Song Yi (curator)

Song Yi: Life as a Playground


Interview completed on November 4, 2022

Editor: Emma Lee   Images: provided by interviewee


On November 7, 1918, when Liang Ji was going out to Peng Yisun's house, he met his son Liang Shuming, who had already been recruited by Cai Yuanpei to teach “Introduction to Indian Philosophy” and “Philosophy of Confucianism” at Peking University with his essay “Treatise on Finding the Foundation and Resolving the Doubt”. The two spoke of a news report on the war in Europe. “Has man a future?” asked Liang Ji. “I believe that man is going to be better by the day.” Shuming responded. “I hope that will be so,” said Liang Ji, and left the house. Three days later, Liang Ji drowned himself in Jingye Lake; two months before his death, he authored an article to express his reason for sacrificing his life for the Qing government and to criticize the political situation of the time. The day he died was only four days before his 60th birthday.


On October 23, 2022, artist Xu Tan said he seemed to be suffering from depressive symptoms. He started his depression project last year, interviewing a dozen people suffering from or with a history of depression, and is preparing the first phase of his research report, entitled “Bailu, Please Stay and Let's Talk”. Bailu (lit. egret) is the name of endearment for one of his young collaborators, who died by suicide at the age of 20 in late 2020.


I met Song Yi at a gathering organized by Xu Tan. At the time, I had just published an interview with his wife Jingyuan, “Art does not come from the commonly romanticized ‘poetry and distant destinations’, nor does it lead to ‘purity’, it is a physical struggle”, about “creative work by ordinary people”. I said that Jingyuan's way of thinking and working reminded me of Sun Yat-sen University's motto "Learn wide, inquire hard, think carefully, distinguish clearly, and act honestly", and Song Yi laughed. We met again at two of such gatherings, each time with different curators, artists and college students. The question “Has man a future?” was one that I remember being asked, and even if it was not, the question itself is never out of date; as to the context behind the question, more than a century has passed, humanity still exists, China is still China, and its internal logic and temporal trajectory remain unchanged. From this question, we naturally think of another famous question – “To be or not to be?” Survival or destruction?


Gathering at Rooftop Space Guangzhou: Xu Tan (first from the right), Song Yi (second from the right), author of the article (third from the left)


In a year when China’s COVID-19 control is becoming more and more stringent, Song Yi seems to be the one doing the most travelling in our small circle: Beijing - Guangzhou - Xinjiang - Macau, and if things go well, he will return to Beijing for an exhibition at the end of the year. He is also the most frequent participant in events: he takes part in a variety of lectures twice a month. He studied printmaking in college and started his sociological research in 2015, inspired by the Migrant Worker Videos project (a shift that reminds me of Liang Shuming, who turned from philosophy studies to rural reconstruction). Song Yi felt that there was a lack of dialogue, exchange, criticism, dissemination, and platform between the various disciplines of art, squeezed by the external power control and the self-imposed closure. So, he saw himself as a link, creating interdisciplinary fields on an 'on-the-ground' basis, filling in these gaps, linking cross-disciplinary knowledge through the combination of theoretical research and artistic practice, and stimulating cultural production and exchange in a collaborative way. His two main projects are Migrant Worker Videos and Tetris Initiative.


Migrant Worker Videos

If the greatest value of art is to break down all ideas (including art itself), does this emancipation of ideas make sense to the vast majority of people? What sense does it make? To answer this question requires putting the practice of art into the lives of the vast majority of people. The migrant worker population is one of the largest, most homogenized and marginalized groups in China. For a practitioner, any work with such a large and complex group of people represents a huge challenge.



Picun village, 2013 (photo courtesy of Squirrel)


The Migrant Worker Video Collective was established in 2016 with core members Song Yi and Wang Dezhi, a worker who lives in Picun village, Beijing. Together, they create documentaries and dramas about migrant workers, organize workshops and screenings among groups of workers who love literature and art, and document comedy and music performances by the Migrant Worker Art Troupe on video. They also collate and edit film material made by the Troupe before the Collective was formed. Topics include gender issue, bachelor issue, marriage and family, migrant children’s education, and home eviction.


