Against Itself in Community Practice: Field Notes of Supo

Participant: Xue Yuxuan, an artist & documentary filmmaker, who is always creating with speciality in visual art, as well as an educator who is keen on inspiring people. She is still learning about community-based art.

Observer: Liu Ying, a dual PhD candidate in Sociology and Urban Studies. She lives in Europe and Chengdu is her field. A true self-critic and she is now preparing a podcast called “Social (Non)Science”.

5 October 2021 – Re-encountering Community Art

[Xue Yuxuan] 

I have moved to the community where the artist residency program is located. At the invitation of a local social organization I-YOU-SHE specifically its Art and Social Innovation Lab, I will be conducting a 10-month artist residency in the Supo, a neighborhood located outside the 3rd Ring Road of Chengdu. The program aims to provide a platform for art to work with the local community, social organizations, as well as the community economic development. This is the second time I have been involved in community art project – and to be honest, I do not really know what community is yet. My collaborator is a very experienced artist. So, at first, I did not feel much of a psychological burden. I thought it was just a change of place to make my own work – like most artists’ understanding of community art, it had nothing to do with the community.

Community art is a branch of the new public art. I was first exposed to the importance of public art for public discourse and civic expression during my studies in London, where I was involved in various debates and actions on issues of racial discrimination and women’s rights. The experience of returning to China after the pandemic had a great impact on my thinking. I have participated in a few artists residency projects since returning to China. However, I always felt that I did not get to the crux of the matter, without problem awareness. The community art exhibition at the Shanghai Urban Space Art Season, which I participated in last month, was the first time I had been involved in this kind of programs. I have always wanted to find a suitable avenue to engage with social issues. Community art is a good ground for this. But my practice did not go as well as I thought it would. I realised that it was impossible to understand the community and the lives of its inhabitants unless being a local resident myself. Nor did I want to be a gazing subject, observing the life of a group that had no connection to my own life experience. When I moved here today, I became a new resident of Supo and began to observe myself. But this change of identity did not bring me any direct benefit or more inspiration later on. My lack of methods and experiences in community-based work made it difficult for me to act. 

9 December 2021 – The Return of Community

[Liu Ying]

I never thought there would be a community-based art residency project outside of Chengdu’s West Third Ring Road. Two artists with a few college students were painting the walls – they were going to turn a vacant shopfront into a bright gallery space that is suitable for artworks. In fact, all kinds of “community” projects are already everywhere in Chengdu. The fieldwork in Chengdu has made me to rethink the analytical framework of urban renewal in China today; one of the overlooked factors is “community”. 

In 2017, the Municipal Committee of Urban and Rural Community Development and Governance was formally established, which is the first of its kind in China. More than 3,000 communities in Chengdu now have an annual security fund dedicated for their own communities’ use. From the state’s point of view, today’s societal transformation requires a more tailored and refined managerial system to govern effectively. We can witness an increasing prominence of the word “community” in the realm of public discourse. And local community development and governance becomes a policy mandate for small-scaled urban renewal practices. 

As in the case of the community project at hand, due to the property rights issues of the space, the local government has handed over its use right to local social organizations to undertake cultural-led activities, revitalizing state-owned assets to some extent. It seems to be a win-win scenario, with the annual social service budget spent, the local government having political achievements, social organizations having projects, artists having creations, and residents having activities – so why not. But then it seems that the so-called “art” has become part of local social engineering, i.e., the production of community as well as its governance. 

This reminds me of the trend that emerged in the UK and the US after the 1980s, namely, a re-evaluation of the role of community in governance. From the “Third Way” proposed by the new Labour Party in Britain to the ‘New Communitarianism’ of the American right, “community” is widely seen as a resource that can be mobilised to address a wide range of political, economic social and cultural issues, especially as a counterweight to fragmented social realities. The so-called “third way” is in fact an eclectic ideology that seeks a middle way between neoliberalism and Marxism, reshaping citizens as moral subjects of responsible communities. However, the middle way was nothing more than a seemingly effective nostrum in response to the social changes of the time, i.e., globalization, the decline of the nation-state, the rise of regionalism, environmental crisis, the fragmentation of political and cultural identity, the changing lifestyles, etc. It did not offer a true way out, but more of a repackaging of individualism and liberalism in a more conservative way, by emphasizing community-based ethics to shape the values that guide and thus govern individuals through communities. On the other hand, it is also a continuity of the post-war policy of fiscal austerity, which curtailed public spending on social welfare and put responsibility at a more local and personal level. Community is also about economics. In Chengdu, each community needs to find its own money and develop businesses for profit. In addition to the use of security funds, it is becoming increasingly common for communities to set up their own platform companies to develop industries.

The word “community” has undergone a turbulent journey in the Chinese context. The first generation of Chinese sociologists, represented by Fei Hsiao-tung, used the term “community” in the 1930s, but the term disappeared from public discourse in the early 1950s. The word reappeared with the promotion of “community services” in the 1980s and “community building” in the 1990s. Much like in the UK and the US, the discussions of “community” revolved around local governance and social welfare, but these debates emerged largely in response to the decline of the planned economy system; and the definition of community is still based on location, rather than culture or identity. Although there was a range of relevant policies, community never actually play a significant role in state governance. Until the last five years especially after the pandemic, all the citizen now aware of which community they are located at. But to this day, what is “community” in China? 

15 December 2021 – A Tough Collaboration

[Xue Yuxuan]  

Today I finished the first workshop of my independent project “27 and the World”. The event was scheduled at 2pm; and it’s already 1pm and I couldn’t even get up – because I didn’t want to do it at all. Working with the government on community art can go very smoothly, and research and interviews are rarely hindered. The government needs to use community art for community governance and development. The social organisation connects the government and the artist, and the artist connects the government and the residents. I have doubts about the ‘connection’ between the community, the residents, and the artists. The terms and conditions are written in the contract, including which community group to work with and where and how many events to be done. The main group of residents involved in the “27 and the World” project were the active older communist party members of the community, a generation that was enjoying the dividends of the state. While people who were struggling to make ends meet could never be interested in art. I found it difficult to work together.

“27 and the world” workshop, organised by Xue Yuxuan, December 2021
Photo by Bai Haiyang

30 December 2021 – Whose Community

[Liu Ying]

The other day I came to one of their workshops. The main participants were a group of aged residents with money and leisure who are also amateur photographers, and apparently, the active members of Supo. At the mid-term meeting, the artist’s thoughts on the concept of “community” are substantive but also cliché – they are again reminiscent of the demise of traditional communities as well as the disintegration of collective identity and the sense of belonging – an 18th century issue that is still being discussed today.

In the context of rapid urban change and population mobility, is a so-called “community” based on a common culture and collective identity still possible? There are always those who are nostalgic in the face of a present in which they are at a loss. But the world has moved on, women have walked out of the domestic sphere, the traditional stable family structure has disintegrated, and therefore, the traditional community built on which has of course fallen apart. We have long since entered what Bauman calls ‘fluid modernity’, where all that was solid has dissipated. The old methods cannot solve the new problems. The new challenge now is to find meaning and a system of reference in today’s highly mobile, pluralistic, and fragmented world; an attempt is to be made to re-establish a consensus, whether based on identity or issues.

The participants took me on a tour of some of the places in Supo: the crowded street market, the dilapidated courtyards, the new massive high-rise residences, the broad highways – this fragmented suburban landscape is not in any way unusual in Chinese cities. The fragmentation of various spaces is in fact a symptom of the fragmentation of social groups; yet art can reach only a very small percentage of people.

1 March 2022 – No Public Security Cases

[Xue Yuxuan] 

I started this project at the age of 27 and wanted to use the simple storyline to link each collaborator in different ways to tell the story of what happened in different times and places. In addition to the work presented by the old party members, I also made a documentary of No Crime Happens with split screen video. Part one is my filming of the everyday life of residents in Supo and part two is the news report of an American stowaway. The public sign in the community reads “No Public Security Cases Today” – a harmonious, peaceful, and enjoyable scene is in front of us, while in the distance there are many sad and distressing events that take place. These seemingly ordinary daily lives are made up of countless privileges. I have hidden what I thought about this community, at the age of 27, in this work. After this exhibition, in collaboration with a NGO in Guangxi province, I went to live in a fishing village on the northern coast to participate in another community-based art project. The very different contexts led me to think and read a lot about the theoretical framework of new public art.

11 March 2022 Nothing happened today

[Liu Ying]

What shocked me was that, unlike the other participants in the project, the artist Xue Yuxuan had moved to this neighbourhood, becoming a new resident herself. She said she was inspired by anthropological methodology – but it must be said that anthropology seems to be rather dominant in China and inextricably linked to art; in contrast to sociology, which has little to do with artistic practice.

Xue Yuxuan, No Public Security Cases Today, 2022, multi-channel video
Photo by Bai Haiyang

However, Xue simply moved here and became a young person living in any neighbourhood in the city – people who were never part of the community. Because of the pressure of her project and art creation, she seems to be waiting for some events to happen every day to break the banality. But, for six months, life has been calm and quiet. She, like many other young people including myself, had little to do with the local community – it is just the place where one’s rented house is located, where one comes back to sleep every day, and sometimes where one does PCR tests. But this is exactly what needs to be discussed. Because this is the state of many young people today, exhausted by life and far from community. There are too many problems in life, and none of them can be solved at the community level. This is not just true for young people, but for all those who are on the move, those who are run for a living, those who live from day to day. Many project participants are thinking with no link to their own experiences or real human experiences, but only thinking out of the blue, along certain patterns of discourse and inertia of thinking. Like those who are keen on doing “community building” away from their hometowns, who want to make sure that young people are rooted in a place. Can they not look back at themselves and ask why they left or even fled their communities ten years ago? Do they really desire community? People are so insincere, pretending to be living, self-alienating and self-extracting. 

