LOCF | Cinema’s ‘Alternative Interdisciplinarity’ in the Internet Age | In Conversation With Digital Artist Zhou Shengwei

Today’s Guest: Zhou Shengwei

  • Digital artist, interdisciplinary director, and creative director;
  • Born in Changsha, Hunan in 1991;
  • BA Literature from Peking University (PKU) and MA Theatre and Visual Media from PKU School of Art;
  • Former Visiting Lecturer at PKU School of Art’s ‘Artists’ Workshop’;
  • Final Review Judge for the 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival’s Short Film ‘Exploration’ competition;
  • Notable works include SHe (2018) and Art is Dead (2020).

Topic: ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking’ and Art Forms

  • The animated film SHe achieved honours at nearly 30 international film festivals globally, including a nomination for Best Animation at the 21st Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), being selected to compete at the 2019 Animation Is Film Festival (one of the largest animation festivals in North America), and a nomination for Festival Européen Jeunes Talents, an alternative art festival in Paris. It was also exhibited at the 24th World Congress of Philosophy, hosted joined by the International Federation of Philosophical Societies and PKU in 2018. The film is now officially in collection at Shanghai’s HOW Art Gallery, one of China’s top contemporary art centres.
  • Art is Dead (watch here) was selected to compete at the 14th FIRST International Youth Film Festival’s Feature Film Category, where it achieved the Spirit of Freedom Award. As a touch-sensitive interactive piece, Art is Dead attracted many short-video creators on social media and encouraged them to create content in a hypothetical universe, similar to video gaming. Based on film contents, Zhou created a thematic exhibit titled ‘Remnants’. Hosted in the Songzhuang art colony near Beijing, the exhibit explores a regular artist’s workshop through innovative curation; the complexities and limitations existing between the artwork and the audience’s perception are slowly fused, gradually forming an ‘experimental field of deception’.

Zhou Shengwei’s works bridge reality and fantasy; with contemporary art at its centre, his creative practice is interdisciplinary and includes forms such as high-concept cinema, digital art, new media, interaction design, and installation art. His style is peculiar and ever-changing, synthesizing powerful emotional appeals with a touch of unconventional imagination.

Q1: Your most well-known works so far, SHe and Art is Dead, were nominated for the Golden Goblet at SIFF and awarded the Spirit of Freedom prize at FIRST Festival respectively. The public mostly views you as a young director; what do you think of this label?

Zhou: I think this depends on how we define the word ‘director’. If we follow traditional understandings of the role, namely something like writing the screenplay, getting funding, assembling the crew, mise-en-scène, then I don’t think I’m a director in this sense, because neither SHe nor Art is Dead was produced in such ways. When filming SHe, we started with picking up garbage, then we made sculptures with the garbage collected before we brought these sculptures to life through the stop motion animation. Finally, we presented this fantastical world to everyone through interactive exhibition and performance art. As for Art is Dead, first we established a fictional theme park, then we invited our friends to come to this theme park and tell lies; these lies are recorded in a documentary way and made into a film, and then we combine social media with performance art to allow more people to participate in this game. Therefore, if we define ‘director’ as the person who sits in front of monitors and directs, then I clearly don’t belong to this category. But if we extend the idea of directing further, and consider the two characters that make up the word ‘director’ in Chinese — ‘to guide’ and ‘to perform’ — then I think directors are given the additional identities as a project manager and a guide. Viewed this way, it’d make sense to call me a director. But no matter what, ultimately we need to avoid being restricted by these definitions and freely exercise our creativity.

Q2: If we jump out of the context of cinema for a second, both SHe and Art is Dead are uniquely interdisciplinary, and both relate to the blurry boundaries between reality and fantasy. In these two works, how did you utilize digital art to connect the real world with the fictional?

Zhou: I think for both of these pieces my role was very similar to that of a project contractor, except it’s for managing digital projects rather than construction. This is because I have to effectively utilize any and all digital methods and mediums available in order to express my original creative concept at the heart of the project.

As for SHe specifically, the building blocks for that digital project was household garbage. Since I couldn’t find neither famous actors nor capital to help me tell the story I wanted to tell – a story of status, desires and power dynamics – I decided to film with household garbage. I first recycled large amounts of garbage produced by households, then categorized them based on their material, colour, shape, etc.; afterwards, I used them to make appropriate props and sets, and discovered that stop motion animation is a great medium for breathing life into inanimation things on screen. So I used an SLR camera to capture these garbage monsters’ expressions and movements one by one, and pushed the project forward with each step; in the end it took 6 years to complete the world-building and storytelling processes.

