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time shift hong kong

melinda rackham: hong kong’s media arts

Melinda Rackham makes, curates and writes on art forms emerging from new and traditional technologies. In 2011 she undertook an Asialink Arts Management Residency at Videotage supported by Arts SA and the Australia Council for the Arts.

Eric Siu, Made in China #3 - Magna Doodle, 2011 One World Exhibition at Osage Kwun Tong Eric Siu, Made in China #3 - Magna Doodle, 2011 One World Exhibition at Osage Kwun Tong
TIME IS VARIABLE IN HONG KONG. EVERY-THING SEEMS TO HAPPEN FAST— THE MTR (SUBWAY) TRAINS ARRIVE EVERY THREE MINUTES AND YOU CAN PRINT A SUBSTANTIAL EXHIBITION CATALOGUE THE EVENING BEFORE THE SHOW OPENS. EXCEPT, SOMETIMES EVERYTHING HAPPENS SLOWLY...LIKE PEAK HOUR TRAFFIC IN ONE OF THE THREE UNDER HARBOUR TUNNELS WHICH CONNECT HONG KONG ISLAND AND KOWLOON, OR THE LEISURELY PACE OF THE BACK STREETS WHERE RECYCLING HAPPENS BY HAND AND MANY LIVES ARE BICYCLE POWERED.

In another sense Hong Kong is indistinguishable from any other global hub of capital—it’s a gateway city of multiple cultural, financial and social perspectives. While cinephiles are sitting in the Kubrick Café at the arthouse Broadway Cinematheque sipping lattes, a handful of activists are still camped out underneath the HBSC building in the ongoing Occupy Central protest. Meanwhile thousands flock to the stages of Clockenflap—the two-day free multimedia arts music festival in West Kowloon.

alchemy

This notion of global culture was reinforced by the assembly of media art laboratories at Alchemy, the 15th edition of the Microwave International New Media Arts Festival. Art Science is an increasingly important player in both the art world and academia, with The Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre at City University of Hong Kong, headed up by Australian Jeffrey Shaw, being a major partner in this year’s festival. Alchemy trod a fine line, as noted in Winnie Fu’s catalogue introduction, between recklessly embracing the novel and a considered engagement with process.

Autoportraite from RobotLab at Alchemy, Microwave Festival, 2011 Autoportraite from RobotLab at Alchemy, Microwave Festival, 2011
The Hong Kong public, like any other, were simultaneously entranced and confused by the diversity of this evolving art form. Crowds lined up to have their portrait drawn by an autonomous robotic arm from Robotlab in Germany, while others wanted to buy the exhibition’s custom-made DIY Kitchen Bio Lab benches. Modes of exhibition varied from the highly formalised outcomes of nine-month art and science residencies at AIL Swiss artists-in-labs program, to the simple intimacy of the Time’s Up Kitchen, where cooking and eating together provided the basis for art project collaboration.

Hothouse groups like Lighthouse (UK) reject the idea of the genius artist, operating in teams to produce complex and interesting works, whereas etoy.CORPORATION, a privately held company in Switzerland, plays a twisting game between the corporate world and sharing culture. All these projects present models where engagement is aesthetic and metaphoric, existential, curious and poetic, as artists themselves often become the subjects of scientific experiments in an attempt to re-think and re-make the world.

diversity and change

Hong Kong being the most densely populated area on earth, it was not surprising to discover a correspondingly rich calendar of art and cultural events. During my three-month Asialink Residency I was immersed in a diversity of events from the biennial Architecture is Art Festival to the hilarious PitchYrCulture evening presented by my host Videotage. Founded in 1986 by self-taught video artist Ellen Pau, Videotage is Hong Kong’s leading network of media art and culture, and a platform to facilitate international exchange. By producing cross-disciplinary events like PitchYrCulture (a variant of Pecha Kucha) diverse cultural groups are brought together in fun participatory ways.

But dramatic changes are afoot in Hong Kong’s culture-scape, with major new arts precincts and a creative industries hub under development. With its first phase scheduled to open in 2016, the $2.8 billion West Kowloon Cultural District will house the 40,000 square metre M+ contemporary museum. M+ will display international contemporary culture: 20th and 21st century visual art, design, popular culture and the moving image. With a proposed staff of 400 the collection will be built from scratch, opening up a multitude of possibilities for commissions and acquisitions of media arts in the Asian arena.

