Carrying Out Public Advocacy Through Performance Art

China Development Brief, Spring 2012, No.53

中文 English

Introduction: Wang Man looks at how performance art can be an effective means of carrying out public interest advocacy in China, using two recent cases advocating on behalf of gender equality.

In recent years, the growing use of “public interest performance art” (hereinafter “performance art”) as a creative means to call for public policy reforms has both challenged so-called conventional wisdom and caught the attention of the mainstream media, thereby arousing public attention and even provoking policy changes.  “The Injured Bride” and the “Occupation of the Men’s Room” are two recent examples of performance art initiated by volunteers in Guangzhou, Beijing and other cities that have attracted widespread attention among the media and public.  The latter, in particular, generated positive coverage in the “People’s Daily” (“人民日报”) as well as a positive response from Guangzhou municipal government agencies.  I was fortunate enough to participate in both of these cases and wanted to share the experiences from each with colleagues in the wider NGO sector by writing them up as case studies, drawing out some of the essential elements needed to conduct successful performance art and comparing this with other advocacy tactics.  I would also like to share some thoughts on performance art and civil society.

The Essential Elements of Successful Performance Art

Performance art may appear simple, but it’s difficult to do well.  Based on the two examples highlighted here – “The Injured Bride” and the “Occupation of the Men’s Room” – good performance art should include the following elements:

  1. A creative idea.
  2. A team of well-trained volunteers.
  3. Thorough preparation from the earliest stage.
  4. Media support and coverage – particularly from the mass media.
  5. Methodical and decisive action during live implementation.
  6. Effective risk management and control

These six elements are introduced below with reference to the two case studies.

 “The Injured Bride” Case

The source of inspiration for this piece of performance art was a blood-stained bride’s dress from a wedding procession in Turkey in November of 2011.  When adapted to the local context we used only three volunteers for filming, rather than a large group of people.  Apart from color, this concept relied upon the powerful symbolic contrast between the wedding, symbolizing partnership and happiness, and the scars and bloodstains of violence.  Moreover, by choosing to launch the performance on Valentine’s Day, when most ordinary people seem consumed by the atmosphere of romantic love, the contrast was further sharpened and the inherent controversy within this concept revealed: that violence against women is in fact masked by the apparent “safe haven” of a loving relationship, which is completely at odds with the mainstream perception of family, marriage and intimacy, and therefore also newsworthy.

The “Occupy the Men’s Room”  Case

The idea for the “Occupy the Men’s Room” campaign originally came from a group of female Taiwanese university students who launched a movement to “Seize the Men’s Room” in 1996.  During that campaign, female students took action to seize men’s toilets in shopping malls, schools and other public places, prompting the Taipei authorities to adjust the regulations concerning the provision of public toilets.  In addition, we borrowed the word “occupy” from the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  Borrowing the buzzword of the moment helped with wider dissemination of our campaign message.

In comparison to the “Injured Bride”, the “Occupy the Men’s Room” was far more controversial.  In the first instance, the idea of “woman going into the men’s room” challenged the conventional view regarding the limitations placed upon women’s roles and behavior, while the word “occupy” also proved particularly provocative. To a certain extent, these two factors helped the “Occupy the Men’s Room” campaign receive more media coverage and public interest than the “Injured Bride”.  Of course, in carrying out the event, we avoided any confrontation with men. In practice the campaign involved one female “borrowing” the men’s room for three minutes, forcing any male to wait until it was vacated.

Creativity and Its Sources

Creativity – which in this sense refers to ideas that break with convention, show innovation or a touch of “avant-garde” – is the key to attracting media and public interest in performance art.  Controversy is another factor in so far as only news that arouses debate has any value. Where does creativity come from? One source is to borrow from existing best practices, including those from other countries and regions. Another is to utilize topical themes of current interest, such as cyber-language.  Yet another source is to draw on traditional symbols, such as the wedding dress, to represent partnership.  These ideas are introduced below with reference to the specific case studies.

