CEO & Artistic Director of Chinese Arts Now An-Ting Chang talks about their annual festival adapting to our digital age

For the last 15 years, Chinese Arts Now have been committed to presenting works focusing on contemporary Chinese perspectives. Recognising that there was a lack of shows presenting their narratives, CAN have established a network of partner organisations such as the Southbank Centre, Soho Theatre and the Young Vic amongst others who have supported the presenting of their work. Last year welcomed a new addition to CAN, the Chinese Arts Now Festival “dedicated to showcasing to the public performing arts that explore contemporary Chinese themes, perspectives and art forms. CAN Festival 2019 showcased a diverse range of art forms (music, drama, live art, dance, films, digital arts) with over 60 events across London“. Adapting to current theatre closures due to the Covid crisis, CAN are currently supporting artists with their ‘Digital Commissions’ initiative. CEO & Artistic Director of Chinese Arts Now An-Ting Chang tells us more about the festival and the commissions.

Last year Chinese Arts Now’s Festival made its debut with the aim of showcasing performing arts that explore contemporary Chinese themes, perspectives and art forms. What were your thoughts on the first festival?  What were responses towards the events staged?

I think it’s great to have our festival to showcase contemporary Chinese art to offer people very different perspectives, we’ve had a great response from all audiences. Our aim is to tour high quality, professional work with the subject of contemporary Chinese art, especially British Chinese stories which [are] very rarely told in this country. So for example we have theatre productions where people talk about stories [such as] Chinese people who grew up in a white family, British Chinese families that grew up here, and the different generations of British Chinese people. This is really important for contemporary culture to see through the British Chinese and Chinese diaspora [experience] because people often relate Chinese to the country China but actually there is so much more.

The festival returned in February of this year with 16 productions. Was there anything you’d learned from the debut that helped to shape this year?

Yes, so what we learned from the first year is that our work is really cutting edge, radical. Although we are a politically neutral organisation, we cannot ignore artists’ responses to the rapidly changing situation in China and the diaspora. For example, at this year’s Festival, we had Invisible Harmony and Queering Now, both of which touched on very current political topics. 

Both the artists and I would like to explore more, so for example, we had Invisible Harmony touching on Tiananmen and the recent resistance in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Asian countries – [so we’ll] tackle more about these issues, it’s not like we’re political, but these are political questions which are essential to the heritage.

It’s important how we feel we need to be radical when talking about these issues where people want to know but is not very often presented in art. For example with Augmented Chinatown, it was an in person tour in Chinatown with augmented reality images but this year it has scaled up a lot, by people being able to download the app and having a theatrical tour by themselves, so that’s evolved from the first year.

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, we’ve witnessed the theatre industry having to adapt to new restrictions. In response to this, you’ve created digital commission opportunities for artists to create work during this unpredictable time. What can audiences expect from your commissions?

Digital Commissions is still a very experimental place for performing arts, with our digital work I wouldn’t just think about theatre. One of the very good things about our organisation is that we’re not bound to one genre of performance, so we encourage corresponding art work. For example we have an artwork exploring Daoism with physics, where an artist (Seph Li) who has a strong scientific background connects physics with Daoism to create an interactive, high technology piece. The other is mythological, exploring Fu Manchu – which spread the notion of ‘yellow peril’. Chinese artists use captions from Fu Manchu to audition different actors and combine this into a film. We also have an Instagram/puppet opera, where you see different parts of your body become a puppet opera. It’s an innovative approach with the digital commissions, you can’t [limit yourself] to one way of looking at the screen – there are many different ways in terms of how we relate with the screen and how artists present.

How have you found having to adapt your way of working during this time?

It’s really tricky for all of the performing arts organisations, there’s no theatre, or stage here. It’s a disaster I have to say, it’s a disaster for all artists, all performing arts. But of course we have to look at the positive side and how we’re going to survive; our Digital Commissions are a real response to how we’ll [continue] in a digital way and there’s different digital opportunities. Digital art is more accessible for people, you can engage different types of audience more easily and in general, this is a very technological society but we’re not as advanced. This is an opportunity for artists to see how technology plays live.

One of the projects you’re currently working on is Donald Shek’s immersive audio tour Augmented Reality 2.0 which you’re directing. How have you worked together to adapt the experience?

It’s a very long process because it’s a very tricky production where everything is on the computer. Last year I saw Donald Shek‘s piece, we commissioned him to do Augmented Reality but then I saw there was an opportunity where we could develop it into a theatre piece, but we had no idea how to make it work. We started exploring an engineering software called Unity, which creates gaming, 3D, AR, VR. The other part was the audio drama part and integrating it into the software. When the production is on a script, the user experience is completely different because they need to go through this app to immerse into this world and get into the theatrical world. The design concept innovates the user experience, which is very different from the way [we] work in the performing arts because our stage becomes an app. Normally we do a dress rehearsal, but now the ‘dress rehearsal’ is when we render the production from the computer to the phone. It’s really interesting, a new way – the phone is the stage.

Moving forward, how do you envision theatre within our digital age?

That’s a tricky question because I think people are still exploring theatre in a digital way. I think combining live experience with digital is very important, accessibility is one of the greatest parts of theatre – of digital. Also, digital makes it easier for people to be able to [for example] – if you just play the piano, it’s difficult to compose a piece on a piano, it’s easier to compose a piece on a computer. People in general can create arts more easily through software without the need to go through all basic technical training for years. Also, how to integrate it together with the live experience – that’s a crucial part, otherwise there’s no difference between film and theatre.

What are your plans for the 2021 festival?

Now we’re preparing for a shorter period of the festival, we’ll still have different performing arts like theatre, music, comedy and different art forms. We’re preparing for it to be later than our normal festival, and of course social distancing needs to be put into consideration. The digital commissions will be turned into digital installations, so we have a longer life for these digital works, bringing them to life. I think live performances and having productions with live [elements] is central to the performing arts.

Interview by Lucy Basaba.

Augmented Chinatown 2.0 will be available to download on either Google Play or the Apple store from Tuesday 15th September 2020.

To find out more about future projects and the work China Arts Now do, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop