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Here Was Elsewhere: A Memorandum of a Summer in Shanghai A report on the forum which took place at Cooper Gallery on 13 April 2016

by Alexander Storey Gordon
Image: Credit: Poster Club presenting at Here Was Elsewhere: A Memorandum of a Summer in Shanghai. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.

Here Was Elsewhere: A Memorandum of a Summer in Shanghai was organised by Cooper Gallery in partnership with the British Council, at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and took place as part of the public programme of Poster Club’s exhibition NEW Wheat, NEW Mud, NEW Machine.

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The forum focused specifically on the project CURRENT | 不合时宜 a two-year, four-phase contemporary art exhibition and forum programme. Curated by the gallery in collaboration with curators and art organisations in China and organised in partnership with the British Council CURRENT looks to showcase for the first time in China the distinctiveness of contemporary art made in Scotland, it’s grassroots spirit and it’s keen debates with the social and political dimensions of art and culture.

The forum featured Anne-Marie Copestake, Edgar Schmitz, Ross Sinclair and Corin Sworn and the artists who work together as Poster Club, all of whom are involved in the CURRENT | 不合时宜 programme, as well as specially invited speakers from both China and the UK including JJ Charlesworth (art critic and publisher of Art Review), Wang Nanming (independent curator and critic) and Weng Yunpeng (Director, Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai).The event was chaired by Professor Chris Breward (Principal, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh).

The forum began in distinctive style with a performance presentation from Poster Club, an artists’ collective consisting of Anne-Marie Copestake, Charlie Hammond, Tom O’Sullivan, Nicholas Party, Ciara Phillips and Michael Stumpf. Spoken in chorus, by Stumpf, Copestake and Hammond, and at times almost monosyllabic in delivery, the presentation, though abstract, provided one of the most cogent articulations of the experience of developing art works in a different culture and context.

If the show was about anything… anything… it is about… what people see… or people hear… what people read… boundaries… miscommunication… what people understand… understand?

In summer 2015, Poster Club participated in Phase One of CURRENT and travelled to Shanghai for a week-long residency in the water town of Zhu Jiajiao before exhibiting their work at Shanghai Himalayas Museum in a presentation co curated by Cooper Gallery Sophia Hao and Wang Nanming.

With perhaps more than a sly nod to the particular ‘collectivity’ of Chinese state communism, their presentation to the Dundee forum and contribution to the subsequent roundtable discussion framed many of the key differences encountered when participating in international projects, specifically the distinctiveness of Chinese cultural infrastructure and the reception of exhibitions from audiences and the media.

In particular Poster Club reflected on the alien process of submitting their work for governmental approval and the institutional paranoia that accompanied this process, contrasting this with the unprecedented level of interest in their exhibition from the press and public, with a bank of photographers taking pictures at the opening and interviews and coverage of the exhibition on the biggest state media broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). These differences would be made more demonstrably by later presentations from both Wang Nanming and Weng Yunpeng in which they described some of the particular challenges that face artist and institutional practices in China.

Weng Yunpeng focused his presentation on a description of the Minsheng Art Museum: it’s site in the formally industrial area now known as Redtown International Art Community, it’s aim and ambition as an art space as well as the scale of the gallery and of the individual exhibitions it has carried out since it’s formation in 2008. In doing so he put emphasis on how history, gallery size, and the curation of novel, large survey or blockbuster exhibitions is of central importance in contemporary China and also in some ways demarcate the position of gallery spaces in the rapidly expanding Shanghai art ecology.

Weng Yunpeng presenting at Here Was Elsewhere Forum. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.
Weng Yunpeng presenting at Here Was Elsewhere Forum. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.

Weng also spoke passionately about the museum’s desire to operate independently and be open to the public at large, exposing new audiences to contemporary art from both domestic and international artists. In Shanghai this endeavour is relatively new and it challenges the regime of both public state museums that focus mostly on historic examples of Chinese art or modern art and the large private galleries often funded by banking corporations, private individuals and big business which are not accessible to a wider public audience and look to preserve the idea of contemporary art as an elite commodity.

If Poster Club’s performance revealed, through it’s delivery, many of the tensions that are at play in working as an artist internationally, the next presentation from Anne Marie Copestake accentuated the positive: the role of art as a way of connecting beyond and across different languages, cultures and understandings of ‘culture’ in a way which is often difficult to quantify and articulate.

For CURRENT, Copestake undertook an individual artist’s residency for a month in the summer of 2015 in Zhu Jiajiao on the outskirts of Shanghai where she developed new works through collaborating and playing with local musicians Mai Mai, Big Dragon, and Huang Jun.

Because it is interpersonal, often informal, and certainly unquantifiable, this sort of artist interaction or production is hard to plan for within the parameters of a project. It not only relies on the artist’s ability to find and generate connections, but also hinges on the subtle creation of an environment for experimentation and dialogue by project curators and producers through their own personal contacts and knowledge of the cultural scene.

After a short explanation of her time in Zhu Jiajiao Copestake chose to play a piece of audio work she had produced, transporting the room into the visceral immediacy of an improvised ‘jamming session’ as a direct way of imparting an experience of collaboration where you have little in common except the energy and desire to create. “What I present is an upward slope,” she said. “Where form can be found, and… transmit the energy.”

Credit: Anne-Marie Copestake. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.
Credit: Anne-Marie Copestake. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.

Following on from the transcendental sounds of Copestake’s performance, Wang Nanming, an independent curator, critic and key partner in the CURRENT project, gave an account of his own career trajectory from artist to curator and critic as a way of illustrating the social and political pressures at play in China. Focusing particularly on his movement from artist to curator, Wang described the sort of grass roots activity undertaken by Shanghai-based artists, who promote their own, and each other’s, works by staging exhibitions that circumnavigate ‘approval procedures’, often having to move an exhibition three or four times during it’s duration in order to evade the officials.

Similarly Wang also became a critic out of necessity: who else would promote his exhibitions? He explained that without this double life as both curator and critic it would be impossible to develop as an artist or curator without private means as the Chinese media is largely uninterested in domestic grassroots artistic activity or it’s ideas. This highlighted the differences between Scotland and China, but in doing so also made clear what a Scottish artist or curator might learn from a Chinese one and vice versa.

Arguably what makes Scotland-based artists an interesting prospect for China and internationally, is that their practices are perceived to form from a more autonomous and grassroots activity, away from the overbearing influence of the market or the state. This spirit of Scottish art is undoubtedly embodied by the artists selected for CURRENT, and forms the conceptual backbone of the project as a whole, engaged as it is in exporting Scotland’s grass-roots spirit and it’s keen debates within the social and political dimensions of art and culture.

Conversely Chinese practitioners have a more rigorous and robust curatorial and written critical discourse than is currently present in Scotland and, as Wang clearly evidenced, in China curators and critics are using these skills to promote emerging artistic practices and dialogues. This highlights how underdeveloped these same practices are in Scotland, and the current lack of support and platforms for curators and critics working in Scotland’s current art ecology.

These practical understandings can only be teased out and reflected upon through an in-depth sharing and understanding of each country’s cultural landscape. CURRENT clearly benefits from Cooper Gallery curator Sophia Hao’s connection with Wang. Their shared interest in the political, social and economic discourses that contest this present moment and their goal to enter this discourse in a way that challenges ideas and prevailing ideologies in both Scotland and China.

In a pragmatic way too Hao’s intellectual investment in China, she is Chinese and speaks Mandarin, is crucial for a meaningful, constructive and secure relationship to exist in this project specifically and in international projects more broadly, where bicultural and bilingual understanding is crucial. Hao’s relationship with the artists and various other partners is therefore indispensable to the project, and they are in a sense the project itself. Edgar Schmitz chose to focus his presentation on this connection or correspondence in relation to an ongoing collaborative project with Hao, Hubs and Fictions.

Schmitz is an artist, curator and writer and was also part of CURRENT Phase 1. In summer 2015 he presented an exhibition, Surplus Cameo Decor, in tandem with Poster Club and co-curating a new edition of the Hubs and Fictions forum On Current Art and Imported Nearness. This included contributions from Simon Groom director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and former head of exhibitions at Tate Liverpool, where he led on the acquisition strategy for Asia, Terry Smith – Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh, Wang Nanming curator, critc and artist based in Shanghi, and What, How & for Whom/WHW- a curatorial collective formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb and Berlin. It’s members are Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović, and designer and publicist Dejan Kršić. WHW organizes a range of production, exhibition and publishing projects and directs Gallery Nova in Zagreb.

What was particularly pertinent in Schmitz’s talk was a discussion of the longevity of the Hubs and Fictions project which started with conversations between Schmitz and Hao in 2011. Furthermore, the discussions that had emerged through the personal connection between these two practitioners had pragmatically and conceptually laid the groundwork for the CURRENT project and it’s focus on the ‘global transnational’ and ‘fictions of the contemporary’ that it aims to engage with throughout it’s four phases.

