“Be Water, My Friend”: Non-Oppositional Criticalities of Socially engaged art in Urbanising China

“Be Water, My Friend”: Non-Oppositional Criticalities of Socially engaged art in Urbanising China
Liwen Deng


This study attends to different forms of socially engaged artistic and cultural practices in China. These practices address a range of social issues in Chinese cities, including the progressive diminishment of spaces available for civil engagement, unequal treatment of migrant workers, and denigration of urban villages. Through anthropological fieldwork and critical analysis, I explore how socially engaged art offers critical approaches to these problematics in the context of the contemporary Chinese regime. In particular, I stress how arts practices in China have developed forms of criticality that avoid explicitly opposing the political authorities.
I start from two basic premises. First, discourses of critique (including forms of critique articulated in art) overemphasise oppositionality. Instead, we need to pay more attention to contextualised forms of artistic criticality, which demonstrate different potentialities latent in China’s authoritarian capitalist state. That is not to deny the necessity of confrontation and opposition in activist art. Still, I mean to move beyond “againstness” as a paradigm through which to assess criticality in art, along with the dichotomy of autonomy versus heteronomy, and aesthetic versus social impact (Felski 2015, 17). Second, I disagree with the general view that if it is to be critical, Chinese art must stand against the state and other sites of authority. This easily identifiable oppositional form of critique, which is certainly present in Chinese art and activism, should not overshadow other, less conspicuous critical practices. These practices create spaces for civic action and engagement, as well as alternative ways of life that are not provided by the regime
In conceptualising criticality, I draw on a range of critical and cultural theories: Derrida’s non- hierarchical deconstructive recasting of critique (1978, 81); Rogoff’s argument that criticality operates from an uncertain ground of actual embeddedness (2003); Haraway’s adaptation of Trinh’s (1989) concept of the “inappropriate/d other” (1992, 299); and Povinelli’s notion of “otherwise” (2014). Drawing on fieldwork that I conducted in China in 2015 and 2016, which I updated in 2018, I analyse six very different projects. I show how four forms of non-oppositional criticality emerge from these projects, explaining how they are entangled with both one another and socially engaged art practices. My terms for these four forms of criticality (and the corresponding artistic practices) are these: one, “reconfigurative criticality” in cooperative art, spatial interventions, and urban roaming regarding civic public spaces in Guangzhou; two, “connective criticality” in cultural engagements with people locally in Shanghai and translocally in Asia; three, “uneasy criticality” in documentary theatre about rural
workers in Beijing who suffer from inequalities; and four, “quotidian criticality” in artistic interventions in “undesirable” urban villages in Beijing.
I argue that critical art can go beyond oppositional critique by being “a bit off”. By this, I mean that it can partially eschew the system—but not by entirely escaping or turning against it. Rather, these forms of criticality work by smuggling something external into the system (or something internal out of it); becoming “inappropriate/d”, embodying an alternative way of life; or working towards the otherwise in the future. Although oppositional and confrontational actions may be necessary in pursuing radical social and political change, non-oppositional critical art can make space for civic engagement and alternative social relations at a time when the Chinese authorities are tightening their control over civic space and civil society.
Chapter 2 focuses on reconfigurative criticality in socially engaged art projects that were concerned to turn open urban spaces into public spaces. Against the backdrop of an increasingly surveilled and controlled city, these projects founded spaces that lay partially outside of the system. These projects are Sunset Haircut Booth (2016-ongoing) and the first edition of Theatre 44 (2016- 2017) in Guangzhou. In discussing Sunset Haircut Booth, I show how the artist cooperated with citizens on the ground so as to turn an open space in an urban village into a free haircut booth. This booth served as what I term a “third space/public space”, in which people in the neighbourhood could negotiate with the authorities, connect with each other, and develop initiatives meant to address their collective concerns. This was made possible by the fact that the artist learned from local people. Through both artistic and social means, he maintained and diversified the functions of this public space. In my analysis of performances by Theatre 44, I explore how nocturnal roaming, spatial interventions, and poetry recitals created what I, following Deleuze and Guattari, call “lines of flight” in the city. Travelling through the city at night, a group of performers reconfigured spaces that were planned for traffic such that they became fluid temporary playgrounds. The practitioners enjoyed the momentary freedom of fleeing from control, using the spaces as a stage for performances and civic congregations. By performing a politically significant poetic drama in a pedestrian space near the Peasant Movement Training Institute, the group created an affective public space. In this way, they made it possible for members of the public not only to encounter alternative political narratives and forms of art, but to join in as co-creators of the public space too.
Chapter 3 attends to connective criticality in socially engaged cultural practices. The Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society (DMAS), a space organised by young creative practitioners in a suburb of Shanghai, that connected people at both local and international levels. In this way, the DMAS explored alternative ways of learning and living together that were either not provided or encouraged by existing social systems. Under circumstances of diminished freedom of assembly and association

