Two to Three Inside Out – An Artist in Xiamen

Two to Three Residency Interview

After interviewing China Residencies Director, Kira Simon-Kennedy about the Two to Three (二到三) Residency, Asia Options immediately got a hold of Joshua Hoare. In 2015 Josh was one two Australian residents in Xiamen on the Two to Three program.

Two to Three is a multi-disciplinary artist residency open to Australians with China experience. It runs for 4 to 8 weeks and is open to all creative practice from curating to film-making, choreography to writing, with no restriction on age, background, ethnicity or medium. In 2015 the Two to Three residency flew two Australian artists to China and covered their flights, accommodation, visa and a stipend. As Artistic Director of the South Australian Circus Centre, Josh directs contemporary performance and circus art and he visited the Chinese European Art Centre in Xiamen, home to China’s oldest artist residency.

Join us as Josh paints a full picture of what it’s like to do art in China; how cultural differences can lead an artist down the garden path; and how Two to Three was the perfect balance between support and independence.

Asia Options: A lot of us at Asia Options are trying to spread the message that China isn’t just business; it’s about culture, art, food, cinema, and so much more! So it was really exciting when Kira [Simon-Kennedy] put us in touch with you to hear about your experience with the Two to Three art residency in Xiamen.

Josh: Yeah, what’s interesting about China, I found, is that culture and commerce are interlinked – much more so than in the west. The arts in China are so tied into commerce. In my opinion, in Australia often we can be supported to practice arts because of a sort of privilege, where often we have the wages and the quality of life to afford us time to invest our creative energy into things that may not need to make money. Whereas in China, everything needs to pay for itself – in life, you need to make money and bring back income.

I also think that in China, at least more so than in a lot of Australian arts practice, there’s a much stronger identification with historical heritage and the artistic manifestation of that.

Could you please tell me what’s Cirkidz? And what’s your position?

So I am the artistic director at the South Australian Circus Centre, the home of Cirkidz. Cirkidz started thirty years ago as a program for disadvantaged kids, and kids that were at risk of disengaging from the community, to challenge their energy in a physical and creative way. The organisation is still rolling strong and we’ve grown significantly to become the South Australian Circus Centre. However, despite growing into a much larger organisation, Cirkidz remains its core program.
We launched that complementary brand because so much of our programming now doesn’t identify with that ‘kids’ element. So now we have a much stronger ‘circuses outreach’ and ‘circus as social capital’ building program and an adults program. Our main performing ensemble is still young people under 18 but they’re young people who don’t identify with the title ‘kids’.

I noticed from your website that you’re still a not-for-profit and charitable organisation, so everything you do feeds back into the community?

Exactly. We have a scholarships program. A lot of kids who come from disadvantage are given sponsored places and it changes lives. They’re young people becoming part of a team and family. They’re training with high-intensity; they’re building trust and for many they’re experiencing success for the first time. Although, they may hear people say that they’re no good for school or in other parts of their life, here they enter a context where they can finally consider themselves good at something. They’re trusted and they’re given responsibility. The circus is the vehicle for becoming a better, stronger person.

How did you get involved in circus, did you have a background in performing arts, or arts management? How did you get into the language and culture side?

So my trajectory was that I started doing physical theatre as a teenager. Then at 18 I went to Sydney University undertaking an arts degree and languages French, Japanese and Mandarin. During those three years I kept training circus all through that.  At 21 I was accepted into the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne and did a Bachelor of Circus. Melbourne is one of the only places in the world where you can do that. From 24 to 26 I did fringe shows in Adelaide and Sydney. On the side I made my own artistic physical theatre, circus-theatre and the like. When I was overseas in Berlin this position as artistic director opened up and I got in. Friends and peers have grown up in this company so I knew the company because of the artists it produced. I started four years ago and have been here since!

“…that’s really my bent on all the artistic stuff I do. I focus on inter-cultural communication and inter-cultural understanding.”

Quite a long stewardship! It sounds to me like travel and language got its claws into you early on, too. I mean, Japanese and Mandarin are two of the most popular Asian languages at university nowadays.

I think that it came about growing up in a small rural town of Coonabarabran, New South Wales, which had a really Anglo-Celtic and Koori population. And then when I was 11 a Japanese air hostess came to my primary school and this different world opened up to me. In my little high-school you couldn’t do Japanese, there was only French, so I would do Japanese by correspondence. It was through the open high school in Sydney and I’d be sent these mail correspondence packs with cassettes and that. Through university I just kept going with it.

