Ma Yongfeng | forget art

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22 十一月

By EMILY FENG   APRIL 26, 2017

A work made of cardboard by the artist Ma Yongfeng at the Bernard Controls factory in Beijing. Workers there have long participated with artists in a project called Social Sensibility. CreditGilles Sabrié for The New York Times

BEIJING — Above rows of assembly line workers, a mix of provocative slogans and abstract paintings adorns the corrugated metal walls of the Bernard Controls factory in southern Beijing.

In this unlikely setting, local artists and employees of the factory have spent the last six years producing artworks and performance pieces as part of a project managed by an Italian artist, Alessandro Rolandi. Called Social Sensibility, it is dedicated to injecting spontaneity and random exploration into the workplace.

“I have no artistic aspirations. I just like fresh things and to gain more knowledge,” Wu Shuqing, 37, a worker on the assembly line, said about her participation. Despite having no previous film experience, she shot a 24-hour, black-and-white film called “Sensual Love of the Fingertips,”depicting her hands performing dexterous, repetitive tasks.

Social Sensibility is just one example of a growing wave in China of so-called social practice art — work that is community-oriented, involves a high degree of participation by nonartists and has a strong focus on social issues.

The artists behind these projects, frustrated by or even indifferent to the formal art world, often operate independently of galleries and museums, produce intangible or site-specific works that are not easily displayed, and embark on long-term undertakings that sometimes challenge what can be considered art.

Elements of social practice art are not new; artists have been producing highly participatory art since the Surrealists nearly a century ago, and such work still tends to cause a splash (think Marina Abramovic’s much-talked-about “The Artist Is Present”). But in more recent years, social practice art has slowly been gaining institutional recognition in North America and Europe, where museums and art foundations have begun encouraging more community-oriented art.

In 2005, the California College of the Arts in San Francisco started offering the first fine arts program with a concentration on social practice art, and the Guggenheim recently began a new social practice initiative. Amid much uproar, the prestigious Turner Prize was awarded in 2015 to Assemble, a British collective of architects who transform neglected public spaces through community engagement.

In China, critics and artists alike say that such art taps into both past and contemporary developments.

“The sense of equality that was installed in our consciousness by socialist revolution had a huge impact on these artists. Social practice art has a socialist legacy,” said Zheng Bo, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong whose online gallery, A Wall, documents social practice art in the greater China region. “But beginning in the 1990s, Chinese contemporary art went through an export-oriented era, addressed to a foreign audience. Now we’re going through a rebuilding of a local art language.”

That language has largely been devoted to describing China’s rapid transition from an agricultural country to an increasingly urban one. In the early 1980s, about 80 percent of people still lived in rural areas. Today, 56 percent of Chinese live in cities, while an additional 277 million rural residents travel to cities for work each year. National urbanization goals aim to move 100 million more people into cities by 2020.

This monumental shift of citizens and resources has raised the overall standard of living but brought with it corresponding losses, scattering families and disrupting old ways of life.

Themes of industrialization and urbanization, often symbolized by migrant workers, are not new to Chinese contemporary art. In 2001, the husband-and-wife team of Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen created “Dancing With Migrants,” hiring migrant workers to perform choreographed movements within gallery spaces. Another internationally recognized artist, Zhang Dali, made resin casts of migrant workers’ bodies that were hung upside down from rafters in his 2003 series “Chinese Offspring.”

“The subjects weren’t so much participants as they were treated like props to be used in the art pieces,” says Madeline Eschenburg, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh who studies contemporary Chinese art.

The Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi, right, with Guillaume Bernard, chief operating officer of Bernard Controls. Mr. Rolandi manages the Social Sensibility project.CreditGilles Sabrié for The New York Times

By contrast, today’s social practice artists engage with their subjects as collaborators, placing a premium on building a sense of community by attempting to counter the monotony of urban rhythms and ease the strains that contemporary life has put on interpersonal relationships.

“As society goes through demolition and urbanization, the biggest changes happen on the level of human relationships,” said the Shanghai-based artist Chen Yun. “Trust, care and mutual exchange: These are all created by how you see human relationships.”

For the last three years, Ms. Chen has been assembling a visual and textual record of Dinghaiqiao, a historic industrial district in Shanghai now on the verge of being demolished, a task that links her work to sociological research and investigative journalism. The interviews she has conducted inspired her to begin a “mutual aid” society staffed by volunteers who provide art lessons, cooking classes and discussion groups for community residents.

