No World: A Screening with Fang Lu and Herb Tam
Fang Lu, No World, 2014, single-channel video, sound, 17’52″. Image courtesy of the artist.
Asia Art Archive in America
Jan 19, 2015
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Today we’re very happy to welcome Fang Lu, an artist now based in Beijing, and Herb Tam, a curator and Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). Herb has worked at MOCA for three and a half years and before that at Exit Art for four years. Herb, we are delighted that you will be moderating tonight’s talk, and now, please introduce Fang Lu.
Herb Tam (HT): Thank you Jane. Actually I just met Fang Lu in person today, although we have been exchanging emails. Fang Lu lives and works in Beijing. She earned a graphic design degree at SVA, and graduated with an MFA in the new genres department at the San Francisco Art Institute. She’s been in shows all over the world, including solo shows at Arrow Factory and Space Station in Beijing. She’s also the co-founder of Video Bureau, an independent video archive in Beijing and Guangzhou. What we’re going to do tonight is screen one of her recent pieces and then talk about that work in depth as a way to open a window into her practice in general.
– Screening –
Fang Lu (FL): First of all, thanks again to Asia Art Archive, Jane and Xiaofei for organizing this event and showing this video here. It’s an important recent work for me, so it is important to show it here. In many ways it represents the forms that I have pursued in my video practice in the past couple of years. And by forms I mean my approach to art. As I was preparing this lecture over the past few days and thinking about this video, No World, I decided to write this note, as a statement about the work, which I would like to read you now, if you don’t mind. Also, in the background I am going to show images of other video works that I have done, so you will have a general idea of what my other projects look like.
Sometimes I’m frightened with the time we’re living in, frightened not because of dangers or discomfort, but because of the feeling that we are becoming more and more susceptible to making subjective decisions. With all the knowledge and information we can attain, we are only running without understanding where we are going. Watching the news nowadays I will often become teary. Sometimes it’s a stronger feeling than watching movies. Is this because of me and the fact that I have become more sensitive to my surroundings, or is it because what’s happening has become more intense? Two weeks ago I was sitting in a tearoom in Shanghai with a group of people who had assembled for a show. It was a juried show; the jury was trying to find the next best Chinese artist. The whole process was quite amusing and memorable for me because at certain moments it felt like a TV reality show. At one point one of the members of the jury threw out a question for all of the eight artists to answer one after another. The question was as fundamental and as generic as you could imagine: why do you want to be an artist? No one was quite prepared to quickly answer a question like that in that situation. I wasn’t either, but my answer was that while I do not think my art is political, being an artist is political, and that’s the reason I want to be an artist. Of course in the end, I didn’t win the big prize.
No World is a video I created last summer. It is a straightforward narrative about the activities in a day in the lives of a group of young people who exist in an empty building. During my research to create this work I gathered video clips and photos that were circulating on the Internet that documented public protests and street riots in recent years. These images are from events throughout the world taken by the participants in the events, or taken by people who are just passing by, or by people who work for the media [like journalists]. In finding this content, it was very interesting for me to see how the role of the camera in our society is shifting from its classical function as a tool for memorializing moments to a new function as a tool for creating moments; that is to say in the past we would take a picture or a video to remember what had happened, but now, in addition to documenting, we are often confronted with material where violent or dramatic actions are taking place. Sometimes this kind of material not so much serves the purpose of preserving memory. Rather it more often manifests an ideal. What interests me is the distinction between documentary material and staged material, and how that distinction is becoming less and less clear. Documentary material records and shows evidence; staged material purposely plans and performs for the camera. When these two forms merge, I see a new kind of reality being created, which is neither fictional nor documentary. It is this kind of reality I want to create in this video work, one that is highly aestheticized and yet seemingly grounded in the news [about actual world events], thus implicating actively engaged and action-driven youths in a certain belief [system or ideology]. No World is not a political work about a specific political issue; rather it is related to all political action. To me, the video functions on a formal level that echoes my other works. I’m not interested in the social context of these events. What I want to do with this work is to extract these images, these actions, or even, we can say, this kind of initiative, and to insert characters and narratives that can belong to any time or any place. In this sense, the works don’t have to belong to any time or place. When I first showed the work in China, people thought it was referencing the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, which happened this past September shortly after I completed the project. As this work is showing here now, in New York, with what just happened in Paris [the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices], you might think it is referencing that event as well. I hope that when people see this work in the future, they will feel exactly the same way as we do now, because it’s relevant to all political events, even for those events that have not happened yet. It’s relevant to all social movements in their formality, their aesthetic, and in the spirit of the people who are involved. Thank you.
HT: First of all, I’m just curious about the process, about how No World was made. I know that these young people were assembled. Did they know each other? How long were they together? How did you direct them?