On a more human scale the city is enlivened by rapidly changing commercial and non-commercial exhibitions at sites such as Hanart Square, Spring Workshop, Asia Art Archive, Para/Site and Fotan Open Studios. Osage Art Foundation platforms international and Asian contemporary visual arts, with each of their three exhibition spaces in Hong Kong focusing on a different aspect of contemporary and experimental practice. Smaller spaces such Input/Output and Robin Peckham’s Saamlung focus heavily on cutting edge media and critique of contemporary artwork.

Another side of Hong Kong’s media arts culture can be accessed at ACO Books (Art and Culture Outreach) in Wan Chai which houses several playful cats, bilingual, well-curated and eclectic art and activist works. ACO is the public interface of the Foo Tak Building, a vertical artists’ village with a Rooftop Farm growing organic food for consumption in its SLOW Experience restaurant. It’s also the event space where Dutch theorist Katrien Jacobs launched her latest book, Wandering Dolls: Cosplay Journey Across East Asia, which explores, amongst other things, Asian video games culture, cross-dressing and transsexualism.

one world exposition

One World Exposition 2011: Li Zhenhua (left) and Ellen Pau (right) dressed as Teletubbies for the opening performance at Hanart Square, with Enrica Ho (middle) One World Exposition 2011: Li Zhenhua (left) and Ellen Pau (right) dressed as Teletubbies for the opening performance at Hanart Square, with Enrica Ho (middle)
Perhaps the most significant event during my residency was One World Exposition (OWE), an ambitious series of collaborations symposia, exhibitions, artist talks, performances and screenings of media art from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Gaining leverage from Hong Kong’s strategic position as both part of, and outside, the culture of greater China, OWE sought to reappraise the multiple concepts of Chinese contemporary art, reaching toward a self-defined artistic history and cultural identity rather than one constructed from an amalgam of foreign perspectives.

OWE could be seen as a counterpoint to the Shanghai Mingsheng Art Museum’s retrospective dedicated to video art in China: Moving Image in China:1988-2011. That survey of over 50 artists at Shanghai’s Redtown Arts Precinct was generally agreed to have curatorial restrictions and notable exclusion of artists. With international critical attention on contemporary Chinese art growing since the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Exposition in 2010, OWE’s more critically engaged survey of technological art forms was timely.

Curated by Isaac Leung (Hong Kong) and Li Zhenhua (Shanghai/Zurich), and produced by Videotage, the works, performances and screenings were not so much about technological advances as smart use of technology and socio-political contextualisation. With a stellar cast of exhibitors and speakers too long to mention here, OWE presented an abundant schedule of events over its five-day opening festival.

Works ranged from the ephemeral splendour of Yang Fudong’s multi-screen narratives to the materiality of aaajiiao’s data tapes spewing from a black monolith. Ou Ning and Cao Fei’s highly stylised portrait of San Yuan Li, a traditional village besieged by China’s urban sprawl and Eric Siu’s illusionary products, such as an always lit cigarette lighter and a doodle pad poised to wipe out iconic imagery, intelligently engaged with the new culture of China.

Video game and martial art enthusiast Feng Mengbo presented his ongoing BLVP (Bruce Lee VJ Project), investigating Lee’s iconic stature. The raw appeal of classic street fighting footage with music from Beijing-based band New Pants melded seamlessly with the eclectic and glamorous surrounds of the “members only” Kee Club. Grooving along next to me was David Elliot, former Biennale of Sydney Director and current Artistic Advisor to the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charitable Trust’s new arts precinct development, who gave OWE the thumbs up on the dance floor.

With its exhibitions and screenings across multiple commercial and not-for-profit venues, OWE was driven by collaborations and juxtapositions rather than competition, showcasing not just the artworks but the diverse and strong media and contemporary arts community in Hong Kong. These small to medium organisations have a splendid vision, and nurture an upcoming generation of energetic curators who are producing more critically engaged, sharply focused media art events.

My sustaining sense of Hong Kong is that of swimming in the alternating accelerations and decelerations of cultural currents. By looking back to tradition, opening outwards to new trends, and self-reflexively peering inwards, the contemporary media arts movement assumes a zen-like spiritual and intellectual intelligence in the uniquely energised landscape of Hong Kong.

Melinda Rackham makes, curates and writes on art forms emerging from new and traditional technologies. In 2011 she undertook an Asialink Arts Management Residency at Videotage supported by Arts SA and the Australia Council for the Arts.

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 21

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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