Lateral Thinking: Artivist Networks In East Asia

Art Asia Pacific Issue 77

artasiapacific | MARCH/APRIL 2012 | ISSUE 77

Walking through Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei neighborhood in the
heart of the urban development on Kowloon peninsula, one is only
a few subway stops from the cosmopolitan Central business district
across the harbor, the financial hub of Asia. Here, the dense apartment
blocks, wrapped in signboards, iridescent Chinese characters and
bamboo scaffolding, appear more like collages than architecture.
The simplified map on a smart-phone screen seems hopelessly
oblivious to the thick, bustling life on the streets. Shanghai Street is
far from the commercial strip of the local art scene; nor is it a site for
trendy warehouse annex spaces or young upstarts, nibbling at the
fringes. So, what kind of an art space would live here, and why?
In many respects, Hong Kong is similar to Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei,
cities that have grown enormously in neoliberal economies of the
“Asian miracle.” In these East Asian megalopolises, alongside a
nascent infrastructure of commercial galleries and official institutions
developed over the last 20 to 30 years, alternative and independent
cultural spaces have established themselves as platforms for social
resistance and creative possibility. Faced with constant “urban
renewal,” often at the expense of local heritage and individual
livelihoods, young artists, in particular, are often forced out of the city
center or popular districts by rising property values, even when art’s
very presence has added luster to the local real estate.
Despite their different contexts, artists such as Lee Chun Fung,
managing director of Hong Kong’s Woofer Ten art space, Misako
Ichimura, an independent “homeless” artist based in Tokyo, and Kim
Kang and her husband Kim Youn Hoan at LAB39 in the Mullae Artist
Village in Seoul, for example, share common concerns about the
direction of urbanization in their cities, the collusion of governments
and property developers, the loss of civic values and the fragmentation
of local identity. Many are using art and activism, which they dub
“artivism,” to be stakeholders in the cultural life, and future, of
their cities; and they recognize that their local experience resonates
elsewhere in the region.
The summer night in Yau Ma Tei is muggy, but the room at Woofer
Ten art space is packed. The speaker is Misako Ichimura, invited as an
“Artivist in Residence.” A graduate of the prestigious Tokyo National
University of Fine Arts and Music (now Tokyo University of the Arts),
she has chosen to live in a homeless community of some 40 makeshift
blue tents in a corner of a park in central Tokyo since her return from
Amsterdam in 2002, where she lived in a squat. As part of her ongoing
projects, she and other residents run a “café” in the park, not as a
business, but as a place to socialize. In an information sheet, the artist
explains: “This café is also a place where homeless people and those
with homes can meet. In this community the superfluous items of
the city are collected, split and exchanged between residents, such
that ‘things’ become tools of communication. This kind of system,
unrelated to money, is also carried out at Café Enoaru. Every Tuesday
a painting and drawing gathering is held here too. Pictures drawn
here are later exhibited at Café Enoaru. Exhibitions are held many
times throughout the year.” (In Japanese, “e-no-aru-café” sounds like
“the café with paintings.”) Besides these gatherings, Ichimura has
also started a group specifically for homeless women, to share their
experiences and gain strength in numbers. Based on these informal
meetings, in 2006 she published an illustrated book reflecting on the
condition of homeless women in Tokyo, as Chocolate in a Blue-Tent
Village: Letters to Kikuchi from the Park.
As part of her two-week residency in Hong Kong, in addition
to presentations discussing her experience of homelessness,
Ichimura also displayed materials from activist projects. For her
end-of-residency exhibition, she filled the Woofer Ten space with a
documentary video, printed pamphlets and photos, and painted the
walls with activist slogans—the largest reading “Hands off Miyashita
Park!” in Japanese, in thick, frantic black letters on a bright red wall.
The “exhibition,” a kind of reportage, referred to Ichimura’s efforts
to organize protests against a deal between Nike and Tokyo’s Shibuya
Ward that would have given naming and development rights to the
public Miyashita Park to the sporting-goods giant—without any public
consultation. Protests had stalled the project beginning in 2008, after
which, in early 2010, artists, activists and social workers occupied the
park in a movement called “Artist in Residence Miyashita Park” (aka
AIR Miyashita Park), using blogs and social media to publicize their
activities and raise public awareness. Besides the commercialization
of public space, the development meant 30 homeless park residents
would be forced to leave. Eventually, over 100 police, including riot
specialists, secured the park, removing protestors and park residents,
on behalf of the company and local authorities. Although Nike
subsequently agreed not to rename the park “Nike Park” as intended,
plans went ahead apace, and the skate-park opened last April—as a
paid, fenced-in skateboarding facility, technically run by the company
on a ten-year lease from the local government.
