2021 Fall Conference Student Report – Cao Fei Keynote Address

By Hantian Zhang

As the last keynote lecture in 2021 Humanities Research Center’s Fall Conference, Behind the Scenes: Cao Fei in conversation with Zairong Xiang adopted a unique form. In this lecture, Professor Zairong Xiang, who researches in art and literature, asked questions to renowned multimedia artist Cao Fei, which generated a conversation for audience to obtain inspiration. (Due to the requirements of epidemic prevention and control, Cao Fei spoke online.)

To open up the theme of the conference: The Future of Work and Labor, Professor Xiang first introduced the guest speaker — Cao Fei, whose works reflect on mental changes in the rapid development of modern China and consistently focus on the question of labor in them through film, video, photography, and other media.

In the beginning, the twenty-minute film, Whose Utopia (2006) directed by Cao Fei, was shown to the audience and set the stage for subsequent conversations. It focused on “world factories” of the Pearl River Delta area. There were three parts in this film: imagination of product, factory fairytale, and my future is not a dream. As a mixture of realism and surrealism, the film contained both realistic existence like running assembly line and illusory expression such as workers dancing in the background.

“Discussing the future requires looking back to the past.” When Professor Xiang asked for previous experience behind the scenes, Cao shared that it took her team six months to shoot the 20-minute documentary in the OSRAM factory, an agent for brands, in Foshan. She analyzed the interwoven environment of farmland, towns and highways around the factory that was beneficial for the development. With images of both inside and outside factory, she also introduced occupied but monotonous life of workers in the factory.

“What would workers do out of work?” Quoting the stories of French workers in the 19th century writing poems at night and multiple use of dances in Cao’s works, Professor Xiang raised the second question. Cao indicated her preference of dancing as an art form in artistic creation. When it comes to workers’ life, a series of surveys during the process of filming showed Cao’s team different personalities of workers. The workers’ interests in musical bands changed the filming crew’s fixed impression of the workers’ seemingly boring lives.

Similar to the description in Terracotta Warriors on the Assembly Line, by poet Lizhi Xu, the documentary 11.11 (2018) also records the overloaded work of JD company. The transformation from manufacturing to logistics system in modern China was captured in Cao’s films. But for the film Whose Utopia (2006), whether the assumption of utopia was achieved for contemporary society was another question. Cao claimed that labor was a permanent topic and the concept of utopia had lots of tracks, including workers, the public and us. Additionally, she provided an example of the girl dancing in her film, who became an entrepreneur in Zhuhai after several years. This story indicated that people could change the destiny and achieve “The Chinese Dream” via each person’s own efforts – this concept attained utopia to some degree.

What would the future of labor be? To this question, Cao provided her own answer. Since unmanned technology was widely used in places such as warehouses, supermarkets and airports, it would be applied to all realms.

Non-labor would lead to a welfare society that is maintained by high taxes on big corporations. In this case, people under this kind of welfare would pay less effort to contribute to the development of society. Aside from that, physical labor could transform into imaginary labor that could be a form of performance in digital platforms like Tiktok. Realization of the meta-universe, a virtual world where social interactions can still be attained, would create more digital workers while causing space exhaustion in the real world. According to Cao Fei, distinct from prophets, artists may focus artistic creation instead of pragmatic practice. It is exciting that there are so many stories, secrets and adventures for us to explore in the art realm.