The 10th Shanghai Biennale: Social Factory
“So the first kind of talent that the academy will train is artists, who are the voice and vision of society, and will express emotions that society cannot express.”
—Sun Fuxi, quoted by tang Xiaobing in this volume
Few cities in the world represent the image of a society-in-the-making as dynamically as Shanghai. this city characterizes china’s rapid modernization and ascent to world power. and yet, Shanghai also embodies materially and as image, a promise for the post-industrial future – the china that will no longer be the “world factory”, but rather a “social factory”. But, what would that signify? and, what sort of social realities does this society-as-factory produce?
It should be made clear from the outset that our point of departure is neither a vision of a society as the sum of actions produced by pre-existing indi- viduals (as some Western theories would have it), nor of society as an organic totality (as the confucian tradition, among others, tended to imagine). instead, we have been thinking about a different kind of commonality, whose contours have yet to be articulated, but which has already become crucial to the emerging forms of production that have come to be analyzed by some under the umbrella concept “factory society” (hardt/negri). to understand these contours, we need to conceive of “production” in the widest possible sense – not simply as that which takes place on the factory floor, but “the myriad ways in which actions, habits, and language produce effects, including effects on subjectivity, ways of perceiving, understanding, and relating to the world.” (J. Read).
The 10th Shanghai Biennale begins in the foyer of the Power Station of art with a quotation of the principle to “seek truth from facts”, the main theme of a specially commissioned work by composer Peter ablinger. this ancient chinese principle was famously invoked by Mao Zedong in 1938, and then 40 years later in 1978, by Deng Xiaoping, as he prepared china for his policy of reform. Both leaders invoked this principle in order to transform the conceptual categories that citizens deployed to make sense of reality, in recharging the grounds of social practice as the benchmark for change.
To “seek truth from facts” has become a guiding principle within the radical social and political transformations that china underwent in the 20th century, when the nation-state was confronted with the challenge of building its ancient society anew, following the humiliating defeats suffered by the Qing dynasty in the opium War in the 1840s, and its final breakdown in 1911. at this time, the truth-value of the entire order of the imperial past had to be radically questioned, and truth, as “common good”, needed to be established on new foundations.
But the very definition of a “fact”, to a certain degree, is equally con- testable; facts too are social constructions and the constructed nature of a fact calls upon the participation of multiple other-than-human factors and agencies. From the 19th century right into the 1970s, the history of modernity in a global context remained immersed in a certain objectivism, a belief that modern science provided access to immutable facts. Poised against the conceptualization of both empirical experience and ethics, this objectivism derived its legitimacy from the natural sciences and leaned towards a mechanistic worldview. yet it has experienced an endured crisis especially, yet not only, with regard to the social sciences. though the social sciences produce innumerable amounts of data, its theories have some- how consistently failed when predicting how society and its subjects will behave in the future. they also remain unsuccessful in gauging the antagonistic realities that manifest in human consciousness as political subjectivities. and as the history of the social sciences reveal to us, claims to objective knowledge of “the social” are always quick in being overhauled by social dynamics themselves thus proving to be a product of particular temporal circumstances and an environment of ideas.
However, that facts are produced (evident also in the word “factory”) does not mean that they are necessarily untrue. it only implies that what matters most is their mode of production, and that their truth-value is contestable – itself a matter of politics.
In consumer society, the primary fact arrives from the factory, and is called commodity. the commodity, in Marxist terms, has the notorious tendency to displace “the social” by concealing social relations of production and labor. capital encourages us to observe the world upside-down, making us believe implicitly that the primary task of human existence is the production of commodities, rather than the collective production of social relations and our “fashioning” of one another as human actors. a derivative of this reversal has also persistently haunted leftist theories, as they have continuously undervalued the primary production of “the social” through care, affection and education in what is being assigned as repro- ductive labor.
The 10th Shanghai Biennale uses the term “social factory” in order to embark upon critical reflection. it wants to imagine what a social factory that put this relation back on its feet may look like – not in the sense of an utopian projection, but as a task in the here and now, in confronting our immediate environments. What if we considered the production of the social or even the production of “humanity” as our primary task?
