Whose Utopia? is a colour video that is approximately twenty minutes long and is shown in a darkened room, projected onto a wall of two and a half square metres or larger. The film is set in a light bulb factory in China and consists of three parts. The first, titled ‘Imagination of Product’, begins with a series of close-ups showing light bulb components being produced and assembled by automated machines, followed by scenes of people working very quickly at workstations that are arranged into a grid formation. The second part, ‘Factory Fairytale’, shows individuals dancing and playing electric guitars inside the factory, often with staff working around them. Some of these performers wear labourers’ uniforms, but one is dressed in a ballerina’s outfit and another in a long white dress. This section of the film ends with footage of a woman going to bed, while the factory can be seen outside her window. The third part – ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ – shows individuals inside the factory, standing or sitting completely still and facing the camera, and in many of these scenes the operations of the factory continue around them. The film finishes with shots of people wearing white t-shirts bearing Cantonese characters that collectively spell out the phrase ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ (the English translation for which is provided using subtitles). The first two sections of the work are accompanied by ambient music including electronic sounds and bells, while the third part features a song that sounds like a kitsch version of American country music. This is performed in English by a man who sounds from his accent as if he is from China or elsewhere in the Far East.
Whose Utopia? was made by the Chinese artist Cao Fei and filmed at the OSRAM lighting factory in Foshan in the Pearl River Delta in southern China during 2005 and 2006. It was commissioned as part of a project entitled ‘What Are They Doing Here?’ that was run by the Siemens Art Program from 2000 to 2006 and involved Chinese artists undertaking six-month-long residencies at industrial facilities across the country. Cao Fei began her residency at OSRAM by sending a questionnaire to its employees that featured fifty questions, including ‘How do you feel about the factory?’, ‘Why did you decide to leave your home and go to the river delta?’ and ‘What do you hope to achieve in the future?’ (Cao Fei and Strom 2006, accessed 17 February 2015). The artist then invited fifty-five of her respondents to plan and participate in workshops in which they made installations and carried out performances, which she then filmed (see Cao Fei in Oyama Hitomi, ‘Cao Fei’, Art iT, no.15, Spring/Summer 2007, http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_interviews/ynp3HLEuY6UWvhZtz4XI?lang=en, accessed 17 February 2015).
This work’s focus on factory labourers in China and its title Whose Utopia? seem to question who it is that benefits from the significant economic progress that the country saw during the early twenty-first century. In 2007 Cao Fei noted that the Chinese migrants who comprise the majority of workers in the Pearl River Delta have ‘no rights, no benefits, and no power’ as a result of leaving their home provinces to work in large cities, and argued that the corporate and state pursuit of ‘huge business value’ has meant that the ‘personal value’ of Chinese workers is often overlooked (quoted in ‘L. Burel et N. Pujol: Rien n’a été fait’, Observatoire des Nouveaux Médias, École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and Université Paris 8, 21 May 2008, http://www.arpla.fr/odnm/?page_id=4536, accessed 17 February 2015). These ideas are reflected in the first part of Whose Utopia?, which shows workers in highly regimented production lines, and in the final scene in which the phrase ‘My Future is Not a Dream’ is presented. However, Cao Fei stated in 2007 that the second part of the video, which shows the workers performing, aims to counter their lack of individuality since in this section ‘we focus on the innermost feelings of every individual in this globalised production chain ... We place them at the centre of attention, so as to let them rediscover their personal value’ (quoted in ‘L. Burel et N. Pujol: Rien n’a été fait’ 2008, accessed 17 February 2015).
Cao Fei has also suggested that Whose Utopia? was designed to encourage the OSRAM labourers to think about how they might work in a way that is more creative or fulfilling, stating in 2007 that
What this project does is release the workers from a standardised notion of productivity. What we are doing is production, but a type of production that connects back to the personal. I am like a social worker. They don’t regard me as an artist.
(Cao Fei and Strom 2007, accessed 17 February 2015.)
Cao Fei’s interest in producing art that has a wider social function can be compared with the practices of contemporary artists such as Suzanne Lacey, Rick Lowe and Jeanne van Heeswijk, who have also undertaken community-based projects with the intention of instigating social transformation.
Cao Fei, untitled artist’s statement on Whose Utopia?, undated, http://www.caofei.com/works.aspx?id=10&year=2006&wtid=3, accessed 17 February 2015.
Cao Fei and Jordan Strom, ‘Your Utopia is Ours’, Fillip, no.4, Autumn 2006, http://fillip.ca/content/your-utopia-is-ours, accessed 17 February 2015.
The Real Thing, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2007, pp.48–51, reproduced pp.42, 48–51.
Supported by Christie’s.