In trade and economics, the term “positive” is perhaps even more undesirable than its antonym—within the art industry, constantly high on “positivism” (which is essentially no different to fetishism), positivity is embedded within the discourses of those which wield power: museums, biennials, and art fairs, as rush madly down the path which it is believed leads to success. However, unsurprisingly, when everyone goes about “positivity” in the same way, those methods inevitably eventually become negated. Over the past few years, the Chinese contemporary art world has seen a wave of new independent collectives and institutions, the positive aspect of this wave being a conscious reflection on the so-called “centralism” of the art industry.
The 12 “self-organized” institutions that participated in this exhibition were: The North Village Independent Workshop, Floor #2 Press, Gland, Observation Society, HB Station, Arrow Factory, Organhaus Art Space, am art space, Art Praxis, Sabaki Space, Yangtze River Space, and Store Space. Although all hail from different cities around China, and possess dissimilar motives and ideas, they all, to different extents, mobilize art practice in their respective localities.
This phenomenon of self-organization in certain ways reveals an element of desperation or last recourse. Although these groups show no lack of spontaneous activity or concern for their localities, in reflecting the value of their existence their positive qualities are actually quite frail. Not only is this spontaneity passive, but as it is the result of an inability to challenge the power of the system, the positive areas are confined to the seemingly negative fringes; the concern for locality which they display often seems to have been taken on as a last ditch alternative and as a means to start afresh, the localities themselves having been abandoned by the art industry.
This plight of independence is also doubtlessly somewhat awkward. These groups have been forced or compelled to retreat to a negative position in order to construct a positive resistance. The “negative” here can be specifically understood according to the logic of capitalism as an insufficient means for production, as modes of production with low profit margins. The concept of positivity employed here by curator Bao Dong is borrowed from the terminology of architecture—it emphasizes the desire of people regarding the planning of architectural and spatial forms, as well as the awareness reflected in the production of these forms.
Each institution adopted a different approach to their respective spaces—casual, quotidian, folk, anti-consumerist, un-demarcated. For example, Arrow Factory painted the image of its façade onto the wall by the narrow entrance to their exhibition space, while Observation Society’s reflected their effort to remove demarcations within the exhibition space as a whole. On its walls was a line from Lu Xun: “Over the wall from my back garden you can see two trees. One is a date tree; so is the other.” Opposite these words could be found an installation of oversized nuts embedded with speakers, but not a trace of sound. Of the several others, a recognizably unifying characteristic was the approach to display, which often featured modes of production suited to each group’s local circumstances. Of course, perhaps only in peripheral areas and small-scale spaces do such exhibition strategies complement the conceptual vocabulary of the exhibitions themselves.
Broadly speaking, in view of this exhibition’s discourse, outcome, and resultant value, it seems that superficially, the Chinese contemporary art world has produced two opposing forces: on one side is the mainstream art system, which wields both capital and power simultaneously, and on the other, self-organized institutions. The former takes negative space and produces positivity in the form of profit, and the latter uses the negativity of its lack of profit to create positivity in the form of space.
Of course, in most circumstances, self-organized institutions refuse to acknowledge their diametrically opposed relationship with the mainstream system, and very few would actually commit to never entering it. More often, they acknowledge the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between the two. However, this mutually beneficial relationship in fact exposes the adulterous affair these so-called “independent” collectives are having with central power. The independent collectives currently in operation appear well and good, as does the “positive space” which they create and occupy. But how long will this positivity ultimately last? Only time will tell. Perhaps these collectives will in time abandon themselves to the lure of capital and power.