For such an undertaking, the primary “fact” from which we depart is something that neither scientific, objectivist knowledge can easily grasp nor that which allows itself to be commodified. We may call this the “relational fact”. this is a kind of fact, which only active consciousness may grasp and as a society, we have access to it only through art. that is to say, it is within the realm of image-making and cultural production that we comprehend “truths” about the complexity of social relations that otherwise remain inaccessible.
What I would characterize as the artistic thinking of the present, the very basis of contemporary art and its multiplicity of forms, is deeply informed by the crisis of objectivist knowledge and the related crisis of the high modernist project of rationalizing the production of society itself. this statement is valid universally, even if the particular circumstances of this crisis are vastly different. in art, this crisis first surfaced as a crisis of the art object itself and has continued to trans- form artistic practice radically across all domains. this transformation consists of a massive attempt to translate fixed and structurally monologic relations, which produced their knowledge through the objectification of their subject matter, into relations of reciprocity. the primary task of the artist is to engage with, and “speak” to, the social conditions of production of art, and to make work that “exhibits” these conditions.
What used to be artistic products have since been translated into processes (and for the ends of the art market, back into products). in no singular artistic discipline was it possible to maintain an “objectivist” focus on the product and an established canon of forms, or even a particular idea of the function of art in society. everywhere, the conditions of production, the entire network of prac- tices in which “art” occurs, has been put into question and has been continuously transformed, as these aspects of production are now always maintained in the fore- ground, defining both the content and form of the work of art. this is an irreversible process, which bears its own truth – the truth of the radical transformations in the production of subjectivity, for the production of art, as the chinese tradition knows well, can never be dissociated from the production of subjectivity.
But this level of social production, although its unconscious dimensions may rightly be called “machinic” by certain philosophers, could not be further away from the logic of the factory, insofar as the factory is a completely controlled and planned environment. the production of subjectivity is above all, a relational fact, and the subject simultaneously a product, and a producer of social relations.
In addition to the principle of “seeking truth from facts”, the chinese woodcut move- ment – which began in Shanghai in the 1920s – is another important reference for this Biennale. the importance of this movement in modern chinese art history has been underlined by, among others, tang Xiaobing, who has also contributed to the present catalogue. the movement instigated a “passionate discourse on subjectivity” (X. tang), as it grew out of a situation of profound sociocultural uncertainty and violence, in which the making and remaking of an entire society and culture was at stake. the woodcut was then to become a mass medium, and a tool of social mobilization and critical reflection at the same time.
We were interested in how the woodcut movement reflected the new culture Movement’s goal of aesthetic education, and a wholesale transformation of the values and spirit of an entire people, reflecting the 20th century chinese obsession with cultural revolution, and the role and status of art and “tradition” therein. its quest to create a socially consequential art form reflected a series of paradoxes associated with the making and remaking of society in modernity and the status of “culture”, “fiction”, “people’s minds” and “spirituality”, which we can relate to the problems emerging from the modern production of subjectivity today. these paradoxes reflected themselves in the thought of great chinese reformers associated with the “cultural-intellectualistic” approach to modernization, who sought above all to “change people’s minds”, especially those of the anti-traditionalists since the May Fourth Movement, who were often simultaneously upholding and reviving the very traditions they were so forcefully rejecting.
This primacy of reform in the realm of culture was pursued by some of china’s most prominent modern reformers, from the journalist liang Qichao (1873–1929) to the eminent writer lu Xun (1881–1936). For liang Qichao, who in 1902 prepared the grounds for china’s new literature, a reform of “fiction” would need to result in a reform of the entire culture of a people and their way of life. a few years later, lu Xun started his literary career with a similar appeal. however, the relation between people’s minds and social reality is obscure, and no one captured this better than lu Xun himself, when he coined the ambivalent concept of “spiritual victory” in the face of actual defeat. his Story of Ah Q is a satirical narrative that would prove to become hugely influential in debates about “national character”, structures of power and subjectivity, and what he has metaphorically called the “cannibalism” of chinese society. to this date, through numerous interpretations, The Story of Ah Q continues to be a foil for the negotiation of social reality. the Biennale displays a woodcut cycle by the recently deceased Zhao yannian, whose powerful rendering of The Story of Ah Q was produced as a response to the political and social upheavals in china in the 1960s and 70s.
