Recently I was the invited respondent to GLOBAL BENDING: Opening Creative Space – Rooting Curatorial Media Practice in China panel at the Dutch Electronic Art Festival. This panel was expansive in scope and ambitiously attempted to cover many topics.

After a brief introduction from moderator Li Zhenhua, we heard from Zhang Ga, proposing that a top-down strategy is a sensible one to utilise in the current climate in China. Zhang Ga noticed that many Chinese educational institutions were employing outmoded notions of what was “new media” or “digital”, relying on digital photography and video to carry their programmes. He stressed the importance of professionalisation, and setting up a high-level discourse in the field to advance practice. He noted that China lacks a culture of “tinkerers” – practitioners hacking in their garages. With this in mind, and also acknowledging that government initiatives are focusing on digital applications in entertainment rather than art, the role of higher education becomes incredibly important.

Next, Yao Bin described the DIY process by which the community built an art space, using simple materials. He rhymed off a very impressive list of embassies and consulates that he had worked with to present work in the space. He also spoke about a sound art exchange project that he did with Taiwanese artists, something that might be seen as a bit of a political hot potato.

Ellen Pau spoke next, mostly referring to art as cultural practices, not as processes that necessarily result in objects. She described several projects that took place outside the white cube, including the “Community Museum Project“, which allowed indigenous creativity to flourish. She also noted the planned transformation of West Kowloon in Hong Kong into a new “cultural quarter”.

Wei Zhang from Vitamin Creative Space spoke about several projects, though the one that intrigued me the most was “China Tracy“, a project by Cao Fei that involved use of a Second Life avatar for art purposes.

Davide Quadrio, Director of Biz Art in Shanghai, then spoke very critically about the challenges facing curators in China. He indicated that there was a lack of a truly critical approach, and also that there was a lack of sustainable development for significant projects. He stated that the problem of economical and cultural independence was still one to be solved.

I began my response by structuring it into a few phases: “Approaches and Strategies”, “Policies and Politics”, and “Curatorial Concerns”. Beginning with approaches and strategies, I noted that a top-down versus botton-up approach will help you to meet in the middle, and that the middle space is one that curators often occupy, as negotiators between artists and institutions. Zhang Ga’s work setting a foundation in terms of higher education seems very critical to future success, bringing things up to date through institutions in a top-down way that is innovative and essential. I wondered if it might be innovative in an economic sense as well, since positioning art practice as research in an academic context might be one way to fundraise for the arts.

Approaching culture from the angle of urban culture is something that came up in several presentations – Ellen Pau telling the audience about the street as museum, Zhang Ga speaking of the difficulties with public art, and Yao Bin describing the symposium of urban culture that he set up in his space. I noted that whilst having complete autonomy to install public art at will is unlikely anywhere, digital artists and curators are especially well-positioned to create a “virtual layer” of information over the city. Also the talk of new cultural quarters was interesting – West Kowloon and other places – since surely there are funds to be tapped there, and perhaps curators can take their place at the negotiation table when these arrangements are being made. Not forgetting, of course, that a whole other sort of “public space” that desperately needs a “cultural quarter” is opening up – Second Life – so curatorial interest in it, and projects like “China Tracy” are very welcome additions to this developing scene.

In “Policy and Politics”, I mused on whether the “creative industry” policy being pushed by the government couldn’t also be utilised by curators. There is no public funding for art in China (though other governments seem willing to step in, as Yao Bin’s long list of participating embassies proved), but getting art “sneaked in” the back door under the category of research and development, product testing, et cetera, might be a way of manipulating this strategy. Yao Bin’s work with Taiwanese artists highlighted the other, perhaps polar opposite of art-as-research tendency, that of art as an active instrument for creating political goodwill.

It’s a delicate dance with government policies, not just in China but worldwide, though some announcements in China keep people on their toes – such as the revelation from Ellen that the public broadcaster in Hong Kong might be destroyed and re-created. These rumours, proposals, and inevitably, final decisions, end up affecting artists and curators either directly or indirectly by creating a sense of uncertainty that Davide Quadrio summed up nicely as “unsustainable sustainable”.

In terms of curatorial concerns, I observed that curators in China are genuinely caught in the middle, negotiating between artist, institution, sponsors, and government. In addition, there is the pressure of making a big impression – Ellen Pau spoke of audiences and supporters both wanting “fireworks”, meaning, something that is spectacular and that lives in the moment, freeing cultural actors from bearing the burden of future maintenance, but also crippling sustained dialogue. In the absence of funding and in the era of the “unsustainable sustainable”, what options remain? Can curators gain influence and a foothold into funding sources through an academic or political context, or is that too great a compromise? What can be done to induce a tinkering culture, a culture which could become essential to feeding the Chinese media arts scene? Can the rise of the “creative industries” and “cultural quarters” be exploited to insert a curatorial agenda? One thing that I was certain of, walking away from this panel, was that the people on it were leading in decoding the answers to these difficult questions.

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