Walking on the Trail (Discussion)

Ho Chi Minh Trail

Johnson Chang Tsong-zung, Gao Shiming, Lu Xinghua, Lu Jie, Liu Wei, Song Yi, Weng Zhengqi, Wu Shanzhuan, Xu Zhen, Zhang Hui


June 26, 2010, Vientiane, Laos. After three weeks of traveling, Long March Project participants gather for a last meal in Vientiane before crossing the Laos-Vietnam border towards Hanoi. Over dinner, the group meditates upon the past three weeks of traveling through China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. They re-examine the original curatorial propositions of “transforming acting into action,” approaches to physical journeying, and emphasis on the re-sensitization of disguised working sites.

Johnson Chang Tsong-zung: What does it mean to walk on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project? To begin with, a trail is not a path. A trail appears when one begins journeying on it, and it disappears when the journey ends. To us, the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project symbolizes an imaginary of the political and of contemporary art; it represents openness to encounters, not explorations—for explorations are goal-oriented, and that is something we must avoid.

Our journey on the Trail has transformed the act of walking into a way of life. Life is movement, and this is my understanding of the Trail. A trail is not a journey, trip, or a revolution, such as Marx’s revolutionary road. A trail has no fixed destination; thus it is considered counter-revolutionary because it does not surrender to a single doctrine or serve a final end. Believers in revolution will inevitably betray the nature of a trail through their loyalty to a particular organization.

In an age of globalization, continuously traveling means physically drawing a trajectory of one’s life on earth. While we generally define this way of living as nomadism, the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project tells us that those leading agricultural lives today should also follow the trail. Consider a way of walking without a fixed destination in which every encounter must be reflected upon, re-examined, and re-positioned—is this the “perpetual revolution” that Mao Zedong spoke of? No, because perpetual revolution is a continual process of overthrowing the establishment, while our proposed way of walking is a process of endless detours that create the opportunity for encounters on the road.

The Long March Project—Ho Chi Minh Trail Project is Act I of this year’s Shanghai Biennale, Rehearsal. The final act of the Biennale will be a dialogue between Chinese and Indian scholars. In this year’s Biennale context, the act of speaking is also considered a type of “rehearsal,” not a formal presentation of a thesis. But we see dialogue with our Indian interlocutors as similar to walking and casually meandering in many directions. Along the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, artists have encountered
foreign scholars on uneven terrain; together, they take a casual discursive tour as if in a daydream. We also hope that you will take this conversation not as a series of theses but as an organic substance filtered through soil.

Lu Xinghua: I will respond to Johnson’s thoughts. Before we began our journey, Song Yi described the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project as similar to a set of rugged tractor tracks in rural China. Lu Xun also said that a road is created as soon as people walk upon it. Our understanding of a trail is similarly organic. But I’d like to make a comparison. In the last two hundred years, many famous roads have been created, one of the most famous being Martin Heidegger’s holzwege, which literally means, “a timber track that leads to a clearing in the forest where the timber is cut.”[1] A German professor recently did a close study of the imagery in Heidegger’s Off the Beaten Track, and he described the process of creating a trail as violent, even annihilative, with lumberjacks chopping down trees to clear a path. This is not a delicate process, and there are no secrets or myths that appear along the way. Instead, it’s a destructive entrance aimed at achieving practical ends. So the view that art and poetry should encounter great mystery or grand destinations is inconsistent with Heidegger’s road in the forest. Holzwege begins with this kind of intellectual destruction, which we might compare to digging for oil: we drill big holes into the ground without knowing if oil actually exists below.

