This is how we do it

Over the past month or so, I’ve been collaborating with the Rock Bund Art Museum to organizing a series of performance workshops called “This is how I do it.”  All together I organized three performance workshops that aimed to serve as a platform for the public to engage with Chinese artists about their work.  Each evening’s workshop began with a small-scale presentation of the artist’s work.  The presenter then led a question and answer session with the audience followed by a participatory workshop with members of the audience.  The workshops were meant to expose both the conceptual and technical foundations of the presented work, essentially deconstructing and exposing the core of the evening’s performance.

The first event featured two local folk musicians, Tom Mangione and Liu Jian.  The two performed their original music, including Tom’s hilarious accounts of expat life in Shanghai and Liu Jian’s songs dedicated to the country’s farmers and laborers.  Following the concert, the musicians led the group in a songwriting workshop by setting their newly written lyrics to music.  Two weeks later, I organized the second event in the series with Jian Yi, the founder and director of IFChina Participatory Documentary Center in Jiangxi province.  Jian Yi showed some short clips of footage taken from his films and projects with his organization.  Afterward, he had audience members share their most recently taken photographs or stories of how they ended up at the event.

I led the final event of the series this past Friday.  I screened a film I co-directed my final year at Yale entitled The Student Body.  The film draws inspiration from sources in Yale’s archive to tell a narrative of the school’s history with a focus on gender and sexuality.  It was quite challenging to translate the script into Chinese for subtitling (this involved translating phrases like “walk of shame,” “no homo,” and “pillow princess”).

I had never shown the film outside of Yale, let alone outside of the United States, so it was quite fascinating to see how it was received in such a foreign setting.  From what I gathered from the Q&A session, there were two aspects of the film that were particularly challenging for the Shanghai audience.  Firstly, the lens of “gender and sexuality,” while now common in many academic or liberal circles in the US, is quite unusual in China.  The ideas of “gender as a construction” and homosexuality as a pervasive cultural and biologically induced phenomenon were taken as givens within our circle at Yale but are rarely discussed in China.  One woman after the film asked if the scene about lesbian separatists in the early 1980’s was meant to express that the students were “normal or not normal.”

From an aesthetic point of view, I think the structure of the film was somewhat baffling and unsatisfying for the Rock Bund audience.  One woman noted that the disconnected scenes, each treating a different era and theme, resulted in a fragmented piece.  What, in the end, was the film trying to say?  This desire for streamlined, simplistic expression is something I find common here, where most pieces of theater, film, and television that hold any agenda do so unabashedly, in a manner that many American viewers would consider patronizing or propagandistic.  I tried to explain to the woman that while we certainly had an agenda in creating the piece, we wanted to avoid talking down to our audience or “educating” them.

Following the Q&A, I led the audience in a brief exercise related to documentary theater.  I gave each group of five participants a “secret” posted anonymously on kaixin wang (a Chinese Facebook rip-off).  The texts ranged from criticisms of harsh middle school teachers to a woman struggling with how to engage with her lecherous boss.  I led the groups in creating a small series of tableaus based on the texts.  While the exercise was quite rushed, the groups began to understand the possibilities and challenges of transforming documentary sources into dramatic, physicalized content.

It was quite gratifying to not only share my work with a new audience but also see them begin to experiment with a parallel creative process.

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