FL: Some of the people in this work are my friends; some were amateur actors. Only one of the people has formal acting experience. Three people were found on the Internet and some were friends of friends. This group of people came together for several days, from the warm up exercises to the actual shooting. I actually called it ‘an exercise’ because to me it was a form of self-training. This group and I, based on the script of what had to happen each day, together figured out how to enact it physically and how it was to be shot.
HT: And the script that you gave them, was it a general guideline or was it very specific? How specific did you get in terms of what they were to do when and what those actions were to be?
FL: It was very specific in terms of the video, because it was divided by scenes. The script contained descriptions of what people would do, but it was not based on any pre-determined character roles nor based on a storyboard. That happened later in my editing. It was more task driven.
HT: Did you imagine the video to have a structure, before things began to unfold in the ‘performance’? Did you have a complete narrative in mind for the video?
FL: I didn’t have a complete narrative in mind, but [my script] was divided into very specific scenarios.
HT: The reason I ask these questions is because the acts that the people in your video perform are acts of violence, but they are also tactical, such as the collective throwing of bricks or people in riot gear hammering these guys with sticks. Those actions seem tactical. We can justify the violence as part of a bigger picture of activity, that they’re trying to create change, that they are part of a bigger movement, that they’re resisting violence against them. But I am wondering about your vocabulary of violence. Why did you choose this specific form of violence and not a pantomime of an execution or something like that?
FL: In this whole video nothing was new. We didn’t invent anything. The only thing that was invented was that we altered the action that had already happened. The references are all from images circulating on the Internet. Maybe some people who watch this video feel that the action is not dangerous, because it is altered and set in the parameters that worked for me, and worked within this space. The action was changed into a group activity that is more similar to a game. The people in this group aren’t enemies, rather they are on the same level, and there is no hierarchy. It was a team activity without targeting a specific enemy. That was the goal when we started the script. Also, you can see that these people look a lot like me or you or the people sitting in the room here today. They are a group of people who would not normally be involved with violence. The general context that I provided to the people performing in this video was that we’re living in a time when everything we see is full of action, but we don’t really understand why a lot of things are happening. So they are exercising in an intuitive way. In this video there is no conclusion about what they’re targeting. I think perhaps the only symbolic moment was in the end when the man waves a pole. Normally it would be a flag, but in this instance, it was a rescue flare.
HT: I’ll just randomly throw this out there, but watching your video made me think of something I learned from Josh MacPhee who is an archivist and activist and runs, along with several other people, a place called Interference Archive. He was talking once about the famous black and white photos in Birmingham, Alabama in which African American protesters are being hosed down by the police. These are iconic photographs of the civil rights movement. It is actually fitting that we’re talking about this today, being MLK’s birthday. He said that the civil rights protestors [in these photographs] were very conscious that there were photojournalists around, and they consciously made a decision to be in the line of the water cannon fire, so that the photographers could take these very compelling photographs. I think that sense of artifice speaks to your work. The other thing [I'll mention] is a few months ago the artist Dread Scott recreated that action here in Brooklyn. He got someone from a fire department to hose him down for several hours. For hours he was shot down by a fire hose. At first, I imagine, the water hits you and it’s ‘Oh, this is strange, I’m doing this performance’, but after an hour or two hours, I suspect you undergo a transformation in how you understand what was happening to you. I’d be curious to hear from your actors how being there together for so long and doing these things over and over again changed their understanding of what they felt they were doing. Now, are there questions out there in the audience?
Audience Member: You said that these were all images of violence, but the two images that stand out strongest for me are actually two images of tenderness: the woman feeding the guy lying next to her and the other was the moment of tenderness inside the car. For me, because of the violence surrounding them, these images interrupt the flow. It is these images that I remember most, especially when the sledgehammer comes down and breaks the car window. I thought ‘Oh, one can’t even have a moment of tenderness?’ I know that your purpose was to show us these protests, but I also feel that there was something else going on, that has to do with the relationship between men and women, and personal relationships in general, that provides another layer to this work.
FL: When I put that intimate moment into the script, I was thinking that while we were acting out ideas for change or pursuing new beginnings, there are also victims, people whose daily order is interrupted. For me, the intimate and private moments indicate a kind of daily order that we are familiar with. I want to include all these activities in the same group of people, who both cause and endure such interruption.
Audience Member: Lu, this video feels like a Chinese version of Lord of the Rings in an urban setting. My question is: is it by design that all of the action is contained in the same building?
FL: This location is interesting in this case. It’s in an area in Beijing where there are a lot of artist studios and abandoned private museums. The video was shot in one of the abandoned museums.
Audience Member: Where is it?
FL: In Songzhuang. The land at some point was really cheap there. And people could buy it from local farmers at a low price. Actually they rented the land for a number of years; in China you can’t really buy land. Then some people built ‘museums’ on the land, but they didn’t have a plan for these ‘museums’, nor did they have any funding to program them after the opening, so these buildings were [quickly] abandoned. This video was filmed in an abandoned museum that I rented for the whole week really cheaply.
