Can We Live(Together)

-Curatorial Project of Self-organized Practice in Hong Kong

Text: Lee Chun Fung

From “self-survival” towards “co-existence” 

In the drama serial When Heaven Burns, Charmaine Sheh utters a sentence that is as fitting as any other for setting the tone of our exhibition: “Harmony is not the consequence of a hundred people saying the same thing, harmony happens when a hundred people respect one another, even if they each have something different to say.” As such, the question to ask is this when fundamental differences in principles and values come into contact with one another, is it really possible to speak of, to imagine a form of coexistence that does not result in violence? This question is pressing because it speaks to a reality that we live every day, enmeshed as we are in an inescapable mesh of differences. That is, the pursuit of this form of collectivity is not a utopian aspiration, but an unavoidable one. Can We Live (Together) is an attempt to foreground experimental solutions to this perpetual pursuit, outlining the subjectivities and forms-of-life that emerge and proliferate in an autonomous fashion, inventing practices of mutual aid and self-help from the ground up. It is a tentative investigation of the creative powers and capacities that come into play in such instances, the significance that this has for the development of contemporary art and cultural life, as well as an endeavor to reflect upon the ways in which these forms-of-life can be sustained and elaborated upon. 

“Live (Together)”, or, if you like, autonomous association, refers to a sort of initiative that takes form from the ground up, a collective capacity that is shared collectively. What it counterposes itself to is a social and political situation that is premised upon hierarchy, mediation and inequality. Because these forms of autonomous self-organization define themselves against such tendencies, they are grounded upon consensus, conviviality and the pursuit of commonality between differences without effacing them. They facilitate encounters between differences without obliterating them, and they stand and fall on the initiative of each and every person who participates and shares in these experimental experiences. Because they form in the interstices and the voids of today's social and political order, they fill these voids with a content that the existing state of affairs lacks, with a power of self-help that is seized from existing centers of power. 

At the same time, “Live (Together)” reminds us of the artist village that formed on Oil Street not so long ago. The village was something that exceeded beyond, or perhaps beneath, the grids of urban planning, driven entirely by the passions and desires that appropriated and shaped the space. By contrast, 'Oi!' was an initiative set up by the government and cultural authorities, one that was, as one might expect, circumscribed by all manner of restrictions and surveillance measures, as well as being productive, efficient and marketable enough to satisfy all manner of economic criteria. From the perspective of art production, the two can be said to differ in this respect- autonomous communities can be likened to wild tracts of land tended to, farmed and shared in common, land that has not severed, through laws and dictates of property, its organic connections with communities and with the nature from which it comes. Those who cultivate the land are responsible to themselves and to the forms of life on the land, they produce what they need, and share the produce with their communities. On the other hand, the existing establishment can be likened to a cultural assembly line turning out artistic commodities of all sorts, privileging the production of these commodities rather than the activity of creation or the relationships that are formed in the process of production. This assembly line, with its tight disciplinary controls, its division of labor across a global supply chain of cultural labor, is engineered in the interest of maintaining a certain level of efficiency. These two forms of production each have their own distinct disadvantages, and I am not privileging one at the exclusive expense of the other, but the fact of the matter today is that creative autonomy is diminishing daily, compelled as it is to observe standards that originate from the market. 

Thus, a strict scrutiny of the difference between “Oi!” and the “Oil Street Artist Village” gives us an exemplary illustration of the cleavage between two forms of production, while raising a significant question: can these two forms co-exist with one another? That is to say....Can autonomous initiatives and government cultural projects interact with one another? Can the establishment of more platforms and avenues for autonomous expression usher us into a more diverse cultural environment that is more open to the circulation of differences? As we face the growing diminution of communal and neighborly life, is art rendered irrelevant to the life of those outside the art scene? Or can this be repaired? By whom? I hope this project can begin to facilitate a comprehensive discussion of these questions. 

Whatever the case, we ourselves know very well that any form of urban planning should not be imposed by fiat upon populations, that they should be built upon existing structures, relationships and needs in neighborhoods and communities. Otherwise, these plans will have no terra firma to stand upon. The concept of autonomous collectivity always denotes something experimental, an attempt to exceed existing relationships of power, to test the power of egalitarian collectivity and actualize principles of participation and sharing, rooting them in everyday life. As such, these experiments indicate small pathways, escape routes from what we conventionally take as being 'reality'. 