So what kind of social and mental facts did the woodcut movement manage to capture and produce? in retrospect, the woodcut movement serves us, at this Biennale, as a way to reflect on the dramatization of the dialectics between “objective structures”, and subjective agency and perception, in a manner where art works negotiate the opacity of the social and articulate relational facts – thus bringing to the fore the conditions, tensions and scenarios of social production. it is also the materiality of the woodcut method – the making of a “positive” and a “negative” through a material “impression”, that directly carries within itself a dialectical arrangement.
the Biennale seeks to explore a tension that exists between rapid transformations and slow processes. in its description, i borrow from the work of german writer and filmmaker alexander Kluge, whose literature records the histories of what he calls the “subjective side”. this is staged as a history of emotions, and a history of the imprints that have coined the psyche and mental life, over long periods of time. Such a history is composed mainly of life stories, and of the way people rationalize and make sense of their own biographies. it also results in the creation of a horizon of myths, which produce and reproduce structures of cognition, like how maps help us navigate a territory, while at the same time creating this territory as a social fact. the history of the “subjective side” needs to be understood and sensed in the very shape of thoughts and emotions, as well as the forms, languages and means of expression in which they materialize.
How is the experience being described and what narrative models are available to make sense of one’s life? Kluge’s work begins with contrasting relatively fast changes in the physical world of matter and objects, with the long duration of changes of the subjective side. the “world of objects” around humans “changes in periods ranging from 150 to 6,000 years”, he says, but “even more resilient is the subjective side which needs around 12,000 years or longer to grow.”
Where could one better test such a proposition than in china? the previous 10 editions of the Shanghai Biennale have been largely dedicated to re- flecting on the breathtaking speed of transformation in china but here, the resilience of the “subjective side” also makes itself felt as a very real experience; that is to say, above all, but not only within family structures, in which many micro-social patterns usually described as “traditional” prevail. it is a resilience of deep-seated patterns and orientations, which are resurfacing time and again. Many modernizing schemes for reforming society have come up against this resilience, on which, it seems, all socially transformative forces remain hinged.
Reductionist concepts of social order at one extreme, sprawling connections on the other – it is between these poles that the exhibition Social Factory oscillates, from one work to the next. on the one hand, social relations are limited to those that are conscious, formalized and situated within a particular symbolic syntax and order. on the other hand, there is the anarchic flow of social interconnections, a pre- individual stratum and a mediality extending across various ontological registers.
In this latter world, there is no a priori limit to social relations. Various kind of “animisms” in various cultures show that it is relatively possible to be social with, and hence to perceive reciprocity and grant subjectivity to, the most remote kind of “things” in this world – from stars via spirits to stones. But they also show that the social is always striated, marked by opposition and divisions, and that there is always a limit, a realm with which “no communication” can be established, a limit that hence must be the ultimate benchmark of politics, of inclusion and exclusion.
For the confucian tradition, too, the entire cosmic order was “social”, in the sense that there existed social relationships between the “ten thousand things”, connected through a “flow of empathy”. But the confucian tradition was also characterized by a permanent tension between the larger cosmic order and actual social reality. For the confucian scholar, it was clear that there was a fun- damental oneness in the order of the cosmos, and that this oneness ought to be reflected and realized in the social order. But they struggled acutely in realizing this vision of harmony, in closing the circle against the backdrop of the actually existing plurality – cognitively like rough waters on the open sea and socially, a persistence of “moral wilderness”. the awareness of this gap between their ideals of social order, and this wilderness within and without, crucially informed the ritual and routine of bureaucratic administration and attitude. the 10th Shanghai Bien- nale situates itself within this gap – between “the wild waters” and the sprawling, anarchic connections across ontological barriers.
