16.06.2016 / Jeroen de Kloet

European Research Council
ERC Consolidator Grant Research proposal (part B1)

From Made in China to Created in China
A Comparative Study of Creative Practice and Production in Contemporary China — China Creative 中国创意

Principal investigator: Prof. dr. Jeroen de Kloet
Institution: Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) University of Amsterdam
Grant agreement no.: 616882
Duration: 60 months

Section a: Extended Synopsis of the scientific proposal (max. 5 pages)
Research Objectives
What does creativity mean in the context of China, and what does it do? When both the state and profoundly globalised creative industries are so deeply implicated in the promotion of creativity, what are the possibilities of criticality, if any? Whereas creativity has been extensively researched in the fields of psychology, law and neurosciences, scholarship in the humanities has by and large side-tracked the thorny issue of creativity. Yet, the worldwide resurgence of the term under the banner of creative industries makes it all the more urgent to develop a theory of creativity. This project understands creativity as a textual, a social as well as a heritage practice.It aims to analyse claims of creativity in different cultural practices, and to analyse how emerging creativities in China are part of tactics of governmentality and disable or enable possibilities of criticality.

The theory of creativity, governmentality and criticality this project develops is, however, not only relevant for China and its soft power policies, but speaks to the humanities in general, where creativity has remained undertheorized. This theory holds not only the potential to understand what different creativities do to us and our sense of being, but also how they are mobilised as tactics of governmentality and allow for different levels of criticality. The case of China is particularly important since academic knowledge on creativity is haunted by a strong American and European bias.

Using a comparative, multi-disciplinary, multi-method and multi-sited research design, five subprojects analyse (1) contemporary art, (2) calligraphy, (3) independent documentary cinema (all in Beijing), (4) television from Hunan Satellite TV (in Changsha) and (5) “fake” (shanzhai) art (in Shenzhen). By including both popular and high arts, by including both more Westernized as well as more specifically Chinese art forms, by including both the “real” as well as the “fake,” by studying different localities, and by mobilising methods from both the social sciences and the humanities, this project is pushing the notion of comparative research to a new level. This allows us to unravel the contradictory claims of creativity in different creative practices and settings, and analyse how they are driven by specific tactics of governmentality, enabling specific modes of criticality. The leading research questions of this project are:
RQ1: What are the emerging and contradictory claims of creativity in different cultural practices and among different actors in China?
RQ2: How are contemporary creative practices and productions entangled with tactics of governmentality?
RQ3: What are the critical possibilities and impossibilities of contemporary creative practices and productions in China?

The types of creativity are chosen for their local, regional and global importance and visibility, and PI’s familiarity with them. The project deliberately includes both popular and high arts, forms with a stronger Chinese and stronger Western history, as well as original and fake art. While the subprojects enable close analysis of a specific creative sector, the project as a whole allows for thoroughly comparing these creativities. This is made possible by mobilising a similar set of research methods, and by consistently zooming in on the questions of creativity, governmentality, and criticality.

The choice of locality is based on PI’s expertise and the position each locality holds in creative production in China. It includes a first-tier city (Beijing), a newly-developed city (Shenzhen) as well as a second-tier city (Changsha). This multi-sited approach allows us to engage with regional flows of culture, thus refusing to take the nation-state as its sole unit of analysis.

This project is groundbreaking in both empirical and theoretical aspects and will impact on policymaking by directly involving policymakers in its research design. Its six points of innovation are:

First, this project will not just analyse what creativity, governmentality and criticality mean in China, but also, what China means for creativity, governmentality and criticality. It positions creativity at the centre of humanities research, probing into a variety of creative practices with their specific textual practices, social practices and heritage practices. It thus moves from creativity to creativities, insisting on its multiplicity.
Second, it moves beyond the Euro-US-centric approach that characterises research on creativity. It resists a state-centric approach through studying five different creativities at three different localities.
Third, in engaging with different creativities, it moves beyond the high versus low distinction that dominates research on art and popular culture, the inclusion of fake art allows for a unique take on the creative possibilities of mimicry and fakery.
Fourth, it is thoroughly comparative in terms of theory, methods, research sites, creativities, and the different dimensions within each creative sector. This allows us to critically scrutinise different claims on creativity, between different creativities, localities, histories, and actors (see table 2).
Fifth, its multidisciplinary approach draws on a cutting edge combination of qualitative research methods consisting of a multi-sited ethnography, mobile methods, cultural mapping, collaborative research and aesthetic and discourse analysis.
Sixth, in its focus on the possibilities to be critical, this project engages with creativity and politics in an authoritarian system, as well as with the question how to be critical at the current geopolitical conjuncture.

