Action Researcher/Performer Astra Howard was one of the three Australian artists to take part in our Two to Three 二到三 program, supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. Astra spent this past December and January in Xiamen at the Chinese-European Art Center, where she created performances in response to the encroaching nature of the city, the anticipation of new urban development, and chance encounters with strangers.

China Residencies: I’m so impressed at everything you have accomplished in such a short time, and although I’ve never been to Xiamen, it seems you capture so many of the city’s details: the tiles, the windows, the plants.

Astra Howard: I always say that there is not enough time!  When you first arrive in a new city, the most notably different and dominant aspects appear the most obvious, but if you stay a little longer, more subtle and complex features emerge. It is always a bit frustrating when time is running out and you can still foresee a number of projects that you would like to complete!

Red Carpet WelcomeRed carpets are laid at the doorways of businesses throughout Xiamen to attract attention and encourage passersby to enter. After some time, these red carpets become worn and progressively molded to the shape of the uneven pavement underneath, consequently losing some of their 'welcoming' appeal. Taking inspiration from Xiamen's abundance of, and love for, plants, the action researcher/performer made a series of red carpets that had plant inspired motifs cut around their borders. These new, very decorative red carpets were then placed at the entrances of anonymous houses or small businesses. Seeing these 'new carpets' being arranged at one's own or a neighbour's entrance, locals eagerly came over to talk, help lay out the leaves and generally gave the impression that they liked this new 'authority' and 'identity' (even if temporary) that the carpet gave their home or enterprise.

CR: I think it shows in your work that as time went on, you started focusing more on the ideas behind the objects. More time is always helpful, but you started something.

AH: The local reactions were interesting because some of the passers-by would say “Oh, this is so normal for us, why would you be interested in that?” Most people made the connection straight away between the source of the inspirational form in the city and the action being undertaken to investigate it. Overall there was a very positive response. In other places around the world, I have sometimes experienced a negative response to projects, for example if people don’t understand the idea, or find what you are doing too unusual or unexpected. But I’ve always found in China that people are very inquisitive and friendly and that overall, they find the ideas interesting and even amusing.

CR: How did bystanders react to your public performances?

AH: Usually, curiosity to begin with, and even though the language barrier made it a bit more difficult for me to understand all of the local responses, members of the public mostly wanted to help with the project. When I arrive in a new city, I always try to listen, and in doing so, let aspects of the place reveal themselves.  If you wander around the streets quietly, the city starts talking to you. Someone at the exhibition opening at CEAC told me that they appreciated my work because it wasn’t the ‘aggressive’ type of performance art they had experienced previously. This sensitivity to place is something I try to uphold in a new environment, rather than arriving and imposing my ideas or beliefs onto an existing community. During the exhibition, someone asked about the exact locations where each of the projects had been undertaken, because they wanted to go back to each place and retrace the performative steps. Xiamen was such a great city in terms of the variation in the natural landscape with the beach and the mountains, combined with the looming inner city buildings and typical multifunctional streetscapes. And for a (relatively) small Chinese city, everything was easily available and accessible.

CR: It’s an interesting time to look into how people are interacting with these 2nd and 3rd tier cities because everything is changing and growing so fast, but doesn’t necessarily reflect demand.

AH: That is what I responded to with the ‘Opening Soon’ project, as I saw so many of these signs throughout the city that encouraged a certain joyful anticipation of what might next appear! The exact nature of what was opening soon didn’t really matter so much - it was more the possibility of something new, something different, or something foreign that was enticing enough. There also appeared to be considerable enthusiasm for American fast food chain stores like Kentucky Fried Chicken - an admiration for Western food no longer as noticeable in such cities as Beijing or Shanghai.

CR: Yes, it’s interesting because there’s actually not that much public space for students and retired folks to hang out in, so the KFCs and McDonald’s become that space.

AH: Yes, in the past also for wedding ceremonies.  

Opening Soon: There is a proliferation of 'Opening Soon' or 'Coming Soon' signs on construction hoardings of new buildings and shopping centres around Xiamen.  A local resident described how an 'Opening Soon' sign had been installed for two years at a particular location in the city for an expensive brand-name store.  However, when the signage was finally removed, the store it had advertised did not exist.  The Action Researcher/Performer decided to create her own 'Opening Soon' sign and attached it to a bike, trolley and typical bamboo pole. This scaled-down version of these infamous signs was then wheeled and carried around her local neighbourhood in Xiamen.  Anything, everything, might be Opening Soon!

CR: So how did the two residencies compare, your Asialink residency at Red Gate and Two to Three 二到三 at CEAC?

