Conversation between Ni Haifeng and Pauline J. Yao
Pauline Yao: Your work has often dealt with issues of production on some level or another, be it through looking at modes of manufacturing, industrial production or the dual processes of making and consuming. Could you say something about how you began to work with these ideas and how they inform your current practice?
Ni Haifeng: It has a lot to do with my interest in globalization and the socio-political condition of global capitalism. I am particularly interested in manufacturing, which is, in a proper Marxist perspective, pivotal in the chain of social production. This specific type of production is now disappearing in more advanced countries and economic systems, and its social and economic significance diminishing. As a result, there occurred a global re-configuration of labor division and hence a new set of political economic relationships. China, among other developing countries, thus virtually becomes the collective working-class of global capitalism. These issues brought my attention to the inner mechanism of global production and consumption. I began to incorporate in my work the process of production during 2004 to 2005, in a project called Of the Departure and the Arrival, in which I commissioned a factory in Jingdezhen to produce a large amount of porcelain copies of various discarded Western objects. The whole project is a mockery of both colonial trade and global commerce, and the process mimics the inner mechanism of global production and consumption. Production, here takes on two qualities, that of the regular handcraft and the artistic. The former leads us to interrogating the labor condition of traditional handcraftsmanship and the latter creates a social dimension of collective authorship in the production of art.
PY: But of these two qualities, artistic production is not actually defined by creating the ‘social dimension of collective authorship’, right? I mean, historically it has been quite contrary. The social dimension is rarely recognized and though production might be collective, authorship is often resolutely individual. In my mind, this is reflective of capitalism’s predilection towards the individual and uniqueness. What do you think?
NHF: Art is not defined by one thing, or more radically, it should not be defined by anything. In the same token, the ‘collective authorship’ is not meant to define art nor is it a qualification of art as such, rather it is an endeavor to bring in diverse social and human meanings into the creative process of art production. When we talk about ‘authorship’, it is not just about a creator or the owner of an intellectual product; it is about the mythical concept, the excessive qualification and power hovering above the notion of authorship. And yes, historically authorship has been individual, but I think the excessive ‘uniqueness’ invested in the authorship is a rather modern invention. In Western history, author’s rights moved from the king to the printer to the publisher, and then from the publisher to the author in relatively modern times. It is only in Modernism that this ‘uniqueness’ reached its apogee in the notion of ‘genius’ and ‘transcendental newness’. Similarly, it is only in our time that ‘author’s rights’ carries so much weight. I am not so sure whether capitalism indeed favors the individual, but terms such as ‘copyright’ and ‘intellectual property’ are certainly reflective of the concept of authorial uniqueness. Also I’d like to add, that in this ‘social dimension of artistic production’ I am not replacing the individual with the collective, rather with collaborative individuals. Perhaps it is more pertinent to rephrase ‘collective authorship’ as ‘interactive authorship’.
PY:Para-Production is related to a previous work you exhibited in Leiden called Return of the Shreds, could you speak about the relationship between these two projects and how you decided to approach the question of production within China differently than in Europe?
NHF: The Return of Shreds is a highly contextualized piece. The context is set in the West. It’s a critical investigation into the unseen side of global production and consumption, with ‘the return of the unwanted’ being the conceptual point of departure. Entitled Para-Production, the abovementioned project is re-contextualized for this show in China, or perhaps it is more precise to call it an entirely different project, despite the similarity in the material used and the form of the installation. It is perhaps the location of the project being in China – the epicenter of global manufacturing that led me to a different approach, to propose an alternative mode of production/manufacturing. The prefix ‘para’ means near, alongside, beyond, auxiliary and resembling but somewhat abnormal. I coined the word ‘para-production’ to suggest a new mode of production that is beyond the production of capital and is capable of thwarting capital’s accumulative and incremental thrust. Here, the site of production is an askew version of industrial manufacturing and the process is a reversal of the consumer-capitalism logic of ‘producing the useful’.
PY: This abandonment of ‘producing the useful’ suggests contains a political stance and relates to systems of knowledge production and the creation or obfuscation of meaning. Can you cite some specific works of yours in which these concerns overlap and intertwine?
NHF: I think all my works are, in one way or another, political, insofar as we regard our creativity as a cultural resistance in this highly administered late-capitalist society. There are two aspects of knowledge production that have always interested me: one is the systematic production of dominant knowledge, power-discourse or the power; the other is the production of subaltern knowledge, discourse of the social other or the voice of homo sacer (Slavoj Zizek). I always think artistic production should be positioned in the context of the latter. It is interesting to view the production of meaning as a continuous process of negotiation between the dominant and the subaltern. This concept is central to my mixed media installation Xeno-Writings (2003), in which a video of writing and un-writing process is projected onto a wall of books. The wall of books is used to symbolize a cultural fault-line that sets the exhibition space into two imagined places. On one side the viewer reads an enormous amount of titles by famous Western authors, ranging from philosophy, history, literature to political theories, which symbolize the consolidation of dominant discourses; whilst on the other side the viewer sees images of a meaningless writing and its erasure, which is intended to represent the subaltern production of meaning. Xeno-Writings are, in Sarat Maharaj’s term ‘xeno-epistemics’, a process of alternative knowledge production. The process is simultaneously that of disruption and creation. In my practice, I’ve always regarded the obfuscation of meaning as the creation of new meanings.