In March 2017, the Migrant Worker Video Collective screened the feature film “A Migrant's Ballad: Second Generation” at a courier warehouse in Fangshan District, Beijing


In 2016, the Migrant Worker Video Collective organized a workshop with teachers and students from the Tongxin Experimental Primary School at the Migrant Worker Theatre in Picun village during the filming of the documentary “After Us, the Deluge”, which focuses on the education of migrant children


Originally from rural Inner Mongolia, Wang Dezhi worked in Beijing in the 1990s and taught himself socialist theory and simple dialectical thinking from Marx to Mao. He does a variety of odd jobs and is responsible for the operation of the second-hand shop of the Migrant Workers’ Home and the daily work of the Migrant Workers’ Museum. He has a passion for folk music and dreams of becoming a comedian. He is meticulous in collecting material, mostly for sketches, comedy, drama and video.


Wang Dezhi (left), one of the founders of the Migrant Workers’ Home

Born in rural Inner Mongolia, Wang came to Beijing to work at the age of 25. Self-taught in socialist theory, he first wanted to become a comedian. He later filmed video works at the Migrant Workers’ Home, directed the “Migrant Workers’ Spring Festival Gala”, curated the “Migrant Arts Festival” and initiated the Picun Writers' Group


However, more mutual understanding and cooperation between the art world and the workers does not happen easily. For the social practitioners who have grown up in the working community and are always on the front line, the radical views of the artists are too vague; on the other hand, it is easy for the artists to feel that the work of the workers is a partial improvement, which at best can only meet humanitarian standards and cannot lead to innovation in the way they think about their work, thus unable to lead to a higher level of improvement in their daily lives. However, if we stay within this framework of thinking, dialogue will be difficult and we may even retreat into relative silence within our own spheres. Song Yi hopes that he will not only discuss how to unite the workers from the outside, but that he will put into practice how to make the art world work more closely with the workers. At present, migrant workers are faced with the prospect of losing their basic livelihoods such as home and jobs tomorrow, while artists and intellectuals are the ones who are relatively more comfortable in studying and exploring the conditions for experimentation, and should therefore be more patient. Under the current institutional pressures in China, Song Yi believes that whatever form of unity takes place, however long it takes, is more effective than individual resistance – we are simply too inexperienced in moving towards unity.


This phase of practice and work has allowed Song Yi to see the many possibilities for art to work with specific individuals in the general population. Compared to other disciplines, art seems to break down the barriers of identity and perception more easily, and is better able to achieve equality amongst individuals on both levels. So, he expanded his research to include another large demographic group: people in border areas.


Tetris Initiative

In 2020, Song Yi initiated the project “TETRIS: A March from the Highlands to Mountain City and the Island” (“Tetris Initiative” for short), the first phase of which took place between August 17 and September 1 that year, organizing dozens of artists, researchers, curators and media professionals to travel together to seven locations in the country (including Xining, Yushu, Lanzhou, the distant suburbs and mountains of Chongqing and Guishan Island at the mouth of the Pearl River) and involved discussions, presentations, narratives, field trips, residencies and improvisations based on the different natural environments and social contexts along the way, touching on topics such as community relation, rural transformation, art education, geopolitics, technology worship and artistic intervention. The project lasted 15 days and covered a total distance of over 4,300 kilometers.


Liu Jinxun, “Women and Children Ploughing in Dusty Weather”, Haiyuan County, Ningxia, April 2007

Platinum and palladium photographic process, 30x60cm


Yu Guo, “Rock and Cliff: the Geological Surface of Horn Town” (still), 2019

Color, sound, 47'20''


(Photo courtesy of Xie Li)


Borrowing an essay film format, artist Yu Guo's film “Rock and Cliff: the Geological Surface of Horn Town” dwells on scenes from Horn Town, Chongqing, with descriptions from different standpoints tearing and intertwining. Yu Guo's field study of Horn Town ties together the history and reality of the area, exploring current land policies and cultural and rural construction. In 2020, “Tetris Initiative” screened the film in a restaurant in New Horn Town


The Chinese name of the project “Bu Zhou Mountain” is taken from the “Classic of Mountains and Seas”. In ancient Chinese mythology, Bu Zhou Mountain was once a pillar of heaven and earth, broken by the water god Gong Gong, resulting in China's “high in the northwest and low in the southeast” landscape. Song Yi hopes that each journey of “Tetris Initiative” will allow each participant's expectations and preconceptions to break down and disintegrate, just like the mythical Bu Zhou Mountain, giving them a new perception and experience of the state of the individual in our current society. Constantly challenging and refreshing existing experiences and conceptual frameworks is a common way for individuals to perceive the external world and the state of self and others. In this process, analysis and generalization of knowledge is one route, while recontextualization and alteration of bodily perception is another provided by art – the best-known example being Duchamp's inclusion of a urinal in an art exhibition.


