Rhizome Forum: Culture and Arts NGOs Exchange Ideas

China Development Brief, No. 51 (Fall 2011)

中文 English

In countries like the U.S., culture and arts non-profits are commonplace and often very influential.  In China’s limited civil society, there are a number of independent artists, writers and musicians, but few independent organizations devoted to the culture and arts.  This forum was organized to discuss culture and arts programming in the public interest sector.  How should that discussion be organized, how can the culture and arts inspire public interest projects, what should such projects involve, and how should they be evaluated?  The term “public interest” is used throughout this article to refer more generally to activities carried out by social organizations  or individuals devoted to social interests.

In recent years, as the preservation and transmission of culture have become issues of growing social concern, innovative public interest arts programs have attracted the participation of dedicated individuals from a variety of related fields such as education and the arts. Due to the abstract and often vaguely defined nature of “culture” work, as well as the diverse backgrounds of those working in this field, however, public interest organizations in the culture and arts field seem to face more complex challenges than other public interest fields. Project design, team management, organizational operation, institutional development, and the application of an artistic perspective to public interest work all require more careful consideration and practice.

In consideration of the particular needs of public interest arts and culture programs, the Long March Project organized the “Rhizome Forum” program. The program was held in Beijing from July 8-10, 2011, and nearly 20 NGOs participated. These included true “folk” organizations such as the Folk Culture Collector’s Work Group, academic projects such as the Sichuan Normal University Tibetan Cultural Preservation Project, and a variety of NGOs working on diverse topics such as migrant labor (Migrant Worker’s Home), arts education for children from marginalized areas (Dandelion Action), youth development (Tufeng Jihua), minorities (Miao Hui), and the environment (Kexue Songshuhui and Green Beagle Environmental Center), as well as the acclaimed documentary exhibition Yunfest.

The organizers hoped to provide Chinese public interest culture and arts programs with an opportunity for in-depth exchanges, in order to consider how to apply innovative culture and arts models to societal practice, and to cooperatively seek solutions to the problems that accompany development.

Setting up a Platform: How to Carry Out a “Meta-Program”

According to the organizers of the forum, their aim was to figure out the most effective means to foster exchange among public interest culture and arts programs.

Indeed, as project organizer Song Yi explained at the forum, as China’s first collective meeting of public interest culture and arts programs, the Rhizome Forum is a program about programs, or a “meta-program.” How should this meta-program be carried out?  How should cultural exchange be carried out? There were few precedents to follow.

The Rhizome Forum project was arranged in five stages – preparation, research and design, organization, forum operation, and publication. Beginning in September of 2010, the project was expected to span thirteen months. The program leaders hoped to use interviews, research and study to design a communication methodology for the forum, borrowing from methods used in similar fields.

To this end, beginning last year, program leaders conducted thorough interviews of over 20 public interest arts and culture organizations and individuals funded by the Ford Foundation. These organizations ranged from Jilin’s Dandelion Action in the northeast to Yunfest and Tufeng Jihua in the southwest.  The program’s name, the “Long March Project,” is itself a metaphor, referencing the Rhizome Forum’s long journey to seek out public interest culture and arts organizations from all over the country.

Through preliminary research and interviews, the Rhizome Forum project organizers were able to attain a thorough understanding of each projects’ institutions and individuals, as well as the challenges faced and strategies adopted during their extensive experience in arts and education work. In the process, these initial findings inspired adjustments in the design of the forum’s structure and the discussion topics, as well as in methods of communication.

Furthermore, in the early stages of the project, the Rhizome Forum also prepared a traveling exhibition from May to June of 2011. The exhibition consisted of readings, study materials, books, and CDs gathered at the recommendation of participating programs. This created a mobile, constantly changing “publicity medium” for the organizations that also served to compile and transmit knowledge.

Viewed in this light, the Rhizome Forum can be seen as a primarily “preparatory” project. According to project team member Ding Jie, significantly more emphasis was placed on preparation than on the three-day forum itself. In her opinion, the early stages of visits and research not only benefitted members of the Rhizome Forum team, but also enabled greater networking among Chinese public interest culture and arts programs. The relationships developed during these stages may, in fact, have most effectively addressed the program’s objective of establishing a networking platform.

