Xiaoyu XIA, an astute student from Shanghai taking classes at the University of Chicago only for this summer, conducted an interview with me by email. It was in fulfillment for an assignment in Rebecca Zorach's summer course on Contemporary Art and Community. Xiaoyu wrote up the interview so skillfully, I had to share it. The section on Mess Hall is long because Rebecca had used one of my descriptions of Mess Hall as an assigned reading. Anybody seeking info on Mess Hall now would best be served by getting in touch with keyholders directly.
July 21, 2012
A Maze and a Map: A Conversation with Dan S. Wang
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
One the night of his trip back to an ancestral hometown in Shandong province, China, Dan S. Wang, the independent artist who was born in the American Midwest in 1968 to immigrant parents, drew a sketch in his hotel. Later, as a printer, Wang turned it into an experimental printing, which looks like a map and a maze as well. Also, a series of printings then repeated these elements and patterns. See at http://prop-press.net/experimental.htm. Together they remind me of the novel by Jorge Luis Borges, A Garden of Forking Paths, in which the maze set up by Borges not only deludes a Chinese Professor to kill an eminent foreign Sinologist, but also, in an allegorical way, utters a question: who can represent China? Even more allegorically, the way to claim one’s identity is also the forking path of otherness– just like a map sometimes is also a maze?
And this leads to the theme of our conversation. But before that, I would like to apologize for not being able to have this interview in person and extend my appreciation for the support from Wang, who is now in Michigan for Ox-Box a summer artists’ camp.
Self Identity: “I have always been Chinese”
My questions mainly focused on the theme of “identity.” Inspired by those prints, my first question was still about that trip: is it root-seeking, a way to reclaim the self-identity as a Chinese person? By reclaiming this identity, to what extent do you think you can represent China as a overseas Chinese artist?
“It is not about ‘reclaiming’,” said Wang, “because I don’t feel that I have ever lost anything. I have always been Chinese, just a particular kind of Chinese. Insofar as I have a personal journey embedded in my work, it is only ‘claiming’ in the sense that, as one of the infinite variety of Chinese peoples around the world, I am taking part in the work of determining the spectrum of possibilities available under the identity category ‘Chinese.’ That is what I personally and professionally claim to represent, one possibility for what it means to be Chinese.”
And then, to answer my doubts on his intentional use of Chinese elements and its potential “danger,” he said, “[in claiming and representing this possibility], this of course requires a level of engagement with a variety of elements of culture that are shared broadly across the many Chinese peoples, ie language, value systems, relationship with the land, family relations, etc. I have always had differing levels of engagement, but enough to be secure in my identity as a specific variety of Chinese. My entire graduate school art output used signifiers of Chinese, Asian, Asian-American, and Chinese American culture and experience. I made a conscious decision in 1997 to end the use of those vocabularies exactly for the reason of exoticization, art world ghetto-ization, and other ways of being marginalized based on identity. On the positive side, I had also by then accumulated a backlog of concerns that had only peripheral connection to issues of identity, and I was anxious to create work about them. Since that time (about fifteen years ago) I have been very careful about when and where I emphasize ethnic identity, but because I work in a largely white art world, I do have occasion to make the emphasis regularly.”
The Identity of a Space: “Problems” are not necessarily unhealthy
When asked about his preference among the titles, Wang gave a short answer: “I would choose the title Independent Artist, because it allows for including within it the other two as roles and activity.” It seems that he kindly neglected the latter part of my question, which is about “the tension between these vocations, between the theoretical/academic thinking, the realistic concern and the aesthetic creativity”–but perhaps, he had already answered that.
However, my questions then are more relevant to his identity as an organizer. To outline the formation and identity of Mess Hall, Wang said: “Mess Hall is much more participatory than a conventional art space, meaning one that is modeled on commercial galleries, non-profit organizations, and even community art centers. Mess Hall was founded as an experiment informed by a wider spectrum of models and precedents. Anarchist infoshops of the 90s, antiwar drop-in centers of the 60s, communal settlements of the 70s, art collectives of 80s, Spanish and Italian social centers of 90s…these are some of the sources for how Mess Hall developed its culture of governance and management. In this way, Mess Hall departs from the artist/audience dichotomy enforced by art world institutions. I would say it has been a literally successful departure given that a number of people who simply participated regularly eventually became keyholders who helped to manage, maintain, and direct Mess Hall.”
