Simon Birch, a British artist based in Hong Kong since 1997, is now at the head of a group of twenty international collaborators who have built the 14th Factory Foundation. Birch’s idea was to create a global artist collective aiming to form a large-scale contemporary art experience that could work as a vehicle for social impact. The first step was to put together a group of artists coming from many different countries, including China, United States, Canada and the UK. The second step was finding a location: an empty industrial warehouse of over three acres in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. After a successful but short life, it’s unfortunately closing its doors on the 30th of June. If you haven’t been there, hurry up!
The space has been converted into an immersive gallery, where the fourteen interlinked areas showcase multi-media artworks, including sculptures, paintings, videos and also installations, music and performances. The gallery was already set to close a couple of months ago, but thanks to its huge success it succeeded in open a bit longer. But you only have one week left, so be sure to visit it.
How would you describe the project of The 14th Factory and what is its main aim?
Today, in an increasingly post-industrial world, the word ‘factory’ is almost archaic. The 14th Factory speaks to the implications of this post-industrial world – a closing down, or the obsolescence of one model of production that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s not coincidental that the project is housed in an old commercial space in Lincoln Heights. The setting is part of its content.
The project invites you to think about different scales of border-making: the nation-state as a powerful container that draws lines around places (like chalk outlines at a murder scene); the borders that cities produce as the grow – enclaves of wealth and pockets of poverty; and meaning-making itself as a practice that involves taking the world and then framing it to make it intelligible. We cut our experience of the world up in language to make it understandable.
The 14th Factory explores an inherent tension between our need for borders and the dreams of living in a borderless world. It’s a theme that is at once universal but also highly topical. Today, wherever we happen to live in the world, we’re experiencing the painful breakdown of borders – with globalization, unemployment, mass migration – but we’re also witnessing resurgent nationalism and the violent re-imposition of borders – with the building of walls and the securitization of frontiers.
The title of the project The 14th Factory speaks to this theme in different ways. It alludes on one level to the ‘Thirteen Factories of Canton’ (today’s Guangzhou) in Southern China. This was a zone on the outskirts of the port-city where, through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, foreigners were permitted to trade for part of the year. Of course, the object of this trade was ultimately the opening up of China – imagined as a breaking down of borders in the name of free trade. Britain and other powers would go to war with the Qing Empire to ensure that it opened up. The Thirteen Factories becomes an emblem in this project of a contradictory impetus for lockdown and global expansion. Globalization embedded in a one world vision, the result of violent intersections. The project explores this tension, between the border and the borderless.
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How did the project start and what was the idea behind it?
It is the latest result of themes I’ve been exploring for fifteen years. There have been many similar multiple media projects made by myself in that time, but The 14th Factory is the biggest and most ambitious both physically and conceptually. This is the latest version, so it’s not a singular idea but part of an ongoing exploration.
The name The 14th Factory is based on the Thirteen Factories of the eighteenth century China, as you said. What did you want to state through this choice?
I’ve always been interested in history. I do a lot of read and research, and historical narratives have been part of my past works. I am particularly interested in the way one’s personal history is a microcosm of larger human history. As an ex-pat British artist and a Hong Kong citizen, the dynamics inherent in the Thirteen Factories of Canton – with their history as a site of trade, production and interface, and then their demise in the wake of the mess made by the British with the opium trade and the Opium War — were of interest to me. With The 14th Factory we are seeking to create a new, multi-cultural space of connection and creative production that moves beyond the old boundaries and the old paradigms.
How do you select the artists featured in your space?
The entire project was designed from the ground up by myself five years ago. It was done on the back of previous projects from as far back as ten years earlier. Each project has been an incremental progression in my process to flesh out and refine an underlying narrative that has its latest incarnation in The 14th Factory. That fourteen-part procession is an amalgamation of my own mythology, the universal mythologies that connect us, which connects to the greater narrative of life and civilisation on this planet.
