans, cleaning fluids, kitchen implements and other wares to await the next customer.
Day 6: Standing in the shop doorway in the early morning was like being a rock at the stream’s edge– prominent enough to cause a ripple in the current, and occasionally to catch something passing by. A middle-aged woman in a polka-dot shirt glanced over and paused in mid-stride. “What is going on here?” she asked. She began to move off when I responded to her question, then paused again and came closer. She did this hesitating dance a few more times until she and I were in light conversation, talking about her work as a schoolteacher, her opinions of the various artworks, her lingering puzzlement. A couple going by paused to listen, then joined in the conversation. Another man stepped into the shop and interjected that “art is something common people don’t understand.” He owns a factory that exports plastic brooms. The others wrote their questions about waste on the wall and departed. Eventually the factory owner, tired of declaiming about art, added his own question to the wall: “How do you deal with visual junk?”. He offered some parting advice, waved farewell, and I returned to my position by the doorway.
Day 12: On the final day of the installation each of the artists came by in the afternoon to collect their artworks. Wang Yuhong was there, whose work consisted of a discarded mailbox enclosing an audio player playing the ringing bell of an informal waste collector on his rounds. “Noise pollution is also a kind of waste,” she reflected. Later, Robin and I hailed a waste collector and his cart to help return the construction rubble used as pedestals for the artworks to the nearby demolition site. A guard ran up and demanded payment. “But it’s just rubble from this big pile,” we protested. He dug his feet in and gestured with his fingers “how much will you pay me?” After more wrangling Wang Yuhong arrived on the scene and answered the man’s question with a pack of cigarettes. Afterwards the waste collector pedaled off, to ring his bell through the neighborhoods as the smoke curled away into the atmosphere from the guard’s lips, and we swept up the last of the debris from the floor and dropped it into the dustbin.
Managing the proliferation of waste entails above all a search for creative ways of thriving. Questions posed in dialogue are a heartening sign that this search is underway. Click here to view a few of the questions posed in the “shop”, and if you’re feeling inspired please add your own!
Drawing all day
Held in the building on the quiet French Concession lane which ARTSpring calls home, the “2nd (semi) annual Shanghai 24-hour Draw” was a round-the-clock flurry of creative activity. 24 hours of non-stop drawing might sound like the fiendish decree of a mad despot but the continual circulation of new faces, regular schedule of activities, and ample flow of food and drink assured a cheerful event all the way through the break of dawn.
The day, which was organized together with Diagrammism, the sobriquet of artist Lucinda Holmes, and Double Fly, the multi-media artist collective, kicked off at 10 o’clock outside in the lane, where sidewalk chalk was dispensed to neighbors young and old. At lunch an assemblage of fruits were stripped of their skins and drawn naked by the coterie of artists, many of whom were inspired to shed their own clothes in the afternoon sun. Figure drawings, fantasy drawings, cartoons, still-lifes and uncategorizable linework filled sketch books until the dinner barbecue. A spirited portrait-drawing contest, night sky illustrations, and improvisational interpretive draw led by the poets of H.A.Literature carried the determined crew on past midnight. The small hours were occupied by a ribald live online “draw-room” and mellower projects, until the birds began to sing. In the aftermath a selection of completed works was chosen by the artists of Double Fly for special commendation in a variety of categories.
Besides the general liveliness of the occasion one broad impression from the day relates to the intrinsic value of drawing. We have a troubling relationship with images in the digital age. Every day we point lenses from a multitude of different devices, recording fragments of isolated scenes and uploading them to be made almost instantaneously available to viewers in every corner of the world. The image is replacing experience. To spend an extended stretch of time in drawing, knowing the nature of time itself through ones physical motion and observations of one’s eye, is to experience the ordinariness of a day in happy unison with its distinctiveness.
Art at the boundaries
What uses do organizations have for art in their ordinary course of business? For cultural organizations like an art museum potential uses are clearly various, but what about for an educational organization? An industrial enterprise? A political entity?
The following three examples taken from around China highlight concerted efforts by different types of organizations to use art in pursuit of their core goals. They differ widely, so to compare them it is helpful to consider something that all social organizations, and indeed all living things have in common: boundaries.