In the face of government and corporate power, and a largely
disinterested public, can art “make a difference”? And is this the goal
of activist artists? When we hear about “engaging” communities at
international exhibitions, few would have the homeless, for example,
in mind. Yet Ichimura never suggests that she sees the community
itself as a problem, or that her art and activism—difficult to separate in
practice—could take people off the streets. As her Café Enoaru project
and art classes demonstrate, she has not been trying to reform the
community or gentrify it with “culture.” If anything, much of her work
and activism is aimed in the other direction: at the mainstream society
which surrounds this community, with little or no knowledge of the
issues it faces. For instance, Japan tends to see itself as predominantly
middle class, yet in 2009, when Yukio Hatoyama’s new left-of-center
government (one of the first changes of power in postwar Japan’s
50-plus years of democracy) published official statistics, around 15
percent of the country was revealed to fit the “working poor” bracket.
This was in sharp contrast to the national mythology, and suggested
that such social issues do exist but are seldom acknowledged by
the government or the general public. Whether as artist or activist,
Ichimura sees her presence as a bridge between sectors of the
community that do not usually meet. And for this, art can be a tool.
Similar efforts have been underway in Seoul, with a level of organic
collaboration that, for the time being, is changing the direction of
urban redevelopment in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo-gu district. The main
forces behind Mullae Artist Village are artist-activists Kim Kang
and her husband Kim Youn Hoan, who have made a career using
community-orientated projects that confront specific cultural, social
and political issues. After going to France to study in 2001, as with
Ichimura, the Kims became involved in squatting, with Kim Kang
eventually writing a thesis (in French) on the history of squatting
in France. Moving back to Korea in 2004, the pair established a group
called Oasis, and undertook numerous creative interventions, in
Seoul and elsewhere, around various social issues.
As part of their “Oasis Project,” they set their eyes on a building
owned by the country’s largest arts association, the Federation of
Artistic and Cultural Organizations of Korea, originally established in
1961, which has built close ties to previous conservative governments
over the last five decades. In 1996, the federation lobbied for funding
to construct a 25-floor building in downtown Seoul, ostensibly for
artists. By 2004, the building had been left incomplete for nearly seven
years, apparently because government-allocated money (around
KRW 16.5 billion, or USD 14.8 million) for construction had been used
elsewhere by the association, and because disputes had formed with
the construction companies. “We thought of this building as a symbol
of bad politics and cultural policy,” explained Kim Kang confidently,
in our conversation at Mullae late last year. “We thought: Our
government wanted to build this building for artists; we are artists,
so we have a right to use it.”
With an impressive level of organization, Oasis raised public
awareness of their project by publicizing online their intentions to
occupy the building, conducting a squatting workshop, then
circulating a mock real-estate announcement offering free studio
space on the condition that artists collaborate as a community.
They also carried out site visits of the incomplete building. The arts
association alleged that Oasis were “swindlers,” charges that were
quashed when authorities determined Oasis had not solicited any
payments and hence had not acted unlawfully. Finally on August 15,
2004, in a well-orchestrated operation, the group moved into the
building, accompanied by cameramen from the three main television
channels at the time, while a band of supporters looked on from the
street outside. Although only there for half a day, the group continued
to organize subsequent performances at that site and elsewhere in
the city. Although the Kims were eventually fined􀀃􀋴500,000 ($450)
for the action, the accompanying media attention sparked a public
debate on cronyism and the lack of accountability involved in large
government grants. As far as Kang is concerned, the temporary
occupation was successful, as it revealed, she states coolly, “the
monopoly of space in the capitalist system.”
While the “Oasis Project” targeted the relationship between
the official art world and the government, the artist’s village at Mullaedong
has developed more organically. After Oasis was dissolved in
2007, the Kims became interested in this area, known for its small
metal workshops, of which only a few were still in operation, as
plans to redevelop the area on par with its surroundings discouraged
landlords from investing in maintenance. In some cases, premises
had been left empty for years. Attracted by the cheap rent, the Kims
moved in, around June of that year, promptly launching their office
as LAB39 – Urban Society and Art Research Center. They encouraged
other artists to seek out cheap studio spaces at the site, and the
community began to grow.
In the nearly five years since its establishment, LAB39 has held
collaborative art projects with universities, and given tours of the
village to student groups. It leases part of another warehouse nearby
to run a small café, with an adjoining exhibition area, helping to fund
their events and research. With the landlord’s permission, they also
cleared their building’s rooftop to install an organic vegetable garden,
selling produce to city cafés. Meanwhile, the Mullae district is now
inhabited by more than 170 artists. Unlike recent art precincts being
planned by municipal governments around the region, classifying art
in the realm of cultural industries, Mullae’s artists and independent
spaces remain part of the urban fabric on their own terms.