in China, the DMAS undertook three key initiatives. One, in providing a mutually nurturing after-school care service for children in the neighbourhood, it displayed what I term “zai-di connectivity”—a way of connection, that is, that is grounded and local, but not localist. Two, through street vending that it provided aesthetic experiences to local kai-fongs (residents of the neighbourhood and the supportive network among them). In this way, the DMAS created a temporary alliance among kai-fongs and art students in facing down attempts to break up its activities. Three, through its practices of Dinghai Chuan (chuan means connecting or associating) and public talks, articulated a rhizomatic connectivity. Indeed, these practices connected artists, activists, and citizens across Asia so as to find alternative ways of living and learning that exceed the hegemony of capital-nation-state, if only partially.
Chapter 4 explores uneasy criticality in documentary theatre. Specifically, it attends to Home (2016), the final performance put on by students as part of a course at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. The play addressed the issue of migrant workers, which has become more and more sensitive in China. The students and teacher found the process of devising Home, which took a year, uneasy. It also gave rise to forms of criticality. In the preparing this piece of theatre, the students interviewed migrant workers. They came to the uneasy realisation that they were separated from their interviewees by class difference. Indeed, the migrant workers can be read as subalterns, many of whom refused to speak and to be represented onstage. This led the students to change their approach to the production. Whereas initially they set out to represent migrant workers’ stories, ultimately they re-presented their encounters with the migrant workers. What is more, they adopted a narrative framework based on H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895). This served to emphasise the class segregation without stepping on the red line of censorship. As the devising process went on, the students and teacher/director became increasingly unsettled by social and economic inequality at stake in the performance. A group of students expressed “unproductive” critical doubts concerning the project, questioning not just their teacher’s theoretical perspective, but art’s capacity for criticality in an institutional context. The final performance profoundly affected the audience, trigging uneasy responses. Seeing the exploitation of migrant workers and the violence of class struggle, some held their breath and others sobbed. The audience became uneasy witnesses of migrant workers’ absence both on and off stage. Still more unsettlingly, they were held responsible for their complicity in social segregation as members of the urban elite. Perhaps they would be moved to reflect on inequality or even take action, such as treating migrant workers with greater respect and empathy.
Chapter 5 focuses on quotidian criticality in artistic interventions that responded to the issue of urban village. I attend to an art project named 5+1=6 (2014-2015), which investigated urban villages in Beijing. Whereas urban villages are often deemed dirty and chaotic, and therefore slated for

redevelopment, this project redistributed what can be seen and heard about urban villages. I look particularly at two subprojects, which manifested two forms of quotidian criticality. In Xiaojiahe East Village (2014-2015), Ma Lijiao played different characters on social media platforms and an abandoned construction site inhabited by migrant workers. In this way, he revealed the everyday precarity and struggles face by people living in urban villages. In Changxindian Notes (2015-ongoing), which focuses on the historical suburb of Beijing—Changxindian, the architectural duo Xiao Kong and Li Mo juxtaposed the site plans of historical buildings with images of the front elevations of small stores and food stands. In this way, they emphasised how quotidian spaces and practices have kept the old town alive. The two architects also designed a board game based on local histories and everyday knowledge in Changxindian. It was made available to the public in the Community Culture Centre in the suburb. People in the town participated in an unexpected way: rather than playing the game, they took away the cards bearing local knowledge. This can be seen as way of reclaiming quotidian knowledge, which cut against the grand narratives that the government has imposed in trying to redevelop Changxindian into a town orientated towards tourism, devoid of everyday vitality.


Liwen Deng

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities, Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis




East Asia


Urban / Rural
Art and Culture