FROM THE WOOFER TEN DEBATE TO THE COMING OF THE COMMUNITY ART ERA
Post in: Institutional Critique Posts | March 10 , 2014 | Tag in: LEAP 25 | TEXT : Sampson Yu-hin Wong
WITH THE FUTURE of Woofer Ten still yet uncertain, several young yet experienced artist members of the space have created the Woofer Ten Continuous Working Team that will keep vigilance of the venue, buy time for further negotiation with the Council, and hold a series of discussions regarding community art resources and development. Whether Woofer Ten will ultimately be terminated or remain at its current space, Woofer Ten will be continually be brought up by Hong Kong’s cultural community and the Yai Ma Tei residents. Woofer Ten not only represents a local cultural space that existed from 2009-2013, it also deeply impacted the consciousness of the Hong Kong people by telling the crowds, “This is the potential of community arts.”
Woofer Ten is a community building operation. For Hong Kong people, it represents an alternative map of the Yau Ma Tei area. Over the past several years, the art space has become a core part of the community’s habitat via contemporary art. As a regular gathering place for residents to exchange their thoughts and resolve community issues, Woofer Ten has generated community empowerment. Woofer Ten’s art program, on the other hand, focuses on local community culture. In the past, it has held many activities, including a community record collection exhibition; Yau Ma Tei Sports Day, which involved playing golf with Buddha fruit; “You Dare Learn, I Dare Teach” workshop, which involved an exchange between traditional craft and artmaking skills. Such community art activities gradually dispelled the conservative imaginations of “community art” and encouraged a local creative power that surpasses the order of social class.
On December 24, 2013, the Woofer Ten Continuous Working Team organized the event “Woofer Ten Remains.” While the rest of the city was immersed in high consumerist desires on this Christmas Eve, the event gathered residents of Yau Ma Tei and other areas for an exchange of objects and news. Such a gathering demonstrated Woofer Ten’s efforts to not only excavate the creative power of the community and “ordinary residents,” but to also mobilize a grander vision of social reform through the subject of community. This vision surpasses class order and resonates amongst local cultural workers. Woofer Ten’s announcement of its loss of tenancy has attracted much media attention and has accumulated much political potential. The issue now lies beyond whether Woofer Ten may regain its tenancy; Woofer Ten’s case inspires a re-examination of current community art development and pushes the relevant government bodies towards policy reform.
The Woofer Ten issue highlights a serious gap between Hong Kong’s current cultural system and the need for community art. What is at stake here is the future of community art in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Arts Development Council annually distributes art resources sustained by its tax income. The total of this art budget is approximately HKD 40 million, which is less than 0.0001% of public resources. Although local art groups are welcome to apply for these resources, the application process is tedious and requires a considerable amount of writing and administrative time on behalf of the applicant. While Woofer Ten’s application for continual tenancy is not relevant to this grant system, the application for use of government-owned spaces is even more competitive. Compared to other fields of art, community art requires sustainable presence in the targeted community. The members of Woofer Ten have continually reiterated that the biannual tenancy and grant applications conflict with the concept of sustainable cultural development. Lam Tung Pung, artist and former juror for the application process, proposed that the Shanghai Street Artspace program should offer five-year tenancy contracts. In the past four years, Woofer Ten has built a close community network and gained trust amongst the Yau Ma Tei residents. Now with this solid foundation, they are forced to relinquish they have accomplished.
If the focus of community arts lies on a long-term relation with the community residents, the competition for government support should not rest upon an assessment of the creativity and agenda of each applying organization. Instead, the government should encourage projects that augment the pre-existing cultural habitat. To this aim, a transitional stage between the new and old winner of tenancy should be installed, along with more transparent criteria for community engagement. A critical reason for the public dismay at Woofer Ten’s loss of tenancy lies in the opacity of the jury process. Decisions on community art should be determined by a more open public discussion.
While government policies for community art require reassessment, wider issues of public space must also be explored. How is it that Woofer Ten, considering its successful operation model and contributions to Hong Kong’s public culture, must rely on the government distribution of art resources? Artist Mok Chiuyu (Center for Community Culture Development founder, and recipient of this year’s contract for the Shanghai Street Artspace) touches upon this question in an article that supports the occupation program run by the Woofer Ten Continuous Working Team. He notes that if the community arts offer public service and education, it thus serves as a supplement to the insufficiency and cultural bias of the government and its public departments. Woofer Ten should remain, as an exceptional and revolutionary art organization; it should be a citywide movement of artistic practice. A huge portion of Hong Kong’s public art resources should be devoted to supporting visionary cultural workers such as those of Woofer Ten. Over Woofer Ten’s four years of operation, the Arts Development Council missed their opportunity to observe the organization and subsequently reform its understanding of public art resource distribution.
If Woofer Ten is an exemplary model of how art resources can be best used, its recent predicament also inspires discussions on how public resources can be best used. As Mok Chiuyu has said, social welfare organizations, political parties, residential groups, and educational associations have traditionally taken 99% of communities’ public resources (including art resources). Woofer Ten has not only demonstrated a way of using art to revitalize community culture, but also to revitalize community building on a greater level. It has exemplified an efficient engagement with the community, as a sustainable and creative operational model. Recognition of these contributions would provide greater possibilities for negotiations between Woofer Ten and the Arts Development Council. Currently, there are almost no artist-run, non-profit art spaces in Hong Kong. In the future of Woofer Ten lies the potential of independent art production in a city that is experiencing a boom in art’s consumption.