When we met at the LAB39 office late last year, Kang discussed
the distinct relationship the group has to the area. LAB39 includes
ten core members but has a network of collaborators in East Asia,
Europe and South America. Besides their research projects, many
members—including Kang—produce their own artwork, while being
involved in social and cultural activism. Kim points out bunk beds in
one corner of the office that were built by the group, which serve as
what she calls an “autonomous residency program.” Kang explains:
“In general, residency programs around the world are competitive; we
don’t like competition. We want to work with our network, through
contacts from friends, or friends of friends of friends! Sometimes
artists overseas send us a request [to come here], other times we invite
the artist.” In Ichimura’s case, she knew about Kim Kang’s work on
squatting and contacted the Lab, which is where, during her residency,
she met Woofer Ten’s Lee Chun Fung.
For their current research project, dubbed “Squat Geography
Information System,” the Kims are trying to identify which
government-owned buildings in Seoul are not being used and why—
information that is not usually made public. Since 2007, they have
produced three reports of urban research about Seoul, as well as a book
summarizing their findings for a more general public, all of which
were published in Korean and hence aimed at enriching the local
scene rather than making Seoul, for example, the subject of an
international project. As Kim says, “If we find some space, this space
is a public space, it’s paid for by our money [i.e., tax money], so we have
a right to use it”—or, at least to have a say in how it should be used.
The model for this kind of research readily translates to other
metroplitan areas that similarly live in the shadow of urban renewal.
So when the Kims were “artivists in residence” at Woofer Ten in
mid-2011, participants at their squatting workshop quickly identified
the former Oil Street Artist Village—a large complex on prime land
overlooking the harbor that has sat vacant for a decade after its
resident art spaces were relocated to the Cattle Depot in a more remote
part of Kowloon—as a prime site for a symbolic intervention.
The relevance of these spaces, their activities and relationships, has
quickly gained notice. The artist-run VT Artsalon, in Taipei, recently
published a book titled Creating Spaces – Post-Alternative Spaces in
Asia (2011), featuring Woofer Ten, along with 20 other regional spaces,
including Tokyo’s 3331 Arts Chiyoda, Alternative Space Loop in Seoul,
Green Papaya Art Projects in Manila, and quite a few in Taiwan.
Differentiating these start-ups from earlier alternative exhibition
venues, in the Taiwan context, artist and VT Artsalon consultant Yao
Jui-Chung writes: “The biggest difference between a ‘post-alternative
space’ and a commercial gallery or art foundation is that a postalternative
space places artists at its core to maintain experimentation,
independence, academics and flexibility . . . [Being] young, free and
open-minded are its greatest assets, since they can flexibly shuttle
between the reality and the ideal.”
While the various initiatives in Creating Spaces address similar civic
concerns, each operates on its own terms. Woofer Ten, for example, is
government funded and housed in a government building; yet on the
strength of its management, it shares a close relationship with both the
more avant-garde position of LAB39 and the consciously “outsider”
status of Ichimura. Perhaps, then, the hardware—the structure—of
such spaces no longer predetermines their character. This might
explain why such a generic term as “space” seems appropriately potent
as a catch-all designation for groups that, if nothing else, make no
commitment to the “bottom line,” or to specific art-making agendas.
Are they idealistic? Yes. But, these young spaces might argue, their
cities and lives are being shaped by powerful ideals, of a neoliberal
variety, that are no more or less logical in reality.
Talking over the chatter of regular customers one afternoon in
January, in an old yum cha restaurant next door to Woofer Ten, Lee
Chun Fung, and founding director, Jaspar Lau, explained the history
behind this atypical art space-cum-community-center, which relies
on annual grants from Hong Kong’s Arts Development Council.
Originally a Chinese herbalist, the Woofer Ten premises became the
“Shanghai Street Artspace” (still its official name) based on a proposal
by local arts organizer Howard Chan. Over the ensuing decade, it was
managed by various arts groups or individuals, often as an exhibition
venue, even offering art courses at one stage; yet by the time it became
available for proposals again in 2009, notes Lau, “the local art scene
had changed, people were talking about the community.” Artist
Luke Ching, known for works that directly engage city life, saw this
as a chance to create an art space focused on process rather than
outcome, situated in the middle of an old neighborhood.