Final exhibition at the Residency (Phase I), Supo, Chengdu, March 2022
Photo by Bai Haiyang

11 August 2022 – Shifting Identities: Researcher and Practitioner

[Liu Ying]

Defining the relationship between researcher and field or subject is largely a matter of various degrees of ‘observation’ and ‘participation’, from complete observation, more observation, more participation, to complete participation. It is often impossible to quantify clearly, and each approach has benefits and limitations. I had previously preferred the former, to avoid over-involving myself in the course of events. But the fact is that simply being present on-site has an impact on the status quo. And so-called positivist social reality does not exist outside of our own subjectivity. 

Five years after I left Chengdu, I returned here to do fieldwork and have been struggling between the two extremes of ‘participation’ and ‘observation’. The urban space and people are so familiar and yet so foreign that I have to re-examine not only the tangible and intangible changes in the city, but also my own self and past experiences. The age-old question with ethnographic research method is to remind the researcher not to ‘go native’; but in fact, the researcher also runs the risk of ‘going strange’ when confronted with a familiar setting. I didn’t want to be caught up in the vortex again, to be part of something that I couldn’t control. However, I couldn’t escape the current of ‘being pushed forward’ because I had already stepped into it long ago.

When Xue asked me to collaborate, I hesitated. It wasn’t in my plans, and it didn’t fit my position. I am suspicious and critical of ‘art’ and ‘community’ or the combination of the two. An inconvenient truth is that many art projects mean more to the artists themselves than they do to the places they are in and the people who live there. So, should I be involved in a project that I would probably not agree with? But the artist’s invitation struck me as an excellent opportunity to get to the heart of a community art project, rather than be a ‘rational’ bystander. Perhaps this project could provide some space for action. In the end, despite my hesitation and scepticism, I move from stay aloof to being in the loop.

22 August 2022 – Ms. Chen at the Café

[Xue Yuxuan]  

Tonight I interviewed Ms. Chen, the owner of a cafe in the local community. She broke down in tears as soon as I spoke to her about her experiences.  She recounted how difficult it was to escape the pandemic from Thailand and settle in Chengdu, slowly working her way up from a street vendor to a café owner. Having not seen her daughter for three years because of the pandemic, Ms. Chen is torn between the changing global situation and her personal fate. Growing up in a middle-class family, Ms. Chen used to be quite well off. But as she pushed her Thai-style stall cart through the local community trying to start her own business, she felt the heartbreak of being in the informal economy. The most tough time of the day for the street vendor was around 7pm every day, when the vendors would be driven by the police to an intersection between two neighbourhoods – when police came from one side they would run to the other, like rats being chased through the streets. There is always some drama at the lowest level of community governance. Some police officers would say to her things like “don’t fall into my hands” or “I’ll make it impossible for you to live”. There is an apt saying that some people will use the least amount of power to make things difficult for the masses to the maximum extent. When she heard about a community event I was doing where hot drinks would be given out for free to street vendors, she offered to fund a few dozen hot drinks. Because of her good business acumen and fine skills, Ms. Chen has now developed a chain of half a dozen outlets. But just the day before our chat, the shop sign, which had not been approved, was pried off its first word by the police. She battled with them and saved the remaining words.  

There is a lot of lamentation from the masses about life after the epidemic and complaints about community governance. Some people do not make community art to speak for the people; and no one wants to see bitter, gloomy works with a sense of gaze and novelty-seeking. But I don’t think any whitewashing or switching of perspectives can conceal the sadness of the poor. Claire Bishop in Artificial Hell says, “They are in favour of involving their audiences, especially those considered marginalised, actively in the conception or production of process-oriented, politically conscious community events or projects. But exacerbating unbalanced power relations re-marginalises already disenfranchised groups and also ultimately exacerbates the separation of art from life” – I cannot escape my elite status to truly understand the masses and give them a voice. 

2 October 2022 – Producing History

[Liu Ying]

I spoke to the former street-level party secretary today. He was very chatty, mentioning a lot of the work he used to do here. The history of the place was mentioned during the conversation and he said bluntly that the history of the place was all made up and not at all verified. But he went on to say that local history should be included in the primary and secondary school curriculum to strengthen the collective identity of youth. Some apparently contradictory statements. Many communities in Chengdu are implementing ‘community memory’ projects, digging up historical stories and displaying historical objects to increase residents’ sense of collective identity. We are constantly discovering even producing the history and culture of a place; how does this enhanced nostalgic symbolism of place relate to the contemporary social reality of the last twenty years? How does this ‘history’ relate to the people who live here today? 

