Carrying Out Public Advocacy Through Performance Art

  • Home
  • >
  • Analysis
  • >
  • Carrying Out Public Advocacy Through Performance Art

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.

In Brief

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.
Table of Contents