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The Swing Condition: barelife in the underground system


It all started from a question popped in my mind few months ago when I was taking a tube crossing the city of Hangzhou, China: How will people react if there was a severed hand hung on the grab handle? Of course this could be a random question built on my obsession of the cult films. But when I wrote this idea down, I sank into contemplation: There is definitely something hidden in this sensible question, the machine remains to be unveiled (Lyotard, 1991). The question came as an image firstly in my mind. However, when I dug out my memory, I found that the source of the severed hand was from a horror story I saw when I was a kid. The story writes about a pale hand hanging outside a shop in the tone of describing a human hand, but at the end when a chief pulled it down and cut it, it turned out that it was a chicken feet. It was that time, the words in the story became an image crushing into my imagination when I was in the tube and then the question popped. But why, why this childhood ghost would come to me when I was in the tube? I will analyze this fantasy in the underground as an daily apparatus as a starting point for an artistic practice.


The public transport system in metropolitan areas is an important link in social Reproduction, it carries out part of the transport of manual labour. While the underground system, on the other hand, can be seen as its apex. With its power and ashes drawn from the industrial revolution, London developed a new mode of transporting the human bodies to reduce street congestion at 1863. The world’s first underground railway came to alive (2023). And for the contemporary world, underground system has become an inevitable part of the metropolis. There is no doubt that the it has brought unprecedented transport efficiency to the modern city, and has done great things economically, but at the same time, the body control that goes hand in hand with modernity has been further deepened.


Silvia Federici (2004, p. 146)argues that the development of the human machine which depends on such a control of the body was the first vital step for developing the productive forces. And the underground system, on the other hand, is one of the most effective but at the same time more difficult to detect mechanisms of transformation of the metropolis, where people think that they have gained the right to move freely, but they are really caught by the ‘spatio-temporal identification’ (Federici, 2004), where the manipulators have infallibly mastered the laws of their movement: when a person choose to take the tube to go to his work, the time he spends on the tube fidgeting has already been a part of his work. As Marcuse asked in The One-Dimensional Man:


‘How can the people who have been the object of effective and productive domination by themselves create the conditions of freedom?’ (2002, p. 9)


Meanwhile, Bodies collide with each other in it and sway with the same speed and momentum. Suspicions and conspiracies are produced in it while everyone is surrounded by the huge noisy and limited space while traveling: the field in the underground space breaks a possibility of union, and this is exactly what the anonymous behind the system wants. When people are no longer united, then they can only focus on their struggles with each other, thus obscuring hidden power behind the apparatus, and a fundamental liberation can no longer be achieved (Flusser, 2000). Even more desperate is the fact that this disunity is produced by excessive body-to-body contact brought about by the artificial limitations of space.


At the end of year 2023, noticeable tragic events occurred almost simultaneously in two different city underground systems. In London, due to the cable damaged, Elizabeth line had to stop working, and hundreds of passengers stayed on the dark, cold trains for several hours (2023). While in Bejing, China, the Changpin line had a trains rear-end accident, 130 people have fractures (2024). As we can see from these two incidents, the passengers were losing control of their bodies. The underground system which now firmly planted within the city, has successfully become a part of new biopolitical nomos of the planet (Agamben, 1998). Tube could incorporate more bodies, while the invisibility of the apparatus due to its simplification of the rituals of the ride bringing its deep integration into the daily lives of metropolitans is one of the reasons why it is so extremely dangerous, just as videos no longer require viewers to go to the cinema to watch them, the encroachment of short videos on everyday life has been achieved through such a drastic reduction in the rituals of viewing. And it is only when the macro-control technology creates loopholes that begin to disintegrate that people realize the importance of individual resistance, as in the cases of the people who were let down by the underground system in the incident described above, and begin to collectively ask questions of the unseen giant, rather than getting bogged down in endless suspicion of each other. Obviously, all the power of public transport is concentrated in the technological apparatus of the tube, which maximizes the gathering of people's bodies and entrusts their lives to a system controlled by computers and the anonymous (Only the names of corporations remain), carrying them through the endless pandemonium of darkness. At the same time, this transport carries the hope, not the hope of the passengers for the predictability of their destination, but the hope that the labour force will finally arrive.


Such an apparatus of the Modernization drops people into the the blasé attitude, which has become one of the characteristics of metropolis. (Simmel, 1971). The space of underground system finally become a factory that carries out the functions of both transformation and transport. It was this moment that my childhood ghost occurred to me: it is an warning from my memory and sense to the violence beneath our daily life. The severed hand, like those body parts displayed in the Hunterian Museum, London, is a trigger of reminding people that how human bodies have become objects that could be viewed, studied and presented. When it becomes a art practice that happens in the space of underground system, it is an black humour, not only a way of playing the bodies, but also a way to bring the potentially invisible state to audience’s sight to call for participation of thinking the condition which they live in: Through the underground system, people's bodies are "voluntarily" driven to an intermediate zone where they can be "killed" more easily, while gradually losing the possibility of union.


In the work Homo Sacer, James Bridle juxtaposed national legal discourse and images of drone in the war into the hologram for unveiling the role that technology plays for shaping our world, which is also a way showing this condition to the audience by criticizing the daily apparatus. But his practice is more focused on the discourse system that we meet everyday like the law (2014). Through a highly suspicious

virtual assistant, the action of talking brings the Valley of Terror effect, which could make the audience feel tight when they approach the work, thus becoming aware of the imperceptible crises that exist in real life. The use of internal objects in public spaces in his works has also inspired my practice, and the establishment of an overall context is undoubtedly very important in such works using the daily objects. And in Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings, the body is embedded in the landscape of a hyper-industrial society in a highly exaggerated way. Especially in Recalled (1998), the scene was set as a funeral, but the death body was separated into parts, and the casket looks just like a package of television, human became a huge figure toys in this work, became pieces of cargo on a truck. The way Tetsuya Ishida presents the body hit me the first time I saw these works, in which Kafka's world is represented.


For my own practice, I see this critique around the underground system as part of my thinking about a more macro theme: The Modernity. In China, the modernization is still one thing undone, or we could say, China has never achieve the modern society defined by western countries, but it is such a dangerous situation that as the world's factory, China has long been on a par with modern developed countries in terms of urban infrastructure and economy, when the spiritual realm is the opposite. In other words: How can Chinese people fight against the diseases brought by modernity without the weapon developed in the modernization process? Therefore, it is more urgent than in any other place to carry out a critical practice oriented towards the apparatus that these modern metropolises possess in my homeland. Fighting from the spiritual and aesthetic realm may lead to a breakthrough of the ‘Chinese path to modernization’.



Lyotard, J.F. (1991) ‘Matter and Time’, in R. Bowlby and G. Bennington (trans.) The Inhuaman: Reflections on Time. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press , p. 37.

London Transport Museum(2023) A very short history of the Underground. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2024).

Marcuse, H. (2002) ‘THE NEW FORMS OF CONTROL’, in One-Dimencioanl Man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, p. 9.

Federici, S. (2004) ‘The Great Caliban: The Struggle Against the Rebel Body’, in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Autonomedia, pp. 133–162.

Flusser, V. (2000) ‘The Photographic Universe’, in A. Mathews (tran.) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Wiltshire, UK: REAKTION BOOKS, p. 72.

The Guardian (2023) ‘Elizabeth line passengers in London stranded after electric cables damaged’, 08 December. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2024).

Chen, S. (ed.) (2024) Beijing di tie Changpin xian lie che zhui wei shi gu diao cha bao gao gong bu北京地铁昌平线列车追尾事故调查报告公布,, 05 February. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2024).

Agamben, G. (1998) ‘The Camp as “Nomos”’, in D. Roazen (tran.) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford , California: Stanford University Press, p. 176.

Simmel, G. (1971) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in D. LEVINE (ed.) ON INDIVIDUALITY AND SOCIAL FORMS. Chicago, United States of America: THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, pp. 324–339.

Bridle, J. (2014) Homo Sacer [Installation]. Available at: (Accessed: 17 February 2024).

Ishida, T. (1998) Recalled [Acrylic on board]. Available at (Accessed: 17 February 2024).

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