The exhibition ‘social factory’ inspires us to reflect on how our industrialized and modernized society influences culture.

Shanghai Biennale

10th Shanghai Biennale

Social Factory

November 22nd 2014 to March 31st 2015
Shanghai Power Station of Art

Chief Curator: Anselm Franke
Curatorial Team: Zhu Ye, Cosmin Costinas, Hila Peleg, Liu Xiao and Freya Chou


“Firstly, it is a reflection of transformations in society especially in academia, visual art, and culture from the pre-industrial, through the industrial and post-industrial eras. Secondly, the theme is a response to the greatest issue of modernity and modernization: how do we produce‘the social’, and how do we construct or reconstruct society?If society is a factory, then what kind of brand do its members represent?

The ‘social factory’ works at these two levels, inspiring us to reflect on how our industrialized and modernized society influences culture. This boundless factory is a threat to continued subjectivity as everyday life is now the object of public scrutiny, distorted and exaggerated at will until it becomes the most important new frontier in contemporary technology, the economy and life; until it appears to exert a profound influence on culture. The question is how our culture will change in a digital age where the creative power of mankind has been unleashed.

How have our answers to this questions changed since social interaction itself becomes increasingly inscribed into and captured by technology? When social processes become automatized through algorithms, just as manual work previously, at the beginning of industrialization? An artistic discussion of the ‘Social Factory’ also gains greater relevance by being based in such a post-industrial urban center of breakneck development as Shanghai. (Anselm Franke)

Exhibition structure:

There are literary and philosophical traits behind the division of the exhibition areas, offering a pragmatic reflection on the state of affairs in China, Asia and globally. These different areas, through their scrutiny, will ‘refract’ the different aspects of the Social Factory into the open – like a prism.

The sectors are the following:

Chronicles of Sentiment
The social is primarily a process of ‘mind working upon mind’, but this is a process structured by technology and forms of power. A part of the exhibition dedicated to ‘histories of the psyche’, understood as collective production of the subjective.

The Noise and the Signal
The Noise and the Signal: A common definition in music, especially in electronic music, where ‘noise’ is normally simply a signal that you don’t want. In science and technology, noise is that which one has to get rid of, in order to gain a clear signal, but the very definition of ‘noise’ is also permanently questioned, in order to allow new invention: what is significant as signal, and why? In society, ‘signal’ would distinguish a relevant sign from irrelevance, or a valid voice from an illegitimate one. The relation of noise to signal, in modern societies, describes the ways in which the initially chaotic ‘social hyroglyph’ (James C. Scott) is turned into legible signals by means of bureaucratic procedures, surveys, statistics and science. With regards to modern societal order, in the face of ever-increasing availability of data and media-channels, the shifting relation between signal and noise has become one of the key sites of transformation, not least in governance. As a separate program, the Biennial will feature several music contributions, organized by composer and musician Nicholas Bussman with collaborators from China.

X Modernizations
What is modernity as condition, as an order, as an ontological power? There is rarely any agreement as to what exactly the term ‘modernity’ means, but modernity is a condition that produces contradictions and intensifications, and encompasses its opposites. Modernity has become a global fact, a matrix and order of knowledge, in which ‘tradition’ for instance occupies a particular place, that, once named as such, has become a modern category. Another central part of this department will be focus on the role of woodcuts in China in the 20th century, referring to its central role as a mass medium since the birth of the New Art Movement inaugurated by seminal modern writer Lu Xun.

The Winter of Artificial Intelligence
The ‘winter of artificial intelligence’ refers to a period of several decades in science, especially in America, in which research and technology on artificial intelligence on computing where unable to make significant progress in approximating the operations of the human and other organisms, and to fulfill the horizon of expectations with which it has been charged. This blockage of progress was linked to widely perceived problems in modern schemes of social engineering.

The Factory of Selves: Inscription and Invention
From standardization under industrial society, to radical subjectivity of modernity in forms of poetry and art: This part of the exhibition is dedicated to the relation between the machine and subjective experience. What is the relation between hand and brain? Is consumer society a factory that produces imagery of desirable selves and forms of symbolic capital, while it increasingly captures social processes in algorithms and inscribes their existence into a continuum of systemic, managed and scripted environments? With regards to the algorithm-as-new-factory, just as at the beginning of industrialization, we can now speak of a new wave of automatization that produces social relations, feelings, through and media-environments.

The New Science: Engineering the Psyche
The space of art, the role of artists in the future will be closely linked to what we call in this exhibition, after Giambattista Vico, ‘the new science’. For Vico, writing in the 18th century in Italy, the new science was speaking of the principles according which societies and what holds them together (chiefly ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ – remember ‘factory’ in its Latin roots means ‘the production of facts’) are constructed and yet universal.

A Theory of Clouds (from Classical Painting to Microsoft)
This aspect of the exhibition looks at the realm of social feelings, moods, and thoughts. It links those viral phenomena, on whose management our economies increasingly depend, to the aesthetic traditions of representing cosmological and spiritual facts through clouds.

About the Selection of Artists – The ‘Scholar’-Artist:

The artists Franke presents could be called a new generation of ‘scholar-artists’ or ‘artists-literati’, they are story-tellers as much as producers of images. And they use both images and stories to explore and open up what Franke suggests to call ‘mental resources’.

Franke himself said that “the artists we work with currently are a new generation – or to be precise, they are scholar-artists. They didn’t become avant-garde through their modernism; it was later on that they became to represent the avant-garde. I hope that everyone can flesh out the spectrum between these two schools. Most of the work on display at this Biennale isn’t avant-garde and represents a wider stratum of society: what I call the ‘spiritual stratum’.”

These are cultural-historical and psychological resources, the grounds and material for our thoughts, desires and dreams. These resources are being used increasingly in our consumer-oriented, digital societies, in which society becomes increasingly like a big machine, and the subjective psyche has become a resource that demands to be managed. Art can enable us to open these resources to other forms of use, in order to gain new perspectives and engage in new forms of  social innovation and invention.

Asked for an update on the artist selection process for the Biennale, Franke said that the lineup was not yet settled but that the exhibition would work to ensure an equal number of Chinese and international artists, some of whom are new on the contemporary art scene and who rarely make an appearance.


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