CCCSF presented Social Botany, a project by contemporary artist Xu Tan, from September 16, 2016 to November 24, 2016 in 41 Ross. Social Botany explored community and social movements through an analysis of personal history, power structures, and cultural traditions -- focusing on three local arts-activists: Roy Chan, Francis Wong, and Kayan Cheung-Miaw. This exhibition took the form of presentations of videos, images, and documented conversations.
Interviewee: Xu Tan (hereinafter referred to as XT)
Interviewer: Ziying Duan (hereinafter referred to as ZD)
Editor & translator: Ziying Duan
Copy editor: Victor Liu
Interview time: August, 2016
I. “Fundamental Freedom Related to Art”
ZD: From late 2015 to early 2016, you interviewed many people for the Social Botany project in San Francisco. But in the next half of the year, you chose to focus research on several “artists” out of all the interviewees. Some of them are amateur artists who make art-related works at their leisure, and some of them are artists who are doing other socially-engaged projects simultaneously. Yet they are all collectively called “artists” in the project. Could you explain what standard you used to select this group of people? What do they have in common?
XT: The common characteristic of this group of people is that they wear different hats, especially those who mostly undertake social works and pursue art as their interest and hobby. In a manner of speaking, unlike professional artists who rely on art as their career so to be restricted by the profession, we could say the artists in Social Botany are “amateur.” In this sense, professional artists are not free. For the artists selected for the Social Botany project, art has different meanings, and their ways of making art touches upon the more essential elements of art. For example, they share a fundamental freedom in their practice. They can stop doing art at any time. This is something very difficult for the artists mired in the art industry. Another thing is that the artists in Social Botany regard art as a method of approach to their socially-engaged projects. That is to say, their art has the meaning of social practice, and the art has practical effect. This kind of art and method are fundamentally different from the artworks in the artistic system today. This kind of art hardly becomes a product or a consumer good,instead becoming the bridge by which they connect art, activities of aesthetic consciousness and a broader social existence.
ZD: Could you explain what are the essential elements of art? Are they equal to the essential elements of contemporary art?
XT: For me, the art practices which go beyond profit and other utility have more essential artistic meaning. This kind of art doesn’t fit the needs of market, nor does it serve for career development or a political function. However, if we question conversely -- with regard to contemporary art which calls for social practicality -- then I think contemporary art has shifted its focus from the individual to a broader existence, such as society and intellectual fields. This transition continues a trajectory of moving beyond profit and function.
ZD: When you say that amateur artists have fundamental freedom in their
practice, which is related to the essence of art, could we say the freedom is shared by people who make art as a hobby?
XT: Hobby or avocation itself indeed has the primordial purity of artistic creation. The positive meaning of artistic professionalism does not hurt the primordial purity of artistic creation, but the negative side rests on the destructive effects of “methodological instrumentalism.” According to traditional Chinese philosophy and some of contemporary Western philosophy, “methodological instrumentalism” cuts off the experience of perception. This disconnection is a detriment to daily cognitive function, a very important element of art. Professionalism in art, implicated within
human social operations, actually turns art into something motivated by profit and effectiveness.
II. The Social Practice by Means of Art, and Social Practice Art
ZD: Talk about the people who are pursuing social practice by means of art. There are way more of them than who we are featuring in Social Botany, as long as we interpret art as a methodological guidance or as medium for social practice, such as in painting and music. For example, people use graffiti to advocate for civil rights. How do you define the practical effect of art?
XT: I think art is not just about aesthetic cognition -- art is also utilized by society such that art has commercial function. Though people use art to undertake social activities, they have different purposes and inclinations. For example, art practices working for political ends appear to be very similar to the art practices concerning politics, but they are distinct in essence. In social activities, many people use the medium of art for political purposes in a good way, and I think it’s justifiable and worthy to be supported. Nevertheless, it’s also common that people instrumentalize art for evil political purposes throughout history. As an artist, I pay more attention to sociopolitical issues, mass and intellectual fields, or even the cosmos as certain kinds of “others” that can become the “self.” In other words, it means “I am the world.” I’m interested in art practices from this point of view.
ZD: It seems that you want to criticize the professionalized contemporary art system by focusing on “amateur” in Social Botany. However, in comparison with non-professional artists, we cannot deny that professional artists have a strong capability of producing knowledge, aesthetically and cognitively. Even though
they are trapped in the cultural contradictions of capitalism, they are able to push
the discussion of social issues into a certain depth.
XT: The project does not mean to criticize the professional art world and system deliberately. It mainly aims at exploring the kind of social ranges in which art can be operated, and investigating who the artists are and who the viewers/listeners are. If the project evokes a criticism of the professional art world, then it’s just an extension of the project. Everyone can be an artist, but what is the essential meaning of this title? What does it mean to our society? The artists in Social Botany in San Francisco show that the identities of artists and viewers/listeners can be reversed. I think it presents the general relationships between the usual everyday
activities and aesthetic, cognitive actions in daily life.
ZD: Following my previous questions, what do you think of the differences of social practice art as a new genre by professional contemporary artists and the social practice art by the so-called “amateur” artists in Social Botany?
XT: For many professional contemporary artists, including the artists doing social practice projects, the condition or environment in which they live and work -- their “society” -- is the art system. We can even say they see the rest of “society” from the angle of art system. But for the amateur artists or artists who are doing other socially-engaged projects, they experience society in person primarily, gain survivalist experiences -- in which they still live -- and then affirm the need of “political correctness.” For example, Roy Chan, he organized and made known the needs of people during the urban renovation, and this is actually related to his father and his family issues. As he described in the interview, he said: “It is worth doing that.” Especially the last generations fighted for the rights for ethnic minorities. And then Roy felt it’s worthy to record this. Basically, their way of social practice is the opposite of the way of professional artists. The role of professional artists in socially-engaged projects is always as “teacher,” which contains “correctness.” The way that professional contemporary artists work in social practice is from correct concepts to practices, while the “amateur” works from actual experiences to correct concepts. So what do you think is the meaning of this project? If art becomes a common survival tactic in society, then the amateur's social practice art has huge potential for the future.
ZD: For Social Botany, you invited several artists working in the community to participate in an art project. What influences came about for their original social practice works? Since most of the “artists” you selected for the project have already been doing community-engaged works, then how will your project make their community-related works “re-enter” or further enter the community?
XT: I want to establish a platform to let the artist strengthen the relationship between their works and social existence. Through this practice, they can get experience in how to face society as it manifests in art institutions. Many social practice artworks can proceed outside of the art system, but that would be an absolutely separate field. They might not get to experience the making of art in an actual art space. This experience would be interesting because art spaces have their own public access and social context, which might help them open another dimension for their works. I don’t think participating in my project will have a big impact on them, and I think they have enough capacity to handle the relationship between their life and art activities.
III. Social Practice ≠ Socially-Engaged Art
ZD: What is the relationship between your project and the socially-engaged art which is labeled everywhere in the contemporary art world?
XT: I always say that my works belong to the genre of “social practice,” not “social engagement” or “social intervention.” I think social practice has two layers of meaning. First, it’s about cognition; second, it’s about intervention, which causes changes. The former involves conducting activities that seek to build knowledge through social practice. In my past experience, there are different ways to produce cognitive concepts. Sometimes people gain cognitive concepts through having a direct, personal experience, while others may gain it through researching secondhand materials. The latter is the dominant method of knowledge production nowadays. However, I use the former method. So, in this way, my works are more focused on the creation and induction of cognition, rather than changing society. Today’s artistic interventions in society depart from existing conceptions, such as political correctness, aiming to directly change society’s view towards certain kinds of issues rather than producing knowledge. Even after the whole process is completed, there is nothing intellectual produced. I think in the complex social conditions of today, it’s better that changes happen after that understand the situation better. I don’t mean that I disprove of
socially-engaged art. Conceptually speaking, I think art should take place in a broader world.
ZD: How are your artistic actions different from actions involving anthropology and sociology?
XT: First, the artistic action is a form of knowledge production conducted through the ontological ways of art formation. This is to say, I emphasize knowledge activities dominated by cognition, and I stress the importance of aesthetic consciousness among many other types of human cognitions. The cognitions that I expect do not focus on empiricism, but on conceptions inclining more towards the humanities, such as political philosophy and ethics. I think it’s very different from the knowledge production methods of anthropology and sociology. Also, artistic knowledge productions come in different types. For me, I emphasize perceiving directly into the social environment and conducting cognitive activities related to the conceptual activity. I’ve named this after “Conceptual Games.” The use of games comes from western philosophy, and from what I understand game means the non-utility human activities with certain rules. “Conceptual” means that the content of the games is conception.
ZD: What are the conceptions you discovered in your research in San Francisco?
XT: For example, during my research on Roy Chan, the keywords include Cycle, Ground, (Blood) line, Bury, Growing, Honor ancestry, Energy and Root. For my research on Mrs. Lee, the keywords are Bitter, Dare, Do, Help, Be Forced to Move, Move out, Flowers, Beautiful, Clean and Freedom.