Bernard Controls is a French company that manufactures electric valve actuators. Its China factory is located in an industrial park on the southern outskirts of Beijing, and employs about 70 people. The factory has a workshop atmosphere, very different from large, labor-intensive factories like those set up by Foxconn. In 2010, Guillaume Bernard, the head of Bernard Controls in Beijing, met Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi, who had been living in Beijing since 2003. Alessandro was invited to be an artist-in-residence in the factory, to investigate how art could influence people working there. The following year, Alessandro was formally employed by the company to set up a new department, called “Social Sensibility Research and Development” (SSR&D).
The idea to invite an artist to a factory to create a project on a temporary basis is not new, but it is unusual that a company would formally employ an artist to set up a permanent department to conduct research on something called “social sensibility.”
The first project Alessandro initiated was titled “Suibian,” a common Chinese expression meaning “whatever,” or “as you like.” In the first month, he gave each worker a small booklet to write down anything that the worker would like to express and communicate to the artist. It could be poems, stories, songs, ideas, or opinions. In the second month, he brought some art books to share with the workers, and asked each of them to imagine an artwork that they would like to create and make a drawing of it. In the third month, each worker was given thirty minutes to create “a small event,” “an action,” or “an object” according to her “intuition of the moment.”
One worker, Li Zhan, decided to move her workstation outside, so she could “enjoy sunshine on her skin” while she worked.
Since then, a total of 39 projects have been organized by SSR&D. Artists, from China or abroad, usually are engaged for two to three months. They come to the factory twice a week. Workers have the freedom to participate in a project, to observe, or to ignore it. Alessandro defines social sensibility as “the capacity to respond in a very organic but precise way to very complex external stimulation.” He believes that one purpose of SSR&D is to introduce contradiction to the factory, to trigger critical thinking among people working there.
There have been a few “failed projects.” For example, artist Li Xinlu distributed mini-speakers to the workers, with the idea that they could listen to music at their workstation. She spent a lot of time negotiating with the plant manager, who finally agreed to a “Music Hour” on Fridays. Li Xinlu brought her own CD collection to the factory and gave it to the workers as a gift. She declared, “Now you are the master of your music.” However, for unstated reasons, no one chose to play music during the “Music Hour.”
In 2014, Zhao Tianji and Australian artist Matthew Greaves were invited to the factory. They quickly discovered that during breaks the workers preferred to hang out outside in the bike shed, rather than using the official recreation area provided by the company. So the artists set up a temporary tea room in the bike shed, and invited the employees to have tea and coffee with them, to discuss possible improvements to the shed and the idea of commons.
Tianji returned the following year and worked with architect Max Gerthel to design a new space based on the suggestions collected from previous year’s conversations. The proposal, to remodel a cargo container into a multi-function commons, is awaiting approval from the management.
The parent company in France has started to experiment with the same idea, inviting artists to work with workers in their Paris factory. Meanwhile Alessandro is trying to convince other companies to establish artist-run departments within their businesses. In February 2016, Li Zhan, the worker who, in Alessandro’s first project “Suibian,” decided to move her workstation outside to “enjoy sunshine on her skin,” was invited by Arrow Factory, Beijing’s most famous independent art space, to exhibit her artwork. Over the past six years, she has been deeply affected by SSR&D, and has gained confidence in her own artistic sensibility in addition to being a skilled worker who can assemble actuators.