The Chinese translation of holzwege is a term that possesses many meanings, and it’s been applied to drawing, poetry, and architecture in many ways. There’s another word that’s important, though, and that’s lichtung. While holzwege is a path we try to dig out, lichtung is the potential space we need to reserve in advance during each action and each creation. The original meaning of lichtung is “an open space in a forest.” For example, my father raises fish, which requires the presence of wetlands. Wetlands cannot be used directly, but the farm cannot survive without them. Another relevant example of this is Tiergarten Park in Berlin; if you’ve been there, you know it’s a messy park. In fact, it doesn’t even seem like a park. A piece of land here, a piece there, a small farm and a small pond, all in confusion. It’s like a work that shows a lot of potential, and when you engage it, you benefit from it in many ways. The water, soil, and ecology along a holzwege are all fine. Similarly, perhaps we should leave space for open interpretation when we confront the concerns of fine art, poetry, and literature.

Gao Shiming: Sun Zhouxing translated lichtung into chengming, and Chen Jiaying translated it into shuming. [2]

Lu Xinghua: As lichtung unfolds, its meanings multiply. The term is not meant to be hung up to dry. The state of chengming is like a deep, clear body of water, with both appearance and content equally present. During our first march, the “Long March,” it was very difficult to find direction, and when we reached a destination, often it wasn’t where we thought we were headed. To put it in other words, these philosophies tell us that when a political path transforms, the only state that exists is instability. Only by speaking to each other can we achieve unity of action, allowing words and actions to be as clear and deep as the water of chengming.

Gao Shiming: In “Letter on Humanism, “Martin Heidegger gives a positive critical appraisal of Marx. I’ll quote Heidegger: “Because Marx, in discovering alienation, reaches into an essentialist dimension of history, the Marxist view of history excels all other history. Because, however, neither Husserl nor, as far as I can see, Sartre recognizes the essentially historical character of Being, neither phenomenology nor existentialism can penetrate that dimension within which alone a productive discussion with Marxism is possible.”[3] In addition, Heidegger’s attitude toward communism is essential. Communism is understood and utilized in many different ways, but what it really expresses is the existence of a fundamental experience in world history. According to Heidegger, only a shortsighted person regards communism as merely a school of thought or world view.

Lu Xinghua: But this idea of a mysterious creative source—I think Long Marchers should be cautious of it. Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the journey is that through journeying, we collectively learn the basics of behaviour and movement, recovering the gestures we are deprived of by capitalism. Every action has many potential meanings, just like the moves in tai chi. But right now, our movements do not have as many meanings as those that can be expressed through tai chi. So we are using the collective experience of walking to restore these meanings, and this requires collectively learning, reapplying knowledge, and re-recognizing phenomena. It’s impossible for an individual to do this alone, and this is where the meaning of collective walking lies.

Another issue I want to bring up is: While walking together, what do we do about our jobs in Beijing and Shanghai? I’ll paraphrase the concerns of another author, whose name I’ve forgotten, but, for example, when we are on the road, like on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, are we workers in a game? What does the work site mean for the Long March Project, and what challenge does it pose to our work? What is the function of an artist’s studio here?

Liu Wei: My studio is just a space for me to think about things.

Lu Xinghua: Only intellectuals and artists walk like this. Nowadays, when people walk they’re power walking, doing it for exercise. A few days ago, I thought of something: As artists, we shouldn’t take the introductory training in art institutions too seriously. My understanding is that it’s very dangerous for contemporary artists to care too much about their training and the division of labour. There are four reasons for this: first of all, to take painting as an example, many artists believe that painters must neglect the basic tools and function of painting. They shouldn’t take them too seriously, which allows contemporary painters to mix things that have nothing to do with painting into their practice. This is a typical approach for artists today. For example, if I put traditional Chinese wine and whisky together, the result is a clash. This is what the last hundred years of Chinese painting have been like, and you’d be silly to take the skills of traditional painting too seriously. Training to paint should be treated like a game. This isn’t to say that you should give up on it, but rather treat it light-heartedly.