This personal dimension between Hao, Schmitz and Wang, often hard to quantify or value to funders and other project partners, can also be seen as an integral part of creating successful international projects. In the past five years there have been several projects supported by British Council and/or Creative Scotland that have used a curatorial delegation model to develop smaller scale exchanges between Scotland and partners in Brazil (TRANSFORM), the Caribbean (Tilting Axis), South Africa and India (Re-Imagine). The commissioning of large international projects with contemporary artists of the size and scope of CURRENT however seems like a new turn for these key project funders and perhaps emerges from their partnership following the success and cultural capital amassed by the GENERATION project in 2014.

Credit: Panel Discussion at Here Was Elsewhere: A Memorandum of a Summer in Shanghai. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.
Credit: Panel Discussion at Here Was Elsewhere: A Memorandum of a Summer in Shanghai. Photo: Ross Fraser McLean. Courtesy of Cooper Gallery DJCAD University of Dundee & British Council.

While it is perhaps hard to find direct parallels that can provide further insight into the CURRENT project, we can see in these other examples shared issues.

Scotland-based projects are seen as good partners internationally not just for the quality and diversity of the contemporary art scene, but because they have relatively easy and direct access to public funding. That is not the case in some countries that can have very bureaucratic restricted or specified public funding remits or no public funding at all. Although this is undoubtedly to the benefit of artists, curators and cultural instigators working in the UK and Scotland, it also presents a series of problems, creating projects that rely heavily on the UK-based practitioners to fundraise for a project and compete for the limited resources currently available under Scotland’s funding structures.

In Scotland this becomes a problem of dependence on Creative Scotland applications, and their success, where there is not clear enough guidance from CS on their remit to fund international projects. How to access funds from the British Council is also complicated as the project undertaken must be instrumental to the BC. That is to say that BC is not actually a funding organisation but works with partners to deliver programmes and uses it’s grant to invest in ‘strategic’ areas. CURRENT, for example, aligns with the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange, a bilateral agreement between the UK and China to strengthen economic and social ties between the two countries through culture.

This lack of plurality of funds for projects makes it difficult for projects to develop in size and scope over the course of a project, lacks flexibility and makes projects more, not less, risky. In our current climate where funding bodies put increasing pressure on securing partnership income, international projects can suffer, especially as foreign funding structures are often incompatible or based on different models. For example CS funding often hinges heavily on in kind contributions especially with individuals, freelancers and small organisations, which in other countries are economically difficult or impossible to commit too because of differing socio-economic positions.

The knock on effect of the lack of guidelines for working internationally with CS funding and the inflexibility and the minority of project funding is two fold; firstly that small organisations and freelance artists and curators who can access CS Open Funding more flexibly, lack the security and stability that is often required to work internationally in a concrete sustainable and long lived way. Secondly that mid to large-sized regularly funded arts organisations who have the stability and security to develop a project over a longer duration have to work within the restrictions of their already committed three year core program and budget. So they may be able to initiate and participate in international projects, but in a very fixed way which must restrict innovation and development.

As it currently stands this art and funding ecology acts as a barrier to the ongoing development of freelance and artist-led grassroots culture that Scotland rightly prides itself on and exports internationally. In criticizing the status quo however it is important to note, that there has also been movement in the right direction through the patronage of British Council Scotland in recent projects. For example, they supported independent curators Mother Tongue, and artist-run space David Dale to participate in the Caribbean conference Tilting Axis with some startlingly positive results, including Mother Tongue winning the prestigious Apex Art Franchise award, following on from their residency at Fresh Milk gallery in Barbados as part of Titling Axis.

What is still often neglected however is an open discussion around funding and international visits and opportunities, of who is invited to participate in these projects and how they are invited or selected. Central to this is the question that if we are exporting a sense of Scotland’s non-hierarchical, artist-led or grassroots activity, how do we open up the current process to artists and independent curators who are directly shaping this activity? How can we develop more openness around the funding opportunities to allow people who are already working, or have connections, with a country, organisation or individual internationally to plan and make successful, ambitious and well-funded applications?

There is, in some cases, too much of a focus on exporting the ‘best’ of Scottish contemporary art, by which we mean the highest profile, rather than prioritising the creation of partnerships which might develop over a longer duration and career trajectory of individuals and provide a qualitative long lasting and perhaps more open and in the future higher profile platform.

Despite my analysis, which has at some points been critical towards existing support structures, CURRENT is a well thought out, culturally-engaged and ambitious project, that Sophia Hao, Wang Nanming and the British Council should be commended for. CURRENT takes risks, and breaks new ground in the scale and scope of international projects from Scotland, and I hope it will be the start of more things to come in the shape of ambitious partnership projects between the British Council, arts organisations, artists and curators working in Scotland.

Alexander Storey Gordon
Artist, writer and curator