By the 1960s, art had become a progressively more disciplinary and closed professional field, despite the emergence of a wide range of genres and creative media. Artistic methods of working that recontextualized and altered bodily perceptions were not tested more often in the public sphere of society. From the 1970s onwards, more and more artists began to question and criticize the various professional mechanisms that had shackled art. However, in the three decades since the end of the Cold War, the practice of “institutional critique” also begun to solidify and became dogmatic.


(Photo courtesy of Xiang Qiang)


(Photo courtesy of Jia Yu)


(Photo courtesy of Xie Li)


The stone house is a two-story hut built by artist Xiang Qiang with his bare hands on the Longhu Gorge in Chongqing, where he practiced the “Permaculture Farming Method” on a two-and-a-half-acre hillside. “Tetris Initiative” invited artist Li Mu and his family to stay here for 28 days. Li Mu collected plants and pressed plant specimens; took photographs of the plants, identified, organized and classified them; talked to the villagers nearby to understand the relationship between plants and local people; observed his five-year-old son's relationship with nature; and kept a diary to record his daily life and work


In the initial stages of the project, Song Yi believed that the current critique needed to be directed not only at the professional mechanisms of art, but also at more specific individuals – in order to challenge their own experiences and conceptual frameworks, art practitioners must first self-critique their own methods of practice. After three years of practice, the deterioration of the external environment exacerbated the internal closure of art, so Song Yi shifted the focus of the project from self-criticism to building and forming a reliable and practical public space through the practitioners' own efforts, starting from a very small area that they were familiar with, forming a civic association-like relationship with specific individuals, and slowly expanding it to eventually form a platform for dialogues with a certain degree of publicness. In the case of “Tetris Initiative”, for example, Song Yi had three considerations in the design of the events in order to make it easier for creative practitioners to engage in dialogues when faced with the same public issues, and for these dialogues to lead to new rounds of discussion, writing, artistic creation or social action.


Firstly, in choosing the locations of the project, he first avoided the central art cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. This was because these are the places where most art workers work and live in, and there is a lack of unfamiliarity. The sites finally selected for the first phase of the project included seven locations spanning northwest China, Khams Tibetan area, the mountains of southwest China and the islands of southern China, where geographical features, climatic characteristics and cultural contexts vary greatly. In addition, this region, which accounts for 40% of China's territory, is always ignored by the official mainstream narrative and is too flat and stereotypical in the public eye – that is to say, the social problems that arise here are even more invisible than in the central cities of Beijing and Shanghai.


Secondly, participants from different geographical and intellectual backgrounds should be invited; the more diverse the individuals, the better. Participants can choose to be on the pro or con side of an issue they care about, or to be a “spectator” on an issue they care less about. Large individual differences ensure that there are a certain number of “spectators” in the event of a heated exchange of views. The “spectators” do not fully agree with the arguments of either side and keep an observing distance from both sides. The more spontaneously and strongly the two sides express themselves, the more they can reveal their own cognitive blind spots, while the “spectators”, without activating their psychological defense, are more likely to associate their own similar problems with the others' shortcomings, and thus indirectly engage in self-criticism.


Thirdly, the 17 participants were invited to participate in the whole process of the project, living together for a fortnight, ensuring that they had plenty of time to get to know each other in different contexts, not just in the context of verbal arguments.