In the entrance, and throughout the entire exhibition, there are works literally dealing with water and its (impossible) containment: waves drawn by thou- sands of pencil lines, a silent inversion of tradition (hu liu); water that has been salted with the salt of all oceans, leaking from a container (erik Steinbrecher); and sculptures reproducing the large wave-breakers made from concrete that are used at harbors and shorelines to prevent erosion and to control or “govern” the sea (li Xiaofei). and then, nearby, there is an animated stereoscopic photograph showing a yarn factory from the 19th century, with children at work (Ken Jacobs). What is the relation between mechanization and the “living” social fact? Water and the machine, both are images for what elsewhere we called the “infrastructural uncon- scious” of modernity. Just as life, and what in the chinese tradition was referred to as the “living flow of things”, is born from water, so the world of modernity, and its conflicts, is born from the factory. the sound of the factory then echoes that of the waves crashing against the shorelines of stable order.
What kind of order, what sort of relation between the living flow of things and its regulation is produced in our times? a time of multiplication, acceleration and of networked global exchange. What is the relation between standardization (produced through machines and other devices of capture) and subjective expe- rience? the living flow of things, too, was a key concern in the chinese tradition, whose literati-bureaucrats at the same time conceived large-scale engineering projects such as river dredging in order to “control the ten thousand things” and “put in order heaven and earth”. But in modernity, the always precarious order of heaven and earth was violently derailed. if earlier, a key concern of the confucian tradition had been the attempt to find a remedy for the persistent failure to “close the circle” and realize in social order the “oneness” of their cosmic vision, then this circle, and indeed any social bond, has been called into question in modernity. and this is not only because modern technology and science has upset the cosmic orders of the past. it is also because modern consciousness radically calls into question all previous certainties and sources of authority. ever since, thinking itself has revolved around the legitimacy of power and old sources of authority, such as a cosmological order or divinities, which no longer provide the same social glue as they once did, when helping to forge societies.
How to build a society? We began to think of this question through the concep- tual pair “signal” and “noise”. (this conceptual pair was developed by nicholas Bussmann for the contributions of experimental music to the Biennale, further explained in his text in this volume). ever since the literati-bureaucrats broke the power of the aristocracy and turned a vast amount of peasants primarily attached to the bonds of kinship into a society, china has produced an enormous quantity of documents, data and statistical analysis about its population. like the waves hitting upon the shore, “noise” stands for the ungovernable multiplicity of voices and relations within the social. there is no outside to the social, in the broad defi- nition of the term as suggested above. this universal immanence of the social is perhaps explicable by the first axiom of communications theory, which states that we “cannot not communicate” for even its negation is still communication. yet, there are countless ways of socialization, and they produce a subjective conscious and collective culture through a system of distinctions and forms of literacy. Similarly, all noise can become signal, if there is a respective filter that can render it legible. But more generally, noise threatens to erode hegemonic meaning, which relies on the authority of the signifier. how is such an empire of meaning maintained, if not by permanently sorting signals from noise, and thus guarding its terrain of authority? and is this not also a possible description of what institutions and bureaucratic procedures do? in this exhibition, we wanted to suggest that works of contempo- rary art, by the mere virtue of their notorious play with the instability of meaning, act like membranes, always situated between signal and noise, in that no man’s land where one can register the traffic that exists between the two, and, using the words of Sun Fuxi as quoted in tang Xiaobing’s essay in the volume, “express” something about society that “society itself cannot express”. and this realm is of course co-extensive to the realm of images.
Signal to noise: this is also the distinction between a particular rationality and its outsides, between “appropriate” subjects and identities from “inappropriate” ones, and of legitimate representation and its relation to counter-hegemonic narra- tives. the process of discerning signals from noise, for the individual, is typically a process fostered by socialization and of learning to read certain signs, that is, of assuming a particular form of literacy. But in modernity, the main agent of this distinction, and only accepted representative of society, has been the state.
While not being identical, political and scientific reductionism have worked together throughout modernity and variously exchanged legitimacy. What their collaboration has brought about was the modern, disciplinary and conformist society, crafted by state power. high modernity in particular sought to disempower all other rationali- ties, such as religion, and universally charged the state and its institutions with the task of fabricating society. the state then reduced the polyphony of the social, by suppressing certain voices and allowing others, through a large institutionalized apparatus, in the form of bureaucracy and media.