That’s great

Yeah, so that’s my parallel passion to the physical stuff: linguistics. When I was in Berlin I did a Masters in Applied Linguistics online and the thread through that was inter-cultural communication. And that’s really my bent on all the artistic stuff I do. I focus on inter-cultural communication and inter-cultural understanding.

I find a lot of my friends who studied Mandarin at university came from country backgrounds. Although, maybe they also had just one Chinese restaurant in town, they were just curious enough to peel back the surface and see what’s behind.

Yeah and it wasn’t even a Chinese restaurant anyway, it was a kind of dodgy Western version of one.

Yeah so linguistics gives you tools to understand the phonetics and grammar of a language, which allows one to self-learn. Then with the curiosity you equip yourself with not just the will to learn the language but also the desire to learn about the culture through the language I suppose.

Exactly, it becomes a doorway rather than an endpoint.

Yeah exactly, that’s so cool. Your Two to Three Residency was also a step on the path and wasn’t an end in and of itself.

Absolutely and it did a few things for me. It opened up my eyes to another community of contemporary artists – more than just contemporary artists – it opened my eyes to its ecosystem in China. Not just artists but also gallery relationships. The biggest thing was that I re-framed my definition of what I’m doing. Contemporary circus fills an interesting place in art because it spans from contemporary arts all the way to entertainment. You can frame contemporary circus as commercial entertainment or as a conceptual contemporary art practice – and anything in between.

So it runs the gamut. How did you find contemporary circus done in Xiamen? Was it more the artistic side of things or was there a lot of commercialisation at well?

It’s fascinating in China because the contemporary visual arts are so progressive in many ways, but performing arts in China is a different kettle of fish. There’s almost no independent sector in a country of a billion plus people. It comes from that need to make a living – there isn’t the option for welfare or easy part-time jobs. So the performing arts is very traditional. Because of that lack of an independent sector, they’re largely all government or state-supported companies. State-supported companies then have requirements and quotas around the work they do and present, which can make it difficult to innovate beyond that cultural heritage.

It’s very difficult to do risky work. The Chinese market doesn’t really want progressive contemporary performing arts because of those core cultural values, which focuses on the desire to see large-scale spectacles – very different to the west.

Yeah, that kind of Zhang Yimo – where 88 people are walking in perfect synchrony around and within a lake.

That’s exactly it. The Western core values often seek an intimate connection with the individual – they want to know the person’s story. For the Chinese audience that means less, they want to see the collective.

Zhang Yimo's Impressions of West Lake
Zhang Yimo’s Impressions of West Lake

How long was the entire residency in Xiamen? Did you travel around? Did you get to Shanghai? It’s relatively close, I mean, I was looking this morning, it’s 7 hours by high-speed rail.

Two months exactly. I’d been to Shanghai before but I flew up there in January. I went to see this new visual arts movement of artist collectives. I was really interested in Island 6 – 六岛 and MadeIn Company – 没顶公司.

They’re two parts of this growing movement towards artist-run collectives. The collective makes the work rather than the individual artist. I’m interested because a similar thing is happening in contemporary circus. Young independent artists get into a training space, make their work and then travel it around. The touring network supports it and it’s easy for artists.

I went to Shanghai to see that but when I was in Xiamen I began a working relationship with the Fujian Provincial Circus. They’re interesting because they exist in that traditional ecosystem, but they’re very aware that they need to innovate. They see connections with the west, and artists like myself, as a way to bring in new approaches or styles. They believe that to get a competitive advantage in China you need be creative.

When I think of Chinese contemporary circus and performances, I think of those arena spectaculars like ‘Shen Yun‘. It’s not on that intimate level you were saying. So is the goal to export and get external recognition? Or is the circus trying to define what Fujian province is doing, to knuckle down and make a domestic support base?

It’s a little bit of both. You’ve hit the nail on the head in that it’s exactly what we said before: there’s always that commercial imperative. This was a big part of my education going over there. I wasn’t blind but I still was reminded that the kind of funding model that Australians have (but is getting harder actually) still doesn’t exist there in terms of innovative and progressive artistic excellence.

