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From Made in China to Created in China - A Comparative Study of Creative Practice and Production in Contemporary China

Final Report Summary - CHINACREATIVE (From Made in China to Created in China - A Comparative Study of Creative Practice and Production in Contemporary China)

China is rapidly moving from a “made in China” to a “created in China” paradigm. But what does creativity mean in China? When governmental powers – the nation-state in tandem with, for example, the global art world or the global television industry – are so keen in promoting creative cultures, is there any space left for critique? ChinaCreative zooms in on this historical conjuncture to locate and analyse creativity in China. It investigates how emerging creativities in China are part of tactics of governmentality, disabling or enabling possibilities of criticality. It shows, for example, how some creative practices complicate and at times challenge the creativity, nation-state and global capital nexus. In public parks, for example, retired men and women gather to write ephemeral water calligraphy with brushes made from plastic bottles and sponges, after which their classic poetry or communist slogans soon evaporates in the sun. While the project started with the study of five creative practices – socially engaged art on urbanisation, calligraphy, independent documentaries, reality television from Hunan TV, and shanzhai (“fake”) art – it expanded to include maker spaces in Shenzhen, the platformization of Chinese society, gay dating APPs, and creative labour.

ChinaCreative provides an account of the implications of creativity for a 21st century China and the world at large. It does so through a detailed analysis of a wide range of creative practices in China, in conjunction with in-depth ethnographic fieldwork conducted primarily in Beijing, Shenzhen, Changsha, and Shanghai. Creative practices – such as a reality TV show that teaches how to be a good father, a video APP through which farmer become unlikely creative producers, or an art group in Beijing giving voice to migrant workers – are analysed following a conjunctural approach: they are not taken as a singular fixed entity, but instead as a contact zone, in which global and trans-Asian cultural flows play a pivotal role. We conceptualize this as a profoundly promiscuous contact zone, a word that gestures towards the collaborative, entangled, networked, indiscriminate and deeply regionalized and globalized characteristics of contemporary creative practices. The project thus steers away from discussing the promises of creativity in China – of course China has been, is, and will be creative – towards the promiscuities of creativity in China.

The main findings of the project can be summarised as follows:
1. Creativity is profoundly promiscuous, collaborative, entangled, and networked, and deeply affected by regional and global creative flows of creative practices.
2. This conceptualisation allows a steering away from ideas of unique talent, originality and the related imperative of the new, but instead opens up a space to validate ideas of copying, of vernacularity, and of the banal and the everyday. Chinese creative practices of calligraphy, television adaptations, fictional documentary cinema, participatory art, live streaming, and shanzhai art are particular cases in point.
3. The creativity dispositif, which transforms creativity into a required skill for work and accumulation of capital, has profound governmental implications, also in China – a suggested recalibration towards the vernacular, the shanzhai-ed and the everyday allows for a critique of this dispositif.
4. Precarity can be a productive force, which explains why creative workers in China abandon secure jobs in the government led creative industries to go independent - in contradistinction to the largely negative framings of precarious creative labour in the West.
5. The strong involvement of the government in creative practices, in connection not only to their creative policies but also the increasingly strict forms of control and censorship, produce a complex creative battlefield which is both disabling and enabling. ChinaCreative shows how restrictions can be productive, as they foster a creative energy.
6. The vibrant network of cultural production in China both pushes and limits individuals’ aspirations to creativity and self-realisation. Expected by the state and market to always ‘be creative’ in particular ways, cultural workers also find possibilities to resist this imperative.
7. Processes of platformization are rapidly changing the playing field of cultural production in China, allowing for new forms of control, but also for new forms of creative labour – from, for example, farmers and migrant workers, and produce new aesthetic forms like micro cinema.
8. Independ creative forms like cinema and art allow for tactical and highly contingent forms of parrhesia, speaking truth to power.
9. Non-oppositional forms of criticality allow artists to carve out a space to challenge authorities in participatory art practices.
10. Critique demands to be critiqued, in favour of more affirmative readings of creative practices.