Interview: Robert Steinberger

By in Features

Kunming and Zürich have a special sister city bond, part of this is a so-called Artist In Residence (AIR) exchange program, where each year one Swiss artist spends time in Kunming and vice versa. The most recent Zürich artist to visit was Robert Steinberger. He threw himself wholeheartedly into life in Kunming and has made quite an impact while he was here. He recently left town and has had some time to reflect, so we asked him about his work and his impressions in an interview via email.

GK: Where are you from?

Robert: My parents are originally from Hungary, and I was born and raised in Germany. I have been living and working in Zürich (Switzerland) for the past eight years.

GK: What is your educational background?

Robert: I studied Visual Arts at San Diego State University (USA).

GK: How would you describe what do you do?

Robert: Aside from performance and video art, I curate and write as part of my artistic practice, working both solo and collaboratively. I also co-founded the artist and curatorial collective FRICTION in 2012.

GK: Why did you come to Kunming? When did you first hear about Kunming?

Robert: Each year, artists in the city of Zürich have the opportunity to apply for a work grant or a studio residency abroad. One of these is located in Kunming, a partner city of Zürich. In 2018 I got lucky and the jury awarded me the studio residency in Kunming

I first heard about Kunming in the context of these studio residencies. Artist friends of mine in Zurich have been to Kunming with the same studio residency program and have told me about their experiences.

GK: What were your initial ideas and plans about your stay and work here, before you came to Kunming?

Robert: I didn't make big plans before coming to Kunming, except to try to dive into the culture, if possible, and to use the time and space to reflect and research and hopefully gain new insights. I was curious about Chinese culture on many different levels — food, language, Traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts, amongst others. Most of all I wanted to get to know and hear the stories of the people who live here.

GK: Did your plans change once you were here? How?

Robert: To my surprise, I quickly got involved in organizing some community activities once I arrived. This strongly shaped my experience in Kunming and ultimately led me to hear inspiring stories. Together with Daphnah Jitschak (Netherlands) and Davey McConnell (USA), I co-founded Kunming (KM) Pride in May 2019. It serves as a platform to connect the LGBTQ+ community and their friends via a WeChat group and by hosting regular events together.

Over time we connected with local non-profits that have been active in the community for years — Yunnan Parallel, TongHuaShe, Trans China, PFLAG China and WeForShe (contact details below).

The first KM Pride event took place in June at a local brewery. Organisations introduced themselves, people shared their personal stories, contestants showed off their outfits for prizes and everybody danced late into the night.

GK: What is your impression of Kunming?

Robert: It's difficult to describe my impression of Kunming in a few words, because I feel like I couldn't do it justice. There are too many different facets. I can say, that I found the people in Kunming generally very friendly and generous.

GK: How will your stay in Kunming influence your work or your thinking, what impression has Kunming left on you?

Robert: I was especially inspired by personal stories of individuals who have faced serious challenges, yet turned their pain and struggle into purpose — to effect positive change in society. They used their experiences as a motor for action, which is incredibly strong and courageous. These stories have left a big impression on me.

GK: What kind of work have you made relating to your stay in Kunming and has/will it be shown or published anywhere?

Robert: I recently showed a new performance called "Achtung" — a German word with the double meaning of "Caution!" and "high esteem" — at the Bündner Kunstmuseum Chur, in which I used some materials that I have collected during my stay, either as props or for my costume.

I incorporated Taiji forms, as I learned and practiced Taiji with Master Lingshan regularly for about a month in Kunming.

During my residency I also interviewed some of the leaders of the aforementioned Kunming non-profits related to LGBTQ+ issues, and documented the first KM Pride event and planning sessions. I am planning on editing these videos in the near future.

GK: What's next in store for you?

Robert: Now I have some time and space to reflect on my time in Kunming, but also some projects in Switzerland, that are already lined up.

Contact details of the organizations mentioned:

We checked with all organizations if they were ok about sharing their contact details, and with the people in the pictures if they agreed to have their photo shared in this article. If you'd like to find out more about LGBTQ+ activities in Kunming please feel free to contact them or follow their official WeChat accounts.

We4She: WeChat ID weforshe_ws
KM Pride: Email daphnah-jitschak at hotmail dot nl
Yunnan Parallel: WeChat ID ynpx087163379065
PFLAG China: WeChat ID qinyouhui002
Trans China: WeChat ID kyzgzg
TongHuaShe (同话舍): WeChat ID THSxiaoheng

Images of "Achtung" performance: Esther Nora Mathis
Images of KM Pride: Robert Steinberger

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Good interview.

Robert evaded the question how he truly felt about KM, nor discussed the meaty issues presented.

From eye test alone, LGBTQ scene seems to be continuing blossoming among Kunming youth scene within last decade, but particularly more so in neighboring province and city of Guiyang. Although still not embraced by majority of conservative elders here, nor by law.

Btw, San Diego State was among the top 10 party schools in USA. Black Beach being the famous nude gay beach there. Miss school?

This year alone, I know of four Kunming individuals in their late twenties who arranged fake marriages with their LGBT circles to placate their unsuspecting parents whose always yearning for traditional matchmaking (相亲) for their aging adult kids.

This is filial piety to a fault. And for parents, caring too much about face (面子) among their middle-aged gossip circles.

But at least in this scenario of mutual agreement between newlyweds, both parties are cognizant of each other's true sexual orientation as opposed to deceiving a wife or groom into a lifetime of fake matrimony. Spousal deception of this magnitude has been quite common as well in Yunnan. Very tragic imo.

In the end, the best way to go ought to be honesty and acceptance between respective children and their parents.

Probably easier said than done under current cultural norm for "boomers" and older generation.

The argument above has serious holes in it. It also demonstrates that it is not just boomers and the older generation hold both ignorance and prejudice.

Exceptions excluded, I speculate younger generations on average harbour more tolerance toward bi/homosexuality than do their more senior peers.

Likewise, I suspect laws that do not favor nor protect gay couples in China are voiced by more senior members of the Central Committee, less so by their younger technocrat peers.

For the majority of Chinese parents in their early forties and under, their children may not have yet reached the marriage discussion age. Perhaps a topic more relevant for parents beyond late forties to early fifties given trend of postponed wedlocks.

Maybe Chinese parents in this age group can chime me on this issue.

Honest communication is probably the best way forward between straight parents and their LGBTQ+ kids. Though I stand to be corrected.

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