Yet she stresses that her project does not do the same sort of work as nongovernmental organizations. “We are not here to provide a community with services but rather to encourage collaboration, interaction and the accumulation of knowledge,” she said.

Through this continuing interaction, artists hope to have a positive effect on the lives of their collaborators.

“Art has given me self-confidence,” Li Baoyuan, 51, a resident of Shijiezi, a remote village in the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu, said by telephone. He was one of the first participants in “Fly Together,” a project managed by the artists Jin Le, a native of Shijiezi, and Qin Ga, which brings in artists to work with local residents in making site-specific artworks using local materials.

The project has attracted positive attention from county officials, who installed solar-powered street lighting in the village in 2010, as well as other artists, who in 2013 donated money to provide the village with running water. In October, Mr. Li came to Beijing as part of a talk about “Fly Together.”

“Art is the reason I am able to stand in front of you,” he told the audience. “Art is what has allowed me to meet so many talented people.”

Other artists, seeking to reconnect with hometowns they abandoned before those towns disappear, have sought to bridge the urban and rural worlds.

For the last five years, Chao Hewen has been traveling between Beijing and his hometown for his project “In Transit.” The village, located less than a mile from the capital of Yunnan Province, Kunming, has been pulled into the city’s orbit in recent years. Mr. Chao has tried to mirror the outbound migration that has emptied the village by bringing in a small group of artists each year to create works like “Intermittence,” a short film about women from the Naxi minority group, and “Bridge,” a sculptural piece assembled by villagers out of borrowed wooden chairs.

“Whether in villages or cities, everyone experiences issues of demolition, rapid changes to our communities, questions of memory,” Mr. Chao said. “But within Beijing art circles, we get caught up in our false problems, whereas in the countryside, we can have more authentic experiences and adjust our old ways of thinking anew.”

Not everything connected with these projects goes smoothly. The open-ended nature of social practice art means it is plagued by miscommunication and logistical glitches, its makers frequently facing skepticism from local people.

During the first year of “In Transit,” the Beijing-based artist He Congyue tried to gather the entire village for a portrait, but only about a tenth of the villagers showed up. Eventually, however, the photograph caused a buzz in the village when it was displayed, and the artist went door to door inviting residents to pose again. This time, twice as many people came, some even taking time off from their work elsewhere to travel home and participate.

It is precisely that kind of slow progress and relationship-building that is at the heart of social practice art, said Mr. Rolandi of Social Sensibility.

“I don’t think the art itself is really the point,” he said of his own project. “Radicalness and subversiveness today means creating something that grows and doesn’t just shock.”


A version of this article appears in print on April 26, 2017, on Page A14, in The International New York Times.

26 三月

Posted by 03/03/2014

Guerrilla intervention is a response tactic that deals specifically with a comprehensive and an invisible control that is present in a post-totalitarian society. It operates through the social media and the actual social mobilizations carried out by artists through forms of artistic expressions.

REVENGE FOR FREE Stencil graffiti on gallery wall 177x256 inch 2013Home

Guerrilla Intervention – The Art Practice of Ma Yongfeng
by Ma Yongfeng

Guerrilla intervention is a response tactic that deals specifically with a comprehensive and an invisible control that is present in a post-totalitarian society. It operates through the social media and the actual social mobilizations carried out by artists through forms of artistic expressions. It can be a daily “micro-resistence” carried out in a guerrilla fashion that is not confined within a specific time and place. It urges everyone to intervene in society in a “hobbyist”-style that each one finds meaningful, in the hope to render the controlling body defenseless.

Invest in Contradiction

On 25 and 26 April Ma Yongfeng realised the project ‘Invest in Contradiction’ in a French factory in Beijing. It was embedded in the context of ‘Social Sensibility Research & Development Program’, run by Alessandro Rolandi and Bernard Controls. The Social Sensibility R&D Program is a biennale innovative strategic project with the aim to bring artistic research and creativity in contact with the working environment. It is structured around the idea to orient the artists’ work towards developing sensibility among workers, managers and the steering committee of Bernard Controls. Every 3 months, the program invites a professional of the creative field to deliver a project (in any kind of media) whose goal is to help developing new possibilities of human action and interaction within the factory. The long-term intention is to establish partnerships and collaborations with academic, financial, artistic and political structures to explore all the further application of such a model to the field of industry, social research and education.

