BIRDMAN: CURE VERSUS CULTIVATION
The film Birdman of Alcatraz was adapted from the true story of Robert Stroud. Wild, erratic, and irascible of temperament, Stroud was sentenced to 12 years in prison for manslaughter in 1909. In prison, he then murdered a guard who had revoked his visitation rights and prevented him from seeing his brother, and his sentence was changed to life imprisonment. His life took a turn for the better, however, with the accidental discovery of a nest of three wounded sparrows. As he devoted himself to caring for and nurturing these little birds, not only did their health improve, but also his own scattered mind and broken heart began to mend. In turn, the prison discovered that permitting inmates to raise birds lowered the costs of managing prisoners, and they began advocating the method for future use. Eventually, Robert Stroud grew to be an internationally renowned bird expert, hence the moniker “Birdman of Alcatraz.” From inside the prison walls, he conducted experiments, researched solutions to avian illness, and even published his findings.
The word “birdman” also reminds us of the Beijing stage drama Birds Men, performed at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. It is the story of a group of urban “idlers” or outcasts whose lives revolve around birds. The main character, Sanye, of erstwhile Peking opera fame, is an expert in raising and caring for birds, not to mention well-versed in singing, recitation, symbolic moves, and combat. A true master of a range of subjects, from time to time he gives lectures on the culture of the avicultural tradition and his own story of hardships. He is the spiritual leader of his group. In the world of these idlers, man and bird have established a tacit, mutual understanding; it becomes a sort of reversal of the decline of Peking opera and the problem of a lack of successors in the art. It is also in some way Sanye’s rehearsal for an ideal world somewhere in the future.
Enter character Paul Ting, a psychoanalyst who has just returned from abroad and undertakes to heal the mental disorders of the idlers, digging deeply into the problems hidden within their collective subconscious. He ultimately establishes a rehabilitation center for the “birdpeople.” In the end, the psychoanalyst is in fact himself psychoanalyzed by Sanye, in a Justice Bao-esque turn of events—and scene upon scene of absurd farce.
If we see cities as Birdmen, then based on the above two scenarios, there are two possible relationships that can exist between a city and its “birds”—or its vulnerable populations and their potential for self-organization. The former possibility belongs to the “cure” school, which attentively cares for these groups and sees itself as their moral guardian; the latter belongs to the “cultivation” school, which puts itself on the same level as the disadvantaged by uniting with them and building out new and converging paths into unknown territory. When viewed from the perspective of these two approaches to bird-raising, we can clearly understand that in Robert Stroud’s case, the value of the individual’s actions lies in the fact that the bird is a true victim of sickness, with absolutely no circumstances under which it might heal itself. The bird needs the help of a human for the fundamental guarantee of its own survival. Whereas in the case of Sanye, the value of individual behavior lies in the fact that with the birds, one is able to realize the dreams that cannot be realized in the world of humans. Under his painstaking training, the birds can be instantly plucked from their roles in the natural world and fall into place within a system of aesthetically fitting rules, transformed into the Birdman’s very own exalted opera stars. Simply put, Sanye’s is a case of “man exalting bird” rather than “bird needing man.”
PICUN: SYSTEM VERSUS COMMUNITY
In the last decade, with the onset of breakneck urban economic growth, the city landscape has evolved tirelessly, adapting continuously to each and every “new look.” And yet, in spite of being one of the very power sources of this rapid development, migrant workers never enter our line of sight. With nothing to their name and no one inquiring after them, they remain at the bottom rung of society and on the edges of the city. The question is, how can migrant workers escape these unfortunate circumstances and build a new communal identity, regaining ground as a public entity and achieving self-organization? How at last can they make their grand gesture of solidarity and find some way to negotiate more effectively between what it takes to survive in the city and what it means to live a better, more ideal lifestyle? The instance of Picun Village, on the outskirts of Beijing, gives us an opening to discuss this difficult negotiation process. As a vulnerable population in today’s reality, migrant workers have so far been unable to arouse their own latent political potential—that is, to rely solely on themselves to find the “cure.” In light of this, Picun must inevitably choose between the two “birdman” scenarios.
In Picun, the “Beijing Migrant Workers’ Home Cultural and Development Center,” or “ Migrant Workers’ Home,” has built an independent economic system, education system, and even community-wide virtual display system, all for migrant workers. There are second-hand stores and elementary schools, a Migrant Worker University, a theater, a migrant-worker-specific Spring Festival TV special, and even a museum. Every area of life in Picun, from food to shelter to shopping and leisure, can easily find its prototype in each of the sectors of survival known to regular city life. The second-hand stores are the remake of city supermarkets. The Migrant Worker University is a close derivative of urban vocational school. The Workers’ Spring Gala is a transplant of the famous Spring Gala variety show that takes place during Spring Festival, along with a host of other ideology-ridden holiday celebration programs.