The second reason for not taking art training seriously relates to Agamben. Agamben believes that a painter’s capacity for dealing with colour, line, and form is not a means of expression but a reflection of the artist’s ability to “collect” and “absorb.” These elements aren’t for looking at; they’re there to draw you in. We often say that artists should express what’s in their hearts. But this is too simple; it means there is no indirect expression. This is about the ability to collect and the ability to capture, as described by Agamben. The cobweb of capitalism is strong, and the spider sucks blood from men, turning men into passive audiences who look but cannot think. Painting should have similar capability.

My third reason has to do with the idea of invitation. Jacques Derrida said that creating a painting is like planning a party. Artists arrive at a scene of broken relationships between people, society, and nature, and that’s where they begin to work. Artists are uncertain of their ability to mend the situation, but what’s most important is the invitation to engage the public. It is enough for an artist to make a gesture of invitation in his work, and to emphasize a work’s political dimension is both too complicated and superficial. I don’t believe artists are capable of decisive political action in their work. Two days ago, we met some artists in Cambodia who had this attitude of “I can do this job well.” Artists should never act like this. They are only able to invite others in, to apply their energy in creative ways. Never try to create art in order to showcase your greatness.

My fourth reason for not taking art education seriously has to do with rebuilding mystery. Jean-Luc Godard’s earlier work contains three levels of criticism; first from the perspective of a serious artist, second from Hollywood, and third from times past. Combined, these three levels express the views of a serious artist, a commercial artist, and an anthropologist. Many believe we should playfully confront our serious artistic training with Godard’s popularism. Approaching art practice as “play” or as a “game” can stimulate productive ways of thinking. And while Godard pokes fun at the seriousness of art, his strategies also bring a new level of mystery to art. The overlapping of these three perspectives do not merge into one single plane, but rather form the thickness of contemporary art, which is Godard’s way of approaching the mystery of art.

Gao Shiming: What is the biggest difference between Long March Project—Ho Chi Minh Trail Project (2008–ongoing) and Long March Project—A Walking Visual Display (2002)? From my point of view, A Walking Visual Display absorbed the historical Long March and the international concerns of what was then the last decade. The project was more about “absorbing” rather than “describing” and eventually did not take the form of a final presentation. Looking at the project’s curatorial proposal from 2002, almost all international topics of that decade were absorbed; it was a way of linking issues together. In the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, this is not the case. It seemed like it in the beginning, but we rapidly overthrew this structure, and it took only one morning. We abolished issues of “collective memory.” As Xu Zhen said, the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project focuses on internal issues; it does not follow the path of historical narratives, nor does it emphasize intervention in local ecologies.

A Walking Visual Display brought up many critical issues. Even for the participating artists, the terms and narratives that the project referred to were very new and unfamiliar, but still very relevant to those artists. For example, we regarded postcolonialism as having nothing to do with us, but we remained affected by its legacy. It was very difficult for the artists to begin their journey, and we tried to arrange for more international participants to join in the dialogue with the local people.

Lu Jie: But in the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, we are dealing with internal issues, and we need to work through them ourselves. Let me ask, if A Walking Visual Display was a curatorial work, what is the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project?

Xu Zhen: Prior to departure, I expected the project to emphasize its curatorial framework.

Gao Shiming: Did you think that our journey would be similar to that of A Walking Visual Display?

Xu Zhen: No, that would be impossible. But before coming here, I didn’t expect this kind of exchange. We came up with a collective list of questions to prepare for the journey, and at that time, I couldn’t imagine how I could begin to unravel these concerns, so I came to hear what other people had in mind.

Song Yi: In preparation for the journey, some of us emptied our minds, and some of us meditated on a list of questions. During our travels, so many of the situations that we encountered pointed us back to our original concerns, and we re-evaluated our judgments and made adjustments accordingly. In every phase, I continuously adjusted my status before addressing the issues brought forth.

As brought up by Wang Jianwei during a discussion in Ho Chi Minh City, I was very affected by the idea of a “yellow light commonwealth.”[4] In internal meetings and discussions with the local people, there is little consensus, which makes the journey feel real. Whereas A Walking Visual Display was more about chasing a common view, the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project has a denser participatory relationship.