Setting the Stage for Arguments: Exchange and Insight During the Forum

The project description of the Rhizome Forum, reads: “How do we use the methods and philosophies behind a creation of a work of art to inspire public interest arts and culture projects? How do we break the mold of older social programs and establish new standards? How do we give public interest cultural and arts programs the opportunity to communicate and exchange?” These thoughts were clearly present throughout the entirety of the Rhizome Forum.

On the afternoon of July 9, an introduction at the Multimedia Institute of the China Academy of Art led to the forum’s first discussion.

At the event, two representatives from the China Academy of Art introduced a number of recent works of art created by the Multimedia Institute. Some of the works were artistically innovative, while others explored the daily lives of ordinary people in order to promote greater social impact. For example, the “Poverty Design Museum” exhibits randomly created designs and actions used by low-income people to meet their daily needs.

Unfortunately, the artistic and conceptual features and devices of the China Academy of Art often conflicted with the practical needs of NGOs. Caiwang Naoru of the Tibetan Culture Network expressed doubts concerning their “Tibetan Investigation Exhibit,” and wished that the Academy had produced some data. At the same time, some other NGO representatives seemed confused as to what the art was intended to express.

The controversy and confusion raised in this clash between contemporary artists and NGO pragmatists seems to echo two of the questions raised earlier: “How do we use the methods and philosophies behind a creation of a work of art to inspire public interest arts and culture projects? How do we break the mold of older social programs and establish new standards?”

As an organizer of this forum and head of the Long March Project, Lu Jie felt that  this controversy and confusion is precisely why there should be interaction between the art world, the academic world, and the public interest sector. “This forum has something very special,” Jie said. “We’ve invited a ‘giant,’ the China Academy of Art, and we are regarding it as a NGO to be part of the Rhizome Forum.” In his opinion, these fields have more in common than they might expect: NGOs’ cultural programs rely heavily on the methods and materials of the contemporary art world, while some contemporary art projects have public interest attributes. He hoped, therefore, that all participants would be able to use this opportunity to reconsider their previous methods.

Having included both contemporary art and NGOs in their program, the Rhizome Forum sought to center their discussions on the evaluation criteria for public interest culture and arts programming. According to Lu Jie, “We have always used efficiency, practicality, number of beneficiaries, and program reach as our standards for evaluation. This is an effective method, and very often an accurate one. But, we need to be careful, as there are some special projects that fall outside of this rubric. Like contemporary art, they quickly stir up excitement and energy. Their effectiveness is difficult to test in the short term, but their influence may spread to affect and influence other projects.”

When it comes to the protection and transmission of cultural heritage, Xie Lifang of Dandelion Action and  Liu Lijun of Miao Hui expressed similar views. When faced with doubts about Miao Hui handicraft being taken out of its cultural context and sold for its decorative value, Liu Lijun said: “I feel that in developing a project, different stages have varying short-term and long term goals. Our embroidery, for example, is something we are experimenting with. It would be better for it to last a few more years, rather than to end quickly. Perhaps if we wait for awareness to grow, then we will find a way to continue.”

Indeed, because the concepts and theory behind the culture and arts are often stronger than their concrete substance, workers in public interest culture and arts programs must search for something substantial to which they can adhere, by constantly looking to standards and methods utilized by other programs. Perhaps some of the discussions at the Rhizome Forum might help to break through some of the current fixed standards, and to gain an understanding of the conceptual arts’ ability to address social problems. By realizing the strength of these concepts in social development, we can move away from a focus on resolving concrete issues as a starting point, and use cultural methods such as education and debate to form a relationship between contemporary culture and the arts, and China’s society and history.