At the basic level of a living cell, the boundary is a membrane which contains its parts and also allows for exchange with the environment. Fritjof Capra, an American scientist and early architect of systems theory, highlights this active role:
“Membranes are not only a universal characteristic of life, but also display the same type of structure throughout the living world…A membrane is very different from a cell wall. Whereas cell walls are rigid structures, membranes are always active, opening and closing continually, keeping certain substances out and letting others in.” (Quoted from his 2002 book The Hidden Connections)
Capra is discussing biological life, but systems thinking always invites comparisons between different levels of reality. Social organizations can also be said to be “alive” at least partly according to the degree to which their boundaries both delimit and perform exchange. In this case boundaries are composed of people interfacing with the outside: hiring personnel, collaborating with other organizations, exporting resources, discovering information etc. The challenge for an organization is to assure that these exchanges become continually more dynamic rather than more rigid by degrees.
Expanding fields of perception
The common strategy invoked for this is “networking”. If an enterprise seeks more diverse partnerships for example, paying dues to send colleagues to an industry conference may be justified. The problem is that taking advantage of networks requires prior knowledge of them. A more basic answer therefore is “perceiving”. Seemingly insignificant things overheard, tidbits of information, minor sensations and even subconscious disturbances constitute the kind of knowledge that makes networking possible.
There are many things organizations do to help sustain active perceiving on their boundaries. Workplace training, disseminating industry news, and of course creating environments that enable conversations among peers are some examples. However, these experiences tend to hone a narrow band of perceiving on familiar topics deemed pertinent. Art experiences in contrast have a special capacity to open new pathways of perception, exposing hitherto unsuspected kinds of information, memories, relationships and other connections.
Take the case of Beijing’s Dandelion Middle School (蒲公英中学), where faculty and students for four years (2006-2009) infused their regular curriculum with an art program whose ostensible goal was to beautify the ramshackle campus. All outdoor surfaces of the school were potential spaces for transformation. An outside artist guided a program that included faculty discussions, classroom work, scavenging for materials in neighborhoods and markets, library and online research on subjects and topics, enlisting volunteers and outside participants, and manual creation of murals, mosaics and artworks in other media through organized effort as well as spontaneous activity. Zheng Hong, the school principal, summed up the experience: “This project has opened the mind and heart of teachers, students and myself at the Dandelion School.”
The Siemens Arts Program, which included several projects at Siemens facilities around China from 2000-2006, is an interesting case of an industrial enterprise making a concerted use of art. For the program, professional artists were asked to conceptualize and implement projects that engaged company employees on site. The company website explains, “employees are invited to perceive their work environment not only in terms of business, but also to experience its emotional, social and creative dimensions.” An example was a project guided by the artist Cao Fei, who asked employees at an Osram fluorescent lighting manufacturing facility to respond to the question “what are you doing here?” The project ran through the winter of 2005-2006, and resulted in a series of lighting installations created by employees exhibited in the dormitory area of the factory to the public, and a video which has since been screened at several international art venues including the Sydney Biennale.
Nations are the most iconic kind of social institutions, and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo is a great example of a national-level art experience coordinated to stimulate more dynamic perceiving at the boundary (i.e. the boundary between who or what is foreign and domestic). Twenty years into its progressive program of “opening up” China took the audacious step of bidding for the Expo, subsequently spending billions on site preparation and operations, relocating thousands of former residents, and mobilizing a vast network of personnel. For this, the nation got an event whose impact was and continues to be deep and wide, extending to the many officials for whom it was a decade-long experience, to the program organizers, staff and contractors for the 192 country exhibits, to the participants of the 20,000 separate cultural events, to the 80,000 volunteers and 70 million visitors, not to mention the masses of people who learned about or were affected by the expo second-hand. Without getting into a discussion of curatorial strengths, it is plain that the expo’s so-called “spiritual legacy” is potentially vast, i.e. the memories and associations it will continue to be producing in the minds of people. Commenting on this legacy Xu Bo, a former top minister at the Expo Bureau reflected last year: “I think that time will tell that respecting Chinese society’s understanding of the world, the Shanghai Expo was and will continue to be of inestimable importance.”
