Have you ever thought about going to China on a residency? We hear a lot about China through the media nowadays and most of it gives you the sense that it’s a far away place, it’s confusing, difficult and they’re probably going to take over the world. I went there in March of 2017 with many conflicting expectations, my head was filled with what I thought I knew through friends who had been there, people from there that I knew, things I had learned while doing research about silk embroidery and my-not stellar-esperiences with getting a Chinese visa. When I actually landed and spend a month at Qingyun International Art Centre, just outside Beijing, I learned that China is a place. A sometimes confusing place, but still a place, and a place I really enjoyed and want to go back to.
I found the residency I went to through the website China Residencies, which has a comprehensive list of Chinese residencies on it, does interviews with them and has very useful guides to daily life things you’ll experience in China such as the internet, Wechat and various city guides for artists. What jumped out to me about their site was a sense of humor and fun about it, and how they made it seem so much more approachable and doable to go to China. I send them an email, asking to interview them and got on Skype with the co founder Kira Simmon-Kennedy. We had an amazing talk about all things China, the many, many projects she and her team are up to and what is so great about the wide network of residencies all over the world.
I hope you enjoy the interview, and if you want to read more about them or you’re now inspired to go to China and see it all for yourself, be sure to check out their website China Residencies
To start with, can you tell a little bit about China Residencies and how it got started?
Sure! My friend Crystal and I were living in Beijing, she was the director of Red Gate residency and I was her intern. She realised that there seemed to be a lot of spaces in China that were hosting artists but they didn’t really know each other, so she started bringing them together to talk about the common problems they were facing and help each other. At the same time, I was getting a lot of emails of people saying ‘I want to go to China, but I don’t know how to get a visa, I don’t understand the internet, I don’t know the language, what’s going on?’ We both were like, well, maybe instead of helping all of these people solving the same problems individually, we should start a website where people can find each other and we could help them out that way.
Crystal was a web designer, graphic designer and a wonderful person and she was like ‘let’s make it happen.’ She went on a residency to Nebraska to map out the idea and unfortunately around the same time got diagnosed with terminal cancer. We had to stay in the US so she could get health insurance and treatment. She was in the hospital and called me to say she registered a non profit with her as the president, me as the vice president and she said ‘we’re going to do this and it will be great!’. So, that’s our very strange origin story.
We raised the first round of funding through crowd funding and we went on our first research trip, we visited all the residencies we knew of at the time and realised that there was a lot of work to be done and people were very excited to be included. We applied for grants pretty soon and were able to fund different artists to go and do different projects. Crystal passed away a while ago and I had to transition to figuring out what to do with the project. I had a lot of great support from the people we’ve been working with who said what we were doing was important, people who were using the website, just like you. That alone was motivation to keep it going.
I remember when I started doing research because I wanted to go to China, it seemed very daunting at first but when I found your website it was a huge help because everything was neatly put together, you could apply through the site, there are articles about what it’s like to go on residency to China, it made it much more approachable.
We’ve noticed people’s perceptions of China and the realities are very, very different. And most people only hear about China through the news of from a few people who’ve been there or they have a few friends who are Chinese immigrants, everyone’s hearing second hand information, mediated through something and it’s often not accurate. The main thing we want to combat is this idea that it’s a far away, strange distant place. It’s not, it’s a place! It has it’s own set of principles, it’s different from a lot of other countries, but it’s still just a place. The hardest really is how separate the internet is. One of the reasons why there is a separate website is that a lot of things on the Chinese cultural scene is posted on WeChat or other totally different platforms, since Facebook and Twitter and such are all blocked, so if you just search..Google is blocked too, but if you just search you won’t find all the content they’re putting out there, so we’re sort of the middle bridge for that. We want to give people actual up to date, recent news instead of an image of how China was years ago.
I felt the same way when I went to China, at first it seemed daunting but then when I was there I realised, hey, it’s a country, people live here, sure things go a bit differently but it’s still a place! For you, where did this fascination with China start, when did you first go there?
I was born American but my parents moved to France when I was one, so I lived there until I was eighteen and they taught Chinese at my high school. I started learning Chinese when I was twelve years old and then I had a lot of great opportunities to go there for homestays and language programs and continue to study, volunteer and work there. After I graduated it made sense to move there and continue my work there, I still do some translation work and I make documentary films.
I recently made a documentary about this market town where all the ‘Made in China’ things are from, to show again a different side of China and what people think of when they hear Made in China. So yeah, lots of things, it’s a cool country.
Also, it was before the whole media frenzy of ‘China’s going to take over the world!’, before it was widely available to learn Chinese at a young age. China seemed a bit strange at the time and it seemed cool to take a trip there! I guess the real back story is that the school had a principal in the sixties who had been communist and a lot of French communists were very enamoured with the idea that an ideal communist society had been created in China, without knowing what was really going on, which was pretty horrific. There were a lot of French intellectuals who were very fascinated with Maoism and that’s how it got into the curriculum of schools.