Audience Member: The space feels very constricting, very restricting. Was that by design?
FL: These people are not real characters from reality, and this environment they are situated in is supposed to be isolated from any social context. I did not want to put them on a street for instance. So this concrete building was perfect because it was not about anywhere specific, not about any place.
Audience Member: I am quite curious about how you chose video as a medium for this work. I see a lot of performance elements in this piece. I’d like to know more about the balance between a performance and a video piece?
FL: That’s a good question. I decided that this work was important to show here, as a screening, so you could see in it my approach to video and my approach to a lot of my other work. I see action as central and the most important aspect of my video work. As in my previous projects I am interested in transforming very mundane daily activities into what one would call action.
Fang Lu, Lovers Are Artists (Part 2), 2012, single-channel video, sound, 11’50″. Image courtesy of the artist.
Similarly in the piece called Lovers are Artists, I question the identity of an artist. If we are only doing things that are really safe, clean, and white cube-oriented, what is wrong with us? Why do we see so much boring uninteresting art these days? Maybe it’s because we don’t really talk about love anymore. In this project I made two videos in which someone performed as a lover or someone who is really loveable. The woman in this video is seen creating works in a studio, but the way that she is creating work looks like she is destroying or playing with normal household objects in a peculiar way. The setting of the space looks like a living room, but it also looks like an artist’s studio.
Audience Member: A lot of your work has to do with artifice, which makes me think about the impact of fashion photography or fashion and style. I would love to know more about that. It also seems that you’re heading in a very theatrical direction. Are you contemplating theater?
FL: I haven’t thought much about theater so far, but I’m very aware of the stylized aspect of the images in the No World project and that was a conscious decision. Also [I think that what you are reacting to] is my research and the sources from which these images come. When I looked at the Internet or when I looked in the newspaper, which is where all the images of action were found, in every case, irrespective of the context, the individual or the key characters are always portrayed in a very heroic way. And it doesn’t matter who we call ‘good people’ or ‘bad people.’ Whenever there’s a traumatic event, we always see these heroic images. For me, this style, this beauty, in many ways represents a kind of truth. Also, these kinds of images encourage us to continue looking, viewing. I was reading something on CNN about the video footage that ISIS has put on the Internet. The news commentators concluded that we should stop looking at these images because the more we look the more terrified we will become and the more we will [be seduced by] the propaganda. I disagree with that. I think we should never stop looking. I think for a long period of time, we stopped looking and we stopped trying to understand, and this has brought us so many problems, from politics to food to the environment. I hope that videos in this style encourage people to keep looking. I don’t ever want to stop looking.
Audience Member: Looking at but also questioning the point of view of propaganda images is important.
FL: Yes, but I hope that this work doesn’t represent any specific kind of propaganda. I understand that it’s a sensitive work to show at this time. But the action in my video is abstract; my video places importance on action that can happen any time and any place.
HT: So you don’t have a specific message or specific reaction that you are trying to elicit from the audience that is watching the video?
FL: When I made the work I didn’t set for myself a specific goal. [I didn’t think about eliciting] a specific reaction, but living in China and Beijing I’m often anxious about and frustrated by how peaceful and calm the public is, never acknowledging a lot of the things that are happening around them. People maintain their daily routine, go to work, go shopping, and of course that only increases my sense of frustration.
Audience Member: I curate performance and media art and have known your work from early on, so I’m really curious about how your earlier works document performances and daily activities, but suddenly your new work seems more staged and theatrical and cast. Can you tell us a little about this transition and why you are going in this artistic direction?
FL: I have never made any video that was purely a documentation of a performance. Everything was always highly edited and constructed for the camera. Although sometimes I may have taken a more passive approach to directing the performers, even so, everything was improvised within a certain framework or a certain situation. The relationship between this new piece and my other work was the idea of initiating actions. For me, my approach is the same. I don’t think the content is political.
Audience Member: My second question is: did anyone commission this work or how was it funded?
FL: It was funded by me selling my other video works. So the previous works fund the future works. Also, luckily, in Beijing there is still a lot of cheap space and people willing to participate.
Xiaofei Mo: Can you also talk a little about Video Bureau?
FL: Video Bureau is a video archive that I founded with Chen Tong and Zhu Jia located in Beijing and Guangzhou. We started it in Beijing and expanded another location to Guangzhou, at the Libreria Borges Institute. It’s a library of video work. We archive one video artist’s work every month and we also host lectures and screenings.
JD: Video Bureau is a great organization so if any of you go to Beijing or Guangzhou, please stop in. At AAA, we look forward to the opportunities to collaborate with Video Bureau. But most important, Fang Lu, we want to thank you very much for coming here and sharing your new work, and thank you Herb for your moderation. We look forward to staying in touch.
Herb Tam is the Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America where he co-curated the current exhibition ‘Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving.’