These examples highlight several questions, including the crucial one: are the resources expended justified? Quantitative reviews of costs, revenues, number of participants, etc. are useful, as are qualitative assessments using surveys and other research tools, but ultimately every arts undertaking involves risk. Managing this risk is a matter of understanding what outcome is sufficient, allocating appropriate resources and choosing qualified partners.
To help understand what constitutes a sufficient outcome one might consider: just what sort of ‘perceptions’ might result that wouldn’t otherwise? One can only speculate, but designing successful programs is partly about getting to the heart of what an institution wants to be.
Lastly, the historic nature of these examples draws attention to the question: what is the longevity of these kinds of arts experiences? Certainly, some experiences remain brighter in our minds than others, and this longevity is part of the measure of how “good” is the project. On the other hand, all arts experiences gradually recede. Developing institutional cultures that implicitly value arts experiences provides the best assurance that active perceiving at the boundary is continually renewed. This need not entail staging the kinds of intensive interventions mentioned here. Highlighting local cultural activities in official communications, designating a key individual as “arts liaison”, hosting or participating in small creativity workshops — all these can play important roles in keeping an organization’s boundaries vital and awake.
Eco-values workshop wrap-up
The last art workshop for the Eco Design Fair was held last weekend with Shanyin Gongyi, a non-profit organization which provides educational programs to migrant women and other groups in need. In all there were 6 workshops held over the past two months with 5 different organizations, including more than 80 participants. The subject of ‘eco values’ is quite vague, but everyone was able to work out a personal point of view and a visual representation of their idea. View the symbols–>
Words and pictures are both tools we have to model ‘reality’. We often use them in connection with each other, for instance placing a caption on a photo or adding explanatory notes to a diagram, because doing so adds richer meaning. The eco values workshops put this principle into action, developing meaning through an iterative development of pictures and words: draw a picture, write a sentence, revise the picture, revise the sentence. What emerges is a picture and a sentence that together make a hazy notion more distinct.
The difficulty is knowing where to start. Without the skills and sensibility of an artist or the eloquence of a poet, most of us slip into familiar patterns when asked to freely draw or write and thereby in fact fail to be creative. Chinese characters offer a wonderful example of a potentially fruitful approach. All composite ideographs from Chinese (actually a small fraction of the total Chinese character set) combine simple pictures of things in nature, parts of the body, everyday use items, and other things to convey ideas, including quite subtle and abstract ideas.
Everyone can draw simple pictures and combine them in suggestive ways. A telephone on top of an ocean perhaps suggests long-distance communication. Add two people and maybe it suggests the value of keeping in touch with faraway friends. For the eco values workshops participants are asked to draw six things, with an emphasis on things in nature. After this step is completed people are asked to combine two or more in a way that suggests eco values. As ideas crystallize different objects are added, and in the same way as Chinese characters have evolved, the pictures are integrated, simplified, rearranged or otherwise transformed.
Does this process actually work? The completed symbols are the best measure. They were created by a diverse mix of individuals, many with very little experience with drawing. Some like Lu Juefei’s “dream” and William Liao’s “a little awareness” are stylized and sensuous. Other’s like Jim Zhang’s “shape the air” are delightfully straightforward. Many contain unexpected things: a birthday cake; firecrackers; a caterpillar; a crystal. There are quite a few fish. There may be images that to some express a new and interesting perspective on eco values. Some may seem sentimental or naive. Each of them, however, expresses something personal.
This, in the end, is the whole point. Values are often spoken about in ways that suggest they are ready-made, preconceived notions implicit in society. We don’t get enough opportunities to illuminate values as they are understood by us personally. Actively articulating them, through pictures, words and other forms of expression is a very necessary way we bring them up to date with our contemporary context, as well as assert them in the world.
If you are a teacher or a trainer and would like to try this art creation activity in your classroom please click here to view “ID”ographs, a workshop guide including helpful examples of Chinese ideographs, and feel free to write to us, leave a comment or otherwise get in touch.
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