Sustainable, organic forms of resistance - The strategy of “association”

Typically, we imagine civic participation as a symbolic exemplification of democratic action, whether this assumes the form of marches, protests, the signing of petitions and the like. A perfunctory review of Hong Kong's social movement history presents us with image after image illustrating this sort of mass action. And yet, is this sort of imaginary entirely representative of what 'political action' can involve? I am not proposing that we answer, without reservation, in the negative. I simply want to propose that we ask if there can be a re-imagining of resistance, one that is much more humble and quotidian than such newsworthy, exceptional events. Can we think of a form of resistance that attempts to infuse principles of participation into everyday life, that builds a sustainable form of collective life upon the basis of needs and desires? To raise an example, the dock workers' strike that took place in Hong Kong last year had, as any strike would, a set of demands that were economic in nature, but the everyday reality of the strike, which reached millions of homes through televisual publicity, was shaped by the encounters between workers, customarily trapped in docks to which the public was not granted access, and people/worlds far removed from their working lives. 

This gives us a cursory glimpse of what I imagine collective resistance and autonomy to involve in a world where such capacities are discouraged and actively suppressed. Think about it- whose goods were the workers charged with moving every day? Who consumed these products on a daily basis? Of course, exploitation happens in the place of production, but circulation and consumption has to happen for value to be realized. Unions, concentrated on struggles over production and work conditions, cannot throw a leash upon capital for it does not address what happens outside the sphere of work. For example, big supermarkets price smaller businesses out of the market, and the effects that this has on family stores and wet markets are profound. Who will address these imbalances? Or, to take another example, when property developers seize farms in the new territories, ruining the ecology and social relationships that have formed in these areas, these processes cannot be accounted for in purely economic terms. This is not simply a matter of the antagonism between capital and labor, between development and those who are are dispossessed of areas slated for development, but a holistic social-ecological problem. As capital encroaches upon our existential territories, exploiting the inadequacies of existing legal and political arrangements, we are no longer proletarians in the classical sense, but a classless public. Under these conditions, who is in a position to defend this public? Such questions allude to and necessitate the formation of new forms of collective defense. 

The contemporary Japanese left-wing thinker Karatani Kojin has pointed out that contemporary society is structured as a triad of “Nation, National State and Capital”. In this triadic structure, the absence of any of these components denotes the absence of a modern political entity. A social movement can be seen as a force to curb the excesses of this structure, but always remains within the confines of this structure insofar as it remains entrapped within its logic. He proposes an experiment to exceed this triad, which he terms the 'association movement'. Some examples can be given- boycott campaigns, cooperatives, the formation of community currencies and other forms of autonomous associations that defect from national, statist arrangements, departing from their founding logics and social relationships. Karatani's rich proposals have animated and informed the conception of this exhibition.

The Gift Economy- A Game Of Coexistence

Elaine W. Ho, in her essay 'Organization-at-large', reminds us that we have to combat tendencies to romanticize and sentimentalize notions of 'community' and 'collectivity', if we are to extract them from the deadly fantasies that drive nationalist agendas and quaint, 'small is beautiful' programs for moral regeneration. Let us think for a moment about 'cooperation', 'conviviality', 'collectivity' and such words. How often do they appear in our everyday lives? Do we feel a desperate need for collective life? Are we properly equipped for its pursuit? I believe that this need, felt among a certain contingent of artists and intellectuals, originates from a collapse of existing systemic arrangements, the failure of existing investments in their perpetuation and an intense awareness of the need to engage in patient reconstruction. 

Here, it would perhaps behoove us to employ “game theory” to understand our situation. If, in a group, each individual only pursues, aggressively and continuously, his or her own self-interest, this personality or disposition will eventually eradicate more pacific, altruistic and tender tendencies, leading to the proliferation and multiplication of selfishness. If this situation persists, however, the excess of selfishness will place extraordinary stresses upon existing environmental resources, leading to collective suicide or a transformation of existing relationships in the way of a more equitable form of coexistence. This means that the possibility for the latter tendency was never comprehensively cancelled. Rather, an equilibrium was disrupted. In this way, we can see 'autonomy' as a counter-balancing force, one that has to take root in the reality of concrete life and take form, over time, in living bodies, experiences and practices so that they can give shape to an enduring collective memory. 

