Sculpture/New Genres faculty Dana Duff recently visited Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China to teach a one-week, intensive, video art workshop to seniors at East China Normal University. At the invitation of Steve Anker, Cal Arts Dean of the School of Film and Video, Duff made the trip in late October to work with 13 experimental animation majors.
HT: HOW DID THE PROJECT COME ABOUT?
DD: “By invitation of Steve Anker from Cal Arts. Cal Arts has this class within the art program at and paid for by East China Normal University. NYU also has a program at this university, as do some other foreign schools—an interesting phenomenon. Steve is a foremost historian and programmer of small-format experimental film, and is an annual visitor to my Experimental Film class at Otis. In addition, my students and I are regular attendees of the Monday night REDCAT screenings, programmed by Steve Anker and Berenice Reynaud.”
HT: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH STUDENTS IN CHINA?
DD: “Of course, my exchanges with them were limited by language. Only a couple of the students could express themselves, very haltingly, in English and I had succeeded in learning only three lines in Mandarin before I left, “Do you speak English?” chief among them. Although I was informed that they understood more English than they spoke, I was never certain how much they comprehended. Every interaction had to be translated, including the videos I screened, and a couple of documentary films had to be stopped every few minutes for translation. Still, the students seemed to be engaged and interested.
I assigned them the simplest and quickest kind of editing experiment by having them capture footage from the Internet to re-edit. Since YouTube and other video sites are restricted in China I wasn’t sure what kind of footage would be available. Of course, they have their own version of YouTube called YouKu; and most of them were adept at what they called “jumping the wall” —that is, getting under or around the government firewalls restricting access to much Western video and social media.
The history of Video Art is at its core subversive and politically critical, which presented a challenge in this context where criticism of authority is curbed, if not outright illegal. I knew I had to be diplomatic in what I was asking them to do by cutting up footage from media. I was a little concerned when three of the students used footage of Hitler or from films about Hitler, until my co-teacher and translator informed me that Hitler was being employed as a stand-in, a recognizable symbol of authoritarian power. On the other hand, they aren’t as resistant to authority as we might expect—many think the state is like a benign father who has their best interests at heart in controlling media.
I was pleased with the range of structural experimentation and critique expressed in the final works, and again surprised by how similar the pieces were to their contemporary video students’ work in Los Angeles or New York—though at a slightly less sophisticated level. I expect that their sophistication will change rapidly as China opens up and upcoming students become even more exposed to international contemporary art.”
HT: WHAT IS YOUR SENSE OF THE STATE OF CONTEMPORARY VIDEO IN CHINA?
DD: “Contemporary Chinese art and art film, not to mention current cinema, is booming. The M50 collection of galleries in Shanghai is rather tiny by comparison to the number of galleries in New York or Los Angeles, but they certainly are participating energetically in the contemporary art conversation. There isn’t anything like the number of artists per capita in the West—yet. China has a lot of people and a lot of up-and-coming wealthy citizens who travel, collect international art, and send their kids out to be educated in the West.“
HT: IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU THINK MIGHT BE INTERESTING TO SHARE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE?
DD: “Global capitalism has won over the world. We now all have the same clothes, stores, cars, art, television, phones, poverty, and income-to-wealth disparity. Shanghai is the marketplace of China and it’s been built up at a dramatic, even violent, rate in the last very few years. Much of the skyline seems to have been erected just last week. All of the new buildings have animating lights built in, so that at night the city looks like a scene from Blade Runner. The university was near a gigantic new mall that had seven floors of shops—the same ones in every mall in the world, from The Gap to Louis Vuitton. I felt weirdly right at home, whether I wanted to or not.”