My response to "How Effective is Art as a Conduit of Change?"

The question was posed by Frieze magazine


Published in Frieze, issue 186, April 2017 and online

Art saved me. As a child I was into organizing. At the age of six, I set up a book-sharing system among the kids living in our apartment building in a suburb of Beijing. But my entire family – my parents and three older sisters – detested politics. I was not encouraged to turn my childhood passion into a career. Of course, they were right. Practising politics is a high-risk profession in China, both for politicians inside the party-state and activists outside of it. Many end up in prison: the former under corruption charges; the latter for advocating ‘Western notions’ such as democracy and citizenship. Art has given me a safe space to play with politics and, as it constantly nags me about aesthetics, I’ve managed not to lose a sense of reality.

If protest is holding up a banner in front of a government office, I’ve never done it. But I’ve broadcast migrant workers’ music in front of five-star hotels, set up an online archive ( to document fellow artists’ socially engaged projects, and brought people together to fantasize a political group called ‘Weed Party’. Protest is not on the menu given to us here in China; thankfully, art still is.

Social practice, or critical art more broadly, has made some impact here, but it is far from becoming a major force of social change. Art as a single thread is tenuous. It needs to be interwoven with the media, NGOs, education and progressive forces in the government and the market. Several younger groups are pursuing this path: Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society in Shanghai, Art and Social Innovation Lab in Chengdu, and Nanting Research in Guangzhou, for example. None resorts to protest; all crouch under ‘innovation’ and ‘research’.

But how long will even mild forms of activism continue to be tolerated in China? In late December, New Worker Art Troupe (NWAT) in Beijing – to my mind, the best cultural activist group in the country – was harassed. Local officials visited NWAT’s compound and claimed that the heating system did not meet fire safety standards, so they smashed it up – in deep winter. Founded by Sun Heng, Xu Duo and Wang Dezhi in 2002, NWAT has been extremely careful not to appear radical. They started out composing songs for migrant workers and performing on construction sites and gradually built a migrant workers’ museum, a library, a theatre and a school for migrant workers’ children in Picun, a suburb of Beijing where thousands of migrants live. They rallied support from left-leaning intellectuals and justice-minded journalists,stressing that their work is consistent with the party-state’s official policy to protect the rights of migrant workers. They have survived for the past 15 years and gradually expanded, including initiating an annual Chinese New Year Gala for migrant workers and broadcasting it online. But the situation started to deteriorate last year. Their recording of the New Year Gala was seized by district police, so they could not post it online. These recent issues may simply be another episodic fit by local officials or … well, let’s hope it is the former.

We want to continue our work: this is why we crouch. It seems that we will be crouching for a long time.