Artists stand at the edge of society. Few ever dare to hope they might create an image or representation that actually affects or change society. This is because the task of artists, which is to pull what is personal into the public sphere and to give shape to what is public as it occurs in the private sphere, is rarely valued.
The Artist As Public Intellectual, 1997
IN THE PAST, Hong Kong was often said to be a cultural desert, and Hong Kong people politically indifferent. Ten years have passed since the Handover. The protests against National Education last year demonstrated that a widening profile of citizens is participating in social movements today. Social change is no longer just a matter of concern for the few.
Recalling Edward Said’s notion of exilic displacement, the intellectual can only keep a sharp eye for power when being marginal. By the same token, artists stand at the edge of society. Through art-making, artists invest personal sensibilities into the public sphere (1) and engage in social and public affairs. From this perspective, when reviewing art in relation to social activism, as well as socially- and politically-engaged practices (so-called “political art”) in Hong Kong, one can see artists as “public intellectuals” proactively initiating and participating in various social movements in different ways and with a strong sense of civil citizenship in the cultural milieu of the post-Handover era. They linger between art and society and the public and the private, showing a kind of subjectivity borne from the Hong Kong context.
PUBLIC SPACE AS SITE OF EXHIBITION
THE SARS EPIDEMIC, economic depression, and so on, made 2003 a pivotal year in Hong Kong’s socio-political landscape. Art critic Lau Kin-Wah described it as “the late arrival of The Real 1997.” Just like most other people in Hong Kong, artists took to the street with drums and slogans, showing a distinct aesthetic of spontaneous action. In 2004 artist-couple Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng (C&G) joined the rally by getting engaged in traditional wedding outfits on Handover Day, receiving widespread media coverage. In 2005, Pak Sheung Chuen collected the footsteps of protesters on a piece of large yellow cloth, later cutting this into yellow ribbons, and tying them to the fence of Tiananmen Square in Beijing; titled “A Present to the Central Government.” This action symbolically brought the voice of the Hong Kong people to Beijing. Another wave of artists taking to the street occurred in 2011, when over 2,000 art practitioners held up musical instruments and artworks as they joined in the “Art Citizens March” following controversies over freedom of expression in Hong Kong and Mainland China. The Art Citizens also calls local art practitioners to various rallies to express their social concerns. One of the active members in the collective, Kacey Wong, often creates spectacular props such as large puppets and real-size model tanks for these occasions, also attracting considerable media attention.
A protest march is a kind of collective expression that can effectively attract wide news reportage (2). Whether it is a wedding performance or displays of other artistic forms (such as musical instruments, paintings, model tanks, or costumes), artists and other participants aim for creative demonstration— simple, direct means of expression to visually interpret the issues at hand. These eye-catching displays are frequently supplemented by sounds, gestures, or even role-playing acts. Some protestors carry small flags or slogans distributed by political parties. Others use economical means to create props, such as painting or modifying readymades. Protest marches are like mobile exhibitions. While artist participants identify with the shared cause (such as social righteousness), they also use highly distinctive (and/or creative) expression to affirm their own presence in this collective showcase.
Aside from taking to the streets, many young artists have in recent years proactively taken part in social movements. In 2006-07, the group of artists We Are Society organized performances on several consecutive Sun- days to show their support of the Queen’s Pier and Central Star Ferry Pier conservation. In 2009, a number of post-80s artists joined rallies against forced relocation of the Choi Yuen Village, which was later demolished for high-speed railroad construction. The young artists drew inspiration from highly ritualized demonstrations of Korean farmers during the 2005 WTO conference in Hong Kong. They initiated a Satyagraha Walk across five districts, carrying rice in their hands and kneeling every 26 steps in the winter wind. This action not only attracted mainstream media attention and raised public awareness of urban development issues, it also directly affected pedestrian viewers and substantially increased public support of the movement at that time.
