Thursday, June 04, 2009

“Interdisciplinarity”: A new mode of discourse and its relations/effects on film by Xiaoxia Zhuang

Xiaoxia Zhuang

June 4, 2009

Contemporary Art and New Media

"Interdisciplinarity": A new mode of discourse and its relations/
effects on film.

The concept of "interdisciplinarity" has seen precipitous growth and
potential in the past few years as a contemporary force that
inevitably comes from the whirlwind conglomeration of an ever-evolving
society. With the rise of technology, transportation, and
communication becoming more available to global consumers, the lines
bordering once-insular and self-contained fields (i.e. film, painting,
music, etc.) are quickly being blurred, and in some instances,
completely erased. This is globalization, plain and simple. And its
effects on the concept of "interdisciplinarity" has consequences that
are incredibly multi-faceted and since we are still undergoing the
ramifications of its development, the only thing that one can do is to
speculate as to its current (and future) effects on society.

However, this is to say that it does have an effect, and though it
would be impossible to have an objective, "outsider's" perspective
concerning this global phenomenon (since one lives within the
globalized world and theoretically, cannot step outside this
perspective to analyze it), one must critically think about this vital
juncture in contemporary society. One of the keystones of
"interdisciplinarity" is that within its specified model of fluidity
and malleability, the old guard is being replaced by the vanguard, and
this vanguard is leading the helm of experimenting with and changing
the definitions of what was staid and stale.

In terms of its relation to the contemporary Chinese artscape, the
concept of "interdisciplinarity" is key to understanding the forces
that are currently at work in key artistic and creative realms.
Artists who once primarily worked in painting are now exploring
different avenues of what can be considered "art", for example,
exploring the implications and impact of new media with video
installations, or utilizing (and perhaps, harnessing) the far-reaching
spans of the internet to garner buzz for impromptu warehouse
gatherings, etc. The term "artists" is in constant flux—not defined
as a point on a linear spectrum, but as an indefinable fuzz in a large
cloud of interacting forces—and with it, the idea of
"interdisciplinarity" takes hold, as the term seeks to change the
range of those who fit under the category of "artist". It seems that
as the term "interdisciplinarity" takes a stronger foothold on
society, cultural producers in the field of contemporary art expand to
include musicians, writers, technicians, and others who once might not
have been considered an aspect of contemporary art.

In addition, "interdisciplinarity" has inviolably altered the mode of
discourse concerning the way one talks about globalization and
contemporary art (both those two subjects by themselves, and also, how
they are inter-related). Previously, contemporary art was led by the
individual (the curator, the artist, et al.), but as both the mode of
production and the mode of consumption have changed in light of our
increasingly inter-connected world, discourse has moved to include a
much broader base, generates discussion on a more massive scale, and
moves the discussion from being solely defined in galleries and museums.

One arena in which "interdisciplinarity" has been slow to work its
effects into is cinema, as I believe that the lines between cinematic
"movies" and cinematic "art" has still not begun blurring (not just in
China, but in the world). There is a definite disjunction between
what I have just termed "cinematic 'movies'" versus what I believe to
be "cinematic 'art'" and that comes from several different avenues—
from its mode of production, authorship, audience, content, economic
potential, its (formal) cinematic structure, etc. There are certain
audience expectations when it comes to watching a movie and that is to
be entertained, to have the movie be an "escape" and to get enraptured
in the movie's diegesis. For those on the producing-end of movies,
the movie's economic potential is at stake and this guards much of the
discourse surrounding how film is discussed (and of course, I say this
almost exclusively from being breed from an American film-going
background, but years of being brought up in a household where Chinese
film was watched and academic background in the study of Chinese film
have helped me bridge out of a solely American point of view).
Merchandising tie-in's, domestic box-office gross, opening weekend
ticket sales—these terms guide much of the understanding that many
people have with movies. With cinematic "art" however, the
expectations (from both the producers and consumers) are drastically
different than they are for cinematic "movies". The modes of
production, the author(s) and audience base(s) are typically
different, and the viewing locations are on-the-whole, different.

