A Portal to Dozens of Unknown Universes

Li Xiaofei Interview

Interviewer: Kimberly Chun
Time: 6th, September, 2012
Translator: Wang Ziwen
English Proofreading: Rebecca Catching and Per Hüttner

Kimberly Chun (KC):  How did you start working on the “Assembly Line” series? What was the initial thought?

Li Xiaofei (LXF): In 2010 I made a few short films looking at various aspects of society seen through the eyes of individuals and their personal experiences of the city. I talked with 15 people separately. One of them was a printer. I noticed when he described his daily experience and work that he expressed a sense of helplessness and a kind of romanticism about his life—but somehow he remained completely unaware. I was fascinated by him and decided to bring my camera to his workplace. There, machines took centre stage and I found the relationship between humans and machines was complicated and fascinating. People were repeating mechanical movements at a constant speed, as if they were mimicking the movements of the machinery to the point where they become part of the assembly line. Yet the workers seemed to enjoy the rhythm and the unspoken order, even expressing a sense of cheerfulness. I decided to cut between the various images, so the viewer is thrown between fragments of people and machines in a high tempo—to construct an illusory reality.

KC: How did the project develop into such a large endeavour with more than 60 factory visits? Was this the original plan? And when did you decide to stop?

LXF: Originally, I planned to interview nine people in nine factories. But after filming and editing, I was moved by what I had experienced and it inspired me to think in new ways. Seeing these factories of different scales, with their machines and their workers I became immersed in this environment.

I finished “A Printing Worker,” “A Foreign Boss” and “A Workshop Director” in 2010. The next year, 2011, I did a residence in New York and I created “New York in the Spring” during my stay. The video was shot on the Hudson River while the camera pans slowly across the Manhattan skyline. At the same time you hear the passionate director of a sewage treatment plant in New York introducing the sewage disposal process. This was an important discovery: the assembly line is not only found in the factories, rather it extends into all aspects of society. Since then I have become more flexible and I came up with new creative ideas and solutions.

I have also visited a lot of factories in China without shooting any material, since they couldn’t provide me with what I wanted. I’m good at making quick decisions. As soon as I walk through the factory’s gate, I can tell if it will work or not. I guess it’s because I have to drive to many factories in totally different districts in just one day. I have to make sure that the factory provides me with the things I need before I confirm to do the actual shoot.

So although I paid dozens of visits to different factories, not all of them were suitable for filming. The reasons are complex. The factory’s scale determines the nature of the assembly line. Many factories are too small to have proper assembly lines while some are too large. It takes hours to walk around the factories, and you have to wear a helmet and protective clothing, sometimes filming seems impossible. Some manufacturers keep huge piles of materials in their plants; sometimes the machines are not performing; sometimes the workers don't know how to use the machines; sometimes the factory managers won’t leave alone you for a second, which can be very annoying.

I don’t want to set an end date for this project. Quite the contrary, I feel like the “Assembly Line” is like a portal to dozens of unknown universes. Standing in the dust, I am fascinated by this incredibly dangerous, dull, filthy pounding industrial environment.

KC: What were the challenges you came across while creating this series. Did you come up against any special hurdles or obstacles?

LXF: Actually, there have been many challenges along the process of visiting the factories. The difficulties range from external problems, to those existing in my own mind about how to produce art. First, if you want to into the heart of a factory in China, you need to have connections. And sometimes these connections can be rather delicate and fragile. Then there is the fact that people don’t understand exactly what you want to do or they just don’t care about what you are doing. There are just too many factors that remain out of my control and that can delay or even render filming impossible.

There is also the fact that as an artist, you are always debating with yourself about how to capture a scene during the process of filming. And you always want to try out new ideas. This is a challenge in the context of factories that operate according to the opposite logic.

KC: What memories, images or stories from the making of the series still stick with you or still fascinate you today? And why?

LXF: I remembered shooting “Nonferrous Metal Factory” which took an hour and half. The materials released toxic gas that makes people nauseous and dizzy. There was no one working in the giant factory apart from me (and some workers who were checking in on me from time to time.) After filming I had a mild case of metal poisoning from being exposed to the toxic gas a long time.

When I was shooting “Copper Smelting Plant,” many impressions are reflected in the work. I saw shocking scenes of abominable working conditions but also the molten copper made a deep impression on me. Especially when a drop of copper landed on me, burning through the clothes and onto my skin.

Most of the time I do the editing work in the middle of the night after a day of filming. So I can review the footage and find mistakes in my work. I sometimes re-shoot certain scenes, if that is necessary. As a matter of fact, I often find it hard to leave the site after I have wrapped up.

KC: What are your thoughts about assembly lines and about life in factories? Do you find it dehumanizing or...?

LXF: What I’m interested in, and what want to express is the subtle and delicate and complicated relationships between humans and machines; between individuals and society. Doing art and filming in these environments allows me endless possibilities reflect on and develop these questions.

KC: Who was the most memorable person you interviewed and why?

LXF: Many people have left deep impressions on me—including those whom I never interviewed. I especially remember a foreigner working in management in a foreign company. He knew China well. I think this is the beauty of these meetings, everyone I meet is a mirror, to himself, to herself, to me and to the audience who sees the videos.

KC: When did the project finish?

LXF: I haven’t decided when this project will finish. The process should give rise to new ideas and with “Assembly Line” it keeps giving me back a lot. I think every artwork has its own trajectory that is fed by its own merits or flaws. I will do my best to break through the limitations that this project offers.

KC: Have the factories and the conditions for the employees changed since you begun? What is it like now, generally?

LXF: No matter how successful my project is. It won’t change the lives of the people or the factory environments. Because making art is an experience, an observation or a kind of research. And art shouldn’t focus on what society is like. It should ask “why” it looks like the way it does. And how we should look at society—these questions are the questions that interest me most.

KC: How did your work as the founder of art centres in Shanghai influence your work as an artist? Do the two dovetail or feed into each other?

LXF: Founding Fei Contemporary Art Center (FCAC) has given me a dual identity. So I can gain access to a wider range of artworks and artists. My mind and eyes are constantly being refreshed, because I can jump out of my role as an artist, something that also makes me more inclusive and tolerant.

KC: What's next for you? Do you have any new projects or exhibitions?

LXF: Since 2010 when I began the “Assembly Line” project, it has now developed into an extensive series. I’m thinking that I can borrow something from my research in other genres and film fictional scenes that I create and mix with the documentary material.
I have a busy schedule this year - both with filming and exhibitions. Next year might be ever busier, but I find that motivating.