中国发展简报2011秋季刊 (3283/3000)
基于文化艺术公益项目发展的需求,“长征计划”发起了“根茎论坛”项目。2011年7月8日至10日,“根茎论坛”的主论坛在北京呈现,近20个NGO组织 参加论坛。他们既有纯民间的、致力于本土民间文化研究的“拾穗者民间文化工作群”,也有来自学界的、研究与恢复丹巴县嘉绒藏族传统民俗的四川师范大学藏族文化保护项目;既有服务于工人群体的“工友之家”,也有推动边远地区儿童美术教育公平的“蒲公英行动”;既有以通过培养当地青少年作为传承文化手段的“土风计划”,也有通过引入市场化、商业手段提高少数民族手工艺者生存状况的“苗荟”;还有从科技知识层面切入的科学松鼠会、达尔问自然求知社以及国内著名的纪录片影像展“云之南”等。
的 确,如同项目执行者宋轶在论坛上所说,根茎论坛作为中国首个文化艺术类公益机构/项目的聚会,它是项目中的项目。关于项目中的项目怎么样开展?文化的交流应该怎样去做?都没有可资借鉴的经验。因此,根茎论坛项目被设计为前期准备、调研与设计、筹备、论坛呈现与后期出版5个阶段。从项目开始时的2010年9 月到结束,预计跨度为13个月。项目执行者们希望以走访、调研、学习为基础,为论坛的呈现设定出相对合理的沟通方式,并总结出类似工作的方法论。
于是,从去年开始,他们深入走访了福特基金会所资助的20多个文化艺术公益机构或个人. 这些机构有位于东北吉林的“蒲公英行动”的项目点,也有西南角的“云之南”、“土风计划”。如同根茎论坛主办方“长征计划”这个名字所附带的隐喻,根茎论坛似乎也做了一次小长征,探访遍及各地的文化艺术类公益项目。
除此而外,在项目的前期阶段,根茎论坛还安排共同阅读学习资料的活动,并于2011年5~6月以滚雪球的方式在全国各省多个项目点进行资料巡回展,将各个机 构、个人推荐的书籍和影音资料,或是人文社科的,或是自然科学的,或是纸本文稿,或是CD放入资料巡回箱,形成一个能够代表各个项目精神的微型资料展示空 间,一个移动的、不断添加和不断被各个文化艺术类公益项目塑造的“传播媒介”。同时,在某种程度上也做了知识的整理和传递。
从 这个角度来说,“根茎论坛”是一种“前介入”的项目。项目执行者丁洁说,相比仅仅三天的主论坛呈现而言,她更看重,也更费工夫在这些前期的准备工作上。在她看来,通过前期的走访、调研,不仅根茎论坛团队的成员收获丰富,而且也将曾经散落在全国各地的文化艺术类公益者们串联了起来,他们互相之间有了直接的联 系,成为了朋友。这或许更能体现根茎论坛试图搭建一个交流平台的目标和意义。
作为本次论坛主办方“长征计划”的负责人,卢杰认为这种争论和困惑正是自己为什么要将艺术界、学术界与公益界人士聚集在一起的原因。他说:“我们这次有个非常有意思的事情,就是请来了‘庞然大物’中国美术学院,并且也将其视为一个NGO的项目,根茎论坛的一个环节。”他认为,NGO中的文化项目,在很大程度 上都运用了当代艺术的材料和方法,同时当代艺术一些关注现实的项目,也蕴含着社会公益的属性,两者是跨界的。其实,当代艺术目前的困境和NGO的困境是在 一个层面上,工作也是在一个层面上。因而,希望所有参与者都能够先颠覆自己的固定思维。
在 把当代艺术和NGO拉到同一个层面之后,论坛的话题延伸到文化艺术类公益项目的评价标准上。卢杰说,我们一直用有效性、实用性、覆盖的受益人群、去过多少省份等作为一种衡量标准。这是一种有效的做法,而且在相当多的时候是正确的。但是我们需要警惕,有一些特殊的项目,比较像当代艺术,是一种激发,是起一种兴,在短期内其有效性不能被检验,但它会逐渐地蔓延,对其他的项目起作用。
在 文化的保护和传承上,“蒲公英计划”的谢丽芳和“苗荟”的刘立军也表达了和丁洁类似的观点。针对有人质疑“苗荟”的手工艺产品抽离了原有的文化意义,而采用商业化的手段,强调其装饰性,刘立军回答道:“我觉得一个事情的发展不同阶段有短期和长期的目标。我们重点是做刺绣,都是在摸索。与其死的快,还不如多活几年,等国家醒悟了,可能就有办法了。”
的确,由于文化和艺术的概念性强于实体存在这个特性,文化艺术类公益工作者们在实践中需要不断寻找附着的实体,并常常延循其他项目的评判标准和推进方式做项目。借由根茎论坛的这些讨论,其实可以突破一些固有的认知标准,从文化艺术的象征性方面理解其对社会的干预能力,意识到这个象征意义对社会所能释放的巨大 能量,跳出以解决具体问题为出发点的思维惯性,用文化的方法——教育、辩论等,真正地使文化艺术现状和当前中国社会的基础、历史经验相关联。

Li Simin is CDB Contributing Writer

Translated by Emily Boitel

Reviewed by Glen Meyerowitz

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