(cont.d) But this wasn’t all: after the animation was completed, I hosted interactive exhibits in some really unique public spaces, such as the AP Bar in Shanghai’s Onehome Art Hotel and the Broadway Cinematheque. The props and sets used for animation were placed in these spaces as installation art; additionally, I set up some areas where the public can interact with the piece so that everyone can participate and experience this fantasy world made of garbage. At the same time I was using social media platforms to make a ‘shoe monster’s video journal’ project in collaboration with all participants: every day I’d upload updates of daily affairs between myself and my ‘shoe monster’, and in this process incorporate a fantasy setting into my daily life. So regarding SHe as a project, household garbage became the bridge linking reality with fantasy, and this bridge was assembled with digital art forms such as installation, stop motion, and interactive exhibition.

(cont.d) As for Art is Dead, the bridge between reality and fiction was built with lies. I created a fictional event of an artist’s death, which in itself was the first lie, and used this to test people’s reactions to scenarios; through this, I invite everyone to participate in creating more lies. In this process I used mediums such as vlogs and news broadcasting to make these lies look more convincing, which allowed the project to interact with more people and consequently inspire more interesting plot lines. This process is very similar to going to a fictional theme park, where the roller coaster equivalent is everyone discussing how this fictional artist died, and the river rapids ride is everyone making up their own stories and life stories for this artist. My job is to use recording tools at hand, such as a phone an osmo pocket camera, and record everyone’s experience at the theme park. So, in Art is Dead, lies become the materials with which the bridge was built, and real people living in the real world added to this theme park of lies through collectively weaving a related falsehood; this in turn gives this fictional world a semblance of reality. And when I recorded the whole process and made it into a full-length film, I then used film festivals and social media to anchor the film as a new launch tower, and thereby inviting more viewers and online participants to enter the theme park and expand the park’s boundaries. In this project, the construction methods for this bridge of lies were performance art, touch-sensitive documentation, documentary films, new media, short videos, vlogs, interactive games, and social media.

A comment on the video site Bilibili which participates in Art is Dead.

(cont.d) To summarize, both SHe and Art isDead belong to a wider continuum of digital art projects. Digital art isn’t only 3D special effects or 3D modelling; it contains all art forms created through digital methods, including any visual, auditory, and kinetic art forms that can be achieved in an online or new-media context.

Q3: As an artist in this new era, what kinds of obstacles and opportunities have you encountered in your creative process so far?

@zhoushengwei91 (Weibo)
Concept art for SHe. @zhoushengwei91 (Weibo)

Before SHe and Art is Dead, I went through a long period of confusion: the three main obstacles were the lack of money, networking, and skills. You could say that I had nothing but a pair of hands and a brain.

When I started my first year at PKU, I had a creative concept involving gender identity and power dynamics which I really wanted to realize; however, if the project was to be made like a traditional film, I would have had to start by hanging around the right circles, and then finding the money from cracks and crevices. Because this is a project with sci-fi elements, once I found the money I would have also had to assemble an enormous team to make it happen; to a first-year university student these were all practically impossible. At the time I did approach many industry professionals with my idea, and received nothing but rejections, with people saying this like “you’re crazy, you have to spend some time making connections first.” In reality, I did follow some big crews and tried to pass my screenplay on to those production companies and producers, and tried to learn how to network; however, it seemed like I was not meant for it. Maybe I just lacked emotional intelligence, but all the doors closed in my face. But I was still full of passion and felt a strong urge to create, for not doing so felt like choking me to death. These drove me to jump out of the framework of traditional filmmaking and sought answers in other fields.

In terms of my first opportunity, I have my alma mater PKU to thank. During my undergraduate degree, although everyone in the College of Arts had different majors, a lot of interdisciplinarity was created through large introductory courses and electives; in the end, everyone studied some overlapping things. For example, in addition to theatre, film, and television, I spent a similar amount of energy on learning art history, philosophical theories, aesthetic theories, anthropology, archaeology, media studies, broadcasting, and even architecture, environmental and ecological studies, and information engineering… So whilst I was unable to realize my ideas and at the deepest point in my despair, another seemingly frustrating issue occurred—I had to finish my end-of-term dissertation for another discipline. Looking back, however, this ended up being my first real opportunity.

For that dissertation I had to conduct aesthetic studies on one side of contemporary art; I needed to raise my GPA, so I had to research archival resources, which led me to come across an art movement called “Arte Povera” (literally “poor art”). The movement originated in 1960s Italy, where poor artists used objects and materials from around them to create many interesting works, , mainly some very fun sculptures and installations, at almost no cost. All of a sudden I was inspired: why no use household garbage to make the characters and sets for my concept?

