There is a story in which Nasruddin, the wise fool famous in the Muslim world, found himself with four companions arguing about what food they should buy. The first was a Persian. He said: 'I want to buy some angur.' The second was an Arab. He said: 'No, I want to spend the money on inab.' The third was Turk. He said: 'I do not want angur or inab, I want uzum.' The fourth was a Greek. He said: 'I don’t want angur, inab, or uzum: I want stafil.' The four of them started to fight. Nasruddin said: ‘Trust me, and I will show you how your money can satisfy you all.’ It wasn’t difficult to demonstrate. He had only to point out that they were simply using different words for the same thing. Each, in his own language, wanted to buy grapes.


Negotiations. The term suggests success, but also acknowledges difficulty. It carries a sense of satisfaction, resolution, agreement, but implies that there is work to be done, that there are obstacles, things to be overcome, differences to be resolved, divisions to be reconciled, sides to be brought together, bridges to be built. 

Negotiations occur between parties with differing positions, often seemingly incompatible demands, perhaps even languages, alphabets, world-views at odds or obscure to each other. They involve a degree of education: one must learn what the other side values before one can make effective offers and demands. They require a fair quotient of goodwill too, if not towards the other side, then certainly towards the notion of a happy end. Ideally they conclude with all sides satisfied after a good deal of mutual give and take. But they are battles, nonetheless, and rarely fought on level playing fields and from positions of equal strength. The point, it would seem, is not to win, but rather to win more than one would have done if no negotiations had occurred. One can fight, or simply refuse to engage. But if there is a will to resolution, then one must negotiate. 

“Negotiation is a basic means of getting what you want from others. It is back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement when you and the other side have some interests that are shared and others that are opposed.” Roger Fisher and William L Ury, Getting to Yes 

In normal parlance, the contexts in which negotiations are held range from large-scale matters of business and politics to the smallest levels of domestic dispute. In their broadest senses, they are always underway, at every minute of every day, as we make our way down city streets, into relationships, through our walks of life. There is plenty expertise on offer to assist. Negotiating classics such as Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes and Ury’s Getting past No are amongst the many handbooks hugely popular in the corporate world, where the ability to negotiate a deal, especially in complex cross-cultural situations, has become a crucial business skill. The dominance of this context in contemporary cultural life means that negotiation tends largely to be thought of as a term and tool of business. 

In English, and many other languages derived from Latin, this is actually quite fitting, since it also reflects the origins of the word: negotiation literally means “the absence of leisure”, where “neg” is a term of negation, and “otium” signifies leisure and free time. In this sense negotiation is about being busy, which is also the literal sense of the word business itself. A similar meaning spins off from the Germanic roots of other European languages, in which negotiation, Verhandlung, derives from handeln, meaning to trade, transact, do business, handle goods, or simply to act. The Greek word for negotiation, διαπραγμάτευση, (diapragmatefsi), carries this practical sense of doing and acting too: “dia”, which indicates duality - as in “dialogue” - and "pragmatefsi", which means "to do", or "to engage with something".

In some languages, the emphasis is more on notions of talking, discussing, understanding. In Russian, for example, the word for negotiation, переговоры, (peregovóry), can literally br translated as “to talk over and over again”: the first part of the word, “pere” means “over” or “again”, and “gorovit” means “to talk”. In several African languages, including Kiswahili, different words tend to be used for different contexts: business negotiations involve majadiliano, which literally means coming for a deal; the word kupatanisha is used for a more general sense of talks in search of a solution. This is also the case for Thai, in which different words are used for negotiations of more commercial nature, and those involving talks and resolution. Japanese has one word for negotiation,  話し合い (hanashi ai), which approximates to “meeting and talking”, and another, 交渉, (kosho), which it shares with the Chinese and uses to more formal effect to suggest a process of mixing and crossing

Samjhauta, a word meaning agreement or settlement in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, gives its name to the Samjhauta Express, the train which has served as a symbolic - and often broken - connection between Delhi and Lahore since 1976. In these languages, and Arabic and Farsi too, several, sometimes many, different terms are used for negotiations of different kinds.  In Arabic, for example, one can use a word meaning talks, and with its roots in the verb “to happen” when speaking of processes such as peace talks - 

محادثات السلام

(mahaadathat asalaam), while trade negotiations can be referred to as 

المباحثات التجارية

(al-maabaahthat al-tajaaria), in which maabahthat is derived from baahtha, to seek or to search, in this case for a good outcome. 


Linguistic enquiries such as these make it clear that translation is itself a zone in which tricky negotiations are always underway. The best translations often employ techniques of cultural substitution, coming up with results that bear little direct resemblance to the source but are nevertheless called upon to do the work of the original term. One may reach a working agreement on the equivalent meaning of words across different languages, but the long chains of association and suggestion they trail behind them through the cultural unconsciousness are often so complex and numerous that they cannot be expressed by a simply literal translation. Were one to make a literal translation of  调节器, Tiao Jie Qi, the title of this show, into English, one would end up with something like “regulator”, a word which has to work quite hard in English to convey the subtle senses of modulation, modification, balance and adjustment that it carries in the Mandarin.  

Translation is constantly occurring within languages as well, so that negotiation, for example, translates into settlements, talks, deals, and so on, depending on the context in which it is used. There is great pleasure and purpose in seeking the most fitting word, the best term to use, taking all its resonances, echos, and flavours into account. Sometimes these are very rich. Negotiation is the perfect case: alongside its brusque, commercial senses of work, activity, and trade, the English word negotiation enjoys further meanings which, while later and secondary to the main business of doing business, have richer, broader, looser connotations too. In this more expansive sense, negotiations are more geographical and topological: to negotiate is also to find a way over obstacles or through difficult terrain. And it is with this meaning that the term can really come into its own, escaping from the constraints of capital and diplomacy, and finding a series of resonances which allows it to work in the wider sense of pragmatic engagement with the world. This meaning of the world is not old: the use of negotiate in this sense of “to tackle successfully” dates back to the mid-nineteenth century when it was used in the context of hunting and referred to the attempt to clear an obstacle such as a hedge or fence on horseback. In this sense negotiations almost begin to resemble navigations, and imply both a necessity and a chance to understand one’s environment, finding ways to deal with one’s circumstances, seeking to move forward in spite and because of the obstacles one meets. It conjures a sense of versatility and accommodation, a willingness to give as well as to take, the flexibility to adapt and bend. 


In the intensely capitalist economies of China and the West, today’s artists find themselves  continually embroiled in negotiations in the old Latin sense of the word: against leisure and for business, bargaining, handling, trading, striking deals. The commodification of works of art, artists themselves, and all the processes of documentation, exhibition, and collection which surround them is so extreme that playing (with) these market conditions has become an art in itself: many of the most canny artists, in China, the West, and all over what has grown into a global system of artistic production and consumption have learned to manipulate this market with a bold cynicism which exposes its machinations. Everything is commercial: fortune is the only goal. But even these words open doors to other, less restricted, worlds. What is commerce, after all, if not a simple sense of reciprocity, when the “merc” of commerce, merchants, merchandise, and markets carries the meaning of mercy, gratitude, so that “com-merce” is a matter of doing things “with thanks”? Fortune too is a term which goes far beyond a sense of financial success to the general good fortune of happiness, health, and longevity. And if negotiation is similarly freed and allowed to operate in its broader context of interaction and exchange, it can invoke many of the ways in which artists not only make their ways through the difficult terrain of the modern art industry, but also collaborate with their tools, their materials, their subject matters, their audiences, their finished works, their passions and desires, their ghosts, dreams, and memories. 

“To make something out of nothing, to fashion possibilities out of dead ends, is to be literally creative. Negotiation is one of the serious arts of the imagination. The deeper resources of wisdom must collaborate with the nimblest reflexes: the gambler's touch, the athlete's tuning, the magician's tricks, the gentleman's equilibrium.” Lance Morrow, “The Dance of Negotiation” 

To invoke this broader sense of one’s negotiations with the world is to bring the artist closer to the figure of the artisan invoked by Deleuze and Guattari as one who works with materials, not on them; one who deals with tools, resources, and the environment as collaborators rather than simple raw materials, passive objects taking shape only at the hands of the artist as an active, and defining power. Artisans, by contrast, seek to negotiate with their materials and conditions. To work with wood, for example, is to go with the grain, or at least follow its demands. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe it as “a question of surrendering to the wood, then following where it leads by connecting operations to a materiality, instead of imposing a form upon a matter.” Those who really follow their materials, even to the point of knowing where the best wood grows and how it can be cut, are Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic artisans, the ones who go with all the flows which traverse and carry their materials, the ones who allow themselves and their practises to be guided by the attributes of the material with which they work, the processes with which it is already involved, its immanent patterns and potentialities. 

It might be said that the Western world has never been particularly good at this kind of mutual give-and-take with the world. Its colonial past has often found it imposing itself rather than negotiating settlements, and even its artists, like its scientists, have traditionally made themselves in the image of a patriarch who sees the world as putty in his hands, rather than as something with which one might enter into a process of mutual exploration and exchange. There has been much taking, but less giving: much desire to shape the environment with which one works, but not so much willingness to be - or acknowledge the extent to which one is, in any case - shaped in return. But the writer who negotiates with language, the painter who negotiates the paint, the sculptor who negotiates the qualities, the seams and imperfections of the stone, the digital artist who collaborates with the liveliness of machines: these are the artists, perhaps the artisans, who allow themselves to become conductors, conduits and amplifiers of the energies of the worlds in which they move. Theirs are negotiations which carry many senses of the word at once: they are bargaining and dealing, but also discussing and debating, giving and taking, and finding their ways through the difficult terrain of their worlds, their materials, and their images of the realities they seek to share. 


Both the English and the Chinese titles of this show have a sense of pragmatism about them: negotiations implies practical, hands-on engagement, and 调节器, as an element which modifies and adjusts, has a material, technical use. So let’s not forget the occasion for these thoughts: this brief collection of objects, these things in transit, brought together to be exhibited here. They are the real negotiators, works sent out into the world to do their thing, find their places and their ways, jostle for position, rub along together, sit side-by-side in all sorts of unexpected combinations and relationships, speaking with each other, perhaps endorsing, reflecting, ignoring, contradicting themselves. They may be in dialogue, doing deals, and seeking settlements, but their negotiations involve much more besides: they negotiate with each other, with the space, their audiences, all the players and circumstances of their production, exhibition, and exchange, just as one might negotiate the white waters of a river, the contours of a mountain pass, or the unruly traffic of a developing metropolis. These works are moving through the world. 

Sadie Plant, Birmingham 2010


Nasruddin’s stories are often recounted orally. There are however several published collections, such as Clifford Sawhney, The Funniest Tales of Mullah Nasruddin, Unicorn Books, 2004

Roger Fisher and William L Ury, Getting to Yes, Negotiating agreement without giving in,  Penguin, 1981

William Ury, Getting Past No, Negotiating with Difficult People, Random House, 1991

Lance Morrow, “The Dance of Negotiation”, Time Magazine, 7.12.1981

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Athlone, 1988


With grateful thanks for advice from Nebras Alawan, Walingamina Shomari, Julia Zilles, Joshua Jiang, Phatarawadee Phataranawik, Anna Tzini, Dushyant Singh