State of the Art: Towards a framework for studying creativity, governmentality and criticality
This project takes the notion of creativity as its starting point. Its prominent role in policy-driven discourses of soft power and the creative industries urge us to connect creativity to the related twin concepts of governmentality and criticality (see table 1).

Table 1: Conceptual dimensions
Concept 1. Creativity 2. Governmentality 3. Criticality
Dimension 1 1.1 As textual practice 2.1 As discursive tactic 3.1 At constative level
Dimension 2 1.2 As social practice 2.2 As spatial tactic 3.2 At performative level
Dimension 3 1.3 As heritage practice 2.3 As pedagogical tactic 3.3 At affective level

Creativity studies is predominantly inspired by psychology, management studies, and neurobiology. In these fields, creativity is defined in terms of human inventiveness and the stress lies on the production of novelty. In legal debates, creativity is linked to the global copyright regime. In the humanities, surprisingly little has been written on the notion of creativity; in general, attention shifts to the related concept of aesthetics, moving from the individual to the cultural object. Given the current popularity of the notion of creativity, in particular in the creative industries discourse, it becomes all the more urgent to theorise on creativity.

Apart from a bias towards the individual, the cognitive, and the juridical, creativity research also shows a strong focus on the West. This project probes into the emerging and contradictory claims of creativity in different cultural practices in China, and subsequently questions how this will inform, challenge and change a more universal notion of creativity that stresses individual talent, novelty and originality. The Chinese term for creativity, 创意 (chuangyi) literally means “create new meanings,” it could also be understood as “create new ideas” or even “create new (discursive) worlds.” The common argument being mobilized is that traditional Chinese thinking cherishes the virtues of mimesis, discipline, harmony, restraint, conformity, succession and a host of other keywords that do not correspond to, if not actually hinder, creativity as it is understood nowadays. Whether or not the term is foreign to Chinese culture is of less importance for this project than to analyse how the term and its claimed histories function in tandem with what are perceived to be Chinese discourses that stress mimesis, how they frame creative practices and production, and how claims of creativity may be different for different creative fields.

Rather than uncovering an alleged, intrinsic Chineseness in the creativities under study, this project approaches creativity from three different angles:

First, creativity is considered a textual practice. This dimension points at the aesthetics of creativity, an aesthetics that includes not only the visual but also the auditory and other senses. There is, however, a danger to focus solely on the object and its aesthetics, as this may deny the context in which the object was created, as well as the context in which it is put on display, or hidden from the public, or in which it circulates locally, regionally or globally. The second dimension of creativity in this project concerns therefore the social practices, or networks, that make creativity work, or not. Creative production is a profoundly collective enterprise in which numerous actors (see table 2) are involved. This dimension helps us go beyond the individualizing discourses on creativity common in psychology studies. A third dimension reads creativity as heritage practice. With this we mean that all creative expressions are necessarily informed by the past, a past that can be (a mixture of) local, regional, or global. This project is not giving a historical analysis of the creativities under study, which would not be feasible; nor does that correspond to my expertise. By reading contemporary creative production as a negotiation of cultural heritage, this project will delve into the aesthetics through which this heritage returns in the contemporary, as well as into the claims on the history of creativity made by the actors involved.

Governmentality is a term that, according to Foucault, mediates between power and subjectivity, and that allows scrutiny of the close relationship between techniques of power, forms of knowledge and processes of subjectivation. Governing is concerned less with coercion or force, and more with enabling individuals to cultivate the capacities to govern. Instead of a single body like the state, it is a whole variety of authorities that manage the conduct of citizens in different sites.

Since the 1980s, governmentality studies has increasingly shifted attention to the role of capital, the market and neoliberalism. It also increasingly moves beyond the nation-state by posing questions about global governmentality. Finally, the role of media, art and culture has become increasingly recognised, as they allow for modes of conduct of individuals and population.

How suited is a governmental analysis for China? The term governance, 治理 (zhili), only emerged in the 1990s in China. This can be read as part of a complex reimagining of local, national and global space that started in the 1990s in China, forcing the government to reposition itself. This repositioning does not involve a retreat, but indeed an alignment to other actors, most prominently commercial ones. In its promotion through the discourse and policy of the creative industries, creativity has become deeply entangled with governmentality, hence our insistence to think both concepts together (with criticality innately dovetailing to governmentality).

First, we will probe into the emergence of the global discourse of the creative industries over the past decade, and its mutations and translations towards a Chinese context, and see this in terms of tactics of governmentality. Second, the art of government also involves the management of space. The promotion of creative districts like art district 798 in Beijing, and of creative hotspots like performance venues, movie theatres etc., all produce a creative map of the city and manage the movement and position of subjectivities. Intertwining with spatial management, the circulation of ideas, people, and things is fundamental. Third, and finally, the education system is one important domain to promote and ban certain articulations of creativity, and to offer strategies through which creative subjects are conducted or constructed.

How to be critical in a time of global capitalism and neo-liberalism, particularly in an authoritarian context? This project will explore the answers as presented by Chinese artists, documentary makers and television 3 producers. Is there any space left for a critical aesthetics, for creativities that may challenge soft power policies, that interrupt the choir celebrating the rise of a creative China? In line with our thinking on governmentality, we consider criticality to take place within the system, as operating within the fine grammar of a highly politicized system.

Why criticality instead of resistance? We choose this term as to steer away from reading critique solely in terms of resistance towards the political system. In our view, criticality has a broader implication and application, possibly directed towards a multiplicity of power: politics, workings of the global art world, the arrangement of social life, and so forth. As such, it corresponds closely to our use of governmentality theory. It also allows for more complexity and ambiguity, refusing to fix creativity into a schematic binary opposition towards a monolithic system – a binary that would contradict our theorizations.

We distinguish three different aesthetic dimensions, which serve as heuristic devices in the analysis, rather than a rigid framework. The first level concerns the constative level. For speech, this refers to what is stated, to the actual contents, to its literal meaning. For other creative forms, we like to broaden this by referring to what we actually see and hear, by what is made visible and audible. The second level, the performative dimension, refers to what these statements (or images, or sounds) do. It points at the performative aspect of creativity, but still on the plane of meaning, representation and signification. Creativity does more. We therefore add a third dimension, that of the affective level. The key is not to ask “what is creativity” but rather, “what is creativity doing to us?” What are their affective implications? Affect theory helps us move away from meaning, from representation, towards the plane of becoming, rather than being, a becoming that, we contend, holds the promise of social and political change.

The subprojects
1. Contemporary art: Ranging from the political art of Ai Weiwei to the more light-hearted critique on Chinese consumer culture by Cao Fei and the bodily mutilations of Yang Zhizhao, the sheer diversity of contemporary art makes it impossible to speak of the Chinese art world. But the predominance of realism, the engagement with large ideological themes and its multiple negotiations with Chineseness makes it markedly different from “Western” contemporary art. How is art appropriated by the state-capital nexus? What spatial arrangements regulate the art districts? What censorship practices curtail (or promote) art today? And how are art students taught to be creative? Art’s criticalities can be textual as well be contextual, they can be very explicit but also located in everyday life. The global art world’s demand to be critical also operates as a straightjacket for Chinese art.

2. Calligraphy: Calligraphy permeates public and private space in China. In this project we will zoom in on, first, the “traditional” calligraphy, in which craftsmanship and heritage play a key role; second, contemporary artists who engage with calligraphy in their work; third, graffiti and street calligraphy. It is hard to overstate the close affiliation between politics and calligraphy in China; through calligraphy, leaders showed their cultured background, justifying their mandate to rule. How does power speak today through calligraphy? How is Chinese personhood constructed by calligraphy’s stress on restraint and discipline? Calligraphy holds on many levels the potential for critique. Graffiti as a form of public petitioning is used to protest destruction of neighbourhoods. Calligraphy (and its teaching), with its more traditional validation of mimicry and imitation, may also hold the power to negotiate creativities’ validation of innovation.

3. Independent Documentary Cinema: In the past two decades, China has witnessed the flowering of the New Documentary Movement. Its aesthetics of realism, often contradicted by a mixture with fiction, and its insistence on being on the scene, sets it apart from official Chinese cinema. In particular, digital technologies have further propelled the growth and circulation of independent documentary in China. We probe into the intricate ways in which these makers negotiate the governmentality tactics of both the state and the global film world, in particular that of film and documentary festivals. We will analyse how the Chinese Documentary Movement negotiates the alleged rise of China. It does so often by presenting its flip side. What forms of critique are articulated by the makers, and what do these critiques do affectively?

4. Hunan Satellite Television: It is often regional television that proves to be most daring in experimenting in China. The best example is Hunan Satellite Television, which has a nation-wide audience thanks to satellite technology. In particular reality shows like Super Girl and drama series like Meteor Garden have attracted massive audiences. In September 2011, the state imposed a ban on Super Girl. However, over the years, Hunan television has proven itself to be skilful in inventing new shows that circumvent such bans. Paradoxically, Hunan TV is also promoted as a model for creative industries by the same authorities. We analyse how commercial, regional TV works in tandem with central authorities but also face censorship. And how TV presents desired or aspirational modes of living, enabling specific subjectivities. How do drama and reality TV challenge dominant cultural values and what communities of affect may emerge?