My priority was to make beautiful and cross-cultural art, but for them there was still that need to make revenue. In Australia, often we have to be satisfied with just covering costs because that’s part of how we make art in this country. Because of that I was very clear with them that I don’t think that we can do anything strong with the Chinese market yet. The partnership we have at the moment doesn’t have the kind of investment needed to make that big-scale stuff that the domestic market wants. I was very clear at the start that I envisaged smaller nimble shows – the kind the west thrives on now, because presenting houses no longer have huge budgets. Often Chinese circuses go to the West and they can become quite homogeneous.

“What originally I posed to Kira was to work with retired circus artists, but on the ground it took another, and I think a stronger, direction.”

I feel that the whole China’s too big to understand mentality feeds into the large spectaculars that we see in the west. And I imagine that do want to court that perception because it’s a lot more palatable for audiences here, I think.

Yeah, the west sees it all as this homogeneous ‘same old’ kind of thing.

Yeah so, was that a pre-requisite of you doing Two to Three, that there would be a quid-pro-quo with the local artist scene or was it that you had more freedom?

I originally intended to work with retired Peking acrobats and local opera artists, but on arriving and starting the relationship with Fujian Circus and the independent scene, I altered my direction. For example, I found a kind of ‘improvisation mover’ to collaborate with who became like a producer for me. We did a couple of local workshops in improvised movement. I also made a couple of short films with a Chinese singer and two Australian circus artists as well. What originally I posed to Kira was to work with retired circus artists, but on the ground it took another, and I think a stronger, direction.

Made in Company
Made in Company home page

That always happens in China, you have an action plan then it doesn’t implement at all.

And I really like that and I work that way here in Australia too. My team knows there’s always a plan but the plan always changes – it depends on where it goes. I like that about China – I really like that last-minute thing. Things happen in the last minute; suddenly you’re all going to some opening or something else that only happened just that day.

I suppose that’s pretty hard for some people, that tumble dryer. Was it a good period of time? Did you have an idea of what Xiamen would be like?

“I like the way that wherever you go that it’s about the perfect storm. It’s about both partners being in the same place at the same time.”

So three or four years ago I went over to China by myself to set up relationships. I started to do it by myself before I realised that it was silly in the performing arts world. You need a liaison; a producer; someone on the ground to help you. The second time I went with a representative from the Australian Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The representative had special relationships with Hebei Province. In Hebei there’s a town called Wuqiao (吴桥) – considered the traditional home of acrobatics. He helped the circus to form a relationship with them. But what’s interesting for me is it took me going to Xiamen, and building that on-the-ground relationship with Fujian myself to see results. It was partly fostered by the CEAC, the Chinese European Arts Centre in Xiamen, but it wasn’t nearly as formal as the relationship with Wuqiao and I think it will become more fruitful.

I like the way that wherever you go that it’s about the perfect storm. It’s about both partners being in the same place at the same time. Making the same risks and meeting the same demands. Our relationship with Fujian has proved to be a much cheaper investment than our one with Wuqiao but it will be much more fruitful – just because of that sweet spot of timing and guanxi. I really like this idea of building a relationship first before you create things. I really can see this Western rush into do things for money’s sake and I appreciate the Chinese focus on ‘hold your horses we don’t know each other yet’.

Australia and China look at different time frames. China plays a longer game and sets up relationships within a family, within a generation, within a dynasty. It looks at how the relationship can not be just a benefit for the self but for generations going forward. Guanxi is one of those things that’s controversial for Westerners, some people think all you’ve got to do is shout a few beers, or a few meals, and you’ve got credit.

It doesn’t work like that – it’s more about whether there is a coincidence of personalities and interest. If they don’t like you as a person then they’re probably not going to like you as a business person either. I suppose you don’t learn that in a degree and you can’t learn it in an Australian context.

In my experience you can fall into this false sense of security that ‘oh now we’re really gelling inter-culturally” then something happens and it’s blown apart. You’ll realise “oh wow my expectations were so different to yours and we didn’t even realise”. You realise “oh that’s right, I was coming at this with Australian expectations and Australian values”. To define that even more, I was coming at that with a contemporary Anglo-Celtic Australian values around what was going to happen.

Yeah… that’s an entirely different conversation… or multiple theses.

Already plenty of theses on it.

Do you mind if I ask how the residency supported you? How was it structured? You touched down, found a working space organised by China Residencies and…?

