In conversation: Xiaofan Jiang
Xiaofan Jiang is a transdisciplinary designer, artist, and the founder of Underground Art And Design. Jiang uses design-led methods to construct frameworks for engagement and story-telling, uplift voices for marginalized communities, and amplify their visions for a more equitable future.
21 de fevereiro de 2023
To begin with, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get involved in the arts? Did you realize you wanted to be an artist and designer when you first got interested in art?
When I was little, without even knowing the word “designer” or “artist” and the differentiation between them, I liked to draw sketches of all sorts of imaginary objects and fictional narratives. But the environment I grew up in, favors designers over artists- it heroizes designers that provide their communities with solutions and joy and disdain the artists who post provocative questions and criticism. Without realizing this intentional intolerance, I leaned toward design as I grew up. During my bachelor’s study of Industrial Design in Shanghai, I was shocked at the unitary curriculum - The European industrialization philosophy, mindsets, and techniques are taken as the prominent guide, Neoliberalism and Capitalism are what drive the program, and the ultimate goal of the students is to be hired by big corporates who are enforcing these notions and mindsets further. The oppression of the workers, artists, artisans, and the environment caused by this system actually derived from the semi-colonial period of Shanghai between mid 18’s and mid 19’s. However, the image of settlers today is seen as an “enlightenment” by people who benefited from that period and passed this perception on to the next generations. Knowing that still learning and designing the western way is only perpetuating the wound and oppression in my society from the past, and knowing what needs to be aware of and addressed is systemic and beyond the disciplinary boundaries, I began to integrate artistic critique, provocation, and design methodologies to develop prompts and actionable strategies to fight against the “innocent” oppression brought by colonialism since my study at the MFA Transdisciplinary Design Program at Parsons School of Design.
Why do you dedicate your practice to uplifting the voices of marginalized communities, and amplifying their visions for a more equitable future?
Marginalized communities are groups that experience discrimination, oppression, and exclusion in social, political, economic, and other aspects because of unequal power relationships, which, to me, include both the human communities and our surrounding ecosystem (I dislike the term “human” and “non-human” for being anthropocentric). And the system that creates such unequal power relationships is also the same system that is deeply white-supremacist, patriarchal and racist. The same system that hurts the environment and values profit over the planet. The same system where reductionist thinking prevails and disregards the complexity of lives, and the same system in which “winners” own history and narratives.
To amplify and uplift their voices is an attempt to counteract such a system. By reclaiming their narratives and visions, we can get to see our own biases, ignorance, misunderstanding, and false beliefs. And from that point forward, we can challenge the mainstream point of view and the so-called “history” and “truth”. We can’t count on a few critical thinkers and strategists to subvert that system overnight. It will be a lifelong practice, and it needs to start within ourselves and our audience.
One of your submitted works entitled Soul of Water is an immersive narrative in sound accompanied by audio-reactive visuals inspired by Donna Haraway, challenging the dominant narratives about our relationship with nature. What were the steps taken to develop this work?
This project was, at first, a piece that fits into my larger design research project, Habitable Futures. It was an audio prompt in a collective envisioning activity (I try not to use the word workshop) on behalf of mother nature, asking our participants: How might we disentangle our human ingenuity from the dominant paradigm, a deeply capitalist, patriarchal, and anthropocentric system? How might we reconcile our relationship with nature and the land and build a reciprocal relationship with it in exchange for its nurture?
Many participants wanted to see this audio piece becoming an independent project, for it is self-explaining. But it’s hard to exhibit an audio work alone in a space. So I used a digital tool called Touch Designer to create an audio-reactive visual. The understated yet constantly evolving visuals in this work are intended to immerse the audience in a scene as if they were standing by the water, undisturbed by the rest of the world, and listening to the monologue of mother nature. Water is the mother of all lives on earth. And it is often the place for our reveries and reflections. The subtle visuals give space for the imagination of how we might reciprocate nature instead of treating it as the other as we do now.
In the soundscape, many kinds of recorded natural sounds are weaved together to remind the audience of the interconnectedness of the non-humans in our ecosystem, where new possibilities emerge from complexity and chaos, which subverts the notions of reductionism favored by our capitalistic world.
The script, soundscape, and visuals are created by me and the voice-over is recorded by voice artist Laura Soar.
What inspired you the most about Donna Haraway’s work? If you had to recommend it to an artist, what would be the primary reason?
As someone whose first language is not English, I must admit Donna Haraway’s written works are very challenging for me. But her highly poetic use of language and her power of blending and combining words in exciting, mind-bending ways to weave together her ideas of non-human kinship, ecofeminism, cyborgs metaphors, .etc, is truly astounding.
