Zhang Congcong

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Zhang Congcong, Element (still), 2021.

Artist Cinemas presents Element
Zhang Congcong

8 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #3

March 8–14, 2021

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Zhang Congcong’s Element (2021), on view from Monday, March 8 through Sunday, March 14, 2021.

On an ordinary workday, three workers who do not know each other work on an invisible assembly line, all producing the same element.

The film is presented here alongside an interview with Zhang Congcong conducted by Cao Fei.

Element is the third installment of Crashing into the Future, a program of films and interviews convened by Cao Fei, and comprising the fifth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Crashing into the Future will run from February 22 through April 5, 2021, screening a new film each week accompanied by an interview with the filmmaker(s) conducted by Cao Fei and invited guests.

Zhang Congcong in conversation with Cao Fei
Translated by Mike Fu

Cao Fei (CF):
You live in the city of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, where countless small products are manufactured, bound for all corners of the world. Has this environment influenced your creative work? In what ways, if so?

Zhang Congcong (ZC):
It certainly has affected me, and this influence continues to evolve in step with the environment. My family ran a small supermarket when I was young, so my parents and I learned how to price things for retail after buying them from a wholesaler. In recent years, some of my family have gone to the city of Yiwu for business and are now in wholesale for small products. E-commerce platforms like Alibaba and Pinduoduo have dramatically transformed the way products are manufactured, circulated, and sold. I’ve also had a chance to visit some factories and get to know the lifestyles of production workers. I’ve seen how changes in the greater environment have directly impacted their lives and working styles. These experiences eventually became the foundation of my creative research.

Your works have always been very focused on the body’s relationship to production, industry, labor, and capital. How do you view China’s role as the factory of the world under globalization?

In the wave of the world’s Fourth Industrial Revolution, emerging manufacturing forces like Vietnam are on the rise while China’s role as the factory of the world has already been changing. China became the factory of the world in the first place due to its urban-rural structure—with demographic advantages for many labor-intensive industries and a low cost of living allowing for lower wages. At the same time, places like Zhejiang province had semi-automated private factories that manufactured garments, shoes, and toys, and could create employment opportunities for entire cities. Now, with emerging industries on the rise, the role of the worker has been transformed. I’m particularly interested in the choices and circumstances faced by workers in this type of environment. While the manufacturing industry faces labor shortages and emerging industries have not yet matured, workers are nonetheless vying for jobs with less managerial oversight, more freedom, and greater flexibility.

How do you view new forms of labor relations in the age of the internet?

The rise of the internet economy has truly given workers more options to choose from. More and more people are going for jobs in food delivery, courier services, or even livestreaming. These jobs appear to provide more freedom on the surface, but in fact this freedom is still controlled by the labor of capital.

The cultural commodities of internet platforms have enabled workers to escape the challenges of traditional working life in the short term. But, in the long view, this has also hastened the spread of consumerist ideals and lifestyles among the new generations of migrant workers in contemporary cities, and stimulated their desire to become consumers themselves. In this sense, the diligent, tenacious, and frugal work ethic of the “factory of the world” has been disrupted, with workers growing ever more resentful of their alienated labor, thereby intensifying the conflict between the new generation of migrant workers and traditional factory systems. Even when young people work in a factory setting, their focus is drawn to their online lives. They’re not motivated to improve themselves or learn new skills for the sake of their jobs. The upgrading and upskilling of the manufacturing industry are thus facing huge challenges.

In your recent work Element (2021), we see Chinese workers wearing LED badges perform mysterious labor, in a setting that at once verges on sci-fi and looks totally ordinary. Can this be considered a kind of ritualistic labor as we understand it? What exactly are these “electronic” workers doing?

There are three laborers in Element. They’re actually all workers at the same steel factory. My presence at the factory was not so much as a creative, but rather as an observer who documented and connected their work and daily lives in a creative fashion. In this traditional heavy industry, workers’ subjectivities and sense of initiative have been more or less suppressed. In the entire process of production, the names of the laborers are not marked, but their employee ID numbers are. I replaced their employee IDs with cheap LED badges, which have this factory’s slogan translated into Greek on the inside: New Journey, New Era, New Development. Despite such phrases, the alienation seen here is exactly what I was describing earlier about how the new economy is transforming human labor.

There are many female laborers who appear in your work. Can you talk about the physicality of production workers?

In many assembly lines, parts of workers’ bodies become components of the operation through mechanical and unceasingly repetitive actions. Their bodies are continuously subsumed in the process of production. The bodies of female laborers appear in my work because, in spite of their prevalence on the assembly line, women’s roles in production are often overlooked. But they are becoming ever more prominent in the structure of new industries.

In my other work Keeper (2020), I collaborated with a fitness instructor to create an aerobics routine based on the movements of workers in labor-intensive industries. These actions are mundane in the context of factory labor. This type of work doesn’t require heavy labor. The movements are simple and easy to learn. But these fragmented actions have actually weakened workers’ intellects; through the process of labor, workers’ bodies are remodeled for the requirements of the assembly line. Most of the fitness training and yoga classes that we, as consumers, are familiar with are led by women. The body imperceptibly disciplined by the process of production is also the body of the consumer. The relationship between capital and the body is rife with such contradictions.

Is the story in Element suggesting that workers are resisting a system? Or creating a new type of value? What do you hope to express through the workers?

The story of Element is actually quite simple. The workers are like screws in this massive steel factory, except they’re not laboring unconsciously. Through the internet, they’re very much aware of the world outside. However, the reality is that they won’t simply quit the factory because of this awareness—being also aware of the job security of heavy industries in northern China compared to the high turnover of light industries in the south, where they work. As a result, they are content with the status quo while at the same time they feel a kind of spiritual helplessness.

I filmed three workers who hold different positions and seem to have nothing to do with each other. But I connect them through the substance that they collectively produce. Through the stages of production, inspection, and sale, they could be producing almost any substance, even something completely immaterial. This reveals something of the inner essence of the relationship between labor and the body.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Labor & Work, Technology, Internet, Feminism
Commodification, Science Fiction, China, Extractivism
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