The perspective that the gift economy affords us should be reconsidered here as a challenge to the Nation-Capital axis. In the work of Marcel Mauss, he speaks of a spiritual principle in Maori culture that goes by the name of hua. Hua is a sort of soul latent in forests, in the land and in nature. In exchanges between tribespeople, those who receive gifts, in order to show their reverence for hua, are obligated to give a gift in return. We can understand hua, then, as a spiritual bond that holds the gift economy together as a collective practice. At the same time, the exchange of gifts is a spiritual procedure, with protocols and proprieties involved in receiving a portion of spirit. Can we conceive of subterranean practices to reconstitute and experiment with collectivity from this anthropological perspective? Can we apply it to artistic practices and other processes of creation? If an art work images and produces its own audience, producing shared experiences and encounters, can we think of it as weaving intimate social bonds and obligations in a similar fashion? 

Part I. From Each According To Ability- Case Studies and Documents

This part presents the work of three artists and three independent collectives. It will investigate the genesis and formation of social relationships and collectives, the transformations that these collectives produce in society at large, in an effort to reflect upon the ecological conditions under which these collectives operate, as well as the ways in which they instantiate equality and cooperation in their work. 

Michael Leung was trained as a designer, and in recent years he has been involved in a variety of experimental food-producing initiatives in the city, his Community Farming Project being but one of these. It has become increasingly fashionable to farm in the city, and many cultural groups have begun farming on rooftops. At the same time, urban space is becoming more and more regimented and regulated, and these coercive measures have placed severe restrictions upon the expansion of agriculture in urban space. Michael Leung's initiatives contest this constriction and codification of city space. His urban farming projects produce maps of agriculture in Yau Ma Tei, documenting the farming efforts of various folks across the neighborhood, charting the many ways in which space, which can range from back alleyways to the tops of road signs, is appropriated and used by people. This is not simply a form of folk knowledge or 'knowledge from below', it is also a tacit form of resistance to urban planning, and an exposure of its fissures. This project serves as a platform for the sharing of practices, a necessity when city authorities are launching a comprehensive offensive against them. 

In the course of his work, Michael came to know the Mango King, an urban farmer who does his planting under a flyover bridge in Yau Ma Tei. The Mango King, without having had any prior training in the technique and without being cognizant of the fact, shares much with permaculturists in his farming methods. In this exhibition, Michael will exhibit records of his association with the Mango King, documenting the gift exchanges between the two (the one giving fruits, the other vegetables). Living in the heart of the finance economy, the minutiae of everyday life are fully determined by capital. Wage labor and consumption seem to occupy the entirety of our lives at the expense of everything else, though profane miracles such as these, which seem to signal a return to prehistory, indicate other subterranean possibilities.

Him Lo is the in-charge person of the Hong Kong House of Stories, as well as being involved in many independent initiatives, such as the People's Pitch group that organizes football tournaments in areas slated for gentrification, 64 Contemporary, Art After 6 and the like. Him believes that participatory, community art is not about the individual, but should supply avenues for collective discussion and reflection, so that common objectives and principles can be created and shared. Some say that football is a universal language, and the People's Cup can be regarded as a means to forge new social relationships through the medium of sport. The tournaments take place in unlikely spaces in locales designated for redevelopment, and the uniforms and equipment are produced by neighborhoods themselves. All of this gives us plenty of food for thought when we consider what a collective, participatory and performative form of community art could mean. 

Elaine W. Ho, the founder of Beijing's HomeShop and Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga, her associate and colleague, shot a film about four independent art and activist collectives in Yau Ma Tei when they were artists in residence at Wooferten last year. This film, Precipitations, interviews four members of these groups about their principles and positions, as well as providing a means for a conversation to take place between them. Homeshop is a space in which art and the neighborhood can interact with one another. It has published a magazine, produced a series of films, and generated a number of creative interventions through the space, which takes art of its institutional boundaries. 

