Interview: Guangzhou's Own Chen Tong of Video Bureau

By Bryan Grogan, February 23, 2018

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For nigh on 30 years now, Chen Tong has been a stalwart of the Cantonese art scene. It started with his own personal art creations in the late ‘80s and then progressed further in 1993 when Chen established Libreria Borges, an independent book store in Guangzhou which focuses on translations of famed art texts and literature from around the world. Most recently, he established Video Bureau, a center that collects and displays artists’ work for public consumption. 

Every two months, Video Bureau's Guangzhou location (they also have a facility in Beijing) collects and displays works by two artists, with over 70 Chinese and international artists already represented at their headquarters on Taikang Lu. On March 23, Chen and his team at Video Bureau will publish their collections of works by former Yangjiang youth Zheng Guogu and German-based performance artist Duan Yingmei. 

We sat down to speak with Chen about his artistic life. 

When did you first become interested in collecting art?
It started in the '90s. I felt like I wanted to do something public-related, apart from my own art creation. It feels like it was innate in me. I think there are two types of people: those that are for themselves, and those that are for other people. I fall into the second category.

How different are art creation and art collecting?
They are totally different. When I deal with Video Bureau, I need to think about what the artist and the viewer want. In the management of art, I need to think about others first. With my own artwork it is less so, but I do have to deal with other people in the sense that if I ceased my artwork there would be no means to continue running Video Bureau.

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Your institutional work [Libreria Borges/ Video Bureau] is almost entirely funded by the sale of your artwork. Is that in order to stay independent, or because of a lack of funding from artistic bodies?
A part of the funding [for Video Bureau] is provided by 5 Elements (五行会) Art Association. It is our final goal to have more funding and input from the whole of society. We just don’t have that privilege right now.

Do you feel a kind of kinship to Guangzhou and the art centers here?
I feel a responsibility for Guangzhou, but not due to a brotherhood of artists. I’ve lived here for more than 30 years. It is my hometown. I know the city very well, the characters, the people. Guangzhou still has many problems, but compared to Beijing, which is more like a village, I would prefer Guangzhou.

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What are the main differences between Guangzhou art and art in Beijing?
There is a larger market in Beijing. Guangzhou is a large city, but it is quite far from the capital, so on the domain of culture it still does not have a good location. Even though nowadays distance is not a problem, there remains a small market in Guangzhou. That does not mean that artists in Guangzhou have less creativity than artists in Beijing. 

Is this institutional work the most important thing that you have done in your art life?
Both are important. My own artwork satisfies my own vanity; it reminds me that I am a talented person. Institutional work, on the other hand, has a meaning for the whole of society. I may not be the perfect person for this kind of work. There are people that are richer than me and more talented than me, but they did not choose this way. I chose this way. 

Check out Video Bureau’s official website here, or follow the institute on WeChat (ID: videobureau) 

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