Lu Xinghua: We have purposely challenged ourselves by traveling difficult roads, forcing ourselves to discover. What kind of journey are we on? If we are not hiking, walking, or strolling, what kind of movement is this?

Song Yi: I think we can describe the first Long March Project with the word “relevance.” We’ve connected a network of materials and text through the act of journeying. But this time, I think the journey goes beyond the word “relevance.” This project is more about non-consensus, all the while recalling history and the topics that we repeatedly return to. Under these two preconditions, we then search for relevant material and connect the dots.

Weng Zhenqi: These projects are like watching a video online. It takes time to buffer first, then at some point the file may stop and take some more time to buffer again. Sometimes you can watch as it buffers, and other times you simply stop and wait until it finishes buffering the rest. I think we’re in a state of buffering, or buffering as a digital method of gathering, a construct built with elements from alien places.

Lu Jie: Curators and theorists are aware of the ritual importance of walking, but the artists are more suspicious of this dimension. Some of them even reject the sense of ceremony.

Gao Shiming: They’ve asked several times: Why should we do this?

Xu Zhen: But this question just shows our thirst for knowledge. We assumed you had a clear purpose in mind for walking.

Lu Xinghua: When we walk, I notice the artists showing off their feathers. They sit together and talk about their work and the things they are concerned about. I want to mention the words “parade” or “stroll,” but they’re both unsuitable.

Wu Shanzhuan: As a conscientious group, we might describe our journey as an act of tracking God, or a satellite. In each instance, we are tracking an “unknown thing.” But another alternative is to assume that we are being tracked by American soldiers. This might help us get a better sense of the journey’s progress.

Gao Shiming: To journey according to the enemy’s perspective.

Wu Shanzhuan: When we leave Vietnam or Indochina, we should say, “This is Ho Chi Minh’s Trail.” Just like what German military officers said when they left Sarajevo, “This is Sarajevo.”

Gao Shiming: Didn’t we say that Ho Chi Minh’s Trail can be seen as a constellation?

Wu Shanzhuan: Yes. I always regard it as a constellation, a system with great capacity.

Lu Jie: Now, this is interesting. We have walked so many days, but today was the first time we mentioned the topic of “walking” itself. Before setting out, I met with people everywhere, and we always discussed different ways of understanding walking. For example, before we set out for 2002’s Long March, Chen Jiaying once brought a chef to dine with us. That night, we spoke about journeying as metaphorical act. Today, we are conducting a conversation of similar nature.

Gao Shiming: Two days before, I thought about Zhang Chengzhi’s journey during the Cultural Revolution. He drew a line straight across a mountainous region, intersecting many geographically complex locations. Then, with a compass in hand, he traveled this route through mountains and rivers.

Lu Jie: Wu Shanzhuan’s idea of “logistics” is interesting; it’s an idea that closely matches this journey. Prior to our departure, and we announced some key phrases in our news release, such as the construction of a disguised political space. Now that we’re approaching the end of this journey, how do we understand our prior concerns?

Gao Shiming: It’s most critical that we dismiss historical narratives and enter the contemporary. Since Cambodia, we have been continually discussing the question of the contemporary, as well as the structure of the contemporary arts field. If Ho Chi Minh’s Trail is to serve as metaphor for the contemporary, it needs to deal with the proclamation that the world is flat, and that the present era accommodates various continuations of old and new ideologies. Of course, we don’t look back at narratives of the Communist International, the Cold War, and the Third World with nostalgia. Today, there is a new approach to combat. It takes us away from the imaginary, from the search for a political space, and it brings us toward an understanding of new political methods. What is at stake here is not a space but the evaluation of a methodology.