In Chinese industrial tradition, revolutionary quotes, generally from Mao’s poems, speeches or writings were often painted in large characters on the walls of the factories where millions of workers had to see them everyday. Ma Yongfeng re-interpreted this aspect of Chinese propaganda, creating 7 large graffitis in Bernard Controls Beijing.

The sentences were chosen from random conversations with the workers or the managers, picked from the panels of the working rules, or from the factory’s safety procedures and other similar sources. Each sentence explored an aspect of  life inside the working environment: the need to adapt to a strict control system, the human desire to evade and dream, the pression of efficiency and the humour to be able to deal with all this.

The walls of Bernard Controls Beijing hosted a new subtle form of propaganda, the artistic propaganda for independent and creative thinking.

For more information on this project follow the link.

Other Projects


Ma Yongfeng is a Chinese artist, activist and initiator of Forget Art based in Beijing. Forget Art is an interventional organisation. It is a series of situation-based alternative tactics in self-institutional forms, it is often mistaken for a regular art collective, it could also be one collective light action almost did not happen, an agency of radical social mobilization, a series of unconventional interviews, an effort of saving amateurism, an art fair with just one booth, or to explore all possibilities of completeness, an indeliberate social media art experiment, or it is the evolution of social practice from micro-intervention to micro-practice, from micro-practice to micro-resistance. Ma Yongfeng’s projects are spatialised and materialised in the street, in public squares or galleries.


Ma Yongfeng   马永峰

[1] For more information on this project, please follow this link.
[2] For a video of this work, please follow this link.

13 十月

It’s about the “Commons” – Witnessing Occupy Movements and Street Demonstrations in ItalyArticle written by Boliang Shen (Beijing-based curator and journalist at Artinfo China). The article has been translated from Chinese into English by Fang Liu in June 2012. The original article of this slightly edited version appeared in Artinfo China, on 25th May 2012.

The ‘Occupy’ movement is not a carnival-style entertainment”, but on May 12th, at the Piazza Verdi next to the University of Bologna, what I saw looked just like that: students wearing costumes of ancient Roman generals, medieval knights or pirates (“These where actually students from the local university’s fraternities, probably celebrating their graduation”, editor’s note) and holding placards with creative slogans addressing different social and political issues gathered at the square under the sun, they drank beer, engaged in animated talks… when dawn drew near, a truck carrying a rock band drove across the square, following behind was a long procession formed by groups of students, smoke of fireworks lighted to herald the procession gradually spread and seethed in this old, red city known for its tradition of radical resistance. The “Global Strike Day” march had just began –  “in the eyes of the Chinese, this is a spectacle, another disguise under the protection of capitalism”, said the artist Zhou Xiaohu who was with me.


At the time, I and four other artists and curators (i.e., Ma Yongfeng, Ni Kun, You Mi and Zhouu Xiahou) were invited by European Alternatives, a European civil society organization, to participate in the art exchange in Rome and Bologna as part of the Transeuropa Festival co-hosted by the European Alternatives and the Transeuropa Network, which took place in 14 cities across Europe.


From the eruption of the global financial crisis in ’08 and ’09 to the outbreaks of “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, all kinds of occupations, protests, mobilizations and radical politics have been acting like flames spreading everywhere. Nevertheless, we can only get to know one another through smoke and phantoms. “Is your art against capitalism?” “Is your art anti-modernism?” – These have been the looking-for-comrades type of questions that we often encountered. I asked about the connections between the current radical movements in Italy and the Italian communism tradition started by Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, the student and worker movements in the ’60s and late ‘70s, radical authors we are familiar with such as Pier Paolo Pasolini or Dario Fo, and even the left-wing extremist group “Red Brigades” in the ‘70s. The answers I got in general were: “There are maybe a certain loose connections, but those are not important, we were very young or not yet born then. What’s happening now is primarily influenced by global trends.”


On the other hand, it is not like the “May Revolt” of ’68 in France, as many people have understood – “a group of young people growing up after the war revolted against a prosperous society”. Italy is experiencing a serious financial and social crisis. The young people I met showed anxiety over employment after graduation, and expressed concerns over tax hikes and high suicide rate in this city. According to a BBC report, there was a “White Widows March” in Bologna the weekend before we arrived, husbands of the women in the march killed themselves under the burden of deep recession, many were business men – that reminded me of a passage mentioned in the “Capital”, which has often been ignored: do not blame individual capitalists, they are victims of capitalism too. Reports of infectious suicides were all over the place. This March, a craftsman burned himself to death in front of the local tax court. Two days before we arrived, Maurizio Cevenini, a beloved left wing party leader and former mayoral candidate in Bologna, threw himself off a council building. His funeral was held on 12th May, the whole town was in grief. Ma Yongfeng’s “micro-resistance” event scheduled for that morning at a square near the city council was moved to the afternoon on the same day at Piazza Verdi next to the University of Bologna.