In his book Seeing Like a State, James c. Scott has described these “state simplifications” as “abridged maps”. according to Scott, they transform the “social hieroglyph” (that is, the complexity of social life) into a “legible and admin- istratively more convenient format”. But they do not “represent the actual activity of the society” nor do they simply depict a particular slice of reality. rather, these reductions enable the reality they depict to be radically remade. Modern statecraft sought to remake society in the image of the machine, sought to organize all of society like a factory – a planned and controlled environment, based on automati- zation, standardization and rationalization. But there were limits to such remaking, limits which started becoming clear around the time of Deng Xiaoping’s speech in 1978. objectivist and reductionist knowledge was in a crisis universally; the “object” that such knowledge addressed and created simply refused to conform and instead “spoke back” in myriad ways.
In the wake of this crisis, cybernetics has become the new paradigm of social production. the cybernetic approach emerged in the late 1940s in the uS – with a detour via china. its inventor, norbert Wiener, had spent several years at Tsinghua university in Beijing in the 1930s, and some see him as influenced by Daoism. Wiener saw the entire world as consisting of systems that were con- trolled, or that regulated themselves, through mechanisms of feedback and flows of information. cybernetics operated indirectly, not by subjugating life-processes to machinic procedure, but by setting technological framework conditions, and translates social and other life processes into governable systems with certain boundary conditions. the “homeostat” is paradigmatic here, as a system that pro- duces equilibrium, being both the subject of Stephen Willats’ work in the Biennale, and mentioned in the article by h.c. Dany in this catalogue. cybernetics did not try to reproduce life, instead life has been understood as a system and has been enclosed by circuits. cybernetically informed strategies subsequently inscribed all of society to ever-increasing degrees into the technological apparatus, generating dynamic couplings with computational machines. compared to high-modernist objectivism, the direction has now been reversed and it is life and society that animate the technological environment. every time we interact with a machine, we help this environment to improve its algorithms; we lend to technology the life, the mind and the body that it doesn’t possess.
As philosopher Antoinette Rouvroy pointed out, digital technologies and algorithms release us from the burden of cognition, the work of symbolization, and the making of decisions. the enhanced reality of intelligent data is a map that is no longer “abridged” in James c. Scott’s sense, rather, it is always already adapted to ourselves, mirroring our preferences, attitudes and behaviors. But this techno-animistic world of animating and animated selves, paradoxically, is entirely de-subjectified. it bypasses any encounter with reflexive human subjects, in favor of the “computational, pre-emptive, context and behavior-sensitive management of risks and opportunities”. this leads to a situation in which it is no longer the con- sequentiality of the labor of symbolizations in art, that is in question – the central question of the historical avant-gardes. the question today is the consequentiality of subjectivity as such, its ability to refuse identification with its own data-mirror, and to insist on making a difference by engaging in recalcitrant processes of sign-making, representation and symbolization, and cultivating its literacy towards the “unscripted” parts of the world, towards the “noise”.
How does one insist on the ability to make such a difference? Many of the artists that are exhibited in this Biennale turn to the particulars of history, in a form of archaeology of the kind of behavior that today is individually and collectively reproduced and mirrored back to us. can we imagine that artists, through such an “archaeology of the present”, engage in a critical modernization of our mental and psychological resources with the grounds of subjectivity? this is the background against which the distinction between signal and noise, and the focus on what we have called “mental resources” and the “infrastructure of psychic life” have become the main motives for this Biennale.
Contemporary art displaces and mirrors the frames through which we perceive the world. it throws us back onto the background assumptions which we carry with us at all times, and makes these assumptions and frames of perception explicit; it “exhibits” them by making them apparent to us. this is why the produc- tion of social relations, in art, can become a subject of debate and reflection like nowhere else. an exhibition can be a document of both the real and fiction, in which artistic intelligence challenges the rationality and conventions of the world factory.