Yesterday, I read Žižek’s preface to a collection of Mao’s earlier texts called “On Practice and Contradiction,” in which Žižek states: “In radical revolution, people not only ‘realize their old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams’; rather, they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming.”[5] He says, “Freedom . . . is the condition of liberation, that is, if we only change reality in order to realize our dreams, and do not change these dreams themselves, we sooner or later regress to old reality.”[6] These dreams eventually become part of an outdated reality. We shouldn’t look any further for hidden insights, but focus on searching for new political and artistic methodologies.

Lu Jie: We overthrew another key concept today. Our news release discussed the process of transferring acting into action, but Lu Xinghua now stresses that we should transfer action into acting.

Lu Xinghua: “Acting” has a distinct power that is lost in its transformation into action.

Lu Jie: How is the relationship between “action” and “acting” seen through our proposal of a yellow light commonwealth, our plans and predictions for the journey, and the actual reality of the journey? A Walking Visual Display was originally programmed as a confession, but in reality it became more of an illustrative project.

Gao Shiming: A Walking Visual Display was not illustrative; it was a presentation. I think this was problematic early on in the Long March Project. If the project is an action, its participants must engage with reality and the issues at hand. Otherwise, a project about acting merely appears to be a performance bound to reality, like drawing a bow without shooting an arrow. Acting begins in art, and all of our thought and behavior is included in the actions of general society. It isn’t necessary to revisit the ancient binary between thinking and action; this only fragments life. According to Heidegger, the nature of action lies in vollbringen, and vollbringen means to unfold something to show its natural richness, that is, to be “produced.” Therefore, artistic creation and action are not separate.

Lu Xinghua: Action is the uncertain stage before taking the first step in a journey. Thinking propels our inclination not to act because by acting we hold our potential back. One step forward, three steps backward. If I may be so bold, I think we should conserve our potential, saving it for action. This is the reason for rehearsal. Great actors conserve their energy while rehearsing. But when they are officially performing, they make use of their full potential.

Song Yi: Between finding and seeking, we also designated the word “encounter” as a key term. We haven’t fully adopted a specific strategy in this journey; instead, we continuously encounter and collide. This process naturally formed, and it is beyond anything we had previously imagined.

Gao Shiming: We should be careful not to grow infatuated with the concept of encounter.

Song Yi: Why should we be cautious of the concept of encounter?

Gao Shiming: It is too broad; it is not efficient.

Lu Jie: Another key term is “disguised space.” Does “disguised” mean “indescribable” here?

Gao Shiming: Was “disguised space” used to define the historical Ho Chi Minh Trail?

Lu Jie: It was the definition for anxious relations.

Lu Jie: Prior to our journey, Fan Di’an said that the journey is about the circumstance and not the context. What do you think about this?

Gao Shiming: That day on the balcony, Huy also mentioned the terms “context” and “circumstance.” Huy’s opinion is that “circumstance” refers to the things happening in the present and “context” refers to things from the past. Song Yi, could you please brief us on the agenda for following days?

Song Yi: On June 28, the day after tomorrow, we will leave Vientiane for Hanoi at six o’clock p.m. Then, on June 29, we will have a dialogue with the Hanoi University of Fine Art. On June 30, we are scheduled to meet with Vietnam Academy of Social Science; in the afternoon, with the Goethe Institute, including a general review of our journey thus far.

Lu Xinghua: A key point of our political action is to expose the falsehood of the international NGOs active in Third World countries. I have never been so aware of the superficiality of these organizations. In face of an artistic project like the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, the NGO community questions us, asking what we’ve done for the local community. We have done nothing, while NGOs have raised money for the community and received funds to improve their lives. In front of NGOs, we are a complete failure. What do we bring the local people? How does the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project benefit the local people? The rationale of NGOs has the ability to silence the arts and make us feel incapable.

Gao Shiming: Is that to say NGOs are the enemy of the arts?

Lu Xinghua: An enemy who understands the real conditions of global politics. The enemy blurs the boundaries and never emerges as a clear, transparent political action, nor does it efficiently reach its goal.

