a Cypriot on the Hong Kong contemporary arts pt. 1: intro & notes on public art

I have 12 hours to put some of this down, not enough to produce anything mature but it’s this or nothing. Here’s the shape of it: I came to Hong Kong for the Global Digital Cultures Conference, to give a presentation on the digital lives of images of resistance / art interventions on public art starting with the case of Cyprus. This was the excuse for my visit, not the reason. The reason was to see my friends who made the choice to come back and live and work, and have families here, a decision parallel to my own return to Cyprus a while back. And this is also my central concern with this piece of writing: to bring in my shock of being in this kind of metropolis, dealing with this packing of humanity (this packing of life) in so little space, and trying to grasp the technological and creative condition that is continuously allowing and generating it. This is the frame, and it’s a difficult thing to write about (note for another time: Minka & cyborgology).
I had three free days after the conference and I extended my stay for three more. I wanted to more time to try to understand this, and the intuitive way for me to approach it was through its arts. And here is the issue: Is this even possible? Can the contemporary arts, the contemporary art industry or community give meaningful insight into local social realities with any specificity? Isn’t it already a global vernacular (of capital) that only exists (and contributes to the generation) of a particular social sphere? Isn’t it only a recourse for me because I have been trained in it? Despite all this, it’s a starting place: high-brow west-orientated global language of capital or not, it is a somewhat open one, its vocabularies go beyond the verbal and the textual, and it lets more things in. But even if one dismisses the arts (specifically the arts communicable to me as an English-speaking foreigner there for 12 days) as a good way for a stranger to approach the humanity of Hong Kong, it can certainly give access to what I’m thinking of as a post-colonial equivalence. While there, it seemed to me that, at the very least, one thing that could be made legible by the arts–and their social positioning or their curation especially, in Hong Kong and in Cyprus among many other places– for me, is a texture of a post-colonial condition and a western orientation (o___O) to which these two places are socially and educationally connected. These notes are part of my effort to understand this, again, if nothing else.

The first thing to say before I continue is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the arts in relation to contemporary notions of resistance (political and consumer, mostly, but also beyond that). This comes out of my research on the continuous political re-purposing of public installations (commemorative works, public art works, or public furniture) in the service of the present, and my recent focus on the digital lives of images of guerilla interventions, or on how this re-purposing is currently a technologically-augmented globally networked affair. This was the subject of my presentation at #WUNGDC15, and I suspect a big chapter for me in general.
The second thing to say about my approach to the Hong Kong arts is that I was looking for things that are interesting or experimental in an organisational or institutional or counter-institutional sense. There’s a lot to say about what this might mean, but perhaps it’s enough to simply explain that my interest comes out of my own sense of complicity with the wrong kind of institutionalisation / professionalisation in the Cypriot arts, and my effort to break away from bad institutional collaborations.
The third thing to say is that my investigation around resistance, and my concerns about institutionalisation-related damage to the arts, or to cultures of creativity, are for me closely related to ideas and core instincts about family, procreation, protection and responsibility, financial stability, smart living (?), or reliability of access to resources, along with ideas of nesting, of dwelling (nod to Alkis H.), and of putting one’s stake in the ground literally, in a chosen place, or otherwise.

Kill the silence
So if the question is where to begin exploring the arts in a totally alien metropolis, then I think the answer might be “follow the PhDs.” I stuck around after the end of the conference to see if anyone would like a drink and found myself following @sannuvola to an underground music and video-art festival. This blew my mind. It was a local 2-day experimental sound and video festival, taking place at a local high school (thrilling e.g. of student work here), and bringing together sound and video artists around Hijokaidan, a notorious Japanese noise music collective active since the 70s. I caught the second half of the second day and it was a revelation. I realise the naivete in my approach, but for me a noise event in HK seemed all about a technological processing of a technological condition. Seductively externalising the violence of it.. One set before the main act–find artist name & put it here— ended with a live human (male, disaffected) shout and a laptop being stabbed with a screwdriver. And then there was the set by Hatsune Kaidan: a side project by Hijokaidan that uses the Hatsune Miku vocaloid / character / synthetic voice generation software / avatar for some truly compelling noise-interrupted pop (studio & live feat. LeChat). They finished the set with a cover of the Neon Genesis Evangelion theme–this must have been when I decided to extend my stay. [Note about some great video art, as well as Steev & Achilles Hadjis interactive sound / sculptural installations, also note the black over the yellow resistance aesthetics].

