In Conversation: Changing Realities and Speculative Fictions in the work of Cao Fei

Angela Chan, curator of the Worm: art + ecology project sat down with science fiction writers Gu Shi and Regina Kanyu Wang to discuss world-building and magical thinking in the work of Cao Fei

Angela Chan: Hello, Gu Shi and Regina Kanyu Wang. I’m really pleased to be in conversation together about this collection of films and discuss our thoughts through a speculative fiction lens. In these works, Cao Fei depicts some of the changing cityscapes in China through stark realities alongside speculative narratives. I feel this resonates very well with both of you as speculative/science fiction authors in this creative merge of documenting and imagining.

Gu Shi: I feel familiar with Cao Fei’s work, because I am also based in Beijing and witness similar scenes to those that she captures. I think there is a very strong relationship between science fiction and reality. In 11.11 (2018), Cao Fei films something beyond our vision in order to explain something we’re not very familiar with. In Asia One (2018), she sees something that she herself might not understand and uses science fiction as a tool for exploration. Her work reminds me of the science fiction written by Han Song, with how these narrative techniques attempt to explain reality.

AC: Yes, I agree. In addition, some issues are so integrated into our daily lives that they are too close to see. With this, science fictional ways of seeing can allow enough distance to review and scrutinise them. Cao Fei seems to humanise a lot of these stories. We often forget the people woven into the processes of neoliberal consumerism. Science fiction helps to re-entangle us with these human realities.

Cao Fei, 1.1, 2018, Video. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

Regina Kanyu Wang: Yes, and Cao Fei’s attitude towards what she sees and films remains quite neutral to me. We talk about science fiction on a lot of occasions as critical and radical. However, in her films, instead of criticising science and technology itself, she comments on what it brings to people’s lives and focuses on humanity and how it’s changing, which has a very subtle feeling.

GS: Asia One reminds me how weird the world would become should people become more like robots. The old Chinese saying “四体不勤,五谷不分” was my first feeling towards those characters. This is how industrialisation and urbanisation have changed our connections with what’s around us. In rural areas, we have roles in our daily lives, however in the city we’re part of a bigger machine. I see in her works her attempts to fight this modern order. Maybe unsuccessfully, because of the prevalence of this order. This reality is quite indescribable.

AC: Although as a viewer, we know that the changes caused by these developments can happen very quickly, we’re still dependent on these changes, and so they integrate into our daily lives almost seamlessly. Once we become used to them, we soon forget what has been compromised. Returning to the globalised impact of these developments, they resonate to people in all parts of the world.

Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018, Video, 63’20”. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

RKW: Cao Fei has mentioned in interviews that what she’s presenting in her films is not a situation that is unique to China, but rather they are issues happening globally. These are themes dealing with globalisation, instead of being solely attached to certain countries or cultures.

AC: With this I think it’s worth thinking about how through visual arts and literature, we’re drawn to thinking about the ethics of globalisation. When we humanise these stories surrounding consumption, we narrate an individual’s journey, following the protagonist’s decisions at every junction, and we might even judge ourselves how we would like to respond. Within this overlapping of science fiction in contemporary art, films and literature, do these stories have the potential to influence us, to make us rethink our own patterns of consumption?

GS: A hard question! I think we cannot change anything, even now the threat of Coronavirus is stopping us from real-life consumption. I see online that people are talking about life after the virus: what they want to buy, wear, eat, where they want to go. This disaster changes our lifestyles, but not our life attitudes. To just stop and change our patterns is not easy.

RKW: The blogger Li Ziqi’s videos of farming, cooking, and making everything with her own hands instead of buying goods or going to restaurants are very popular. She has millions of followers on Chinese social media platforms and YouTube, but I don’t think many people would actually learn her way of life. It took months for her to do those things and produce those videos, but in our society it’s hard to slow down and return to this type of rural lifestyle. Even if you try to escape from the city, you get dragged back into how the majority lives, like a giant wave you can’t resist.

AC: In reality, these fantasised changes are so temporary, and they sit on a timeline where some others only move forward and faster. If we wish to enact change, we have to resist this and think about whether we could exist in our own time spaces and move at self-designated paces. Besides this, place is also significant. A theme that recurs in Cao Fei’s works highlights how drastically areas become industrialised and built into yet another anonymous megacity. Gu Shi, with your background in urban planning, you utilise these speculative tools frequently, noticing the social changes that happen alongside too.

