Article first published in ArtsProfessional.
Debra King from Brighter Sound, and Sarah Perks from HOME, share their experiences of delivering and working internationally on EIGHT – a collaborative art project in the City of Wuhan in China.
By Debra King and Sarah Perks
We both got together to talk about our respective international projects and experience and realised that by collaborating we had a really strong idea – to pull two locations, a group of creative people and various art forms together. Instead of just showcasing work looking at a real collaboration. Around the same time, we heard Manchester City Council were looking for a creative way to support the signing of their sister cities agreement in Wuhan, and also the British Council were keen to mark the opening of the British Consulate in Wuhan. Our partnership and ideas for a project began to flow from there.
We embarked on a research trip to Wuhan and were fortunate to receive advice from the British Council, the British Consulate and UKTI about Wuhan’s key arts and cultural organisations. Through a process of meetings across the city we secured a strong partnership with K11 Art Foundation and VOX LIVEHOUSE.
It was a fascinating and highly motivating trip. Wuhan is a major city with a population of over ten million. Its GDP and rate of growth has increased at a remarkable rate along with its sister cities in China. It was extraordinary to see and feel the rate of growth and how that was impacting on people’s ways of life. China is an accessible and safe place and over the last decade or so has a contemporary international feel in its cities.
We returned enthusiastic to drive the next phase of the programme forward. Various Skype meetings followed and we soon evolved the idea of EIGHT – eight artists – four from Manchester, four from Wuhan collaborating over a period of eight days to create a piece of music and film for the signing of the Manchester-Wuhan sister agreement and to mark the opening of the British Consulate.
The four organisations all respectively chose two artists. In choosing the artists we were keen to identify people who were not only excellent and innovative within their disciplines of film and music, but who were also able to actively suspend their ego to enable a genuine collaborative process to take place. Instead of just showcasing work, the focus was on real creative collaboration.
After a period of planning, ourselves, our production team and the artists set out from Manchester to deliver and create EIGHT in Wuhan.
All of the people that we met were extremely friendly and welcoming – they were fantastic hosts to our party. Alongside the sister-cities programme, the British Consulate was profiling the Creative Britain brand – and it did feel as though both cities could genuinely benefit from the sister city agreement.
It was palpable how much China is opening up to new possibilities commercially and economically as well as across education and the arts. The concept of creativity and how to support young people and emerging companies to develop their creative thinking skills was a regular topic of conversation.
Our partners and the Wuhan artists were intrigued and excited about the collaborative process. We presented at a seminar at VOX’s Rock School and during the discussion that followed there was a sense that musically this process wasn’t embedded in their practice.
In particular it was interesting to note that many of the musicians were playing covers of songs and arrangements rather than original material. In addition, the concept of working across music genres was a novel idea to many of the Chinese musicians. Far more common was siloed music genre bands across Punk, Heavy Metal, Rock and Pop – attracting genre specific fans and segmented audiences.
Another observation was that cross genre – and cross art form – work is on the whole not part of the cultural ecology. This was seen as a possible barrier for Chinese bands in Wuhan to tour in Europe – and one that many bands we spoke to were really keen to explore.
We were fortunate enough during both trips to have translators with us at every meeting and during the collaboration process. Most of the students spoke pretty good English, which helped. However, our inability to speak Chinese did remain a barrier to some degree. We noticed that when the Nick Whittingham from the British Consulate spoke fluent Mandarin at the Press Launch people were really pleased. In terms of cultural relations, perhaps any long term collaboration with China should run alongside a course in Mandarin, mirroring the spirit of collaboration.
There are certain cultural barriers – or at least differences – that it was also very important to be aware of. For example, giving out your business card with two hands and then placing business cards that you had received in front of you at meetings is a vital part of business etiquette.
The other clear message was to be careful not to offend people about western preconceptions of China – for example by discussing its human rights record, or its censorship policies. Censorship in particular was an issue we all had to be aware of along with certain guidelines. As with all international work patience and diplomacy is essential too as well as being able to communicate artistically and creatively.
With only eight days to create the new piece of work, the time frame was extremely tight. People had to think on their feet and respond to many challenges – this was exciting but also involved holding your nerve. It was inspiring to see the drive, commitment and enthusiasm by everyone to ensure the partnership succeeded.
On the eighth day, there was a great turn out for the performance and exhibition opening. With new music and live visuals, there was a real buzz and many angles to draw everyone in. People were really excited by the beauty of the performance. There was also a real sense that it was an extraordinary feat that the artists had created this piece of work within an eight day period.
And in a world where everything is quite often over-produced, and ‘excellence’ is associated with perfection rather than the unknown, presenting a culmination to a project like EIGHT, as a live showcase, carries with it a palpable sense of risk and excellence in the same mix, with the ability to surprise everyone – and that’s truly exciting.
Debra King is Director of Brighter Sound and Sarah Perks is Artistic Director (Visual Art) at HOME. EIGHT continues in October with the artists from Wuhan visiting Manchester for the second phase of the project.