Volunteer Team Building

Because performance art is reported by the media it comes with certain risks.  Consequently, having a team of courageous volunteers is a crucial factor in determining its success.  Moreover, these two examples of performance art relied entirely upon volunteers, some of whom did not even know each other. So team coordination is particularly important.

To participate in performance art really does require a lot of courage, especially when it comes to media interview appearances, which can often lead to increased scrutiny and pressure. Different social groups face difference pressures. The main barriers faced by the women in both these cases – namely shyness and an aversion to being in the limelight – were due largely to social reasons arising from their gender rather than a fear of facing the media. Even so, facing the media was itself a challenge.  The author was particular impressed by the contributions made by several lesbian volunteers who stepped immediately to the forefront.

Of course, even volunteers that did not face the media had to overcome various psychological challenges. In societies that lack the conditions for social movements many people may take the view that to “take to the streets” is in itself is a big deal.  Several volunteers, many of whom were very young and participating in such activities for the first time, did indeed show great bravery.  As one of the participants, I can testify that the experience really did help us overcome doubts, break down psychological barriers and build confidence in carrying out this type of activity.

Early preparation

Alongside creative ideas and team of well-trained volunteers, a successful campaign also requires lots of meticulous planning to develop a strong sense of teamwork and discipline among team members.

Collective action requires each individual team member to have both a clear role and a clear understanding of the overall process. This is best achieved through face-to-face meetings where decisions are reached through discussion. For complex campaigns, teamwork becomes even more vital and requires undertaking mock drills before (but not on the day of) the campaign to avoid accidents.  All campaigns should also include 1-2 contingency plans.

Media Communication

To exert any influence on society, performance art must take advantage of media reporting and dissemination.  However it is important to remember that relying solely on social media (such as micro-blogging sites like Weibo and other online fora) is insufficient.  There is currently no substitute for the mainstream media, such as television and newspapers, for getting the message to the wider public. Therefore, we must be proactive in contacting journalists to establish good media relations and facilitate reporting.

On-site Implementation

Regardless of the specific form and content of the performance art, we always recommend adhering to the principle of “flashing” (快闪). Before the arrival of the possible interventionists, make the most of your time, take immediate action and do not delay. At this point, the role of the general coordinator is critical.

Risk Management

Within the activities under discussion, the only personal injury sustained by participants was due to a traffic accident, illustrating how important risk management in avoiding a traffic accident is in relation to performance art in urban areas.

In addition, during the planning phase participants should give thought to the kind of issues that may emerge during on site implementation…. The purpose of the event is not for it to last a long time, or to attract a large crowd of on-lookers.  Rather the idea is to deliver the event and then move on immediately. Do not wait for someone to cause an obstruction.

The time and place of implementation should not be announced in advance via the Internet or through the media, but rather should remain confidential. Journalists should be informed of the time only one day before the event.

Finally, once on site implementation has begun it is advisable to not allow new participants to join, even if they are the friends of existing members since other participants may not know them and therefore may not be able to distinguish between them and non-participants (i.e. reporters and passers-by).  This can cause confusion and could even risk the delivery of the activity.

Comparing Performance Art with Traditional and High-risk Advocacy Tactics

China’s civil society has been re-conceived and developed gradually over time.  Many progressive people speak out for vulnerable groups in a variety of ways and attempt to influence people or institutions with power and resources, thereby improving the rules of the game and institutional structures. This is what we generally define as “advocacy.”  Domestically, mainstream advocacy techniques include conducting research, producing policy advice, delivering seminars, proposing legislative change, as well as internal counseling etc. In this article these tactics are referred to as “traditional advocacy tactics”.  In practice, some advocacy techniques that are considered contentious still exist, such as petitions, demonstrations, and parades, and are referred to in this article as “high-risk advocacy techniques”.  The differences between performance art and these two advocacy techniques – from the perspective of cost, benefit and suitability – are set out within the table below.

From the analysis within the above table we can see that performance art offers significant benefits in terms of cost.  In terms of effectiveness, its main role is to empower civil society through the media. Examples include the hepatitis B activist Lei Chuang sending “duck pears” to pressure government departments (the Chinese characters for “duck pears” are a homonym for “pressure”), or sitting on a toilet by the gate of a hospital that illegally tested potential employees for businesses (calling for “hepatitis B inspection regulations to not be used as toilet paper”).  [Editor’s Note: Regulations prohibit employers from discriminating against Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS carriers seeking employment, but some employers violate the regulations by requiring job seekers to get a blood exam, and rejecting them if they test positive for Hepatitis B or HIV/AIDS.] Performance art helped expose the hepatitis B discrimination issue, thereby exerting public pressure on the authorities and employers.

Performance art can also help to create a social atmosphere that helps facilitate policy implementation.  For example, during the “Occupying the Men’s Room” action we discovered that many women did not know the proportion of male-to-female toilets or that this ratio is often responsible for the queues outside the ladies bathrooms.  Moreover, many men do not understand why a male toilet to female toilet ratio of 1:1 is unreasonable. The “Occupying the Men’s Room” activity helps disseminate this idea to the public – and even if the government did in fact introduce a fairer proportion of toilets – many men might consider the campaign both discriminatory and against their interests.  Indeed, even women may not understand the reasons for this policy, resulting in resistance towards the new policy and difficulties with the beneficiary group supervising the policy.

In addition, for performance art to be effectively disseminated, the participants need to pay attention to the political environment so that they are not treated roughly. This also suggests that performance art cannot resolve many problems and should be used in conjunction with other advocacy techniques, such as research, internal lobbying, written proposals, and public interest litigation, to achieve the overall objectives.

Performance Art: the Road to Civil Society?

Despite its limitations, performance art, as an advocacy technique, offers many advantages.  It allows more citizens and civil society organizations to participate in practice, and in doing it also helps build confidence among participants. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Performance art can help solve “small problems”, gradually strengthen the power of civil society and thereby help to resolve problems at a deeper level.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that recent examples of performance art have attracted many young people born in the 1980s and 1990s, including this writer.  This is not only because performance art is a new and interesting form, but also because our generation is not restrained by historical precedent, and has more space to criticize social problems.  During the two or three decades in which we have grown up, China has undergone unprecedented change and social diversification, while at the same time delivering relative levels of material prosperity, as well as confusion and anxiety in relation to emerging social problems.  But the most discomforting aspect for people is their powerlessness in transforming society. By participating in performance art, young people can witness the societal influence brought about by their own actions, understand the link between their actions and the power to transform society, while at the same time realizing a sense of achievement and getting a taste for social action.

The “building” of civil society in China is an extremely difficult undertaking.  But if more and more citizens – especially young people – become active participants within even the simplest of activities then it can be realized.

TABLE 1: A Comparison of Advocacy Methods

Conventional Advocacy Methods High-risk Advocacy Methods Performance Art
Cost  Requires more social capital, including financial, material and personnel costs. Usually needs to be promoted by organizations with a certain amount of social capital or by elites with an academic, government or media background. Can be perceived as oppositional, and therefore run into obstacles or be harmonized, and even incur other serious, long-term costs. As a result, the costs are very high. Relative to traditional advocacy methods, the required costs, especially financial costs, are limited. Relative to high-risk advocacy methods, costs and security can be controlled.
Benefit  It can work through channels in the official system to influence policy, but tends to put advocates in a passive position. It also tends not to empower civil society, and strengthen the social basis for policy implementation. It can sometimes achieve path breaking results but the news often does not get to the mainstream, mass media. As a result, it has limited influence on the public. It can turn a “small public interest issue” into a “public issue” in a short amount of time, and have an impact on public opinion. It is beneficial to building a social atmosphere for policy changes and implementation.
Appropriate Scope 



The scope can be quite broad, and involve deeper structural problems, especially when developed through academic research. Can touch on deeper structural problems, but tends to be directed towards single cases, and rarely develops into a broader social response or promotes policy or system changes. Addresses more mainstream, controversial topics, but does not get to deeper structural challenges, and therefore needs to be combined with other advocacy methods.


NOTE: In this article, “advocacy” is not only used in the narrow sense of “policy advocacy” but also actions that get the attention of decision-makers and change their attitudes, actions and relationship with the social structure in order to raise the consciousness of the target public. For example, the “Injured Bride” action was not directly or mainly aimed at improving policy or legislation, but at giving voice to the problem of violence against women, and shaping public opinion to pressure the wielders of violence (the powerholders) to change. In addition, the use of “advocacy” in this article does not include public education, which has as its goal the popularization of knowledge, for example, popularizing knowledge about HIV/AIDS prevention.

如何有效开展街头公益 行为艺术——以"受伤的新娘"及"占领男厕所"活动为例

近年来,"街头公益行为艺术"  (以下简称"行为艺术")这种表达公益诉求的行动不断涌现,其运用极具创意的方式挑战了所谓的"常理",吸引了大量媒体 的报道,进而引发公众的关注,甚至政策的改变。近期,在广州、北京等地由志愿者发起的"受伤的新娘"及"占领男厕所"两次行为艺术、尤其是后者获得了广泛 的媒体和公众关注,并获得《人民日报》的报道与肯定,受到广州市政府相关主管部门的积极回应。 笔者有幸参与了上述活动,希望与NGO同仁分享一些经验和 思考,故以上述两次行为艺术为例撰写本文,介绍成功的行为艺术需要包含的要素,从成本、效益及适用范围等维度,将行为艺术与其他倡导手法进行比较;此外, 文章最后还将分享一些笔者对行为艺术与公民社会的思考。
● 一个好的创意
● 一支训练有素的志愿者团队
● 充分的前期筹备
● 获得媒体,尤其是大众媒体的支持和报道
● 井然有序、速战速决的现场行动
● 有效的风险管理与控制
行为艺术能够吸引媒体和公众的关键在于创意。所谓"好"的创意,就是要打破常规、新颖前卫。而且创意的吸引力还在于要提出一个争议,有争议媒体才会感兴 趣,才有新闻价值。创意不是艺术家的专利,那么作为普通人,好点子从哪里来呢?首先是借鉴已有的活动创意,包括其他国家和地区的,或其他领域的优秀案例; 其次,可以借用当下的流行元素,比如网络用语;还有,可以使用典型的符号,比如婚纱代表伴侣关系。下面就通过具体的案例来介绍。
"血染的婚纱、受伤的新娘" 行为艺术
这次活动的创意受到了土耳其在2011年11月举行的一场血迹婚纱游行的启发(见下图),但我们对其进行了本土化,没有采取大规模参与的方式,而是改为仅 有三名志愿者出镜的行为艺术。该创意的出彩之处在于借用了"婚纱"这个象征伴侣关系及幸福甜蜜的符号,与象征暴力的"伤痕"、"血迹"元素形成鲜明对比。 而选择在情人节这个大众看来充满浪漫爱氛围的日子开展活动,强化了这一对比效应。此创意的内在争议是:在看似 "避风港"的亲密关系中,其实隐藏着对妇女 的暴力。这与主流价值观对家庭、婚姻和亲密关系的认识截然不同,因此产生了新闻价值。
"占领男厕所"的活动创意来自 1996年台湾女大学生发起的"抢占男厕所"运动,女大学生们通过在商场、学校等公共场所"抢男厕"的行动,促使台北市修 改公共厕所相关规定。除了受到这一运动的启发,借用"占领华尔街"运动中"占领"一词,我们把活动命名为"占领男厕所"。这种借用当下的流行词汇的做法,也有利于传播。
与"受伤的新娘"相比,"占领男厕所"这个创意更具争议性。首先,"女人进男厕所"的行为违反了世俗社会对妇女角色及行为的限定,此外"占领"一词更具挑 战性。这些因素在一定程度上使得该活动比"受伤的新娘"得到了更多的媒体报道和社会关注。当然在实际操作中,我们也避免与男性的对立:活动只是让男士等待 3分钟,等"借用"男厕的女士出来再进去使用。关于活动现场的建议将在后文详述。
