〈The Possibilities of East Asia Community Art Network〉

〈The Possibilities of East Asia Community Art Network〉《Asahibeer Mecenat》vol.33.

During my visit, I was baffled by a question. When I was introducing Woo-fer-ten, the art-space I run with a group of local artists, a Japanese friend asked me if I would call Woo-fer-ten a “community” art project. I could not respond properly at that moment, cause “community art” is such an inclusive umbrella term. In fact, since the 1970s, artists in Europe and America have started to withdraw from galleries and engage with community actively. They inquire about local issues and invite audience to interact with them. Sometimes, they take part in civic demonstrations by means of art action, widening the horizon of art. Similar developments did not emerge until very late in Hong Kong. Community art was always associated with works of art existing in public space, or projects concerning art empowerment.

However, in recent years, art projects with community participation began to mushroom in Hong Kong. One of the most important catalysts for such unprecedented emergence of art programmes is the irresistible tsunami of urban encroachment. The traditional way of living and the cohesion in the neighbourhood are dismissed and disintegrated by the overwhelming process of urban renewal. This met great resistance in local society and elicited a wave of activist struggles calling for preservation of old communities and historical monuments. Artists are thus exposed to and encouraged to meditate on these questions as well as the linkage between art and society – i.e. the publicness of art.

During our expedition, it was not difficult for us to observe that the experience of running community art programmes in Northeast Japan visualizes a strong attempt to break away from the unilateral process of “display and reception”. Such tendency is confirmed by the sharings by other practitioners from all around Asia. We now have artists actively observing and communicating with communities. Also, we can see that different places in East Asia face similar problems. Bringing our experiences together can help us consolidate our tactics, at the same time widen our horizon about the possibilities of responding to these issues artistically.

At the same time, art practitioners in East Asia are quite scattered and independent. There is little connection among them in different cities. One reason is that most of these art projects are self-funded. The lack of resources restricts and impedes the mobility of these projects. Also, many of these projects are on the fringe of the art scene. They are overlooked by mainstream media. To ride the wave of the Asian art market boom, art institutions and alternative spaces ought to understand each other and develop a more forceful discussion on community art, as a means of counteracting the tyranny of capital in the market. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to build on the foundation of a shared vision a platform for spot-to-spot dialogue. Such platform fosters a thorough understanding of obstacles encountered by different art practitioners, so that we can complement each other.

In recent years, I ‘ve also noticed that social problems are not only regional matters. Different places in East Asia encounter similar problems and interfere with each other. For instance, the issue about nuclear energy which emerged after the March 11 Japan Earthquake is not one that confines itself to Japan. Rather, it triggers chain reaction in its surrounding areas. For instance, the anti-nuclear petitions in East Asia are, to a large extent, inspired by their counterpart in Japan. Many artists also take an active role in these demonstrations.

Another example is the movements calling for the preservation of community or rural areas. Under the spell of neoliberalism, capitalists and their mode of economic development are always the winner. The call for preservation rejects the idea of orbiting around capitalism and saves culture from being torn down by bulldozer. In this sense, nobody should keep his/her shirts on and withdraw from the issues. By agglomerating our experience, the internet sensitizes us to imminent consequences brought about by overwhelming urbanization and assists us in building a supporting network.

If we go back to the basics and consider the word “community”, places in East Asia translate it in different ways that add distinctive flavor to their version. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, “community” is translated as “she-qu (society-district)” (
社區). In China, it is called “xiao-qu (small district)” (小區). Both translations suggest the idea of administration and geographical segmentation. Japanese translate the word as “communal body”(共同體). I am intrigued by such translation, as it values the mutualistic and symbiotic relationship between individuals. This reminds us that the most important constituents in a community are individuals, i.e. independent lives, as well as the bond between them.This suggests the role of an artist. Artists usually think from their personal experience such that they open up new perspectives on community values and social linkages. Artists also put their imaginations into practice. They try to connect people around them and form an autonomous petite-community, so as to offer alternative visions of better community-building.

Yau Ma Tei is an interesting old district at the heart of Hong Kong undergoing drastic urban changes. Ten artists and I bid for a space in Yau Ma Tei from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. We set up and run a community art space there called Woo-fer-ten (the gallery of revitalization). We strived to open up new possibilities of local contemporary art by connecting art to life in the community. We criticized the official policy of urban revitalization, which uses art and culture as a tool for gentrification. In fact, parachuting art into community can never be successful in replacing the indigenous culture. Therefore, we hope that by organizing different activities, we can create a kind of work whose foundation lies on daily human relationships. We also believe that artists can cooperate and interact with stakeholders in the community, such that public actions become feasible.

On the other hand, the project run by Kim Kang, the artist from Seoul, in Mullae Artist Village, also suggests possible roles of artists in a community on the verge of disappearance. The district where Kim Kang’s Mullae Artist Village is situated is a light industrial area at the heart of Seoul. Eventually, factories moved out of the urban centre as a consequence of urban development. Until five years ago, to the liking of artists, a large number of empty flats are found there. The area developed organically into an artist community in a bottom-up manner. The low rent enabled artists in Mullae to afford an independent studio, in which they can experiment with different pursuits in art. The activities initiated by Kim Kang and other artists in the area have rejuvenated this inconspicuous community.

Owing to the will to remain independent and autonomous, artists-run art spaces usually find it difficult to survive. In many of the sharing sessions about alternative art spaces I have attended, the discussion always became a consolation session airing the difficulty for art spaces to acquire resources. It is a pity to see many of these alternative spaces die out because of the lack of administrative support and sponsorship.That's why I'm more concerned with their mobility, i.e. how they can move from the periphery to the center. How can the mainstream and the alternative get into a fruitful dialogue?

Back to our discussion about the possibilities of a network of community art in East Asia. I expect that upon better mutual understanding, institutions providing administrative and material support, just like AAF, can flourish. Though the qualities found in alternative art spaces are undermined by mainstream media, by the publicity undertaken by such institutional network, hopefully, these qualities can one day be amplified and brought into public and solemn discussions, such that more people get to know about the practices of these artists. We can create a future that we all take an active role in discussing a common issue we face.
Lee Chun-Fung is an artist and independent curator based in Hong Kong. He is the founding members of Community art space: Woofer-Ten. He hosts a weekly art critique programme in the radio station FM101. He has curated art projects such as (2008) art response to June 4th 20th anniversary>(2009) and (2011)