(Photo courtesy of Lao Fan)


The “Hundred Islands Project” is an on-going art project initiated by artists He Junyan and Majing Ruoshui in 2018, which is carried out in the Wanshan Islands in the Lingding Channel, the mouth of the Pearl River, with a “Hundred Islands Camp” residency on Guishan Island, providing a platform for artists from home and abroad to exchange ideas and create art, and to explore topics like art and humanities, science and technology, social and environmental ecology, political economy and locality. In August 2020, “Tetris Initiative” participants visited the island and created graffiti


(Photo courtesy of He Junyan)


(Photo courtesy of Jia Yu)


Ma Yongjin, “The Place Where Mexican Asters Bloom”, Longbaotan, Yushu, 2020

Performance and installation: 365 photographic prints on canvas


In 2019, artist Ma Yongjin came to Yushu to teach at a nine-year ethnic school for primary and junior high school students. Here he felt that the locals were not as supportive, trusting, friendly and open to outsiders as he had imagined, and witnessed various problems with the teaching system that were not as satisfactory as they should be. So, as part of “Tetris Initiative”, he documented the ups and downs of the year in photographs and made them into a scripture-like installation to show visitors what he had seen and heard


These considerations are also reflected in the English name “Tetris”. The image in Tetris is exactly what Song Yi would like to see on the journey – each geometric block is constantly tweaking the way it fits with others, with common parts dissolving and remaining parts stacking on top of each other, leaving a mountain shape with an ever-changing skyline. The image is a perfect visual symbol of the individuals in a civic association.


Song Yi is currently preparing for the second phase of “Tetris Initiative” in 2024.


Jia Yu, “The Useless Blade”, 2016-2018

Chrome steel, approx. 29x10x1.5cm


(Photo courtesy of Xie Li)


In August 2020, when the “Tetris Initiative” team arrived in Yushu, Qinghai, artist Jia Yu found a local monastery and presented it with a small hand-made chrome steel weapon covered with sharp edges from his “Useless Blades” series for permanent display


(Photo courtesy of Wang Jing)


In August 2020, the “Tetris Initiative” participants arrived in Lanzhou for a talk hosted by local photographer Liu Jinxun


The destination of art points to individuals and the present. The Beacon insists on stepping outside the “framework of art” and placing it within the framework of Chinese history and culture, while focusing on the “Chinese narrative” from an international perspective. How do we, as individuals, construct a perception of our own history and culture? From ourselves and our cities, how do we construct a basic framework of knowledge about the individuals and other cities around us in contrast to one another? What do these cities look like at different stages in their history? How is this history reflected in the present? What can we learn about the logic of the present and the destiny of individuals from the fabric of history? What are the sources of information/knowledge that we use in all this reflection? In the process, what inherent perceptions have been overturned and what new perceptions have been constructed? ... Each individual is just an organic being in a dimension of time on a pale blue dot in a vast universe, and these basic perceptions are the axes on which the individual stands, and thus mark our existence.


Finally, we talked about some of the “realities” of our peers. The Guangdong Times Museum officially closed in October, leaving only a few researchers and a multifunctional space on the ground floor, as it approaches its twentieth anniversary; the self-organized group Shangyangtai (lit. to the balcony) in Guangzhou has effectively collapsed due to some demands that have emerged in recent years; “Huo Shui (lit. flowing water)" in Beijing has been organizing interdisciplinary workshops for the past two or three years, but has been discontinued in recent years for various reasons; the initiator of a local research project in Zhuhai is constantly seeking a balance of time and energy between family life and work...


At a time when our bodies and words are being exiled in the motherland, we seek to keep our spirits from being exiled and to guard a common “home”, a small mark of our existence. In regard of the destination of art, Song Yi likes to quote Friedrich Schiller: “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays”. There is a Chinese idiom “life as a playground” – the world is a playground of good and evil, and one has to figure out the rules of this game; don't forget that you are “human”, the ones who make the rules of the game are also “human” – and to err is human. As a player, you can be subservient to the rules of the game, but you can transcend the game, based on the basic knowledge that you know it's a game and that games are man-made. A player's game life is much more limited than their natural life, and how you overcome the game depends on how much natural life you are willing to invest in the game. When you realize that you can transcend the game, the process could take up your entire natural life; finding a way to transcend the game, to move comfortably between the game and nature, and ultimately to become the game's rule-maker, to turn around the “evil without bottom line and good always with ceiling” situation, could take up centuries of natural life combined – including Shakespeare's century, Liang Ji's and Liang Shuming's century, and the century of Bailu, you and me.



Song Yi, curator, writer and filmmaker.
He is the co-founder of the Migrant Worker Video Collective, co-director of art space “Institute For Provocation”, and founder of “Bloom绽” Curating Collective for Contemporary and Urban Planning. He is also the senior editor of LEAP magazine and former Head of Exhibition at Long March Space where he coordinated the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” project.

Documentary: “Tetris Initiative”