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2014.06.18 Wed, by Translated by: Katy Pinke
Chronus Art Center: R&D First, China’s Own ZKM Next?

A dark entrance to a brick building sits in between ShanghART’s two spaces in M50 (the art cluster on 50 Moganshan Road in Shanghai). Inside lies an art space with a surface area of about 1,000 square meters over two levels that together form a neat rectangle, with the ceiling marked by high, old-fashioned cross-beams. This is Chronus Art Center, referred to as CAC. Established a year ago, Chronus Art Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to experimentation, research, production, exhibition, and education surrounding new media art.

As for what “New Media” is, its definition has undergone much change over the past ten years. In Shanghai alone—from the “Body Media” exhibition curated by Gong Yan in 2007 to the Shanghai eArts Festival, starting that same year but dying in its infancy only three years later—the term “New Media” has come to be fully integrated into public and media usage in Mainland China. But what is “new” about “New Media Art,” or “New Media”? Does the “new” refer to anything other than digital art? What is its relationship to digital art? Does video belong to this category, or should it be looked at independently?

CAC will perhaps play an important role in the growth of what this “new” means in China, as a space dedicated solely to researching and producing new media art. Two of the three founders, Li Zhenhua and Hu Jieming, are both artists. While Li Zhenhua appears more often in the role of curator and art director, Hu Jieming has held fast to a career in art and education. The third is Zhang Qinghong, the founder and CEO of Vivitek. A professional manufacturer of HD projectors, Vivitek’s support of the arts sector in recent years cannot be overlooked—from Xu Zhen’s solo exhibition at UCCA to Yang Fudong’s at OCAT Shanghai, from Uli Sigg’s “Wow” digital library project at the 15th anniversary exhibition of the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards to video art exhibition “Pandamonium”, organized jointly by CAC and Berlin’s Momentum—the reach of Vivitek’s support has of late been felt across a range of premier arts organizations and projects.

Where CAC’s growth is concerned, Vivitek’s involvement is no doubt an interesting strategy. Vivitek is CAC’s only source of funding at the moment, and its emphasis on the arts is close to that of CAC. Of course, a project that emphasizes exploration, research, and collaboration must ultimately survey commercial possibilities; whether with regard to the ambition of building an institutional ecology or an artistic one, the net force of Vivitek and CAC together will very likely act as a sort of conduit into the commercial realm. The R&D platform offered to artists by the organization welcomes potential business opportunities with open arms.

In one interview, Zhang Qinghong speaks openly, “The conversion from art to commerce requires a platform, and CAC can be just that: supporting artists’ exploration and processes of production while simultaneously researching and developing systems derived or extended from these practices. This is how to bring the operation into the commercial sphere, how to create products. It is the artists, however, who will decide where to draw the line between product and artwork. CAC will be here assisting the artists to keep a check on the risk of any commercial applications harming the concepts behind the works, carefully culling the options in order to maintain control. On the other hand, through its work with CAC, Vivitek will perhaps find some of the un-mined commercial value in the art.”

As to the question of how to judge commercial value, Zhang believes in the premise of “social value”: “My rule in business is: social value must necessarily be able to be converted into commercial value.” This concept has been the guiding force behind CAC’s “transfusion” system. Zhang explains, “We are able to guarantee CAC’s not-for-profit operation thanks to our reliance on Vivitek’s ‘blood supply’: external support that allows CAC to function without producing its own life-blood. If CAC had to sustain itself from within, its creative process would no longer be pure; the meaning and motivation behind the work would become suspect.”

Once we have gained a greater understanding of CAC’s financial position, we can take a more objective look at the organization itself. As CAC’s director of operations Yan Xiaodong points out, “Artists working in the field of new media require much more from an institution in terms of technical support than do artists in other fields. Many projects are difficult to complete with only an artist behind them. Based on our observations, there is a relatively small number of organizations in China that can meet this need. CAC hopes to be one of the first to do so, helping artists realize their visions by offering the support required. The exhibitions here are therefore not only for the purpose of showing the works, but also for the purpose of exploration, experimentation, and research. After the exhibition, valuable conclusions can be recorded and put into circulation, in the form of publications or archival documents.”