True, but is there any problem in the process for nominating keyholders? “There were several intense arguments in my time as a keyholder, and I know that there have been some since.” Wang admitted, “The process for nominating keyholders was not systematic, at least that was my experience. Many factors went into the invitation and recruitment process, foremost among them the confidence in a nominee’s potential dedication to the work of internal dialogue, task-fulfillment, and efficient communication. At the same time, it was an informal process—there was never any formal application procedure, interview process, or time frame for adding keyholders. One’s professional or reputational status held little sway, and that is a good thing, quite at odds with art world tendencies, but one’s personal reputation mattered a great deal. The process was always somewhat contradictory, but it seemed to function. I cannot speak to the process as it is currently conducted.”
Then, presumably this “internal circularity” of Mess Hall does claim its self-identity as an art space, but could it be possible that, on the other hand, it also suggests the egoism and the possibility that it is but part of the culture industry which it should have been against to?
Again, this is a short but powerful answer: “I would say that the ‘problems’ of egoism and personality are not necessarily unhealthy, that a project like Mess Hall must include space for strong voices, for a fluid group dynamic rather than one made static through a fixed decision-making system, even if that means there is the potential for serious internal disagreement.”
The Identity of Art in Our Time: “Critical”, not “Radical”
After the last two layers of the theme, I assumed that our conversation might have touched on its third layer, that is, the identity of Art in modern society. Still, I am concerned about the intrinsic demarcation between “insider” and “outsider” within the so-called “identity”.
My next question may sound too idealistic (well, as idealistic as I always have been): “Could Art, especially the radical art, truly have the power to be oppositional to capitalism apparatus, or is it just another specimen of the apparatus itself?”
This is Wang’s answer: “There can be no ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of capitalism, only degrees of enclosure by capitalist logics and degrees of attention by capitalist entities. Whatever its potential for offering usable paths less constrained by capitalist logics, critical art consistently performs the service of exposing the workings and depth of historical capitalism. Even as attached to the apparatus itself, critical art can do this.” And after this, he added, “Note that I do not use the term ‘radical art’, but instead prefer the term ‘critical art’, which makes a reference to the critical theory tradition.”
To Wang, the difference between “radical art” and “critical art” really matters. At first, I thought this was just his accuracy on terminology as a researcher or probably his respect for the academic tradition from Frankfurt School. But his answer to my next question might have indicated something more profound.
In this question, I treated Mess Hall as a case study for the relationship between people and questioned its potentiality in “breaching capitalism's definition of social relations” as Wang had pointed out in his article. Wang gave a very detailed description and explanation: “Social relations as cultivated by Mess Hall represent a very small but nonetheless meaningful divergence from capitalist social relations, beginning with the landlord-renter relationship. Mess Hall owes its landlord very little in monetary terms, but quite a bit in terms of gratitude and respect. So it is different than the standard landlord-renter relationship, and even though there is a legal structure that codifies the power inequality, the informal economy of attention and reputation provides the keyholders with a power of their own, equal to or perhaps greater than that of the landlord. This is only one aspect of changed social relations at Mess Hall. ”
“Obviously, it is not about changing capitalism as a whole.” he added, “Nothing will outstrip capitalism but its own terminal contradictions—if the worldwide social revolutions of the 20th century could not, then any kind of art will not, either. But those contradictions are now taking the form of proliferating crises, at all scales and in all places. The instability we see all around us is a new norm. Projects like Mess Hall contribute by offering small examples of new stabilities, new forms of social security, a new aesthetics of governance and group decision-making. No matter how small, these realities will grow in value as the world we have inherited continues to crumble.”
Isn’t this the true meaning of being “critical”: always keep the acuteness to reality and never give up the patience and promise for future? At certain points, we may find the modernity just like a maze, so well-designed and so self-sufficient that embraced all of us, erasing our identity. But a maze also means a space pre-designed in itself, a possibility for us to escape. Isn’t this the true meaning of “critical”–isn’t this the true meaning of “art”–that the maze given by the reality is also a map for the future?