Later that night I met Neveda Ivanova, a philosopher / philosopher of technology who gave me a thoroughly insightful low-down on spaces to visit.

On public art 1: sitting
There’s a lot to say about this but I’ll keep it associative: Sitting as an act of resistance: thinking of the umbrella movement and its 2 month+? occupation of central locations in the city, also thinking of how difficult it is to just sit somewhere in Hong Kong. Space is extremely tight, and homes shockingly small as a rule so people need spend a lot of time out, restaurants are small and need constant turn over so they don’t encourage hangers-on. Western-style coffee shops exist but are very expensive and the Chinese street-equivalent of a herbal tonic is a something you consume very quickly on the go. Perhaps there’s something I missed, but I wonder how one might begin thinking about this phenomenon in Lefebvre’s terms around the production of space, or in post-Habermassian terms, around the development or the state of a public sphere. Getting back to the western-style coffee shops, these are visibly part of an extremely rapid and a-typical gentrification process that sees high-end developments bring on mass evictions: I spent some time at 18 Pitt Street, an independent art-space / former printing workshop / squat / community space in Yau Ma Tei (this was a tip by @manorius at dimsumlabs [other post]). There was no attempt to formally display art there at that time, which I suited me perfectly. My feeling was that it would have been superfluous, although interesting as an experiment. Instead there were boxes and invitations to passers-by to take free if somewhat bruised fruit / market left-overs, and a whole lot of gorgeous typographic equipment. I dropped by 18 Pitt Str. twice. The first time I met Chi and a beautifully free cat and got the general low-down, and the second time I went carrying beer and sat for an hour and a half, showing Cyprus on Google Maps to those who asked, having a conversation about HK housing and urban development politics with a gorgeous girl with an opinionated dress-sense and lens-less glasses, and watching the previously mentioned beautifully free cat flirt with the girl’s beautifully free 18 month old boy: they lived near-by and were relieved to have a community space to hang out.

Notes for later:
– my photos of public art / fake grass seating outside museum: an extremely well received installation, constantly occupied
– photo of ledge designed to stop people from sitting
– Street furniture activism: http://www.designinghongkong.com/v4/where-can-i-sit/
– Domestic workers camping out in Central on a public holiday: http://hkhelperscampaign.com/en/ & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWnvByZvTbE
– Video Essay on Workers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ON_cNXyPJVg
– Live Walk Through Central Occupy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwPNWZQiNMQ
– Commerce: HK as “a good place to do business:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ej86bNixBM
– Reporting on the relationship of the Fillipino domestic workers with the Occupy / umbrella movement: http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1605674/filipino-migrant-workers-hong-kong-warned-stay-away-occupy-central

On public art 2: lights
I accidentally caught a bit of the HK Light Show. This is a combination of laser beam photorhythmic projection and flashing LED decorations on sky-scrapers and corporate buildings in the HK skyline (with HSBC and the Bank of China being especially notable) to an uninteresting sound-track, and amidst light-polution by massive advertisements. None of the discipline of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony here. Rather, as far as public art goes, this was more like a sign of the city’s chaotic condition of post-communist capitalism. Further, as far as public art goes, I was interested in the HK light-show as a state-sponsored waste of electricity parallel to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa Fountain Show (a impressive, ridiculously wasteful, technological feat I found guilty pleasure in) and part of the cutting edge development of a mall-culture, also in a city run by multinational corporations and taken over by monstrous development projects aiming to bring in an international elite of city workers and brand-culture tourism. More on water and waste elsewhere.

On public art 3: fish
Live fish market. Most of the time you get to choose which one you’d like cooked while it’s still move. There’s also the decorative ones: a highly developed art of aquarium breeding and fish tank decoration, all about capture, “preservation”, fish bred to feature chinese characters in their colouring–wow—genetic modification. Fish tanks a massive trend here, perhaps because of the tight space. Reminds me of Volkan’s discussion of refugees and their interest in keeping birds in cages. A point driven home by artwork by Chinese mainlander artist in ParaSite (below).

pt. 2: art spaces// to follow

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