That’s really cool, because of what they believed back then you are now helping people travel to China and work there as artists.
Yeah! It also goes to show that when information doesn’t travel, people’s perception of a place becomes really distorted. In theory, the idea of working together and evenly distributed resources is really great but then in practice that’s not what happened. I think I’m still very fascinated by modern China being nominally communist but being incredibly capitalist at the same time, which is hard to explain from a distance..
Yes, when you started to say that I immediately got what you meant because I’ve been there.
But sometimes seems like those kind of things are very hard to explain or to understand without having been there.
Sometimes it seems like that because it can be hard for people to explain without exoticising it, making it seem that it’s impossible to learn or understand, when in fact anyone can learn any language if they have enough time. I don’t really know who benefits from this idea that it’s a complicated, far away place but it’s definitely something we’re trying to counter.
I think it’s interesting that the concept and definition of a residency seems to be changing, especially with younger artists experimenting with what a residency means to them.
I think there’s a lot of interesting things going on with that. We also run an Instagram residency! We realised that there’s a lot of cool residencies that are in cities in China, but there’s a lot going on in between the cities, in places that don’t always have a designated art space. We wanted to encourage people to travel, to take trains and get around. It makes sense environmentally and it’s a great way to meet people. So, we started the slow train residency, where anyone could apply with a project they would do while travelling by train across China or to China. Whatever they would make would live digitally on our Instagram account, we’ve had six people do it now, some people have taken the Trans Siberian from Moscow to Beijing. It’s a cool project!
I noticed when I was there, it was just one month, but when we met other artists there was this sense of excitement and ‘do it yourself’, when an idea was born there was a sense of ‘we’re just going to do it!’ which is very different from back home where people are much more like ‘hmm, how will we do this..’
I get that comment a lot, especially from people from the Netherlands and Germany, they’re very surprised by how quick things go in China!
I think it’s a different context, in places like the Netherlands, if you want to be an artist you first go to art school, then you’re in art school for quite a few years, and then you have a project, you apply for a grant, then that takes time, then there’s a museum show, that’s planned five, six years in advance. China works at a different pace, a different time scale.
Do you have an idea where that comes form, why is it like that in China?
I think it might have to do with how new the general contemporary art scene is, the number of art schools and museums has really exploded in the last fifteen years. Also, China went through a lot and it wasn’t until the eighties and nineties that it really started to open up..foreigners could come in, Chinese students were allowed to travel again and that is still really fresh in people’s minds. There’s a huge divide between people who were born in the seventies or people who were born in the nineties, there really is a sense that everything is possible now in a way that wasn’t there a few years ago. I can’t think of that many other countries that have been through something like that. So there’s that.
There’s also the sense that..if things aren’t scheduled, if they’re not planned for an entire year then yeah you can do it tomorrow, or next week, things are very flexible. There’s been these horrible evictions of migrant workers who have been the fabric of life in Beijing and sort of overnight the government decided to evict them, just throw them out. So, there’s also this sense of precariousness, you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. That kind of atmosphere also means you don’t plan things five years in advance because you don’t know if you’re going to be around next year, if you’re going to have your building. Things happen in a very unpredictable way, that influences a lot of life and the art scene.
You keep the residencies up to date on the site, and sometimes they just disappear, do you know why that happens?
I think that happens all over the world with residencies, sometimes they just stop, the rent is too high, owners have a fight, they get tired, they can’t make the money work, people’s visa’s run out, people might want to leave..a lot of time it’s run by artists who want to go on a residency themselves, go to school, have kids..those are kind of international reasons, and then there’s the extra layer of China not having that much support for the art spaces and the nonprofit laws are complicated. It’s harder to build something that has a financial structure that’s totally legal and above board that will help you run your place. If I talk to friends in Europe who run art spaces, it’s much easier to get acces to government funding, grants, EU money, things like that, in China and in the US you need to raise any money you need by yourself, maybe find rich people who can help you out..it’s harder to make it financially sustainable.
That makes sense. When you find a new place you want to add, how does that process go, or do they find and contact you?
A couple ways. The best is when people contact us and say ‘hey I’m thinking of starting a residency’ and we can say, okay talk to our friends who’ve already done it and they can help you out. That way, we can work thematically, so someone might say, hey I want to start a residency on a farm, and we can link them to other farm residencies to talk to since they have different challenges from city residencies. We try to send them as much information as they need, helping them schedule their calenders, hiring and training staff, all of that, that’s very exciting.