AH: The managers of both programs Brian [Wallace] and [Tang] Zehui and Ineke and May were all very committed to the residents, making sure the experience would be as fulfilling as possible. Both residencies have been running for quite some time (over fifteen years), which is rare for China. There was a real sense of community in Xiamen, where the local and visiting artists would be invited to each other’s formal or informal events. In Beijing, there were always openings and dinners, and it really felt like we were part of a team, a welcoming community. You had time to work on your own projects but also to link into the city and see firsthand how other artists engage. Both were certainly very lively and friendships have been maintained ever since. May and Ineke were really helpful in finding resources, whether it was in locating an LED screen, identifying photo-processing stores, sourcing fabrics and art supplies or conversing with metal fabricators. No question was too strange or impossible to resolve! Creating a link with the students from Xiamen University was also very enjoyable. Six students turned up to help with my ‘Windows on the Street’ project, none of them having had any previous experience undertaking projects in public spaces. Two students also assisted with the performance in the gallery on the opening night. I think it proved to be a mutually beneficial experience. I remain in contact with a few of them, and some are interested in pursuing further postgraduate study back in Australia.

CR: And they were all art students?

AH: Yes, but from different disciplinary areas such as design, fine arts, film or curatorial practice. Many had also developed their own collaborations outside the University.

Windows on the StreetMost apartment windows and balconies in Xiamen have metal grid structured grates attached around the outside.  Inside these 'cages', colourful clothes are often seen hanging to dry and below, plants are positioned in abundance.  The range of these different 'private' domestic scenes made 'public' around the city is endless and intriguing, as each window or balcony seems to reveal much about the occupants living inside.  A scaled-down transportable version of these window grates was designed and then constructed by local metal fabricators and finally, pulled around the Shapowei district of Xiamen by university students Lilly, Lilo, Cassie, Eva and Jamie.  Inside the trolley was an assortment of clothes and plants, the arrangement of these items being changed many times throughout the journey around the neighbourhood.

CR: So what was your thought process for deciding  which actions to perform?

AH: It’s a question of finding an idea that’s feasible in terms of the time and resources available and then testing it out. Often it is through the doing and experimenting that an idea transforms itself into something that is possible. Sometimes the materials you find at a location shape the action itself. This was the case with a toy Audi car that I found in a local shop, which was a perfect scaled down replica of the real cars seen all over the city.

Driven by a DreamIncreasingly one sees the growing 'status' of individuals in Xiamen being represented by their ownership of expensive black, shiny 4WD vehicles.  One evening, a man was seen with his head on the table asleep in a KFC restaurant.  It seemed as though he had expended all of his energies at work that day and consequently was unable to sit up or leave for home.  Similar scenes were witnessed across the city, with locals observed asleep in restaurants, on public transport, in local businesses, or in public spaces.  With the ever-increasing wealth of individuals in China and the movement of people away from agricultural to urban living, this drive for progress and status seems to have taken hold.  Responding to this phenomenon, the Action Researcher/Performer attached a scaled down version of one of these 'typical' expensive cars to her wrist.  She then positioned herself in a public space as if asleep, with signs nearby reflecting on themes about the drive to work hard and ‘progress’.  In the CEAC gallery context, a student plays out this role of being too attached to material possessions, alongside an LED sign scrolling related statements.  When the lights in the gallery are turned off, a second participant, hidden from view, remotely controls the car’s movements.  The car tugs at the attached cord as if wanting its sleepy owner to be attentive to all its demands.

CR: It’s interesting that you don’t want to interject yourself into the flow of the city. Thinking back on some of your other performances, you sometimes act as a stopping point in space, a place for passers-by to pause and interact. In Xiamen, you were the transient one, passing through.

AH: If it’s my own language and culture that I am working with, then it is easier to create a catalyst for interaction and discussion. Without knowing the local language, I tend to make work that is more visual, sensorial or temporal. Sometimes projects that have reflection as their basis rather than conversation operate more effectively in a place that is not your own.

CR: Do you think it would have been helpful to speak the language?

AH: Yes, definitely. I always find that knowing a local language allows you to get a deeper and more defined understanding of place. Having said that, it is amazing how much can be said (or read) without language. Places hold an array of sensory information that sometimes gets blocked by our focus on language and dialogue. When this verbal form of communication is not possible, other ways of engaging, understanding and responding to a city emerge. This can be understood as more of a felt (right brain) rather than thought (left brain) activity.

CR: I love how you recorded chance encounters, dwelling on these micro-moments.

AH: You would probably find the same encounters here in Melbourne, or in New York, or Paris, or anywhere. It’s just that in an everyday circumstance, you carry on with the mechanics of life and don’t necessarily have the time or attention necessary to acknowledge these little things. But in Xiamen, I was so focused on identifying what was different, what was new and unique, that those small encounters became more prominent and resonant. Those encounters were also very much about the chance meetings I had with strangers on the street.

First EncounterIn her first weeks walking the streets of Xiamen, the action researcher/performer had various unexpected encounters with local residents.  She recorded these experiences and then had the texts translated into Chinese.  There are many walls around Xiamen that have phone numbers stenciled on them by individuals to attract personal business.  Soon after they are stenciled, authorities paint over them with white or grey paint to conceal the message.  This overlay of paint leaves a variety of tonal patterns on the otherwise weathered grey walls.  In one instance, the Action Researcher/Performer came across a small pencil text written directly on top of a freshly painted square surface.  In order to read this 'quiet' message, one necessarily had to stand very close to the wall surface.  On another occasion, the Action Researcher/Performer saw a broken clipboard attached to a wall, the white painted surface of the clipboard camouflaging it against the background wall surface.  Responding to these local wall images, the Action Researcher/Performer printed and pasted the encounters she had experienced in Xiamen onto small white painted clipboards and attached these onto wall surfaces around the city.

CR: Is there a particular moment that’s stayed with you?

AH: It’s difficult to isolate just one moment or encounter, but maybe if I think about it, the key feature was the plants. I’ve never seen so many plants as I did in Xiamen, on public footpaths, in shops, on balconies and in windows. There was a real sense of reverence for, and affinity with, plants and nature in Xiamen. When I recently moved from Sydney to Melbourne just after returning to Australia from Xiamen, I immediately felt the urge to buy some plants. The importance of nature in everyone’s life in Xiamen really stayed with me. I will probably always have plants surrounding me in the future.

CR: How did Xiamen measure up to your expectations?

AH: I didn’t have too much of an expectation about what Xiamen would be like. For other cities in China that I have visited like Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing, I’d seen many images and read various stories before arriving, so had an idea of what to expect. I was told that Xiamen was on the coast, but was still surprised to find the beach and palm trees right on our doorstep. I just hit the ground running on arrival in Xiamen and tried to walk around as much as possible to get a feel for the place in order to begin thinking through possible ideas for projects.

CR: Did you get the chance to travel a bit outside Xiamen?

AH: I did squeeze in a short trip to Taipei with May, Ineke and Siggi. It was very enjoyable to go on this journey with them, as they had some great ideas about what to see and where to go. They really are such generous and kind people who are very genuine and passionate about what they do. I would love to go back to Taiwan at some point in the future.

CR: Who were some of the other artists around when you were there?

AH: There was Anne Weshinsky, from the US. She had undertaken previous training as a circus performer and so for the exhibition opening, she did a performance juggling traditional Chinese umbrellas with her feet! Each artist treated the space very differently. Sarah Mei Herman was next - her work is photography based. She was interested in teenagers, capturing the semi-awkward physical encounters and interrelations between friends and partners. Sarah installed light boxes with her prints in the gallery for an immersive show. Then Josie Jenkins, who is a painter from Liverpool in the UK, made huge paintings of landscapes in Xiamen with a particular focus on man-made shapes interacting with the natural environment. Shipping containers, recycling plants and dilapidated theme parks were just a few of the many points of inspiration. For all of us, the unique physical, social and cultural aspects of place had a big impact on what we were doing. Our projects were all firmly grounded and uniquely situated in the particular experiences we all had of Xiamen.

CR: That’s great. There are lots of different approaches to residencies, but I think for the ones in China, it’s really important to engage with the place you’re in.

AH: From a manufacturing standpoint, making projects in China is also very efficient and relatively cost-effective. For example, it only took a few days for the ‘Windows on the Street’ trolley to be made from my design drawings. The way apartment buildings are constructed in China within weeks is indicative of this pace. Everything happens on a big scale and very fast. But in this way, everything and anything is possible, which is fantastic!

CR: It’s one of the most exciting places to be as an artist, because the gap between an idea and its realization can be much more narrow. It allows for a lot of experimentation. On a more concrete note, how was the accommodation?

AH: The apartments were great. They really could be described as a 'luxury compound' only two minutes from the beach! It was helpful that all the artists were located in the same compound, so that we could get together easily. The bus ride from the apartment to CEAC took only about ten to fifteen minutes, so that was very efficient. The scale of the city makes it very accessible for a short residency period. The location of the gallery is also very close to Xiamen University, which is useful for student engagement. Also, Xiamen itself has great appeal - it’s considered one of the most beautiful parts of China, the air is very clean and there were blue skies most days!

CR: And what are you up to next?

AH: I have an exhibition opening in early June at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. This unique community is perched on a plateau approximately two hours drive West of Sydney. The curator has brought together five artists working on the theme of ‘Strange Embrace’. My project is called the ‘Moving Story Telling Vehicle’, which is a portable narrative generating device that encourages locals to discuss their relationship with each other and place.

Read more about Astra's time in Xiamen on the blog she created to document her residency.

This interview was conducted over the phone and email by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residenices.