参与行为艺术的确需要很多勇气,尤其是出镜接受采访,在媒体曝光后,会有来自各方的品评和压力。不同的社群所面对的压力也不尽相同,就本文的两个案例,妇 女群体主要是由于胆怯、怕出风头等社会性别原因而不愿在媒体上露面。但出镜本身是一种承担,这里要特别提到,在这几次行动中,来自女同性恋社群的几位志愿者都冲在了最前线,笔者对她们的勇气和贡献表示钦佩。
当然,不出镜的参与者也要克服不同程度的心理障碍。在没有社会运动基础的条件下,对有些人来说可能"上街"本身就是件大事,而这几次活动的参与者都表现得 非常勇敢积极。她(他)们大部分是青年人,很多都是首次参加这样的活动。笔者作为其中之一,如果说之前还有一些疑虑的话,经过这几次活动,的确克服了心理 障碍,并建立了行动的信心。
不论行为艺术的具体形式和内容如何,我们建议都要采取"快闪"的原则。在可能的干预者到来之前,抓紧时间、马上进行,切勿拖延。此时,总协调人的作用十分 重要。
此外,在筹备阶段就应当考虑到活动现场可能出现的阻挠。。。 活动的目的不是在现场坚持多久,有多少路人围观,而是重在现场做了活动。如果活动已经结 束,就马上撤离,不要等到有人来阻挠。
比较分析:行为艺术VS 传统倡导手法VS高风险倡导手法
随着时代进步,中国的公民社会也在重新孕育并逐步发展,众多有识之士通过各种方式为弱势群体发声,并试图影响掌握权力和资源的人或机构,从而改善某些游戏 规则和结构体制。这就是我们经常所说的"倡导" 。在国内,我们常见的主流倡导手法包括调研、政策建议、研讨会、立法提案以及内部咨商等等,本文将这些手 法称为"传统倡导手法"。在实践中还存在一些被认为不和谐的倡导方式,诸如上访、示威、对峙、游行等,本文将这些手法称为"高风险倡导手法"。以下将通过 表格的形式来比较行为艺术与这两种倡导手法在成本、效益及适用范围等维度的差异。
通过上表的分析,我们可以看到,行为艺术在成本方面占明显优势。在效益方面,行为艺术的主要作用在于通过媒体传播对公民社会赋权,一个明显的例子是乙肝斗士雷闯通过给政府主管部门送"鸭梨"(压力)、在为企业非法秘密查乙肝的医院门口"坐马桶"(呼吁"请不要将禁查乙肝规定当手纸")等行为艺术,使乙肝歧 视问题凸显出来,从而对主管部门及用人单位造成了舆论压力。
行为艺术还有利于营造政策实施的社会氛围。比如,我们在"占领男厕所"活动中发现,很多女性并不知道现在男女厕位的比例,以及这个比例与女厕所经常排队之 间的关系,而许多男性也不理解为什么现在1:1的男女厕位比例并不合理。如果没有"占领男厕所"活动向公众传递的理念,即使通过传统倡导的方式推动政府出台了一个更加合理的厕位比例,很多男性也可能会认为这是对他们的歧视和利益损害,女性也可能不理解为什么会有这样的规定,那么新政在执行中就会遇到阻力, 并且难有来自受益群体的监督。
尤须指出的是,近期几次行为艺术吸引了包括笔者在内的许多80后、90后青年人的积极参与,这不但因为行为艺术的形式新颖有趣,还在于我们没有前辈的历史 负担和思想禁区,因此更敢于表达对社会问题的批评。在我们成长的二三十年里,中国经历了前所未有的变革和社会分化,在给我们带来相对充裕的物质生活的同 时,也带给我们对个人际遇的迷茫和对社会问题的焦虑,以及最令人不安的对于改变现状、改造社会的无力感。但通过参与类似行为艺术这样的社会运动,我们青年人可以看到自身的行动所带来的社会影响力,从而将自己与改造社会的力量联系起来,在获得成就感的同时,也经历公民行动的启蒙。

Coordinator of the China office of Global Call Against Poverty (GCAP), an international NGO network, established with the aim of mobilizing public participation and fostering civil society in China in support of Millennium Development Goals implementation to end poverty and inequality. E-mail:

Translated by Matt Perrement

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