Your Silence, My Voice/Noise Together for Justice

Artist: Huang Pei, Pan Yuefei, Yue Min, Lu Jiadong
Location: USA
Year: 2023

"On April 16, 2023, a collaborative activist/strike poster titled ""Your Silence, My Voice/Noise Together for Justice - 好想出来觅食! (I don't want to hide, I want to forage for food!)"" provided distinct observation and insights into the entrenched “political correctness” within Western strike culture. The poster was created in response to a strike that took place at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the United States. From April 14 onwards, more than 600 students and staff members alongside members of Teamsters Local 251 and custodians, groundskeepers, and movers, embarked on a two-week strike to protest the school administration’s silence toward wage increases, despite having access to a $660 million dollar endowment. Together, they raised their voice in chants, covered the wall with posters, and set up large-scale art installations, The art students played musical instruments, banged on metal sheets, and urged people to honk their car horns, expressing frustration and anger through diverse “sounds” that they could imagine.

Introducing the economic conditions of art and cultural institution into the public discourse and staging art as protests is not unique to RISD. Over the past decade, workers at major art institutions such as the New Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art have formed unions and aligned themselves with organizations like the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Local Council. Since 2022, a significant portion of artists and cultural creators has found themselves trapped in precarious, short-term contracts, facing a lack of proper healthcare and retirement benefits. This predicament, coupled with the challenges posed by Covid-19 pandemic, has triggered persistent strikes and active advocacy efforts from unions, faculty members, and workers within American art institutions, including museums, art organizations, and educational institutions. Their collective aim has been to gain a greater voice in the decision-making processes of their employing organizations to secure improved labor rights. Consequently, as some individuals ridicule the original purpose of the ""art avant-garde,"" portraying art practitioners as inherently talented ""geniuses"" within an increasingly deregulated neoliberal job market, the endeavor to debunk this ""myth"" and bridge the ideological gap between art and labor has remained a crucial political strategy within the realm of Anglo-American culture and art history.

However, unlike other posters in activist/strike art, Your Slience, My Voice/Noise Together for Justice--好想出来觅食! wasn't displayed at the campus entrance, nor did any participating students hold it up during the marches. Instead, the art group chose to attach these posters on the big trees along the picket lines of the school where squirrels habitat. Normally, the green areas along this street were frequented by wildlife like squirrels and birds, but during the protests, their presence disappeared amidst the noisy demonstrations. Huang Pei, the curator and a Chinese international student, observed a “poster” written in Chinese profanity, placed prominently among the numerous posters showing support for the strike. Encountering this poster posed an emotional challenge for her. This wasn't solely due to her belief in the importance of maintaining a certain level of personal conduct but also the persistent noise from the protests worsened her pre-existing anxiety-induced insomnia. The sleeplessness had become a significant obstacle in her hard-won academic journey. Additionally, it sparked her curiosity about the authentic feelings of the local community residents regarding the strike. Meanwhile, she deeply empathized with the yearning of American workers for labor rights, and recognized the unfortunate reality that the voices and rights of racial identities and non-human others are frequently disregarded and exploited within the neoliberal environment, let alone being drowned in the localized wave of strikes. Political activism become an outlet of releasing pent-up dissatisfactions and expressing demands, incorporating heterogeneous and aggressive language to grab attention and stimulate discussions.

In light of these considerations, Huang Pei began her interviews with neighbors of various identities and backgrounds, including taxi drivers, mechanics, and office workers. She categorized their attitudes into four distinct types: ""supportive and empathetic,"" ""completely indifferent,"" ""struggling with inner conflicts,"" and ""prone to emotional outbursts."" Furthermore, she conducted her research around the strike location, capturing ambient sounds from different distances and areas. Upon completing the field research, she connected with her three Chinese partners, Pan Yufei, Yue Min, and Lu Jiadong, and discussed with them the details of the squirrel disappearance, the the strike and the interview process, which led to in-depth discussions. Yue Min, an autistic artist in Nanjing, opened up about her experience of living with bipolar disorder, relying on medication to manage her anxiety. She keenly felt the discomfort brought by the sounds of the strike and expressed empathy and concern for the workers, squirrels, and individuals around the strike site who also suffer from mental disorders. Pan Yuefei shared her experience of racial discrimination and strikes during her studies in the UK. She said, “I could imagine how vulnerable squirrels would feel facing with the voices of human protests.” Their mutual sharing and emotions motivated them to become advocates for the disappearing squirrels and marginalized communities. When creating the poster, Yue Min contributed by drawing a squirrel with an anxious expression, while Pan Yuefei added her own touch by imagining how the squirrel’s voice would sound in Chinese ""好想出来觅食!"" (I don’t want to hide, I want to forage for food!). Huang Pei crafted the final slogan ""Your Voice, My Noise, Together for Justice!"" portraying the conflicting experiences of both the strikers and squirrels at the intersection of injustices, all of whom are vulnerables struggling to survive. Ultimately illustrator Lu Jiadong utilized a bold red or blue backdrop, filling the entire canvas with anxious squirrels and slogan with dual interpretations, creating a visually captivating and tension-evoking effect.

Shortly after the poster was released on the trees, it received a significant amount of likes and favorites from students and faculties. A professor with a non-Western background shared his perspective, stating: “Although my department was among the earliest to support the strike, I don't believe art and design students resorting to such drastic approaches is the best choice to support the strike.” The latest edition of Aesthetics and Art Criticism examines the theme of ""The Aesthetics of Creative Activism"" and presents six different modes of the relationship between art and activism. One of these modes is ""recognition,"" which is often less about what is to be depicted through shapes or tones, than of who is seen to be capable and allowed to participate in the production of art regarded as a fundamentally human activity. Your Slience, My Voice/Noise Together for Justice--好想出来觅食! precisely achieves this by establishing such a mechanism and artfully intertwining the emotions of different subjects to portray their ""encounters with the Others"" within a shared space.

“Your Silence, My Voice/Noise Together for Justice - 好想出来觅食!"" is an innovative public art initiative that transcends borders, bringing together communities from different backgrounds to collaborate and create. It aims to capture the experiences and perspectives of diverse ethnicities, identities, and marginalized communities in unfamiliar lands, allowing their stories and struggles to be acknowledged and valued, while exposing the often overlooked power dynamics influenced by globalization instills within Anglo-American art education institutions. As a major economic contributor for the American higher education sector, Chinese students alone generating $44 billion in 2019 alone. However, the strike will not lead to lower tuition fees for students from either China or India. In November, 2023, classes at the New School in New York were largely canceled throughout the strike with 87% of the faculty went on strike, it became the United States' longest-ever strike by adjunct faculty and prompted angry parents to file a lawsuit against the school. Meanwhile, some minority workers among the school staff also faces inadequate regulation and oppression in their home country, as employers do not proactively seek consensus-based solutions at the negotiation table. This implies that striving for fairness and rights in the globalized market will be even more challenging. Just as Zygmunt Bauman stated in his newly published book Turning the Familiar into the Unfamiliar, published in 2023, ""The only workers who still go on strike from time to time today are those employed by the state, with secure working conditions and lifetime contracts, and while power works globally, politics is becoming as local as ever.""

As the strike came to an end on April 18th, the poster was permanently collected by the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Within the project, “non-human beings” becomes a thought provoking catalyst for engaging public conversation, prompting us to delve deeper into the evolving trajectory of local art in China, which is gradually overshadowed by the trends of commercialization, and turning into mere symbols in the landscape, it prompts us to question the value orientation of new forms of modern public art: Does the concept of ""publicness"" include the presence of non-humans? Whose Community does the community art truely for?"

Progress Agency