6 October 2022 – The Beginning of the Questioning

[Xue Yuxuan] 

I had a meeting with the curator tonight – our project was “criticised” for being too sociological and the artwork part had not yet begun. This phase enabled me to find the meaning of creating art in the community. I refer to the way in which new public art is created, emphasising process rather than outcome, participation rather than arrangement, de-emphasising the tools and methods of art, and weakening the presentation of art. The New Public Art is described in Artificial Hell as “a participatory-based art that uses traditional and non-traditional media to work with a wide and diverse audience, communicating and interacting with issues that are directly relevant to their lives. This art of public interest is activist and communitarian in spirit, insisting on a departure from the universalising tendencies of modernist abstraction and instead celebrating the realities of ‘ordinary people’ and their ‘everyday’ experiences”.

The road to the first attempts at a new kind of public art was not a smooth one. Who exactly decides what issues we want to express or represent? Is it the artist, the community group, the curator, or the sponsoring organisation? Critics argue that there are always problems and difficulties in social development, they are discussed by various disciplines, adapted by various policies, glorified, and repressed, but the problems do not go away. Through the research methods of other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, I as a subject of community practice discovered many parts of my previous art experiences had not mentioned. Topics and issues that seemed like a new world to me may have been discussed a thousand times before. But the fact is that there is no way to work deeply with the people in the community in the short term. A superficial participatory approach may only be more meaningful and inspiring to me as an artist. Of course, the government will not like this kind of art creation either.  

Xue Yuxuan, 24 Hours in Supo (film still), 2022, video
Photo by Xue Yuxuan

16 October 2022 – The Problem Itself 

[Liu Ying]

The “community art” here is a personal artistic practice located in a community space (as opposed to an art gallery space), where the ‘community’ is merely a decoration indicating the location, not the substance. And the ‘community’ refers to a local governance unit, not a group of residents.

When the collaboration began, Xue and I decided to start by observing and researching various spaces and people, establishing contact with residents, especially those who did not have a voice. Then we would come up with a research question and proposal based on the preliminary research. However, as time was tight, and we only had a week to come up with a proposal. We decided to make the mid-term exhibition a data collection in itself. So the plan was to build a simple “people’s vision kiosk” to collect their ideas, with some satellite photos showing how the landscape has changed in the last twenty years to interest the residents, as a sort of ‘visual trigger’ to create an opportunity to talk to them. But this proposal was criticised in the artist’s report to the curator. We had to revive our own discredited program of activities, such as placing unused chairs in the square and involving residents in mapping their own daily routines. At the same time, we hastily prepared a questionnaire to collect some residents’ thoughts on their own lives and art. Out of over 100 questionnaires, almost no one knew about the art space they, and most people felt they had nothing to do with ‘art’. Yes, I don’t think I have anything to do with it either.

22 October 2022 – The Complaints from Volunteers

[Xue Yuxuan] 

Tonight an internal sharing session was done with a few of the volunteers involved in the 24 hour event. Most of these volunteers were college students or recent graduates who were recruited through WeChat platform. For most of them, this was their first time participating in a community art event. Their task was to find various people in the community to interview all day long. The unchanged daily routine leaves many people without any interactions. Some said don’t talk to me about art, give me my pension first; some said there was no culture in the workers’ community; some said they were like a mouse, they hit wherever the government points; some said community art was painting manhole covers and playing poker, and so on. After an all-night event, the volunteers were in a depressed state of mind. But the event had a big impact on them as discussed in the sharing session. However, one young social worker commented that the format of the event was very stereotypical and non-participatory; the problems were neither addressed nor the art expressed.

20 October 2022 – Interdisciplinarity on trial

[Liu Ying]

I feel that the gap between disciplines, between theory and practice, is so wide. Different systems are not connected. Everyone only works in their own field; and rarely can there be a truly interdisciplinary perspective. Academics often work behind closed doors, with lively internal discussions; and art has long been instrumentalized, often exploited by both power and capital.

Aerial view of Dapeng Market in Supo
Photo by Huang Senwei

6 November 2022 Evening – Parting of the ways may be the starting point

[Xue Yuxuan]  

In today’s long conversation with Liu about our brief experience of collaboration, whatever our common visions, we feel that academia and art practice are not as easy and smooth to cooperate as one might think. Real and profound interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to the future development of a new kind of public art; interdisciplinary collaboration is not an end in itself, but rather a means of promoting effective and sustainable modes of creative practice. Artists and other participants need to continually reflect on the meaning and value of community-based art for each of the people involved.