Therefore, cinematic "art" already carries with it preconceived
stereotypes, which thankfully, "interdisciplinarity" and fusion of
fields have begun to dissolve and transcend. However, the question
now concerns why cinematic "art" has been unable (thus far) to evolve
to a level where it is not only economically sustainable, but
economically viable as well. For me, I think the aforementioned
preconceived notions concerning cinematic "art" (such as where its
exhibited and the specific types of consumers that it is geared
towards) hinder its widespread-ness (though of course, there is also
the question of whether or not the producers/consumers of cinematic
"art" want to encourage and promote these works for a widespread
audience). Rather than confining this fusion of film and art strictly
to the gallery setting, it is important to understand the place in
which a film is shown is a very key component of how one responds to

And of course in China, censorship plays a big factor in the film
industry. Films have to be submitted to the State Administration of
Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) and only once it passes with the
approval of SARFT can it be shown in Chinese theaters. Otherwise, it
becomes relegated to distribution through illegal DVDs. For the film
directors working within these confines, the whole process at times
annoying, but it has become a part of their creative and directorial
processes. For example, Shanghainese director Lou Ye who has directed
Suzhou River (2000) and the film that has gotten him banned from
making films in China for five years, Summer Palace (2006) has said
that he has slowly come to accept this process:

When the official document was handed down to me, stating that I was
not permitted to make films for three years [after Suzhou River],
therefore, I didn't feel shocked at all. Why? First, it was nothing
new to me. My first film was banned for two years...Ten years ago, I
did not have such an understanding. I was angry and irritated [about
my first film being banned]. Now I am able to remain calm." (Sun and
Li, 74)

Though directors like Lou Ye have slowly accepted the situation,
perhaps this tie-in and association with the Film Bureau is what
creates the imaginary fence between directors of cinematic "film" and
those who produce cinematic "art". Nevertheless, the concept of
censorship is at stake, and for Lou Ye, artistic censorship is always
wrapped up in political, economic, and social developments. (Sun and
Li, 74).

In terms of how to address issues plaguing the confinement of what I
have termed "cinematic 'art'" to a strictly gallery-type setting, I
believe that a fusing of the contemporary Chinese cinema and art
worlds (the "interdisciplinarity" of these two fields, if you will) is
plausible, but depends on the relaxation of attitudes towards these
fields from not only the government censors, but also, from the
producers and audiences. So to have cinematic "art" evolve into what
this essay prompt deems as an "open platform that offers a viable
alternative to the existing museum and gallery system", the primary
change would be ideological. Cinematic "movies'" mass audience have
to be open to watching movies that might challenge his or her
preconceived notions of what a film is, which is to say, the audience
has to abandon his or her previous notions (if any) of a film's
formulaic-ness (familiarization with the typical camera angles, film
pace, genre conventions, etc.). And conversely, the cinematic "art's"
audience should recognize that even if a film does follow formulaic-
ness and what he or she deems as following in the "mainstream" vein,
the film's function as art should not be discarded. On both ends of
the spectrum, the primary audiences for both cinematic "movies" and
cinematic "arts" should depart with negative connotations associated
with the other end of the spectrum (i.e. art-film goers should not
view movie-goers as those with "mainstream"/common tastes, and movie-
goers should not view art-film goers as those who enjoy viewing art-
films just so they can relish in the fact that they are consuming
"high culture"). The expectations of both audiences concerning
cinematic "art" versus cinematic "movies" also have to change, most
notably, the idea that movies are strictly entertainment versus the
idea that art is strictly set to function as an intellectual/creative
output devoid of entertainment value.