5. Shanzhai art Originally referring to a bandit stronghold outside government control, the term 山寨 4 (shanzhai) now stands for the culture of fake products that are primarily produced in Shenzhen, in Southern China. In the Dafen art village, home to over 8000 artists, clients from all over the world order a van Gogh replica or a painting that coordinates with the client’s home interior colours. How is the discourse of creativity translated to support or contest the shanzhai practices that characterise art production in Dafen? And how does the spatial arrangement of Dafen – its alleys, its art shopping malls, its recently government- built museum – impact on its users and their creative practices? A theory of the fake, that this subproject will develop, holds the potentials to decentre the bias on individual talent that underpins creativity discourse. In China, shanzhai has become a vernacular term, covering not only painting and goods, but also houses, cars, cities and even persons. How does this change our understanding of authenticity and creativity?

B. Methodology
Table 2: Project overview
Please view the table in a desktop.
Project Contemporary Art Calligraphy Documentary Cinema Television Shanzhai Art
Staff PhD 1 & PI PhD 2 & PI PhD 3 & PI PhD 4 & PI Postdoc & PI
Primary Location Beijing Beijing Beijing Changsha Shenzhen
Creative Objects Selection of art works Selection of calligraphy works Selection of documentaries One drama and one Reality TV series Selection of shanzhai art works
Documents Policy papers Curriculums Media reports Weibo posts Creative maps Policy papers Curriculums Media reports Weibo posts Creative maps Policy papers Curriculums Media reports Weibo posts Creative maps Policy papers Curriculums Media reports Weibo posts Creative maps Policy papers Media reports Weibo posts Creative maps
Actors Artists CAFA students CAFA teachers Policymakers Curators Gallery-owners Art collectors Artists CAFA students CAFA teachers Policymakers Curators Gallery-owners Art collectors Filmdirectors Scriptwriters BFA students BFA teachers Policymakers Producers Distributors Directors Scriptwriters TV students TV teachers Policymakers Producers Distributors Artists Policymakers Curators Gallery-owners Art collectors Distributors
Governmental department Ministry of Culture Ministry of Culture SARFT* SARFT* Shenzhen government
Partner Institute CAFA (Chinese Academy of Fine Arts) CAFA BFA (Beijing Film Academy) Hunan University, Radio, Film & TV College Hong Kong Baptist University
Methods Ethnography (interviews, participant observation)
Mobile methods (Follow the object, Weibo analysis)
Cultural mapping (Cognitive maps and creative city maps)
Collaborative processes (joint research and writing)
Aesthetic and discourse analysis
SARFT: the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television
Each subproject mobilises a similar set of methods to optimise comparability (numbers refer to table 1):
  1. Ethnography: involving participant observation and interviews with key actors (see table 2), this will generate data about creativity as a social practice (1.2) as well as a heritage practice (1.3) and the specific articulations of a creative industry discourse (2.1) and the creative pedagogies (2.3). We aim to select artists and other actors on the basis of an initial mapping and strive for samples as diverse as possible, in terms of style, reputation, age, and gender.
  2. Mobile methods: per project we will follow one object from the moment of its inception to its local, national, regional or global distribution, to grasp the circulation of Chinese creativities (1.2 & 2.2). We will follow, for example, the circulation of a shanzhai (“fake”) painting from Dafen art village to a hotel room in London. In addition, we will follow the Weibo (Chinese Twitter) account of a few key actors per creativity, gaining insight in how they operate in their fields (1.2 & 2.1).
  3. Cultural mapping: informants will be asked to draw their own creative maps of the city. This will generate data about the nodes where creativity is articulated, performed, debated and consumed. These data will be compared with the official creative maps as made by the respective city governments, allowing us to probe into the creative spatial organisation and its counter-imaginations. In addition, spatial analysis of creative zones and spaces (art fairs, galleries, film sets, etc.) will be conducted (2.2).
  4. Collaborative research processes: through joint fieldwork, organisation of an expert workshop in Beijing and international conference in Amsterdam, and joint authoring of research papers, the project is profoundly collaborative In other words, we translate our insistence on seeing creativity as a social practice back into the creativity of our own academic work.
  5. Aesthetic and discourse analysis: Aesthetic analysis consisting of detailed analysis of the objects, series, documentaries and images (aesthetic analysis includes visual, narrative and semiotic analysis) will generate data about creativity as textual practice (1.1) and as heritage practice (1.3) and about its critical potentials at a constative, performative and affective level (3.1-3). Discourse analysis of policy documents and of media reports will give insight in the articulation of the creative industry discourse (2.1), analysis of the curriculums gives insight in the creative pedagogies (2.3).

- Please note this is the short version of the proposal as submitted in 2013, please contact Jeroen de Kloet for further information.

Jeroen de Kloet

Principal investigator

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