PY: Where does the issue of labor and craftsmanship factor into your Para-Production project? In all instances where production occurs, the question of labor is critical, and yet the systems associated with work, and ways of ‘making and doing’ are subverted here. How?
NHF: The whole project is centered on the notion of labor, which is a knotting point in the ‘para-production’ of social relations. Here, I intend to place labor outside the economic law of equivalence, in other words, outside the gravitational field of capitalist system. The workers here are not commissioned laborers, but active makers, participants and contributors. The old question from Marx – ‘who is the real worker, the piano maker or the piano player’ still rings aloud; I want the laborers and the artist in this project to be equal makers of ‘Para-Products’. Also the work environment is not that of industrial production-line, but that of traditional individual-based type of production. The choice of old manual-sewing machines attests to this. They serve as witness to, at once, a particular process of para-production, and the absence or loss of individual-based ‘making and doing’ in our everyday life. It is interesting to see how weaving, sewing and tailoring, the oldest forms of production of basic human needs, have evolved into an exorbitant culture of high-consumerism. In this light, the project envisages an alternative value system and an alternative mode of social relations. That might sound a bit utopian.
PY: Yes, I was going to say something about this utopian impulse, and its connection to the ‘Para-Production’ project.
NHF: But this vision of utopia is not the shimmering one in the distant island, but a realist micro-utopia in here and now. In the age of post-politics, in which no revolution can be imagined and no political antagonism can’t be assimilated into the politics of administration, little utopian interventions can be sufficiently subversive. Since the project takes a reversed process of ‘manufacturing’ – from industrial waste to a ‘para-product’, the capital’s systemic ‘making and doing’ is conceptually subverted. Also in this non-teleological process, in which no capital’s utilitarianism is invested, labor and work become acutely present and autonomous.
PY: I find it interesting that you and I can talk about Marx, utopianism or notions of subverting capitalism, but I have to ask, do you think these concepts reach the average viewer, or participant, for that matter? And in what way? In other words, speaking from a visual perspective, what sorts of things do you hope viewers take away from Para-Production?
NHF: The viewers will always draw their own conclusions, with or without Marx and utopian ideas. Art is never a simple translation of a concept; it’s more like a trace of thinking. I always think art reaches people in more complex and comprehensive ways than just conveying some ideas. As to the participants, who are also viewers, they may not contemplate in utopianism nor theoretically interrogate capitalism, but their physical experiences in the ‘para-production’ will certainly alter their perception of making and doing, of the society, the community and the everyday. By recreating the division between the commercial and the communal within the social space, I hope the participants transcend, though momentarily, the banal economic world. Para-Production is an installation of mise en scene, a frozen moment of an unending sequence, which reminds the viewer that which has been taking place but in a temporary halt. The work takes on an open topographical setting that engulfs the viewer in the midst of a production site. Thus the aesthetic experience of the viewer must also be participatory. From a visual perspective, I hope all the spatial elements create in the viewer a sense of temporality, a temporal trace of ‘para-production’.
PY: I wanted to ask something about the role of participation in your work. It certainly relates to the social dimension of production we have been talking about, but there are other instances, like in the Gift Project you did in Holland. How do you view interactive, engaged, collaborative, participatory art in a more general sense, divorced from the question of production?
NHF: That piece is centered upon the notion of social sculpture, not in Joseph Beuys’ sense, but in the proper sense of the words, which is that a sculpture is socially constructed and exists only in a social network. Also the sculpture in turn re-sculpts social relations. In Gift Project (2006) I fragmented my own installation into some 400 units which were then mass produced as 4000 gifts. The gifts were given to newly naturalized citizens in Amsterdam. In the course of two years, ‘my work’ has gradually diminished but the social sculpture expanded. Now the work has been completely transformed into a relational ‘sculpture’, existing in the invisible fabric of the social. Here interaction and participation become the main engine through which aesthetic meanings are constantly altered and recreated. I view this type of engagement as creating ‘inter-textuality’, which means the authorial ‘text’ is crossed and reinterpreted by the ‘texts’ of the participants.
PY: As an artist of Chinese descent based in Holland, how do you see these ideas of production within your work in a cultural context, that is, in relation to your living and working between Europe and China?
NHF: I think this type of production process in my work can be equated with cultural translation. In Of the Departure and the Arrival, the Western objects with their own history and cultural significance, are not only reproduced but translated and negotiated culturally by the laborers in China. The resulting objects are neither Western nor Chinese; they are a transposed hybrid. Sometimes it’s a more complex multi-directional translation. For example, in Shrinkage 10%, the original Chinese porcelain objects from a Western museum are re-translated by Chinese workers into a set of diminishing copies. I use the word ‘re-translate’, because the originally Chinese objects were ‘museologically translated’ from colonial trophies into iconographic Western museum objects. The re-translation takes a reversed route, from Western museum objects back into, with a twist, contemporary Chinese counterfeits.
Another interesting aspect of my life in Holland is what I often refer to as an ‘eerie coincidence’. Since all large scale industrial productions in Europe are relocated in developing countries, among which China becomes the key provider of everyday consumer products for Europe, almost everything I buy here is from China, with or without labels of Made-in-China. Metaphorically speaking, I live in a Made-in-China environment within the West. It is uncanny. That spurs me to investigate the social condition of the ‘global factory’ in the country where I grew up.
My living and working between Europe and China has also brought about another dimension to my work, which is movement, especially the cross-border movement of goods, people and ideas.