When asked about her working environment, one worker said she would like to feel the sun on her skin for a while – a simple but poetic request, fulfilled by moving her workstation outside the factory for a short period. Another worker took the opportunity to make a fluid sculpture out of the big barrel of grease he was using, giving it the title: “A piece of shit.” These little gestures came about as part of Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi’s Social Sensibility R&D Program, instituted in the factory of Bernard Controls S.A. on the outskirts of Beijing.
Bernard Controls is a French family-owned company producing specialist servo engines for operating valves in water pipes found in nuclear power stations, but also used in places like the Beijing Opera House and the Olympic Swimming Pool (AKA the “Water Cube”) in Beijing.
For a factory to embrace such a distraction from the serious business of production is down to the initiative of the boss, Guillaume Bernard, an engineer with a particular interest in corporate social responsibility. But while Bernard Controls already had a steering committee working to improve management personnel relationships using activities such as exhibition visits and music concerts, M. Bernard was looking beyond this. “He’s one step ahead,” Rolandi says. “He’s an engineer, not a psychologist, sociologist, or a philosopher. We talked a lot about this, and he seems genuinely open to more socially aware activities, which I related to relational practice within the art world.”
Rolandi’s background is in the theatre, which he explains is “very social, but you wonder how you can really go into something real?” In the case of Bernard Controls, he saw the chemistry as being “so random, it provided me with a little door.” The invitation to set up his R&D program became an opportunity to insert a little mischief into the regimented life of the factory.
Panoramic 1; Courtesy Alessandro Rolandi.
This particular factory is unlike the cliché of a Chinese factory: you won’t find thousands of workers performing mundane and repetitive tasks over long conveyor belts in an airless hanger. This factory is relatively small, with about a hundred staff, of whom only twenty to thirty actually work on assembling the product. The work areas are also relatively discrete in terms of their interior design. Rolandi says it’s not an environment where you feel you have no way out, where everything is under surveillance. But at the same time, “No matter how you look at it, it’s still a factory.”
To begin with he underwent the regular worker’s training, so he could understand the product from a technical as well as an economic point of view. Rolandi found that the practical work that the workers have to do, the physical labour of assembling these objects, led him to fully appreciate that this was a sort of sensibility that has its own value: “It’s not particularly creative work, but I’ve tried myself putting the pieces together for a couple of hours, and without the experience these workers have got, you get quite nervous!”
Also included in his standard training were the "5Ss," an overbearing work management system from Japan, which is all about efficiency, cleanliness and organisation; and the "4Rs" of security. Within these strictures Rolandi initially despaired: “I was sitting alone in this little space they gave me (which doubled as a kitchen) and just thought to myself: ‘What am I doing here?’ Creativity often deals with messiness, but the rules here were completely set against this. I felt like I was proposing something where I was dead before I’d even started!”
To address this difficulty, and to find his point of entry, he began by approaching the workers with small requests connected to his own knowledge of relational artwork. After talking with them, he showed them photos and videos to get them used to the idea of creating themselves. However, in the process of breaking the ice Rolandi committed his first cultural faux pas. He had taken photos of the workers around the factory and printed them out as little gifts. These black and white photos proved to be not so inspired, as he was politely informed that black-and-white photos were for dead people. On the plus side, he felt it was significant that the workers felt comfortable enough to give him this information, representing a bridge across the gap between them.
Indeed throughout the project Rolandi has been impressed by the time and courtesy he has been afforded. He trusts this was due to politeness or respect, but he was also very much aware of his privileged position in relation to the workers. At the beginning M. Bernard effectively gave him too much authority, so he took baby steps to gain the trust of the people he was working with. He started by provided the workers with notebooks to records their ideas, then gave them cameras to take photos around the workplace, and then asked them to make drawings and give him an idea of how they would like to develop those drawings in real life.
Gru & Gru project; Courtesy Alessandro Rolandi.
He found that although their idea of art usually began with painting and sculpture, when they were offered what Rolandi characterised as “the new territory” of these small tasks, they were very creative in their proposals: “One drew a beautiful bird, for instance, but then they said they wanted this beautiful bird to be on a restaurant façade with neon writing.” This additional information intrigued Rolandi, as he saw ways that it connected with contemporary art practice.
A later project involved asking the workers to create small performances. Rolandi was allowed to give a number of workers a thirty-minute break to think up something to do in their environment: “as a gesture, as a thought; I just called it (in Mandarin) suibian ‘whatever you want’ (without mentioning too much the word ‘art.’)”
The actions mentioned at the beginning of this article were amongst the results, from which Rolandi felt there was a kind of daring involved, more than just politeness: “I had the feeling they were really taking the chance to use this little bubble that was opening up.”
For eight months now Rolandi has been visiting the factory once or twice a week. This initial period has represented for him the negotiation between himself and his ideas, and the bosses, workers and environment of the factory – for Rolandi the immaterial but most interesting part of the whole process.
To get approval to make the project more sustainable and efficient, Rolandi was asked to make a business presentation to the committee, something which — as an artist — he was somewhat unused to. He brought along images of pieces by various artists, including Francis Alÿs pushing the ice cube through Mexico City (Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing), 1997), Rirkrit Tiravanija’s meals, Joseph Beuys' Oak Tree project (7000 Oaks – City Forestation instead of City Administration, 1982) and the Chinese artist Song Dong’s installation of his mother’s possessions (Waste Not, 2005). The Alÿs piece worked very well; M. Bernard was able to point to it, and suggest: “Look what happens: you’re pushing something for nothing, but eventually this big ice cube becomes a little ball and you can play with it!” This touch of humour proved to be the opening point for Rolandi, after which the committee were on board.
Delivery 1; Courtesy Alessandro Rolandi.
In the future Rolandi understands that the project may well be extended to the company’s other locations in France, Korea, Japan or South America. But for the moment he is planning on becoming a little more discreet in his own involvement, bringing other people in with different approaches. In the last few weeks another Italian artist, Andrea Nacciarriti, has been working in the factory getting the workers to collect objects related to their work and life that are then sealed in the same small boxes used for their product. These are then distributed randomly around another Beijing suburb. Next up is Ma Yongfeng of the forget art collective (whose practice I wrote about last year on GeoSlant), who will investigate the use of graffiti as a subversive information carrier within the factory, and then Japanese performance artist Megumi Shimizu will be invited to create her own work there.
From the outset Rolandi has discussed with M. Bernard all they are doing, and for both of them important questions are on the one hand how radicality enters the art world? And on the other, what is the value of radicality in the workspace? This, for Rolandi, is the value of social practices, but he hopes to address these questions without the idealism of the ‘60s or as simply an uncritical celebration of those activities. For all that, he is hopeful that they can still open things up without tearing the situations apart, which would mean a swift end to the project. In the positive sense, this opening up would be a situation into which other people can step. But as he says: “This shouldn’t be safe! Otherwise where is the communication?”
[Based on an interview with Alessandro Rolandi, 23 February 2012]
(Image on top right: Grease sculpture; Courtesy Alessandro Rolandi.)