Rhizome Forum: Culture and Arts NGOs Exchange Ideas

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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.

In Brief

CDB Contributing Writer, Li Simin, provides a glimpse into an underdeveloped field in China’s NGO sector: expressive activity through culture and arts.  The term “rhizome” here is used to describe creative activity that is unconstrained by accepted patterns and disciplinary boundaries
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