Zhao Chuan is a writer, curator and theatre director of Grass Stage, an independent Chinese theatre collective. The alternative, socially engaged performances of his theatre productions take place in public spaces: They turn restaurants, construction sites or lecture halls into stages. At the end of each performance, the audience is invited to talk about the work. Zhao Chuan explores, challenges, critically questions and criticizes different social aspects. Liv, Tobi, Aline, Duy and Colin met him for an open talk on the terrace of the old villa where the programme’s Shanghai exhibition took place.
Liv: Tobi, Aline, Duy and Colin, you have been invested in the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and your work in Shanghai also evolves around it. Given the political situation, the museum officials have stressed that we are not allowed to touch sensitive topics. In the first mark through you had to come up with a cover story. How do you deal with the tie of not being able to address the subject of your work?
Aline: My feelings towards the censorship have changed a lot. Back in Hong Kong I thought it would be interesting to deal with it. But now being in Shanghai, I feel very blocked around not being able to talk openly about what we want to do or where our interests actually lie.
Duy: In terms of working on the group projects, it is even more interesting for me to be here in Shanghai. In Hong Kong, I did not have any creative energy and didn’t do much. Here we are in a different setting, have a different audience and a different approach. The censorship is an interesting setting to work in. It challenges us to do something new, to be more creative in displaying our work, our message and our story.
Aline: Yes, we found a way to deal with it. We look for the universal topics within the conflict. In a way, we abstract what we really want to talk about and address it on a more general level. We’re not that specific anymore, which is interesting, I think.
Liv: Can you still be yourself as artists when having to present your current project with a cover story?
Tobi: Yes. Like Aline and Duy said, by finding other ways to talk about it, we could actually elevate it to something honest, so it is true and therefore our own. The picture of the cockroach came to us when thinking of what to do here in Shanghai where we’d be tied. Eventually, to boycott the exhibition would have been too easy. The real work, the real revolution sparks when you need to face the conditions and deal with them. It is not important, how difficult it is for me. The only thing that counts is to figure out how we can still do something truthful. We did not just want to present something “nice” but transform this very desperate moment into poetry.
Liv: How did you experience the mark through, Zhao Chuan?
Zhao Chuan: I cannot say that this is something I enjoyed. Of course, I didn’t. But maybe it is interesting for the students to experience it once. Not just as artists, but as individuals who went abroad. Maybe it helps them to get to know the country a little better. On the side of art making, I think it is a nurturing experience. It gets important how you deliver your work with a message that is not immediately visible on the surface. I personally like how the work with the cockroaches has developed. In the beginning, it was rather simple. Gradually, it turned into something very interesting. Maybe the pressure worked somehow and pushed them to go beyond.
Liv: How do you experience censorship as an artist?
Zhao Chuan: I was born here and grew up with the censorship. It is nothing strange to me. My father is also an artist—the topic has always been around us. Sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it gets very difficult. When my wife and I performed at an art space in September, we went beyond the topic and talked more abstractly about the situation of the country, while still, there could have been made connections. On the other hand, the Grass Stage production World Factory would be rather difficult to present now. Back then, it was okay to show it.
Liv: How so?
Zhao Chuan: After every performance we hold a talk, encouraging the audience to give feedback. Asking if they made any connections or if they simply would like to say something. Our audiences may criticize or make whatever comment they want. We establish a dialogue. Quite often, the topic leads to a point, where it gets rather aggressive. The difficult task is to handle the whole situation, to moderate the talk. Of course, you want to be honest, but you also have to be tactical and weigh your words. To talk is always a risk we take and there’s an uncertainty that comes with it. I personally like to stay on the safe side, and I want to continue to work, which is, I think, more important than shooting a gun and get shot back. But also, on the other hand, we have a reputation for doing certain things. We are taking position on certain issues. You need to be smart to survive. You always try to watch the line and not overstep it.
Liv: Do you always see clearly where the line is?
Zhao Chuan: No, never. It varies from time to time. Maybe this year it is okay to discuss certain issues, last year it was not.
Liv: How do you take decisions then?
Zhao Chuan: I rely on my experience and I test out the boundaries.
Tobi: Are you sometimes afraid that something can get you in trouble? How do you deal with this pressure? For example working with us now—you don’t know us too well and hypothetically, we might do something that could get you in trouble.
Zhao Chuan: I don’t really know, what you might do. It is all based on trust. It’s the only thing I can say in my fifty years of experience. Mostly, I give trust and I receive trust back. My kind of art making always comes with uncertainty, taking risks and trusting.
Liv: How would you describe your art?
Zhao Chuan: I like to put it like this: In the old days, you had these light proof photographic changing bags: You would put in your camera, open it inside, change the film, close it and take it out. All without seeing, only by sensing what you do. Art is like that. You prepare something inside, then you want people to come, put their hands in and feel. An apple would be boring, because they already know what an apple feels like. For me, it’s about turning the ordinary into something special. You put your hand in and maybe you find a knife. That is when it gets interesting. It’s the risk, the part on the edge and maybe a part out of your control. All the while keeping in mind that you’re not supposed to hurt anybody. And when you are able to make the transformation or the twist to turn the ordinary into a new experience, you may have people start thinking: Why is this guy doing this and what is it for? Then you are able to deliver and trigger emotions.
Liv: What other challenges do you face working as an artist?
Zhao Chuan: We are faced with a paradox. As artists, we are trained to let the audience create their own understandings. But therefore, no one really shares their understanding because why should I make a statement when everybody has a different experience anyway. We end up with nobody really knowing what the artwork is about, because we don’t share and discuss our understanding of it. For me, this is a problem. You could almost say that some part of the art process has become stupid. Nothing is concrete, for there is no insight. Nothing is strong or emotional. There's nothing you really want to pass on to other people. Because you think: they make their own meaning anyway. However, it is still important to actually know what you are doing. To ask the yourself the question: Why?
Liv: What do you see, when you look at the work of Tobi, Aline, Colin, Duy, Riar, Cass and Harisson?
Zhao Chuan: They were so engaged in the topic of the protests in Hong Kong. People may have different perspectives on the situation. Hence, it's not about debating whether this is right or wrong, but rather about how they engaged. Being young themselves, they met the young people over there. This connection is so strong that I can still feel it here. It makes their work even more meaningful and takes it far beyond being a random display of artifacts.
Aline: Sometimes I feel like the work may become arbitrary. I think the challenge is to have multiple layers and multiple perspectives so that one can derive different meanings but actually there is one core message to it.
Liv: How did you experience the time here in Shanghai, setting up for the opening event at the museum?
Colin: Feels kind of numb. Like when you sit on your hand and they fall asleep. It’s a weird feeling.
Aline: I feel like in a transition zone. As if we were somewhere in between. Not there and not home in Zurich. I realize here, that I connected really strongly to Hong Kong compared to Shanghai. Here, I feel super far away from home. Also, time is short, things move past very fast.
Liv: What is the strongest impression you take back home with you?
Tobi: Don’t give a shit, what the others say.
Aline: It is hard to narrow it down to one impression. I am really fascinated by how the leaderless movement works and by the many possibilities of how to contribute. I remember the strong sense of unity and solidarity. I also take a lot of worries with me. For me, it is very interesting, but also scary, how one eliminates basic instincts or emotions for a greater idea. Of course, this is something you can observe in history over and over again. But to witness it so closely and know that people close to me are involved is something I struggle with a lot.