Back in China, movements of “micro-interventions”, “micro-practices” and “micro-resistance” had been well received. Would the effect and meaning of “micro” become difficult to execute or express anything in the mighty context Bologna, where people have been so agitated? Continuing the pattern of creating graffiti on site in Bernard Controls, Ma wrote sentences on recycled cardboards, scrolls of fabrics, flags of Italy and EU, some were with indefinite indications such as “Sensibility is Under Control”, “Action is Product” and “You Can Steal ‘Now’, but Future is In Our Hands”, some were reflections on radical demonstrations – “Do Not Let the Protest Become a Pollutant-Free Ethical Gesture”, “Is It a Revolt without Revolution?” and so on. He also interacted with the students, asked them to write down their thoughts. However, in the deluge of slogans and graffiti of Bologna, could their words be noticed and understood as delicate and firm heterogeneity? After the brief exchanges, would the students deviate somewhat from the radical way of thinking they have been used to for the thoughts written down by themselves?


Lorenzo Marsili, co-director of European Alternatives, asked what if someone from a radical group challenges him? Ma Yongfeng replied: “I’ll ask him to explain his point of view in one sentence, then I’ll write that sentence on a cardboard and give it to him in exchange of the placard he is holding.” That was an interesting idea, but, no one came forward to challenge, and each group kept to itself. There were some minorities who could hardly blend in stood by and watched. A Chinese friend who studies in University of Bologna said: “Protests and demonstrations happen here almost everyday, they have become a way for the people here to participate in public life, express opinions and positions, or legal channels for criticisms, just like us Chinese tweet our complains online…”.


I had a long conversation about the issue with Sara Saleri, a member of European Alternatives, who has studied semiology with Umberto Eco. She thought that the student march we saw should not be deemed as a typical example of the entire “Occupy” protests and street demonstrations happening in Italy. Those young people were simply expressing themselves, they were anxious over the future, but had limited understanding of the substantial problems of the society. She admitted that street protest as a legal public means has a long tradition. However, she stressed that at about the time when the financial crisis started, street movements began to have whole new forms and claims.

“Commons”, “common goods” are terms mentioned often in the above movements, but they are relatively new concepts to Chinese readers. The easier examples are “Wikimedia Commons” and “Pirate Parties International” (PPI). The latter, first appeared in Sweden in 2006, started by opposing corporate copyright law’s restrictions on online downloads and hindrances of circulation of knowledge, and supporting legalization of online resource sharing. Later it grew bigger and expanded to many countries. Its claims have also been extended, by advocating openness and transparency of online information, government transparency and protection of civil rights, establishing a freer civilization and opposing outdated patent laws and monopoly. “Online governing” is another trait of the parties, they take advantage of online social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to allow party members exercise their rights, announce policies, collect opinions and eliminate hierarchy. Its political stance has thus been established. Last September, the Pirate Party in Germany took 9% of the vote in Berlin elections. It was allowed to enter Berlin Parliament for the first time in history. Some people consider that the inception of alternative governance model.


It is necessary to mention that, one reason for “commons” to become a keyword is closely related to Elinor Olstrom’s brilliant research on the concept – which won her 2009 Nobel prize in economics. Her study rip the notion of the negative connotation derived from the well-known article “Tragedy of the Commons” by Garret Hardin in 1968. Also, I must mention the book “Commonwealth”, co-written by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, and “The Common in Revolt”, a collection of dialogues between Judith Revel and Antonio Negri. Both are important sources on “Commons” in Italy. This year, the Transeuropa Festival in Bologna held symposiums on issues of digital commons, co-working and co-housing, new chapter of European commons and immigration policies.