Other times, people will just tell us ‘hey we have a new residency.’ We have a Google alert set up too, that way we might find a new residency and we can reach out to them, tell them about all these other residencies and ask them if they want to join the website. A lot of time people who think of starting residencies don’t necessarily know of other people who’ve had the same idea, which is fun. It’s an interesting thing, a lot of people start from scratch when they could start with all of these examples. It’s really, really hard work to run a residency..I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it, but I want them to understand there’s a lot of work and love and labour that goes into it that often isn’t compensated. If you don’t have a plan for that, it’ll be hard to sustain it. I want them to know what they’re getting into!
For artists who are thinking of going to China on a residency, do you have any tips for them?
Oh, always! We have this guide to help people choose and apply, which has tips that other various smart people have given us. I guess the first tip is; it’s not just for artists! Right now there’s an open call for DJ’s, VJ’s and performers who want to collaborate with a club. Don’t think it’s not for you, even if you don’t think of yourself as an artist. There’s a million different kind of practices you might not think of when you think of artists residencies, but there’s a residency for it. The notion of an artist is a lot broader than people sometimes think. And then..do the research, read the interviews, see what seems cool for you and suits you. Do a bit of thinking before you apply about what you want to get out of it, do you want solitude, do you want company, do you want to show your work, do you want to collaborate..there’s a million different reasons but it’s about matching expectations.
What’s it like working with the residencies in China, because you work from a distance, right?
I’m in China three or four times a year and we have residencies in about fifteen different cities so although I’m in China quite a bit but I’m that often at each residency in person. We use WeChat, which is China’s version of..everything. It’s basically the internet over there, we use WeChat groups to stay in touch, lots of email and virtual communication, which works well. We also have a lot of local collaborations with the different residencies and the people who work there. A couple of residencies have been running for ten, fifteen, years, they’re very solid and they’re really hubs, a lot of people who work there go to work at other places too. Those kind of hubs are pillars of the network, they’re commited to the field and they help other residencies out as well. They’re a big part of the network over there.
When you two first started the project, what was your vision for it and did that change over the years?
Probably! When we first got started, we thought it was going to be just research, we thought; it’s going to be a website and it’s going to be useful information, like a phone book or something. So we applied for a research grant hoping we would go to lesser known cities in China and do research there, but the people who gave us the grant were like ‘how about you do something with artists instead?’, and we ended up sending Australian artists who had been to China before back there to lesser known Chinese cities instead, which was cool because we could then interview them and they told us their experiences, so it worked out.
It’s come up over and over again, people are more willing to fund artists than they are willing to fund research and writing, which is fine with us. I wasn’t our intention in the beginning but now we’re really excited to work with artists and we’ve worked with about 40 artists now since the beginning.
The other big development is that we now also help other artists and residencies develop their ideas and help them focus on the projects they want to do by helping them apply for grants or help them out through fiscal sponsorship.
A lot of developments are based on need, if people tell us, ‘hey we need help setting up this residency’, then we figure out how we can help them and then that becomes part of what we do. A big part is also that we don’t want to be redundant, we always check if no one else is doing what we’re planning and if there’s a great resource already out there we can just direct people to them. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that the world is complicated and everyone’s reality is their own, you can know that in your head but that is something different from going on a residency, meeting these people, living there and starting to understand. That’s the greatest contribution of this worldwide net of residencies, that there’s thousands of places where that can happen. We help people out trying to do that, and in which way we do that, that can change depending on need.
How do you see the future of China Residencies and all your projects?
Well, hopefully it will keep growing at a pace that makes sense to us and we’re excited to grow the team a little. We’re always fundraising, if anyone wants to give us money, that’d be great! We do a dumpling party every year to showcase the work of the artists we’ve been working with, and this year we’re doing one in New York but we’re also letting anyone in the world host their own! So, if people are interested and want to learn how to make dumplings we’re going to email them a virtual dumpling making kit that will have a playlist and recipes and cocktail recipes and video instructions on how to make dumplings and then we hope people are going to get together, either with friends or in a public space, and make food together and invite people they know who are either from China or have been to China and they can have a sort of informal hangout where a little bit what would happen on a residency can happen there.
I really like how you approach these projects with so much fun!
I think that is..if anyone has met Crystal, she was this incredibly fun person and she really moved to China without speaking much Chinese and she was just really excited to make things happen. She made friends immediately and really build things from the ground up and her energy really shines through a lot of things we do. I think it’s also important to remember why we’re doing this, a lot of times artists we work with have really clever ways to get to very universal issues through humor and fun and interactive ways that draw people in and get them thinking. And it’s important to have fun!
Thank you for the interview Kira, and for everything you and your team do for China Residencies! Hearing about all your projects was very inspiring and I think the energy and fun that shine through the projects(and I hope this interview)speak for themselves. Thanks for being the push in my back to make me go to China and I hope you will do the same for many people in the future!
Here’s the link once more: China Residencies. This is the guide Kira spoke about in the interview to help artists apply for residencies, and since I’m writing this at the end of the year, this is their year in review post where you can see all they’ve been up to in the past year!