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Bookworm Festival Pulse : The Art of Creating a Collective

It’s 6pm at the Bookworm, and on stage before a packed audience is a collection of spirited expats who, if you are into art and have lived in Beijing for more than a few weeks, you have almost certainly rubbed shoulders with. Each of them has the artful glow of people whose days are breathed into life by the work they do, and the fact that they are artists.

There is Matthew Byrne, founder of the multi-faceted, and now international arts collective, Spittoon; Amy Daml, co-founder of LoReLi, an open platform for artists of all kinds to express themselves; Shuilam Wong, co-founder of Hole In the Wall, a Zine dedicated to a “visual journalism” that highlights the changing landscape and underground arts movements of Bejing; and David Huntington, who recently took the reigns of the Beijing Writer’s Network, which offers a way for Beijing’s writers to connect and share their writing.

Each of the panelists introduces themselves, and what their projects mean, but the passion in their voices begins to rise when moderator Poornima Weerasekara asks if there has ever been any interest or intent to monetize.

Byrne speaks first, saying of his dedicated network of collaborators that when “people believe in something, they contribute things that they might not contribute if there was the expectation or limitation of a salary.”

Byrne’s sentiment is quickly echoed by Daml, who tells us that LoReLi originally began with the intention of making money and paying people for their work. But, she explains, “once you start paying people they start to expect things,” and suddenly you need money coming in all the time just to keep the operation going. But the worst part, she says, is what is does to the community, because “when people think there’s money available, there’s a mad rush and people change . . . it’s better to rely on [their] passion because they’ll be more invested in your project that way.”

This cautionary tale is deepened by Wong, from Hole in the Wall, who shares with the audience her experience bringing people in who wanted to monetize what they were doing. It was this juxtaposition of philosophies that made the driving force behind the project truly clear for the first time. “We rely on passion,” she says, “we love illustration and we love to draw, that’s why we do this.” She realized that if she changed what she was doing to make money, it would no longer be meaningful, because like everyone else on the panel, she isn’t in it for the money. “Stay true to who you are and what you love, and don’t let other people pollute that for the sake of money, because the purpose of having an arts collective is to have an avenue for our passion and our creative talents. The minute that is compromised, the entire purpose is also gone.”

Byrne quickly picks up the microphone to agree with Wong, saying that he too has experienced people coming into the organization who lead with structure or ticket sale before passion. He says this “is the wrong way ‘round. When you lead with that kind of thinking, it’s easy for the passion and the flare to be disappear.”

The other big issue Weerasekara brings up is how the panelists interact with China. “Do you feel obligated to engage with China while you’re here? Or do prefer to allow the artists to do what they do?”

Wong’s parents are from Hong Kong, and she went to high school in Beijing, but otherwise she spent significant chunks of her life in Japan, Singapore, and the UK. She tells us that for her part, Hole in the Wall is able to bridge the language and cultural barrier due to the fact that her medium is visual.

Comparatively, for organizations like Spittoon and The Beijing Writer’s Network, whose bread and butter began with literature, the language barrier can be decidedly difficult.

As Huntington rightly laments, he can’t see a way to have a bilingual writer’s group, due to the fact that the primary purpose of the group is to share and critique language. While they include writers from a huge variety of countries, they have to agree on a common language in order for their collective to function.

Spittoon, on the other hand, has evolved from its poetic roots to put on multi-media and multi-lingual events. Byrne says of the challenge that being an “expat,” and calling yourself one is like “an incantation. You’re casting a spell.” If you call it an ‘expat organization then you’re stuck “in an expat bubble and that’s it.”

He says people accused them of not getting under the skin of where they were, but instead creating a system and awarding themselves within it. “That was a wall when we first were created,” he says, but “we’d be missing something if we didn’t evolve in this direction.”

Spittoon’s answer to the problem has been multi-faceted. For example, they have recently published an edition of their literary journal that is entirely Chinese authors in translation, and they have a monthly “Spit-tunes” event where writers and musicians allow their art (poems, music, and soon to be visual art as well) to inspire a collaborative performance regardless of language. Byrne is even looking to branch out from downtown Beijing into Shunyi, a suburb in the northeast of the city where many international schools are located. Recently, a Chinese gallery owner who lives in Shunyi introduced him to a “labyrinth of hutongs filled with artists” ripe for this kind of collaborating.

For Daml and LoReLi, they determined early on that “the low hanging fruit was the expat community.” They have real interest in reaching out to the Chinese community, “but we realized we couldn’t sacrifice continuity and regular publication” for the sake of attempting to cross that barrier. For LoReLi, it seemed just as important to discover that the expat community around them was welcoming and eager to share their knowledge and experience.

When reflecting on this variety of approaches, it seems quite possible that the balance we see among the panelists is exactly as it should be: each is following the flow of their work into the cross-section of people who most resonate with it.

Moreover, as a foreigner who has lived in expat communities outside of China that did not value or respect the culture they were surrounded by, it seems important to say that these organizations encapsulate so much of what is possible and important about living an international life. Whether that it as a foreigner in Beijing, or a Chinese person who spends a significant amount of time outside their Chinese-circles: we are here, or should be here, to build bridges and knock down barriers. Art has, through the ages, been a consistently successful way to accomplish this. What matters isn’t why or how or to what extent that we do this, but just that we are, in fact, doing it. One song, poem, short story, song, or piece of visual art at a time, which will hopefully lead to understanding, if not a (fluent) conversation.

Written by: Amanda Fiore

Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China

BLF Volunteer, 2019

WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore

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