Shanghai and the Social Factory: An Interview with Anselm Franke

Published on, December 17, 2014

Anselm Franke, curator of the Shanghai Biennale, talks about why he thinks the city and Chinese contemporary art reflect a society in the making.

Chen Chieh-jen, 'Empire's Borders/ 02'
Chen Chieh-jen, ‘Empire’s Borders/ 02’

The current edition of the biennale is titled ‘Social Factory’. Can you talk a little about some of the themes and narratives?

Anselm Franke: ‘Social Factory is about the construction of society and the production of subjectivity. What kind of subjectivity and society does the contemporary reality produce? After years of breathtaking development, which are symbolised best by the city of Shanghai itself, I think many in China feel that it is necessary to slow down and reflect on the place of the individual in society.’

You stated that the Shanghai Biennale will aim to ‘contrast subjective experience with the logic of modernisation, its rationalisations and standardisations, as well as the technological mediation of subjectivity.’ Can you explain?

‘We find ourselves in a situation (not only in China) where it becomes more and more obvious that there are deep structures within society and subjectivity that determine a good deal of our social and emotional life and our cultural imaginary, which can only be explained by reference to long histories, to traditional society in the case of China. Yet we also find ourselves in a situation where subjectivities are formed through digital technologies and where algorithms capture and re-make the social fabric in various ways. The way this happens is different from old-school disciplinary bureaucracy — the system where the individual is reduced to a number or a mechanistic part of a chain. Today, we are always two things: ourselves, and digital profiles, which insert our choices and preferences into larger social patterns and trends. How does this change subjective experience, and the way modernisation produces alienation? This tension between tradition and the algorithm, between the new and the old interested us, because we believe it is a tension well known to most people even within their families. But it is also important to understand contemporary aesthetics. Without the diagnostic dimension, without analysing the architectures of alienation ever anew, art becomes mere decoration and status symbol.’

Liu Ding, 'Class A'; Liu Ding, 'Class B'
Liu Ding, ‘Class A’; Liu Ding, ‘Class B’
Edgar Arceneaux, 'The Algorithm Doesn’t Love You, From Detroit to Shanghai'.
Edgar Arceneaux, ‘The Algorithm Doesn’t Love You, From Detroit to Shanghai’.

Who are some of your collaborators in this edition of the biennale, and what they will be doing?

‘The co-curators are Freya Chou from Taipei, Liu Xiao from Hangzhou, and Cosmin Costinas from Hong Kong. Each of them worked with me on the overall exhibition but also focuses in specific artists and projects — we are all curators who have a preference for working in long-term collaborations, and some of it is reflected in the choices in this Biennale. Liu Xiao, furthermore, realised the woodcut section, and we had a curator for the film program, Hila Peleg, and a curator for the music contributions, Nicholas Bussmann.’

Biennales are usually events in which more challenging discourses and ideas can be explored. To what extend will this be done this year and next in Shanghai? And are there limitations and challenges that you have had to negotiate?

‘There are restrictions. Within the parameters, we tried to make a Biennale that creates an awareness of the kind of machines and systems that we are part of today, also in China, the kind of frameworks and scripts that we enact, from individual life to the processes of modernisation and its fetishes. This is already challenging, I believe. We wanted to highlight the contradictions of Chinese society, and situate them in larger debates about the nature of modernity.’

Is there an expectation or pressure to adjust the western curatorial structural or the biennale model to better suit the Chinese audience?

‘Of course the curatorial structure has to communicate with Chinese realities. The question is rather how we conceive of our audience beyond that: and I always try to refuse ‘framing’ the audience too much.’

You’ve worked in the past with German video and film artist Christoph Schlingensief, and you have extensive experience working with film yourself. Will film and video installations play a significant role in the biennale? What is the Chinese audience’s attitude to this type of art?

‘Yes, about a quarter of the works are video works, and there is a film program that is running in three specially built cinemas, showcasing independent film and innovative documentaries. I think that some of the most significant artistic innovation takes place in this medium. In China, artists like Zhao Liang, who is primarily a filmmaker, are doing really important work.’

You have also had experience collaborating with architects in making exhibitions. Who have you collaborated with in planning the exhibition space at this year’s biennale?

‘We have been lucky to be approached by Antonio Berton from ON Design studios in Shanghai, who helped realise this exhibition architecturally. Given the timeframe and structure, it was absolutely crucial to be pragmatic and to work with an architect on location.’

What are some of the works that will be shown?

‘A central work in the Biennale is by Chen Chieh-jen — a mini-retrospective, dedicated to his working method. We are all proud to show this. Another key piece is a conceptual opera by Nicholas Bussmann: almost every day, seven singers are turning the daily newspapers into a piece. This brings everyday reality into the Biennale, and in such a way that this reality is being transformed. Edgar Arceneaux‘s work on the post-industrial reality of Detroit is important, reflecting the way public structures and institutions can fail their citizens. There are wonderful drawings combining politics and astrology by Yin-Ju Chen, and important new works by Liu Chuang and Ran Huang, and also by Liu Ding and Ji Yunfei. Ming Wong‘s ‘Windows on the World 2’ engages with Chinese science fiction since the 1970s and with Cantonese Opera.’

Liu Chuang, 'Segmented Landscape'.
Liu Chuang, ‘Segmented Landscape’.
Ji Yun-Fei, 'Boxers'
Ji Yun-Fei, ‘Boxers’

How does the biennale engage with other art institutions in Shanghai? Will there be peripheral events and exhibitions taking place across the city?

‘Curator Zhu Ye organizes the City Pavilion project and some parts take place in other museums, others in public areas of the city. It started on 11 December and I am curious myself about the satellite venues and program, since I have not been in charge of it.’

What interest or excites you about Chinese contemporary art, and Shanghai as a city?

‘Shanghai is an exciting city in so many ways. Both the city and Chinese contemporary art reflect a society in the making, and they also reflect all the paradoxes of global society and capital.’

Liu Ding, 'For the Sake of Ten Thousand The Bust of an Old Hero'
Liu Ding, ‘For the Sake of Ten Thousand The Bust of an Old Hero’

Do you have much experience with Shanghai and China?

‘I have some experience, but not much. The first time I came to China and Shanghai was in 2004, I have been working with artists like Wang Jianwei since then. My exhibition project ‘Animism’ was shown in Shenzhen in 2013, and I was of course in charge of the 2012 Taipei Biennale, which was a great experience.’

How will the biennale engage in conversation with Chinese and international artists?

‘We created a parcours of works that highlight that contemporary artists all over the world deal with similar concerns, even if their concrete references in terms of context and experience are different. International Biennales are all about communicating across borders: the question is always how exactly this is done, what kind of space of “commonality”, of shared language and experience is being created, and for whom.’

Anselm Franke at the Shanghai Biennale
Anselm Franke at the Shanghai Biennale

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