All this, however, suggests a bias towards the “cure” school of Birdman relations, a s opposed to the “cultivation” approach. Guarantees of basic survival, though the foundation of a community in-the-making, are not the sole conditions of its developing a sense of identity. Communal identity is developed with the help of a community’s public status. A community must first open up to itself, then take itself to the outside world. Once a certain internal status quo has been established, regardless of what it may be, it will necessarily be subject to external interference, especially when it finds itself positioned within a reality ambushed on all sides by global capitalism. All aspects of life’s basic necessities and pleasures are under the control of the Society of the Spectacle, long since part and parcel of its great foray.
The problem of the “cure” approach is that it must pre-conceive of a standard of living that is nominally healthy, and of an ideal future that is, on the surface, beautiful. The notion of this kind of future ends up obstructing the intervention of any other potential modes of being, reducing everything down to certain singularity. The result is separation from the real world and an inability, in the slightest, to shake the current reality, in which migrant workers as a group no longer inhabit an existence distinct from the products they produce. Struggling through the night and into the wee hours of the morning on the city’s assembly lines cannot be equated with some purified, idealized image of labor. Even the workers, in their leisure time, use products found, yet again, on the assembly lines of still other industries. As Debord would put it, in the age of the consumer, “What is referred to as ‘liberation from work,’ that is, increased leisure time, is a liberation neither within labor itself nor from the world labor has brought into being… There can be no freedom apart from activity, and within the spectacle all activity is banned: a corollary of the fact that all real activity has been forcibly channeled into the global construction of the spectacle.”
By its particular means of segmentation, the age of the consumer apprehends urban life as a formula for comfort and enjoyment—making people lazy and able to declare, without an ounce of hesitation, that all of this before us is a thing of freedom, voluntary and exceedingly flawless.
Any formula, deeply enough engrained, is difficult to break from— unless it encounters some unforeseen challenge to its very constitution. Artistic action has the power to answer this call of duty. Taking the “cultivation” approach to community-building, it can pay closer attention to what it means to establish a new framework for urban life. By this approach, different individuals with disparate identities can in fact be rolled successfully into one integrated whole without needing to succumb to a singular standard of survival; it is about breaking through the oneway path of theory and establishing an actual space for social dialogue that is pluralistic and all-encompassing.
As John Maynard Keynes once explained, economists are not among the individuals entrusted with creating civilization; they are entrusted, rather, with conceiving the possibility of civilization. In Keynes’s view, those who truly bear the responsibility of creating civilization are people like the members of the Bloomsbury group. That is to say, economists simply provide the true creators with environments and conditions helpful to them.
SELF-ORGANIZATION: A REHEARSAL FOR LIVING
To mobilize the process of self-organization, one must mobilize not only the migrant workers, but also the artists. At a time when everything to which the artist is exposed is already shrouded in spectacle, the migrant workers’ circumstances provide an opportunity for the artist to transcend the bounds of his or her solitary work and dive into the structures of urban life.
With the “cultivation” process, the artist and worker share a bi-directional relationship. As life gives way to new modes of being and undergoes changes, art changes with it. The process here differs from that of an author constructing platforms of communication for an audience with whom he has limited contact. Instead, author and audience inhabit the same collective space—a space rooted in principles of mutual development. The divide between author and audience is worn down completely.
In “cultivation,” art is constantly evolving not only in the hands of the artist, but also in the hands of the worker. Both ways of life co-exist, and both hang in the balance of surrounding change. The artist and the worker are in constant confrontation with this reality and bear the burden of its consequences. Together they sketch out the contours of a future community unified in its diversity. They launch a rehearsal of its possibilities, at every level and from every possible angle as they envision an endless array of ways in which one could approach living. It is an impossible task—in a certain sense, it can never be truly completed—but the degree to which it cannot be completed is precisely the way in which the value of this as an artistic action is measured.
A rehearsal for ways of living is not just about planting oneself at the margins to engage in some sort of symbolic form of storytelling or play.
As the entire structure undergoes change, it is not just about laborers doing art. Artists must engage in labor, too. Only with this kind of integrity to the site of experience can it all truly be called a work of art.
It is not just about advocating for workers’ culture. Once technical media undergo integration, we still must integrate the identities of the laborer and the artist, in that the apparatus of the spectacle incorporates all the fruits of labor.
It is not just about acknowledging the division of the apparatus of the spectacle, nor about launching some small-scale resistance against the process. Rather, it is about using small-scale resistance towards an all-encompassing consideration of everything as yet unseen: a revelation that faces up to society and to history. As the first memories and everyday experiences once cherished and later deprived by the spectacle are brought back into view, it will be like a retired athlete returning to the field, an instant feeling that one has re-inhabited a previous state of being.
It is not just about building a community whose relationships are dependent on a sense of familial love. Rather, it is about using the remote presence of media to build a freely associative, even more expansive, communal relationship.
A community grown out of “cultivation”: this is where the possibility of Picun’s true self-organization can be found.