In Rome, posters advocating water as a common good are often seen, the campaign started last year based on nationwide queries made by two legal scholars of International University College of Turin. According to the result, most Italian considered that water should be deemed as a common good and managed by the people, so they oppose privatization of water.  Shortly after, on June 14 2011, the famous theatre Teatro Valle, built in the 18th century and located along the Pantheon and the Senate, was occupied (Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” made its debut there). The theatre used to be managed by the ETI (Italian theatre association); then the ETI was closed and the theatre shot down due to high costs and decline of the industry. It was said that the theatre would be bought by a tycoon and converted into a restaurant. Therefore, workers of the arts and entertainment were mobilized through the internet to occupy the theatre, they claimed that culture is a common good, just like the water and the air, and the theatre shall be managed by the citizens. Now it has been almost one year now since the Teatro Valle was occupied, shows have been put on almost every night, performances are open to all citizens who pay as much as they wish. The occupiers and citizens ensure the quality of the performances through public assemblies – “We don’t need to vote, we listen to the reasons of those who say ‘No’.” The occupiers who accepted to be interviewed by me admitted that those were simply the first step of the occupation; they need to develop an alternative managing model of “common wealth theatre” in order to resolve financing and workers’ payment issues, and introduce the model to the government and citizens. For the time being, occupants still make their living from jobs outside of the theatre, they take turns to guard the theatre 24 hours a day, so the government wouldn’t have any chance to evict them – “the government does not even shut off the water and light, probably for fear of further intensifying the conflict…”. Similar occupations have erupted involving several other theatres in Rome and many cultural institutions across the country.


In Rome, an audience asked about the current fever in China of building museums. Zhou Xiaohu replied frankly that “those are simply some art ‘houses’, and we do not benefit from them” – “But, I believe one day we will occupy those ‘houses’ as well.” Regarding the above-mentioned issue that whether the “alternative” art practices in China are part of the global “anti-capitalism” movement, Ma said that what is important in the world today is not movements with clear guiding ideology, but numerous “tenuous” movements that are organized voluntarily by the people.


Afterwards I asked Sara Saleri and Gian Paolo Faella, PhD in History of Ideology at the University of Bologna, whether the movements of “commons” and “alternatives” are a direct revolt against capitalism, or just an improvement plan for the status quo. They admitted that opinions have been divided among participants, albeit those opinions derive from the desire for change. “Down with capitalism” is a political appeal belonging to a distant future. That is certainly too reserved in the eyes of a radical. Slavoj Žižek once said that if we try to improve capitalism inside the system, it would only extend the life of capital, the beast, and make modern states, “committees of administering common affairs of the entire capitalist class” even healthier. I also asked, if expanding the context of “commons” in which the backgrounds of members of co-governance and the circumstances are more complicated and diversified, will the model fail or end in disaster, like various communes or utopia in the past? Gian Paolo Faella considered it a very important question in the practice regarding “commons”, what resources could be “common wealth” shall be judged carefully – they shall be limited to resources on which the subsistence of all people rely and cultural resources shared by a community. To me, instead of establishing a country where everything is eventually a commons, the entire work regarding “commons” shall aim to the autonomy by the people on certain public resources, consequently make a government become a more idealized “limited government”.


I am tired of asking questions that aim for “a clear direction” or “ the final goal”, which probably came from the habitual way of thinking imprinted on us by Leninism: a movement must have clear goals and plans designed by an authoritative figure or the highest commission, which would instruct the masses to strictly carry them out. Maybe we can bring up here the legacy of the German revolutionist Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin’s contemporary: contrary to Lenin’s favour of control and giving orders, Luxemburg emphasized the importance of disorder, noise and active, large-scale social events. She stressed the creativity and morale of each participant, deemed a revolution as “a complicated and organic process”, any division or intervention to the process would threaten the vitality of the organism as a whole – which are quite similar to “chaos” “complexity” and “self-organization”, concepts of modern science. Alexandra Kollontai, a Luxemburgist from the elite of the Soviet Bolshevik, also thought that to accomplish a revolution and create new forms of production is like riding on uncharted waters, therefore, action itself is superior then a blueprint or plans. She asked: “Can the smartest manager of a feudal estate invent early capitalism by himself?”. Similarly, without action, we should not expect the experts trained within the frameworks of capitalism and socialism be able to build a wonderful model for the future.


(Special thanks to members of European Alternatives: Lorenzo Marsili, Luigi Galimberti Faussone, Sara Saleri, Gian Paolo Faella; occupiers of the Teatro Valle: Federica Giardini, Laura Verga, Emiliano Campagnola; James C. Scott, “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”; You Mi, Ni Kun, Ma Yongfeng, Zhou Xiaohu and his wife, Zhu He and Ou Ning who have helped me with the trip and this article.)