Looking back at CAC’s work so far, from their inaugural exhibition “Extra Time” with Raqs Media Collective to the video exhibition “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”, curated by David Elliot, to Jeffrey Shaw and Hu Jieming’s dual solo exhibition currently underway, the length of each exhibition has clearly been extended. When introducing CAC’s exhibition model, Li Zhenhua not only emphasizes the priority placed upon the final result of the exhibition itself, but also upon its relationship to the audience: “In choosing artists, we will still predominantly tend towards those working in visual art. We need to think about whether or not the work we show will be welcomed by audiences. If a work is too conceptual, we presume that audiences might have a more difficult time accepting it, and we don’t want to be putting together an exhibition which is such an overwrought process; we are in no rush to make a mark for our brand. The strategy we have chosen is one of concentrated research, deliberation, and consideration of the intersection of a range of fields and what they each might need. It is about creating something professional.” Every year when CAC gets to its two exhibitions, the “R&D first” mission of the institution is always embodied in the strategic planning. This is especially clear with the current dual solo exhibition. Since its beginnings in 2013, the project has employed two researchers respectively devoted to in-depth studies of the two participating artists. Yet according to one of the researchers, Zian Chen, the research has ultimately remained only at the textual level. Apparently, CAC has yet to establish its technology team, and its laboratory is still just a blueprint. The support system intended to bolster artists’ creative processes is still in its infancy.

Art Yan (first from the left), SenSend (second from the left), Hu Jieming (fourth from the left), Jeffrey Shaw (fifth from the left), Zian Chen (eighth from the left), Dillion (ninth from the left; owner of CAC
颜晓东 (左1),三三德 (左2),胡介鸣 (左4),邵志飞 (左5),陈玺安 (左8),张庆红 (左9)

At the very least, this kind of support is clearly reflected in funds invested so far. Yan Xiaodong discloses a few figures: “For this dual exhibition, more than RMB 5 million have been invested in hardware alone for the two artists. Hu Jieming’s follow-up project—and this is just the production of the pilot version—cost several hundred thousand RMB. Investment in the overall project can’t be given a number yet, because after discussions, the official version of Hu Jieming’s project will take the form of a top-of-the-line metal foundry in Switzerland.” Li Zhenhua added with excitement, “It will be the world’s top foundry. Its base will be equipped with a variety of high-grade precision laboratories, where practitioners can experiment with metal-casting in anaerobic, zero-gravity environments and work with the conversion of materials, for instance wax into [what looks like] marble. This spirit of discovery and rigor requires a state-of-the-art institution, and we can fully entrust Hu Jieming’s project with the task of creating one.” However, when asked about the potential for commercial scalability, Zhang Qinhong firmly clarified, “As an organization, CAC’s primary concern is the artistic merit of a project or of a work—that is, whether or not a piece is truly meaningful. As to the question of whether it can be scaled up or commercially developed, that is not CAC’s priority.”

Apart from exhibition projects, CAC has also set up a collaborative bilateral project with V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media in the Netherlands and the University of Birmingham in the UK, one that focuses its attention on young artists. CAC acts as a sort of international docking port, openly seeking out recommendations from the two parallel operations in order to ensure a consistent balance of contribution among all parties.

Continuing along this path, will CAC grow up to be China’s version of ZKM? At present it is too early to make any conclusions either way. The organization must first develop sustainable operations, diversify its financial resources, refine its collection plan, digitize its archival documents, and stand the test of time. Especially when it comes to CAC’s collection, media art aesthetics may prove to be more reliant on press relations than any other art form to date. So for the time being, we await the results of CAC’s first round of R&D.

Jeffrey Shaw, Sarah Kenderdine with John Gollings and Paul Doornbusch, “PLACE-Hampi”, software: Adolf Matthias, Leith Chan, 2004

Hu Jieming, “Overture—Taichi”

Jeffrey Shaw, “PLACE-Ruhr”, software: Adolf Matthias, 2000