A democratization of contemporary Chinese art must also occur for an
ideological reform to occur. As many students (including me) have
mentioned several times throughout the course of the semester,
contemporary Chinese art (unfortunately) seems to be fixated upon
itself as an insular entity. There is a socioeconomic exclusivity
that comes from being a producer, consumer, and overall participant in
these circles and though there have been several notable and
commendable instances of expanding and integrating contemporary art
into Chinese society (most visibly, the "Intrude: Art & Life 366"
exhibit at the Zendai MOMA), this simply is not enough. Though the
exhibit at the Zendai MOMA was a forward-thinking move towards the
acceptance of contemporary art by the Chinese public and conversely,
was also a forward-thinking move towards the art world's recognition
that their works do have a powerful and necessary space within the
public realm. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Moving away from this need for ideological change, practical
implementations must also occur for cinematic "art" to bridge itself
from a strictly gallery/museum system. To welcome a wider audience
for cinematic "art", the presentation of it should be one of the first
changes to occur. No, this is not to say that Bill Viola or Yang
Fudong should be exhibited in a large megaplex-like setting, but
museums and galleries should be more accessible to cinema-going
audiences. The most pragmatic change in presentation would be to have
galleries and museums invest in a screening room, that way, the
viewing of these works of video art/film can be enjoyed as if it were
the same as a cinematic "movie". Otherwise, standing around a flat
television screen that is fixed on a blank white wall can be not only
tiresome, but daunting for certain audiences. The subject matter of
many of these works (assuming there is a subject matter in certain
works) might not fit within the common understandings of film that the
average film-goer has, so in order to change conceptions of what
constitutes "film", an easing-in of those unfamiliar with film/video
art is needed, and the most drastic and simple measure is to change
the presentation of these works. These films might not follow
familiar narrative formats and/or genre conventions, so naturally,
given human beings' nature/propensity to understand through narrative
discourse, they might be difficult to digest and comprehend. However,
one needs to promote these works as viable commodities that have the
ability to not only function as intellectual/creative outputs, but as
well as entertainment.

Yang Fudong is an artist whose presence in the contemporary Chinese
art scene heralds the intertwining of art and film. Born in Beijing
in 1971[1], Yang Fudong currently lives and produces his works in
Shanghai[2]. Most recently, his newest works are being exhibited at
Shanghai's Zendai MOMA in an exhibition called "Dawn Mist, Separation
Faith". As a showcase of his recent works, the exhibition itself
focused on a long, rectangular table upon which was projected a place-
setting for a dinner and above which was hung flat screens exhibiting
Yang Fudong's other works. These flat screens were also hung around
the walls, bombarding the gallery-goer with an overflow of visuals.
It took awhile to situate myself within the exhibition because it was
difficult to focus on one work while a different work was being played
not too far away on another screen. Perhaps this was part of either
Yang Fudong or the curator's objective—to make some sort of statement
on the overflow of technology and media that the average consumer
faces in today's ever-expanding mediascape—but for me, this detracted
from focusing on Yang Fudong's works by themselves. And in addition,
the previous point I had raised about standing around a screen (and
sometimes craning my neck for extended periods of time to watch some
of them) was completely realized as I stood in front of the screen,
trying to focus on the visuals in front of me, while the distractions
hammered away at my patience. This, of course, is not to say that
Yang Fudong's work was not interesting—it was—but the exhibition of
these works deserves attention to find a way that better suit the
audience's viewing of them. A healthy marriage between what the
artist and curator want for these works and what way the works can
best be exhibited for a viewing audience needs to be configured.

However, despite these hesitations concerning the presentation of Yang
Fudong's latest works at the Zendai MOMA, I still found his work as an
auteur and artist to be incredible, which was why I was inspired to
find more information about his "The Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo
Forest". Presented for the 50th Venice Biennale, this was the first
in his five-part series called "The Seven Intellectuals", which is
based off of "The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove", a set of well-
known and traditional Chinese stories[3]. Drawing inspiration from
Chinese film canon including Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town (1948)
and Yuan Muzhi's Street Angel (1937)[4], Yang Fudong pays homage to
his predecessors in Chinese film, but builds upon them as he uses his
films to explore the contemporary issues plaguing China.