Artist intervention is a frequently-seen aspect of the urban space movement. In 2008, Times Square, a major shopping center and office tower complex, attempted to stop people lingering in the public area on ground level. When news reports exposed the complex management’s illegal renting of the plaza for commercial use, a number of artists responded by staging performances in these originally designated public zones. Wearing aprons that when read together spelled “This Is Public Space,” Tsang Tak-Ping and his friends wandered very slowly in the plaza, reading from books in their hands. Sanmu, Mok Chu Yu, and their fellow artists also organized spontaneous performance art events, attracting the participation of other local and international artists. Meanwhile, the theater group FM Theatre Power invited artist-friends and the public to join the “FreeZE Time Square,”(3) a collective, synchronized act of maintaining poses for minutes at a time. Lee Kit and his friends sat on Lee’s signature hand-painted checker cloth and picnicked at the plaza. Lau Kin-Wah and Jessie Chang organized “CHiE!—Culture Sieges Politics,” an exhibition project, part of which, “Hijacking Times Square,” called for leisure activity proposals at the site. Lastly, Ching Chin Wai conducted unofficial guided tours of an art exhibition organized by Times Square. These actions attracted frequent questioning from police and security guards, but with a close public eye on the matters at hand, these art events happened one after another until the government finally filed suit against Times Square for its illegal rentals.
The attention given to urban space by artists is often inspired by the public potential of this space. Last year, The Pawn, a restaurant operating in a listed heritage building, attempted to stop people from eating their own food on the rooftop, which is their privately-managed public space. The Police Emergency Units were even called to enforce this on-site. In response, artists sent out an online open call for a collective act of drinking water instead of eating on the rooftop. On the other hand, HSBC forcefully ousted the annual Hong Kong Social Movement Film Festival that was scheduling a screening in the plaza area it manages. They have tightened security control after the evacuation of Occupy Central from their grounds, and filed an injunction to forbid 20 “accused” persons from entering its public space. In response to these measures, more than ten masked artists appeared one evening at the plaza to draw in plein air, leaving the building security guards bewildered.
Through the above-mentioned conscious action conducted by artists (call it performance art, or performative art practices) and actions for deliberate protest (such as the collective drinking of water), we see artists seeking to reclaim public space by transforming privatized zones into exhibition sites, reasserting the meaning of public space as a shared and open area, and by using art as an imaginative tool for inspiring guerrilla or other unconventional means of facing social challenges and struggles.
Hong Kong has always been known for its scarcity of land. Before the Handover, the people had no strong sense of country. After the Handover, the people perceived the city as the roots of its local identity; public spaces carried a shared imagination for “sovereign land.” Through participation, artists as public intellectuals reinterpret and/or recapture public spaces, thereby demonstrating their role as citizens embodying the spirit of local subjectivity and moral courage.
THE PUBLIC SPHERE AS A SITE OF POLITICAL NEGOTIATION
THE RISE OF relational aesthetics and collaborative art theories makes sharing and openness significant factors in connecting art with community. In 2009, ten artists established a community space called Woofer Ten, located on a street corner in the old neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. Originally named Shanghai Street Artspace, it is a government-managed space that invites operational proposals biannually. Woofer Ten (4) renovated the original white cube into a community gathering space, thereby demystifying the popular imagination of art as an activity for the privileged few. Community-engaging activities conceptualized by its founding artists collectively or individually aim to surpass conventional forms of artistic expression and engage a broader audience for art. “Prize! Prize! Prize!” invited local residents to nominate neighborhood shops to showcase site- specific, collectively created public sculpture. The exhibition “Mastermind” embraced folk arts and craftsmanship in the local community. “Kanyu Weiti Fengshui Weiyong Sculpture Installation” invited a local feng shui master to design the exhibition display according to his expertise. The quasi-monthly program “See Through” took place in the Woofer Ten’s window, where participating artists interacted with the neighborhood through experimental performances, whereas “Mobile Bar Battle!” engaged local residents in an instance of mobile beer drinking.
Woofer Ten’s programming reflects critical attention to Hong Kong’s current social issues and changing political climate, and reveals the artists’ intention of prioritizing community and local concerns. Its artists aim to open up new possibilities by breaking through conventional means of artistic expression and engaging a wider range of audience, so as to enrich the meaning of their work. Through the social relationship built with local community (whether via daily social interaction or situated in peculiar artistic forms), their projects explore and represent the profile and imagination of local culture together at the grassroots.
On the other hand, the Hong Kong House of Stories (5) (formerly the Wan Chai Livelihood Place), which inhabits the listed historical building “Blue House,” has developed an even stronger bond with the local neighborhood. It periodically hosts concerts, films screenings, community surveys, workshops, and so on. From projects that focus on details of daily life to those that respond to the grand narrative of mainstream local history, the House of Stories works on Hong Kong stories in micro-perspective. Spectators are no longer passive audiences but active participants who enter the public sphere in a collaborative way by exploring, going through, constructing, and sharing the diverse experiences and inspirations obtained during the process. This differs from conventional modes of art production that emphasize individual authorship.
Cases of Woofer Ten and Hong Kong House of Stories highlight issues about art-oriented vis-à-vis community-oriented practices. The theories of relational aesthetics, the ideals of openness and sharing— how to locate the dominated and the subordinate often determines the way artists address art and politics. Motivated by moral conscience, artists as public intellectuals utilize artistic language, individual experience, and personal skill to create aesthetic experiences that encourage community participation and foster dialogue, so as to connect and engage the community. It does not matter if it is to initiate discussion, stir up controversy, mobilize demonstrations, or serve political purposes. Artists gravitate towards politics because of their individual social (and moral) responsibilities. However, in what position do they stand, with what values, and for whose benefits do they stand? These questions point towards various justifications for action in service of “the public good.” What kind of “publicness” can affect and mobilize the masses? How do the masses understand an artistic social action as a shared aesthetic experience or political goal? The artist’s position between individual and society is a delicate one, full of age-old dilemmas.
Two events last year illustrated this paradox between art and “publicness.”
Last year’s Legislative Council (Legco) elections were some of the most competitive in Hong Kong history. Candidates included three men of artistic background, Gary Fan, Pong Yat-ming, and Chow Chun Fai, who demonstrated varied ways of orienting between art and politics. Gary Fan, of the Neo Democrats Party, was a designer who studied visual arts. Like many politicians who began their political career in the heated political climate of the late 1980s, Fan entered politics with ambitions for social change. Thanks to his designer background, his strong visual campaigns attracted public attention. He was elected as a member of the Sai Kung District Council in 1999 and last year, of the Legislative Council.
Pong Yat-ming, on the other hand, is an independent theater and educational worker. His recent activist project titled “A Year without Patronizing the Business of the Conglomerates” evolved from a personal statement to a project involving community members fighting against developer hegemony. During last year’s Legco election, Pong continued to use everyday life practices to promote alternative lifestyles. Despite fierce competition among the 20 candidates of his geographical constituency, Pong’s campaign grabbed the chance to promote individual social concerns to public platforms with the potential for social change. His many campaign activities included reclaiming a disused bus stop for community leisure activities such as badminton and street vending.
The third artist-candidate Chow Chun Fai ran for the Sports, Per- forming Arts, Culture and Publication functional constituency. His platform focused on “cultural rights,” calling for the representation of professional cultural perspectives in the Legco. Chow addressed the inability of the current system to fully represent the four industries, and intended to prevent an uncontested election.
The Sports, Performing Arts, Culture and Publication functional constituency consisted of 2,586 voters. Compared to the three million voters in Hong Kong (6), this small-scale election appeared to be a closed activity for the benefit of a minority sector. Cultural rights is a rather unfamiliar term to the public, yet is a crucial matter for all citizens. As part of his campaign, Chow himself did a plein air painting in downtown Mong Kok. Artist- friends may make frivolous remarks and find this a cool act, but passers- by were puzzled by the action, not to mention his proposal for “cultural rights.” In the end, among the limited number of people who could cast a vote for this functional constituency, few offered theirs to Chow (7).
This dilemma between “professionalism” and public interests was again illustrated in last year’s controversy over the arrangement of the 2013 Hong Kong Pavilion in Venice. After many years of open calls for pavilion proposals (8), the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) announced its collaboration with West Kowloon Cultural District’s M+ Museum of Visual Culture. Acting as curator for the Hong Kong Pavilion, M+ Executive Director Lars Nittve announced Lee Kit would represent Hong Kong at the Biennale. This stirred up heated debate within local art circles, particularly with respect to the Council’s abrupt decision to abolish its previous open-call system without public consultation. This action was criticized for lacking the transparency needed in public institutions. Nine visual art workers drafted a petition “We Want the Truth! A Call for Better Ethical Practices of Public Institutions for Contemporary Art,” collecting 200 signatures. At a subsequent roundtable discussion, Lars Nittve made a statement worthy of contemplation, “We shall not confuse our longing for political democracy with artistic democracy… The Venice Biennale should not be compromised.” The justification of black-box operations as professional art (or curatorial) practice seemed to be a far stretch, yet his perspective of art as a profession pointed towards issues of wider scope (fairness of public institutional operations and cultural rights of citizens). The notion of “professionalism” is often used as a political tool to maintain hierarchies of power, or as an institutional safety net. To discuss individual rights and representation of community is futile as we speak from a platform that does not value openness and shared experiences. The sustainability of a social action or a mission concerning the public good depends on the strength of shared values in its foundations. The paradox of “publicness” lies in how values of an individual or a small group of people can extend to a wider community. However, is such desire for extension for the sake of art, personal glory, or desire of power? (Translation by Sheryl Cheung)
ART AND POLITICS: RIGHT OR NOT?
The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.
—Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”
Citizenship requires a direct sense of community membership based on loyalty to a civilisation which is a common possession. It is a loyalty of free men endowed with rights and protected by a common law. Its growth is stimulated both by the struggle to win those rights and by their enjoyment when won.
—Thomas Humphrey Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class
AS THE MASKED artists carried out guerilla drawing in the HSBC plaza, images of their action went viral on the Internet and someone left the comment, “Tribute to art workers unyielding to authoritative power.” When artists as public intellectuals stand on the edge of society, might they be blinded by such glory? Artists connect art and politics by mediating their personal sensibilities into the public sphere—through creative and open-access actions, aesthetic experiences and the pleasure of enjoying, defending and fighting for civil rights are shared. When they move around between the individual and the collective, as well as the personal and the public, is doing what they think “right” purely out of conscience? Can “the right thing” transcend subjective judgment and become objective reasoning? Perhaps these are ethical questions that have gone far beyond the discipline of the arts. After all, politics is about power relationships. No matter if an artist is putting art aside to do politics, looking for opportunities to move on in the political arena, or walking on the horns of a dilemma over art and politics, there are questions about one’s orientation and positioning: how to move from the personal to the public? How can an artist remain marginal in a diverse public sphere and at the same time keep an aloof yet sympathetic mind? How does an artist respond to the social, political and cultural changes in the Hong Kong of today through one’s artistic practice? Perhaps these questions have also gone beyond the aesthetics of so-called “political art.” Rather, it is a matter of artists maintaining self-criticality to fulfill the spirituality and value of art in contemporary society. This all seems too easier said than done, especially when culture and art today consists of often superficial, vacant presentations, especially in the realm of politics.
1. “Public sphere” is a significant concept in the building of civil society in the modern world. It refers to a realm of social life in which people can discuss and criticize things in a free and equal way; public opinions will be formed and praxis involving different levels of engagement will be generated and constructed throughout the process.
2. The Community Museum Project organized the exhibition “Objects of Demonstration” (2002-2004) which displayed a collection of objects from past Hong Kong social movements. According to the exhibition pamphlet, “one of the most important elements guiding the design of the object was to draw media attention.” Unfortunately the project has not been put forward afterwards despite the upsurge of social movements in Hong Kong since 2003.
3. “FreeZE Times Square” was inspired by Improv Everywhere’s “Frozen Grand Central Station” event the same year in January. Frozen Grand Central Station inspired many spontaneous actions and collective interventions in public spaces worldwide.
4. Established in 2009, Woofer Ten was co-founded by Lau Kin Wah (Commander in Chief), Luke Ching, Law Man Lok, Cally Yu, Gum Cheng, Clara Cheung, Lee Chun Fung, Kwan Sheung Chi, Wong Wai Yin, Edwin Lai and wen yau. Restructured in 2011, Lee Chun Fung holds office and manages daily operations and curatorial activities with some other new members.
5. Located on Stone Nullah Lane in Wan Chai, the Blue House is a 1920s Cantonese-style tenement housing. It is the first architecture to be protected by retaining both building and local community. Saint James’ Settlement established Wan Chai Livelihood Place in 2007, for the purpose of exhibiting local culture and daily life objects in the area. The organization was trans- formed into Hong Kong House of Stories in March 2012, and now focuses on local community cultural issues concerning Wan Chai and greater Hong Kong.
6. As of 2012 the number of officially registered electors totals to 3,466,201, from five geographical constituencies.
7. Voters of Legco’s functional constituencies must be professional members of the respective sector. In the case of Sports, Performing Arts, Culture, and Publication, members of the entertainment industry (within the performing arts sector) each hold one vote, while other sectors are only entitled to group ballots, regardless of the size of the professional group.
8. Hong Kong first participated in the Venice Bienniale in 2001 and called for proposal by invitation. From 2003 to 2011 the HKADC has been doing open calls for proposals.