(Original language: Mandarin)
CAO FEI: I had to take many steps in the creation of Whose Utopia to gradually reach the final outcome. I started by asking the factory to distribute questionnaires to workers in different positions in the production line, and, in the end, I ended up with about twenty to thirty workers as participants in this project. I paid them regular weekly visits and conducted small-scale workshops with them. During this process, their stories gradually merged. In the film, I staged some of their unrealised wishes or dreams in the factory.
The film is divided into three parts. The first is called Imagination of Product. The team spent around half a year recording a large amount of documentary footage of different production lines. As for the sound effects, apart from the faintly heard sound of the machines, Zhang Anding also muted the ambient sound and then reorganised the different sound components. What you get is something that resembles the environment of the factory, yet with a certain touch of spirituality that brings out the sense of loneliness within the heart of the workers.
Then, the second part of the film is like a fairy tale, isn’t it? We see workers dancing different dances in the factory, including ballet and breakdance. This part ends with shots taken in their dormitory looking out onto the factory area and trucks delivering goods to faraway places.
The final part is composed of the portraits of each worker. I feel that many viewers will assume that this is a pure documentary when they watch the first part of the film. The fact that this is a light bulb factory is meaningful. It sheds light on our materialistic world yet without simultaneously lighting up its inside or lighting up the workers’ lives. This is why the film is called Whose Utopia. I omitted the question mark, and many people have asked me if it should be added. I always say no, because ‘whose’ is already a question pronoun. This is a question for us and for the viewers. That is: who is constructing our utopia?
Multimedia artist Cao Fei reflects on her 2006 work, ‘Whose Utopia’, and its poignant portrayal of factory workers in China. Interpreted in Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL)
Cao Fei produced Whose Utopia during her residency at a lighting factory in Foshan in the Pearl River Delta region. She began by giving factory workers—migrants with modest means and limited education—a questionnaire, asking about their backgrounds and prospects for the future.
She later invited some of them to break away from routine and perform their secret aspirations alongside production lines. In the video, she juxtaposes shots of modern machinery with scenes depicting personal dreams, thereby questioning the idea of utopia in an age of economic reform and globalisation.