Because of this opportunity, I abandoned the industrial production method of traditional film with a large crew, real actors, and tents, and instead chose to transform household garbage into my stage and characters, thereby focussing on a workshop-driven creative process. That was the first step for SHe: using household garbage and a super-low-budget creative method inspired by Arte Povera to construct a fantasy world. So Arte Povera became my weapon for conquering the dual obstacles of finance and skill; my only cost was time.

After SHe was successfully produced, I encountered my third obstacle: I had no connections. In the past this would have seriously dampened the chance of a piece of work entering the public eye, because whether a piece of work gets put forward to the public was largest at the discretion of the established entertainment circle. However, because of continued development of online platforms and social media, by the time I finished SHe things, platforms such as social media and WeChat Moments were already quite popular. As such I arrived at my second opportunity, which was the internet’s community effect.

At the time I had just designed a poster for SHe with a friend, and without getting recommendations through any network or connections, we literally just sent the poster to all my WeChat friends through direct message and earnestly asked them to repost. This most basic method allowed SHe to trend on WeChat; although it didn’t blow up in film or animation circles, it was unique enough to catch some eyeballs, and because social media’s broadcasting mechanism starts from one point and expands, I was able to gradually connect with media and gain more attention. Finally, through SIFF we achieved centralized exposure and allowed SHe to enter the public eye. For these reasons, the social internet really provided me with an unexpected push.

Photo of Zhou at FIRST Film Festival.

My third opportunity, and the most critical one, came after I stumbled through overcoming the three aforementioned obstacles and somehow finished making SHe; I received support and guidance from my mentor Peng Feng, President of PKU College of Arts. He gave me permission to make a film out of his novel with no spending and a budget of zero, which gave birth to Art is Dead; inspired by him, I drew from the experience of making SHe to figure out a coherent methodology, and intentionally practiced that through Art is Dead. If we say that SHe was a product of my instinct, intuition, and luck, then Art is Dead was an intentional experiment and exploration.
Q4: In your opinion, what will film’s future development look like?

Zhou: I personally think that in the future film will break away from its current two-dimensional platform; within the context of blending mediums, it will interact and integrate with digital art, interactive art, and gaming, and might even rely on new mediums to transform into 3D objects and enter the real world.

From murals, books, newspapers, and radio to TV, films, and smartphones in today’s world, mediums grow alongside our bodies step by step. Nowadays we’re able to watch films through a phone screen, but cinema and other visual arts are still largely confined within the scope of screen-based aesthetics. However, suppose films and visual arts grow from the smartphones into our bodies, through contact lenses or chips; what will happen to the mediums then?

At that stage it’s very possible that the world we’ll be looking at will be one which blends simulations with the reality. Two-dimensional aesthetics will be a story of the past, and 3D, interaction, and digitization will be the new keywords. Within this, film might contribute narrative, visual, or auditory elements, but the parts of cinema that rely on two-dimensional aesthetics for coherence may disappear. Of course, these are all just my personal thoughts.

Q5: As contemporary art gains growing popularity, ‘interdisciplinary thinking’ has entered the public eyes. From your perspective, how will interdisciplinarity help films develop? How can a new generation of young Chinese artists develop interdisciplinary thinking?

Zhou: First of all, interdisciplinary thinking can give film flexible methods for problem-solving. In the period where I was most confused and lost, I could not find any help from the existing traditional film system. Instead, I looked to Arte Povera within contemporary art and found this new problem-solving method—making films with garbage.

Secondly, interdisciplinary thinking helps us to open up new perspectives for seeing the world and injects fresh blood into the creative process. It was precisely my use of interactive game design that allowed Art is Dead  to achieve a surreal effect where lies were indistinguishable from the truth. Had I hired a bunch of actors to play the parts, it would have definitely been less effective at achieving such an effect. However well one acts, no actors can truly mimic such authenticity. 

Photo of SHe as an installation, from Zhou’s Weibo account (@zhoushengwei91).

Finally, interdisciplinary thinking allows more and more regular people, who may want to make films but cannot afford formal education or have no industry connections, to enjoy the same rights and opportunity to create and to express themselves. Everyone can employ interdisciplinary thinking to create in different ways: if you like to cook, you can combine culinary skills with filmmaking to make a movie out of vegetables and fruits; if you like to spend time with children, you can combine expertise in children’s education with narrative film-making, maybe letting your kids play Superman or other characters. There are also many talented and thoughtful creators in short videoes, who combine interdisciplinary thinking with daily experiences to continuously to stay creative. Maybe the only thing they need to do is to make the videos longer, and then we will start to get films that belong to common citizens.

I think the core of generating interdisciplinary thinking is absorbing everything you’re able to absorb and remaining curious. When you see new things, don’t immediately judge if it is right or wrong. Instead, ask a few more ‘why’ questions like a child, and perhaps a new path suddenly opens up.

A post-production screenshot from Art is Dead.

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