So China Residencies – I’m sure Kira explained more about it to you – applies for Australian funding to take Australian artists to China. I was hosted by the CEAC in Xiamen which was established by Ineke Gudmundsson and her husband Sigudur Gudmudsson. They started the centre about 18 years ago. They support you with accommodation and any relationships you want and elementary ways of doing things. They really act as that ‘realiser’ of the artist’s vision.

Chinese European Art Centre
Exhibition at CEAC – Sarah Mei Herman – Screen Touch

The artist gets out of the residency what the artist wants. What China Residencies offers is such a privilege in that the artist is free to create what they envisage without there being too much control – for someone to just invest in artistic practice and research.

I’m wondering, do they simply expect that the journey you go on is enough for them to feel like they contributed? Aren’t they concerned with the final output?

They’re investing in artistic practice and research and they know that when you put artists in the same room together, or in a new context, then things happen. There was no locked-in outcome and in many ways that is the best way because it opens it up for the most fruitful outcome. So I made films, I taught some workshops, I set up a working relationship with the Fujian Provincial Circus – I don’t think any of that would have happened if I had a rigid structure.

Yeah, it sounds like you didn’t waste your time.

It’s good because CEAC is strongly set up for visual arts and tactile arts like ceramics. So for performing artists it’s slightly harder, but it means you have to find other ways. It was almost impossible in Xiamen to find a studio for acrobatics and yoga and movement. So it forces the artist to think about site-specific work and video work in different locations. I’m a circus and physical theatre director so that meant I could create context for artists in other places. With the films I made, one was in the arts centre and one was in the lounge-room of the place they gave me.

Yeah, cool as! While you were in Xiamen did you come across artists doing other residencies? What other opportunities are there when you’re on the ground yourself?

CEAC always hosts about four or five artists. When I was there, there was an Icelandic fashion designer, a Dutch visual artist and an Irish painter. They were the main ones hosted at CEAC but we were social acquaintances with some of the local artists in Xiamen including ceramicists and the ex-pat community

Great, so finishing up, do you think your perception of China has changed? Is there any gem that you could share?

I never identified it much before – and I’m sure in part it’s because of the context I was in this time – but I really love the Chinese sense of getting things done. Part of that comes from the fact that in China it’s easier and cheaper to make something happen. It’s easier to iterate that new product or to test that idea. It was really encouraging. I learnt to ‘get it out of the imaginative’ mindset and ‘get into the creative’ one. I feel like in the west, part of it comes from the cost of labour and such, that it’s harder here to end up with something tangible. I identified with the tendency in China to stop talking and just do it.

It’s the scale that’s different. I’m not sure how translatable that is to Australia because of costs here being prohibitive. The start-up scene is big in China and it sounds like the art world can learn things from them to just ‘get your idea out there’.

Big time. Part of that is the entrepreneurial spirit of people on the street, people doing business over WeChat, all these people taking hold of opportunities because they have to – because there’s not the support networks we have here whether they be financial assistance or easy part time jobs. Over there, people either fall into poverty or make something happen for themselves. I had friends there doing business over WeChat and organising stuff, which inspired me to shake myself off and do something.

Definitely China’s got that… attitude. You’ve hit on so many interesting things you’re going to ferment on, but what do you think you can say now to other people who are looking at China undecided and they’re like ‘do I want to give China a shot?’

For me it’s about framing everything as a vehicle for something – a vehicle for some greater connection. I mean, I’m an acrobat who’s interested in languages – all of that becomes vehicles for closer connection. Use your passions to do the ultimate thing: to get humans to connect despite language or cultural difference. We’re all just people who want someone to love, someone to love us, to have a roof over our heads and to find similar things funny. Whether it’s pottery or circus or financial start ups, they’re all just ways to find more connection.

If anyone thinks that their passions, skills or talents are trivial – always remember that it’s much more about what you do with that talent than what that talent is.

If you’re itching to find a residency, this should be your starting point: ‘Finding The Right Residency

You can follow China Residencies on Twitter and Facebook. Also feel free to read about previous recipient of the Two to Three 二到三, Astra Howard, and residency directors Ineke Guðmundsson and May Lee.

You can also apply for China Residency and Red Gate’s Crystal Ruth Bell Residency, which is now accepting applications for a funded residency in Beijing in November and December 2016.

Impressions of West Lake image source: Go To Hangzhou

The following two tabs change content below.

Will Breedon

Will graduated from Monash University with degrees in Economics and Arts (Mandarin) and studied at Soochow University as a Hamer Scholar.

Leave a Comment