GS: The pace and scale of urbanisation in China is unprecedented. We can see and feel that cities are changing dramatically, and this will change people’s feelings of what city life should be like. In this fast-paced world, it’s normal that people feel lost and confused. This causes a lot of problems, but also positive aspects. For example, with city life, people have clearer individual roles, whereas in rural life, it is centred around the family. This means that women have greater chances of employment opportunities in the city. It used to be that women were the most vulnerable group to suicides in China, but now that has changed. There are many women who hold city jobs.

AC: There’s a lot of personal and social pressure on those caught amidst these changes, trying to achieve their dreams. Thinking about history in order to inform how we imagine just futures is a running theme in my work. There are a lot of expectations that people have of themselves in today’s reality, because they recognise more opportunities than before and desire to be better too. This makes the present extremely delicate and high-pressured. There is no way down, only an exponential growth towards ‘success’. This amount of stress is a theme that runs throughout Cao Fei’s realities and fictions. This fuels a lot of difficult energy into the imagined futures. Some might view her works as dystopic, and there is truth in that because of the injustices that occur for a few to succeed. What I appreciate about her work, as well as that of certain science fiction writers, is a good dose of a reality check.

RKW: I see a lot of positivity in her earlier works, such as RMB City, which is joyful and positive, but you know it’s not real, just like a utopian theme park, a fairy tale. Even in her later works there is a glimmer of hope amongst the melancholy or despair. Returning to failure, in China we lack the ability to fail. Everyone wants to succeed. We were never taught how to fail, not only individually, but also as a country. It’s hard for us to admit failures and mistakes.

AC: That reminds me of your story, Gu Shi, ‘The Last Save’, how it’s possible for people to delete bad events and return to a good edit, chopping away undesirable realities. That ambition for perfectionism is so tiring and stressful, not to speak of the inequalities in this ecology of consumerism, which is both extractivist and exploitative.

Caption: Cao Fei (SL avatar: China Tracy) RMB City: A Second Life City Planning 2007 Video 5’57” Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space

RKW: It’s true that social classes have stabilised in China. In the past few decades, social mobility through hard work and education, particularly the gaokao college examinations, was possible. Rural to city migrants have found it harder to climb the social ladder since the 2000s.

AC: The influence of the cultural landscape in China overseas is worth discussing aside from the socio-economic. Regina, you work a lot in growing the global outreach of Chinese speculative fiction, working with publishers and translators to international readers in English and many other languages. It’s also a healthy way to nurture how we understand different perspectives within cultural realms, not only with SF in literature, but also with how visual arts plays with these narratives.

RKW: Speculative fiction always deals with global themes, so it’s easier for speculative authors of any medium to discuss these topics in ways that are more accepted all over the world, beyond whichever country they’re from. Meanwhile, Cao Fei has mentioned how this generation has been influenced by so many different cultures, taking different flavours all at the same time. It’s so easy for us to reach cultural outputs from all over the world that we don’t distinguish them from one another. However, people looking at Chinese artists and writers’ works are trying to identify these Chinese elements.

GS: A lasting impression in Nova (2019) is a scene in which a group of elderly people practise tai chi, but holding lightsabers from Star Wars. Growing up, we have a whole amalgamation of cultural references to be consumed. The distance between these artefacts is actually a lot smaller than one might think.

Nova Cao Fei
2019 Cao Fei, Nova, 2019, Video, 109’. Courtesy the artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers

AC: And Star Wars is heavily ‘influenced’ by East Asian aesthetics. It’s vital to recognise how complex hybridised cultures are, to avoid presenting them as fragmented and diluted stereotypes. Also, for me, born in the UK to parents from Hong Kong, I try to widen the scope for people who are interested in Chinese SF and bring them towards this great range of Sinophone speculative fiction from across East Asia, instead of just the famous ones. Always reaching beyond the most visible is a healthy way of learning to share and respect these perspectives.

RKW: I guess it’s always a question from the dominant group: Westerners asking non-westerners what makes them non-western, cis-men asking non-male authors what the feminist aspects of their stories are – no one questions what’s American about American SF, or what’s special about male writers.

GS: Talking about histories and futures, in China these two have a special connection, whereby history has always been a cycle of little change. We still feel that the distance between our present day to both our history and future are the same. Instead of being in the past or future, it’s a task to situate ourselves in the cycle of this unchanging loop of historical moments. It’s just a unique feeling. When you understand the history, you can predict the future.

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