Woofer Ten was registered that year as a nonprofit organization,
with a dozen “members,” including Cheng Yee-man and Clara
Cheung (who together established the sister space C&G Artpartment
in nearby Prince Edward around the same time), Cally Yu, Wen Yau
and current director Lee Chun Fung. The space was intended not
only for producing contemporary art in a permanent local context,
to familiarize the community” with conceptual art practices and
practitioners, but it also hoped, by encouraging members to produce
on-site, to challenge studio-based (“self-orientated,” says Lau)
practice, to confront the everyday, and not simply as an abstract ideal.
“The advantage” of being in Yau Ma Tei, Lau says, “is that you are
already in the community; people get to know you day by day.”
Subsequent projects have blurred the lines between audience and
participant, exhibition space and community center. When a nearby
flower plaque master, Wong Nai Chung, was forced out of his home
due to urban renewal, Woofer Ten used their “Artist in Residency”
program to accommodate him long-term in their space, designating
him “Flower Plaque Master in Residence.” When members, Wong Wai
Yin and her husband Sheung Chi Kwan returned from their respective
New York residencies, Wong turned Woofer Ten into a subsidized
espresso café. Serving patrons herself, Wong funded the “project” with
part of her grant—thus sharing, she says, both the café experience
of New York at a discounted price, and, indirectly, the generously
taxpayer-funded residency grant. In this way, many of Woofer Ten’s
projects parody the prevailing system of exhibitions, exhibition spaces
or grant proposals in Hong Kong—diverting official resources into
a mixture of locally contingent needs and artistic experimentation,
through the relative autonomy of an art space.
Since its inception, Woofer Ten has also undergone a subtle shift
in its direction. Whereas founding director Lau and instigator Luke
Ching represent the generation that was just coming into adulthood
when the 1989 June Fourth student movement took shape in Beijing’s
Tiananmen Square, sparking simultaneous marches and benefit
concerts in Hong Kong, 28-year-old Lee is from what has come to be
dubbed as the “post-80s,” referring to a social movement whose main
actors, many of them artists, were born after 1980 and are thus the
last generation to grow up under British rule, and in some senses the
first to experience an arbitrarily imposed national identity in their
formative years (Lee recalls suddenly having to learn Mandarin and
sing the national anthem at secondary school, for example). The post-
80s movement coalesced in December 2006, around opposition to
the proposed demolition of Hong Kong’s old Star Ferry Pier and clock
tower, at Edinburgh Place. Not without irony perhaps, it was a threat to
the territory’s colonial architecture that sparked a sense of losing local
heritage and identity, amid rampant redevelopment and increased
mainland influence in Hong Kong life.
Lee considers the last stand of the post-80s to be the 2009 “Choi
Yuen Tsuen Woodstock: An Arts Festival among the Ruins.” Free and
public, the festival comprised music, exhibitions and performances
organized in collaboration with local residents to protest the XRL
high-speed rail-link (connecting Kowloon with mainland China’s
express train between Shenzhen and Guangzhou). The government
had announced, in January 2010, that it would be built through the
Choi Yuen village and farmlands in the north of the territory, at a
public cost of over HKD 66 billion (USD 8.5 billion), and contracted to
a private company that is also a major property developer. There was
added irony in the fact that the train will stop in the middle of another
expensive project, the West Kowloon Cultural District, developed at
a cost of HKD 21.6 billion (USD 2.8 billion) so far, to an unsupportive
public. Over two days, almost 2,000 people joined Choi Yuen residents,
despite knowing the fate of the site had already been sealed.
Such community-based or artivist practices are not only a response
to changes in urban politics and the privatization of city development;
they also represent a shift in the oppositional relationship of aesthetics
and politics, a central problem of modernity. In the 20th century,
societies in which this opposition was overcome, through its apparent
denial or union, were totalitarian in nature. But, unlike the historical
avant-garde that sought to keep the two spheres apart by alternately
choosing to radicalize in either the aesthetic or the political direction,
something different is at work among artists today. With bursts of
collective energy, in either or both of these directions, artivists can,
by virtue of the flexibility of their individual practices and collective
organizations, as Yao Jui-chang suggested, move between their reality
and an ideal. This contingency is more potent than any one medium,
because it lies in the ability to think differently. Call it imagination.
So, while the post-80s generation in Hong Kong has since lost its
steam and fragmented, its members, such as Lee Chun Fung, have
taken their ideals in different directions. Some have moved into radio,
others into sustainable farming. Lee is now at Woofer Ten. In Seoul,
Kim Kang also spoke of her preference for change and mobility; and no
doubt Mullae Artist Village will run its course and other paths will be
explored. All are busy looking for ways to create or contribute to “the
future”—which, after all, is always already, alternative.