I recently spoke to my film professor here at NYU Shanghai, Dr. Shaoyi
Sun, about his thoughts concerning the conflux of film and art.
Professor Sun is academically focused and concerned about film, which
is why he admittedly did not want to give concrete and definitive
thoughts concerning how film fits within the contemporary art world.
However, his responses to me did echo sentiments and ideas that I
already have in my own response to the question of why film and art
are crossing and dissolving borders. Namely, forces of globalization
and media convergence were what we had discussed, with special
emphasis placed on media convergence as the key impetus driving the
blurring of the lines between art and film. Right now, in an rapidly
growing technological age of social-networking sites, user-generated
content, and in general, with the electronic/digital world
proliferating at an almost exponentially-increasing speed, the use of
film as an artistic medium is a natural evolution of both the fields
of contemporary art, but also, cinema as well.

Another point of discussion was a focus on censorship, which of course
for China, is a key issue regarding the exhibition of both art and
cinematic works. Professor Sun pointed me to his book of interviews
that he conducted with several well-known "Sixth Generation" authors
concerning their views on working within the confines of censorship
and referring back to director Lou Ye, Lou remarked:

"I don't think film censorship is simply a film-related issue.
Therefore, you cannot just accuse the Film Bureau. It is only part of
a larger issue. The current mechanism of film censorship is actually
a partial reflection of today's political system and economic
environment. If our environment continues to improve, or, if our
political system becomes more liberal, film censorship will naturally
disappear and be relegated to history. The fate of film censorship,
therefore, is closely connected to the political, social, and economic
development of a nation." (Sun and Li, 74)
These sentiments ring completely true to several issues that I have
raised, as it includes the necessary call for contextualization why
censorship exists and its effects on cinema. What Lou Ye said about
films naturally fits in with discussion of censorship within
contemporary art.

In terms of the development of the new fusion of cinema as art, and
vice versa, I believe that Yang Fudong is a necessary step in the
right direction in blurring the distinctions between what one can call
"art" and what one calls "cinema", and his solo exhibition at the
Zendai MOMA is proof that cinematic "art" is on its way to being
legitimized and recognized as a form of cinema that fits rightfully
with other filmmakers, such as Jia Zhangke, Fellini, Martin Scorsese,
or mainstream favorites like Steven Spielberg or Danny Boyle. China
does have a prominent film journal, called simply China Film Journal,
but a quick search within its website found no mentions of Yang
Fudong. However, in the requisite contemporary art publications like
Yishu, ArtForum, et al., Yang Fudong's films have garnered mentions
and analysis. While the idea of "cinematic 'art'" may not have found
itself within film publications, its presence as "art" is solidified,
but Yang Fudong is still absent from being a fixture on the
contemporary Chinese "cinematic 'movies'" realm. However, with the
trend of converging media forms and the blurring of lines between what
one knows as "art" versus what one knows as "cinema", Yang Fudong will
be a fixture in both the art and film worlds—bridging them together.

Works Cited:

China Film Journal:

Yang Fudong on Artnet:

Obrist, Hans-Ulrich. Yang, Fudong. "A Thousand Words: Yang Fudong
talks about the Seven Intellectuals". ArtForum, September 2003.

Sun, Shaoyi. Xun, Li. Chapter Three: "'Dancing with the Shackles:' The
(Un)censored Voices of the 'Sixth Generation'". Lights! Camera! Kai
Shi!: In Depth Interviews with China's New Generation of Movie

[1] Obrist, Hans-Ulrich, "A Thousand Words: Yang Fudong talks about
The Seven Intellectuals".


[3] Obrist, Hans-Ulrich, "A Thousand Words: Yang Fudong talks about
The Seven Intellectuals".

[4] Ibid.

No comments: