Exterior view of Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), Manchester, 2017. Photo by Arthur Siuksta. Courtesy CFCCA.

The Year of the Rat

Also available in:  Chinese

On March 9, I published an open letter to Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), withdrawing my participation from the exhibition “A New Constellation: Chinese Diaspora Now.” This move was prompted by the sudden departure of CFCCA’s curator, Tiffany Leung, which highlighted the reality of a systemic problem. Of the organization’s remaining team, only one is a non-white person. The situation reflects a wider demographic imbalance across conversations on “Chinese” arts and artists in the United Kingdom and beyond. This disparity perpetuates the overwhelmingly white Eurocentric perspective through which art is presented. As long as we operate in systems that offer more authority to the white voice, whiteness will continue to be the custodian of our narratives. As feminist theorist Donna J. Haraway wrote in Staying with the Trouble (2016), “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with . . . It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” For any cultural organization to stand as a “leading authority” on any underrepresented voice, it must address that underrepresentation throughout, from its volunteers and interns to its management team, not least because even the most well-educated white curators cannot possess the inarticulable embodied knowledge of what it is like to live in a non-white body. 

As I was writing this letter to CFCCA, the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) was ending a 14-day strike that affected art schools across the country. As a member of UCU, I was in the mood for striking; I felt armed with the vocabulary and the rhetoric. To go on strike is to say, “I will not engage.” I will not engage in or with harmful, unjust, or oppressive practices. It’s important to remember that this “I” is a plural “I”, it is individual but also entangled with other “I”s. It differs from the homogenous plurality of a “we,” as in “we are Chinese,” for instance, and allows us to claim our responsibility in the collective “us.” In a transaction-focused society, going on strike disrupts the flow of production through the refusal of service in order to reject structures and practices of inequality.

In English, the phrase “not for all the tea in China” expresses the fact that nothing will convince you to do something that you don’t want to do. The expression inadvertently demonstrates that for a long time, China and the Chinese have been situated in the anglophone imagination as a factory, a producer in a transactional chain. The idiom is interchangeable with “not for love or money.” Nowadays, we rarely use these sayings, and in the financially-driven ecosystem of scarce opportunity that is the arts, many institutions and individuals will co-opt and be co-opted into diversity and engagement schemes only for the continued sustenance it affords them in funding. Such acts of self-preservation do not serve to change the voice of museums and galleries but reinforce a transactional role placed on already marginalized people in the maintenance of an elite economy. The empire is still the chronic background of all our work, lives, and experiences.

As artists, we are trained to speak with a vocabulary of criticism, leaving me to ask: How can we transform critique into a praxis of optimism, action, and change? How can we liberate our thinking and making beyond a historically Eurocentric frame of reference? How do we create beyond the whiteness of our tools? How do we operate within structures of whiteness without working for them?

While my open letter to CFCCA announces a refusal to participate, it was also an invitation to seek out possible answers. I begin the letter by highlighting the text’s openness and open-endedness. Its conclusion, I had hoped, was yet to be written through open conversation. Sadly, conversations with CFCCA came to a standstill. Although they were willing to speak to me individually, they have so far rejected calls for an open and inclusive conversation that involves others. Separately, that conversation was starting to form independently between myself and other artists. After multiple attempts to engage CFCCA in these conversations, the spread of Covid-19 presented new challenges.

A rising new orientalism is blurring the lines between critiques of China’s Covid-19 response and racism. Across the world, the Chinese body, which has always been mystified, is now being treated with even more suspicion. Covert racism is emerging in the UK and elsewhere as explicit violence. Reports of violence against East Asians in the UK have increased threefold since the initial outbreak, and it has become clear that the pandemic has been disproportionately affecting Black, Asian, and other minority groups both directly and indirectly.

Art making is not simply interconnected with society, it is an ideologically saturated, entangled agential activity, a method of engaging with realities that will impact, and be impacted by, these realities. If we are not actively working to undo the structures of inequality that we have been conditioned to operate within, then we continue to accept a place in a society of inequality and discrimination.

Seecum Cheung, another artist in the “A New Constellation” exhibition, had contacted CFCCA to seek out possible actions in the face of racially motivated aggression toward people of Chinese ethnicity. Initially, talks appeared open with CFCCA, but when the artist requested clarity on CFCCA’s funding and programming in response to the issue and their commitment toward fairer inclusion within their team, the talks were abruptly discontinued. Of the conversations that have emerged between artists, one in particular, formed between Cheung, Leung, Denise Kwan, and myself, is shaping into collaborative action. We established a union of mutual support—a striking union that has passed a motion to temporarily withdraw. In union, we have started to imagine, through our conversations, antibodies for immunity, for impunity. Optimism for an alternative model of practice is fuelling (and finding) our work. In tandem, the artist Victoria Sin canceled their solo exhibition at CFCCA, scheduled for September, joining us on strike.

Thinking about the emergence of new unions, I am reminded of the formation of CFCCA. Until its opening, previous shows of Chinese art in Manchester had been curated by British curators at venues such as Manchester Art Gallery. In 1986, a group of local Chinese artists, frustrated by a lack of representation in mainstream arts, and fuelled by the desire to create the space and platform they needed, formed an association allowing them to take ownership of their art and culture. The Centre’s later turn toward internationalization focused its agenda on growth and assimilation to the mainstream. Former programs curator Yuen Fong Ling commented in 2014 for a study by Beccy Kennedy in the journal Modern China Studies that “artists and audiences of Chinese ethnicity in Britain have become ‘invisible’ at the CFCCA.” At that time, Ling noted that the organization’s move away from being artist-run meant that it was now only a “centre in theory.” In practice, it had become “absent from political or personal viewpoints around issues of diversity and representation”—it had lost its “creative and critical spirit.” Six years on, CFCCA is now in the process of hiring a “visioning consultant”: a temporary position to envision the future of the Centre. From CFCCA’s last correspondence, it was suggested that they don’t think we can have any further discussions until this consultant has been appointed.

As a separatist group, we have formed a space in which to speak once again in a language of dissonant sound (one of optimism and action), and to create within our current situations. We ask, what can we do to recolor the pervading tones of contagion and confusion amid contagious disinformation and viral xenophobia? How can the art world adapt and evolve, or is it time for a radical revolution? How do we articulate and sustain practice outside of the economic, philosophical, and aesthetic paradigms of established systems?

In his opening for Art Review Asia’s spring issue, editor Mark Rappolt wrote that the devastating impact of Covid-19 “makes art, and the communities that engage with it, more worthy of preserving than ever.” But we have to ask ourselves, what’s worth preserving? Should we be saving our institutions for their apparent cultural value out of responsibility for those it previously served? As we start to rebuild our normalities, we need to ask ourselves what our past normalities had neglected, what they had marginalized, and what we might bring with us into the newly emerging. As the poet Jean Cocteau said, “I believe I would take the fire.”

If the art world re-emerges, which it may well do, with all the bricks of long-standing structures still intact, in a system of wilful self-indulgence, then we’ll continue our fight. But right now, we have a chance to establish another way of being, another way out of crisis, an alternative practice. We can imagine the possibilities of emergence, conceptualize and create new worlds, forgo that which we have privileged, and radically reconfigure the artistic and curatorial conscience.

Prepare yourself for a new ontological turn. What language can we speak?

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CHRISTIE"S SAM Massimo de Carlo Opera Gallery