Last week saw the launch of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China, created by Zheng Bo at the City University of Hong Kong. I have written about Zheng’s work before, specifically ‘A Wall: Art and the online public sphere in China’ a showcase of socially engaged art which he first created back in 2014. Commissioned by The Space in collaboration with British Council China and Cass Sculpture Foundation, the project offered a reimagining of China’s Democracy Wall for the digital age. Zheng has significantly updated and expanded that original digital archive, which can now be found online at seachina.net. In this post I would like to look briefly at both projects, assessing the impact of these digital learning tools and archives for the study of contemporary art.
The MOOC is a six week online course that runs from the 6th February to the 19th March, users anywhere in the world can access the course by registering online here. As Zheng outlines in the introduction to the course:
“This 6-week free online course serves as an introduction to Chinese socially engaged art. We produced it over the past eight months. We traveled to multiple cities (Wuhan, Chengdu, Chongqing, Beijing …) and worked with a number of artists/ collectives (Xiong Wenyun, Xu Bing, Wang Jiuliang …). This course covers 16 socially engaged projects and a number of theoretical issues. It also contains excerpts of 12 artist interviews, and six 360-degree videos of the actual sites where the projects took place. The artworks address a wide range of social issues, ranging from ecology to equality.”
Each week’s lesson contains a selection of digital media which are designed to introduce key themes and social issues. These are grounded in specific case studies which do much to bring these issues to life while also highlighting the diversity of socially engaged practices within China. Week one, for example, contains a case study of Xiong Wenyun’s ‘Moving Rainbow’ (1998-2001) complete with a ten minute video of the project and a five minute interview with the artist. Xu Bing’s ‘Forest Project’ is also profiled, as is Wang Jiuliang’s ‘Beijing Besieged by Waste’ (2008-2010), which includes two videos accompanied by a 360 degree view of a landfill site. After these individual case studies have been reviewed, there is an 8 minute video in which Zheng discusses some of the common themes and issues which unite these socially engaged practices as well as looking at the evolution of artists’ responses to their changing social environment over the last twenty years. The lesson concludes with a discussion which asks participants to contemplate which of the profiled projects they find the most engaging and challenging.
The MOOC contains materials which also feature in Zheng’s expanded archive of socially engaged art Seachina (an acronym for socially engaged art in China whose title also elicits connotations both of a sea change and a search engine). The original archive was first unveiled in 2014 and featured six projects. That number has now more than doubled to sixteen, and alongside the original featured projects which included Keepers of the Waters, organised by Betsy Damon, participated in by Yin Xiuzhen, Dai Guangyu and others, Sichuan and Tibet, (1995-96), Moving Rainbow, Xiong Wenyun, Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways, (1998-2001) Everyone’s East Lake, Li Juchuan, Li Yu and others, Wuhan, (2010) Breakfast at the Plum Tree Creek, Wu Mali, Taiwan, (2010-11) Style of the Northeastern New Territories, Tai Ngai Lung and others, Hong Kong, since (2009) and Two Square Metres, Xu Tan, Guangzhou, (2014) the archive now features projects by Xu Bing, Yin Xiuzhen, Wang Jiuliang, LGBT activists on Qianmen Avenue, Grass Stage, Alessandro Rolandi, The New Worker Art Troupe, Zhuang Hui and Dan’er, Wang Haichuan, Art Praxis, Chen Xiaoyang, Chen Yun and Zhejiang Art Museum.
As Zheng Bo explains: “These artists have created site-specific performances in lakes, rivers, and mountains to raise environmental consciousness; they have written songs and plays for millions of migrant workers, to address the issue of inequality; they have organised parades and festivals for villagers, to make the processes of rural governance visible. These artists not only contribute to social change, they also push the boundaries of contemporary art. They challenge the conventional modes of artistic production and reception.”
Whatever you think of MOOCs and their efficacy as teaching aids (a useful summary of the key issues can be found here), the fact that the course is accessible to anyone with an internet connection means it has the potential to reach a far greater audience than that found within a more conventional university environment. While some may lament the lack of teacher student interaction, their outreach potential and ability to supplement existing learning approaches means that these online learning platforms are becoming increasingly ubiquitous within academia.
What’s unique about Zheng’s MOOC and the Seachina database, however, is that these materials are not easily accessible to audiences outside China. Zheng and his team have spent over three years collecting articles, interviewing artists, archiving photographs and videos and collating relevant information concerning each of these projects. What emerges then, is a multifaceted approach to socially engaged art practices that addresses some of the most demanding and not easily resolved issues surrounding the imbrication of aesthetic and social concerns in contemporary China. Not only does the database and the MOOC provide a very readable and informative introduction to these practices (and I should highlight that everything is presented bilingually in Chinese and English) but they will also serve as an invaluable resource for future research.