I often send this quote from Donna Haraway to my friends: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” ― Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene
Not only an artist but also a transdisciplinary designer, you created a participatory design research essay, Habitable Futures, where you explore the framework of an alternative future and investigate the premise “the core capacity of a habitat is emergence.”. Can you elaborate on this line of rationality?
A habitat is a place where organisms make homes. It is a breeding ground for the emergence of lives. A habitat allows the dwelling of all biotic and abiotic factors without centering on one another. There is no need for words such as “intervention”, “ownership” and “agency” to exist because every entity has its own influence on one another and contributes to endless interdependent relationships, which are constantly evolving. Those relationships make up complex ecosystems, which are impossible for us to map the beginning or the end.
Let's talk about your film Symbiosis. In your statement, you mention “This is not a work that celebrates technological advancement or anthropocentrism. Instead, it tries to convey the message that: We should always be grateful for the environment and mother nature, instead of always taking advantage of them to clean up the mess we’ve created”. Can you lead us through the process behind this film?
As Artificial Intelligence advances, technology is rendered as scary and way more powerful than humans, according to mainstream voices and tech giants like Elon Musk. I want to imagine a future where technology is fragile, inefficient, and inconvenient, reminding people that nature is as powerful and important.
In this film, a symbiosis between data and plants is imagined. Your data is stored in the plants surrounding you and will disappear if the plants die. And the electronic extensions at the roots transfer not only data but also convey the plant's health conditions on external interfaces, reminding people when a plant is in desperate need of care. In this film, projection mapping by Xintong Tan and visual effects by myself were used to demonstrate the interaction among humans, data, and plants.
Another concept or phenomenon you investigate in this work is mutualism. Can you explain this ecological occurrence to the readers?
Mutualism, another ecological phenomenon often brought together with symbiosis, is that plants communicate and share water and nutrients through the underground mutual-aid network (thanks to fungus and other organisms). We can imagine that when one plant is sick, the surrounding ones will send nutrients to keep it strong and help back up the data - in this way, the plants hold more power in this nature-vs-artificial relationship. And it asks the question: If your data lives in the plants around you, would you feel the urge to take care of their lives? Will you acknowledge and respect the ecological power, and be grateful for nature’s generosity to spare their capacity for humans?
You are the founder of Underground Art And Design. What can you tell us about the project/collective?
Underground Art And Design (https://uaad.art) is an art and design organization for connection, diversity, vibrance, and dreams while being a safe space for provocations for change. But most importantly, it aims to uplift artists and designers with its pool of inspirations, resources, and opportunities. UAAD was launched in November 2022, and it has an online publication with a readership across 70 countries today and a weekly newsletter that helps thousands of artists find more ways to be recognized and supported by other organizations. As an evolving project, I believe more features, programs, and activities will emerge along the way.
What is for you the biggest challenge we face as individuals and artists navigating the current state of things?
I can’t answer it on behalf of other artists. But as a provocative artist and designer, the biggest challenge is the dilemma between establishing oneself in the capitalist world and being critical about it in my work. Some critics use it as a weapon to accuse these artists of inconsistency, but to me, it’s just a matter of balance between making a living and making art. And I would like to share my favorite quote from an indigenous artist, “Get away with the colonial mindset that we have to be perfect to fight for our freedom. Wherever we are, this is where we start.”
Lastly, any artist, podcast, book, or platform you would like to recommend?
Yes. First of all, I always enjoyed reading Insights of An Eco Artist and listening to its podcast. I am grateful for this interview and would recommend it to my friends. I would also like to recommend some essays and books regarding power, decolonization, feminism, and emergence: Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, by Linda Tuhiwai Smith; Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, by Donna Haraway; So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World, by Margaret J. Wheatley; Nature’s Queer Performativity, by Karen Barad. I would also recommend art platforms like https://youngvisions.art/, and my own https://uaad.art/.
Xiaofan Jiang is a transdisciplinary designer, artist, and the founder of Underground Art And Design. She recently graduated from the MFA Transdisciplinary Design Program at Parsons School of Design, where she uses design-led methods to construct frameworks for engagement and story-telling, uplift voices for marginalized communities, and amplify their visions for a more equitable future. Her interests lie at the intersection of decolonization, speculative futures, and community engagement using participatory approaches, and such practices allow her to challenge stigma, reclaim narratives, build relationships, and shift power structures. Her previous works are situated in UX design, design research, speculative design, and visual communication.