Gao Shiming: It is a politics of therapy and compensation.

Lu Xinghua: We always talk about community, but I realize that the term nowadays is mostly used for marketing. My client is this “community.” Froma philosophical or political point of view, while the ideologies of NGOs are hard to dispute, the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project is examining things more
thoroughly. While we closely examine the issues between acting and action, the NGOs are trapped in action. The Ho Chi Minh Trail Project now prefers acting because it carries with it the entire potential of thought and its full range of power, while action is a man-made landscape with a fragmented objective. Action is too dishonest, too restrained to set it as the pretext of all our struggles. This problem is often reflected in national news reports. A Chinese person studies in Germany for a Ph.D. and returns to China. These types are continually promoted as China’s hope. This person observes a good recycling system in Germany and sets off to establish recycling as a part of the curriculum in Chinese schools. Depicting this person as China’s hope is deceptive and dangerous, as it rests upon the hope for democratization in China and presumes that our future will be based on the ideologies of NGOs.

Gao Shiming: During our travels through China, Cambodia, and their contemporary art communities, we’ve seen the shadow of NGOs emerge. We are not talking about any specific NGO organization but rather the operating model for NGOs that carries a specific agenda and logic.

Lu Jie: A Walking Visual Display attempted to integrate art production and discourse. For the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, our talks have developed into very rich discussions. This time, the positioning between exhibition, artwork, and artistic practice is very clear. I think the biggest difference between A Walking Visual Display and the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project is that this time, artists are the principal part of this project. Artworks are not the subject.

In A Walking Visual Diplay, we sought to integrate discourse, theory, and artworks, curator and artist. This can be inferred from the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project press release, in which we announced that we had invited artists as thinkers and thinkers as artists. This overlapping failed in A Walking Visual Display, and every division remained separate throughout the entire process. Only through recognition of the separations are we able to realize that everything is actually one. In this journey, we are clear that exchange and collision of thought is a separate process from artistic production. Because of this separation, our discussions are more profound. We have yet to confront the artwork production and exhibition phase of this project. There are still many possibilities.

Zhang Hui: Recognizing the value of our discussions will physically change us after the journey. Our feet will be blistered, and we will feel exposed.

Lu Jie: Can we say that the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project Project is a curatorial project or an art project?

Gao Shiming: In comparison to A Walking Visual Display, the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project is an art project. The eventual artworks will not be mere illustrations of the project.

Zhang Hui: I agree with Gao Shiming. As Lu Jie mentioned, the discursive text of the project stops at the end of the journey. Then our artistic production phase will begin. The content of our discussion will be complete enough to publish a reader later.

Lu Jie: To be honest, I was a bit too politically correct in 2002 during A Walking Visual Display. Because of my attitude, I encouraged the artists to work a certain specific way. For the Ho Chi Minh Trail Project, we are very wary of political correctness as it is a huge weight on our shoulders. We need to confront it critically, for there’s a difference between politics and political correctness.

1 Kenneth Haynes and Julian Young, translator’s preface to Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Chengming and shuming both translate into “enlightenment” but imply different qualities. The root ming, meaning “clear, bright,” is the same in each term, but cheng is usually used to describe a cloudless, bright, and clear body of water, while shu is usually used to describe a space without obstructions and full of light.
3 Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism” reprinted in Nino Languilli, ed., The Existentialist Tradition (New York: Anchor, 1971), 225.
4 In Saigon, Dinh Q. Le compared cultural development in Vietnam to a yellow light in a traffic intersection, perpetually stalled by the tumultuous state of the country’s political affairs. In response, Wang Jianwei proposed defining the “yellow light commonwealth” as a communal state of ambiguity, heeding neither to red lights nor green lights from systems of authority.
5 Slavoj Žižek, “Introduction to Mao Tse-tung,” On Practice and Contradiction (London: Verso, 2007), 24.
6 Ibid.