The divisions are of my own making and the decisions on content for each element are likewise a considered and well-researched plan. Once this ‘script’ was in place I leaned heavily on friends, all far more talented than myself, to help bring the elements to realisation. The level of autonomy varies from pieces to piece: for example, from Tannhauser being very strictly managed and specific with two filmmaker friends helping with the practical side of shooting from a drone, to the audio landscape designed by Gary Gunn in which I had little input other than feeding some documentary footage to the composer. There is always trust and belief in the collaboration, control rising and falling, leading to some brilliant results beyond my expectations. Every creative involved has worked with me many times and the dialogue has sometimes been in the other direction, myself appearing in the work of Cang Xin for example in his identity exchange series of performances.
A good deal of the work has only my own stamp on it and a few don’t. Li Wei’s Village series, for example, was not produced for the show but accidentally became an important and necessary part of it, filling a gap that had to be solved at that time. But all these collaborators became involved because we had all worked together before and we all get on very well, and throughout the design process it was intuitive and obvious how everyone would fit in. Many worked with me on previous projects so, in some ways, it perhaps feels like getting the band back together for the sequel.
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Globalization has shaped the world in which we are living now, and you seem to be very conscious of this since you feature works of artists from China, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. Why did you feel this urge?
As an artist one becomes a filter and a reactor, and then a visual communicator, absorbing and interpreting and responding to the world one inhabits. My feeling is that the social contract of existence has taken us to a precarious point. Globalization has taken us where we are now, at risk of environmental collapse, virus, the fear of artificial intelligence, nuclear war and many other issues. It may be too late but we have been on the brink before. Protest and the communication of ideas online has had little effect if anything, borders are re-enforced, we have become more disconnected, our leaders no longer represent us, etc.
The 14th Factory is a microcosm of a solution, or at least my incubator conceptual idea of one. It is an action. Re-activating a dead space, arriving to a community outside of the main Los Angeles tourist map, bringing a group of multi-disciplinary creatives together to collaborate on an intimate and interconnected project and doing so for love over money or status (credit shared), and then that project being accessed and shared and enjoyed by a diverse demographic outside of the established paradigm of art presentation. Well, that’s action and collaboration, realisation against difficult odds, which is ultimately shared by a greater community with positive repercussions for all.
The project is focused on socially engaged art. Artists have a social and even political responsibility towards the community, but what can they actually do in order to use it in society?
Art is the sharp tip of the knife of human creativity, and creativity is the ultimate resource. Everything artists need to do is continue to make art that engages, provokes, challenges, empathizes, etc. Artists have a voice that is able to communicate in ways that other cultural activities are unable to. Making art is socially responsible.
The 14th Factory was set to close on April 30th, but you managed to avoid this undesirable event. Could you tell us what happened?
People came to the show, mostly driven by social media and word of mouth. Enough people came to cover the costs so we extended the run. Simple commerce. Before then we had ran out of money and had no expectation of survival.
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How would you like that the audience to experience the space of The 14th Factory?
There is a narrative flow in the exhibition that parallels the idea of the hero’s journey, or the ‘monomyth’, as Joseph Campbell calls it. The layout of the space guides you to a certain degree, but of course you also have the freedom to move in a different way through it, to backtrack, to linger. Each installation is a discrete work, or a world in itself; but when taken as a total environment, particularly in this amazing space in Los Angeles, it is exponentially more powerful.
To instruct the audience on how to navigate or how to decipher would dis-empower the viewer from their role as central player in the artwork. It would also create borders between the works, and it was important for the project to be viewed ‘en masse’ rather than as individual parts. So I guess that we want the audience to experience it with little or no information and make their own minds up.
What are the future goals that The 14th Factory is looking to achieve?
We are just getting started. That is the best we could do with limited resources and the huge compromise of having to become entrepreneurs and our own manager and agent to realise the project. With the success in Los Angeles we hope to use this proof of concept, we hope the attract the necessary support in terms of organisational structure and representation moving forward so we can get back to art making. If that was possible and all our energies were focused on the content rather than finding resources to realise it and ways to communicate it, well, then you’ll see the real project. London, New York City, Berlin, Shanghai; all in our future, and who knows where else.
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