From the Production of Space to the Production of Dialogue

The young and energetic curator Kobe Ko was responsible for setting up the Chow Kai Chin, an exhibition that, while utilizing the increasingly common conceit of having an exhibition on the street (in this case a street in Kowloon City), distinguished itself through its fiercely independent nature. The Chow Kai Chin did not apply for official approval, and none of the participants were affiliated with any government body. In this way, it can be understood as an autonomous community art exhibition. The works met with various fates- some touched a nerve with those charged with regulating the space and were taken down swiftly, some, situated in more obscure areas, remain to this day, while some weren't even submitted. These accidents were part and parcel with the fortuitous and spontaneous nature of the exhibition, which created spaces of infinite possibility. When conceived against the background of a global assembly line of cultural labor, one that continues to homogenize the conditions under which art is produced, how can we not treasure such accidents? 

The Chow Kai Chin demonstrates that the street can be transformed into a place in which culture and life can be contested and transformed. In relation to this, we can also refer to the 100 ft Park, a project initiated by South Ho and several of his friends. The 100 ft Park can be understood as a commentary on the inadequacies of the contemporary art system. As contemporary art production comes increasingly under the rule of managerial and market forces, the 100 foot white box space that constitutes the 1 100 ft Park creates a space of exception to the system of art production and distribution, generating a space that does not fall under its dictates or statutes. The 100 ft Park continues to run autonomously, without having applied for government funding. The management of the space is the exclusive responsibility of the people who started it, and the tenacity of its originators has made the space a sustainable, independent initiative.  

A prize is a symbol of achievement, though the institution of prize-giving is also an intensely political one. How are nominations made? How are judges chosen? All of these considerations are ideological. The Tuna Prize is a prize established by several art graduates from Baptist University, to be awarded at the conclusion of a graduation exhibition. The panel of judges and the evaluation methods are all discussed collectively. This could have tremendous ramifications for art criticism in Hong Kong if the Tuna Prize continues, the historical record that it will leave behind- records of students' attitudes towards contemporary art and the results of their collective discussions about the situation of art over the years- would be of immense value (by contrast, records of prize-giving proceedings on the side of the art establishment are not nearly as interesting). TheTuna Prize also represents a conduit of communication between final year students and graduates, creating continuity and community between them. For those with an interest in independent cultural initiatives that generate novel social relationships, this is considerably significant. 

Part II. Molecular Interventions

The exhibition has invited two artists - Ocean Leung and Joe Yiu- to present works that have been crafted as a response to the plan in question. Ocean Leung and his friends(BLOKE) visited Oil Street 15 years ago, and sprayed graffiti expressing their admiration for the village. The structures in Oil Street have since been torn down, but the graffiti remains as an indelible, phantasmal scar on one of the street's walls. For this exhibition, he has hired a group of actors to crash the exhibition in passionate defense of Oi!. Of course, the exhibition is protected under the auspices of freedom of speech, but will this be a dramatization of a scene that we have seen with increasing frequency in today's protests- two opposing sides of protesters cordoned off in their own respective quarantines, haranguing each other at a distance? Capitalism requires only that you have money if you want a sizeable audience for your cultural event, and this is something that Leung's work exposes in the most literal possible fashion. 

Another adept at black humor, Joe Yiu is intent on interrogating the relationship between Oi! And the neighborhood surrounding it. She plans on inviting neighbors in the area to offer their own input regarding the project, in an effort to question the relegating of the area's residents to being mere spectators, rather than participants, producers and users of culture. Should art be used as a pedagogical instrument, or should it be premised upon principles of radical equality, participation and dialogue? In a neighborhood torn apart by gentrification and urban development, what ethical considerations must Oi! Undertake? If it is simply a project that is unilaterally imposed upon an indifferent public, culture is simply a monologue among cultural mandarins. 

For this occasion Ocean Leung and Joe Yiu have also brought the 'temporariness' and 'momentariness' of art production into question. Can the voices that Joe Yiu records be allowed to enter into the debate over cultural planning? Who has the power to decide? Who is recognized as possessing the qualifications to enter such a debate? Is it possible to interrupt this monologue? Art, as a commodified form determined by market demand, is given to impermanence, and is not particularly good at raising questions of sustainable cultural development. Can this conception of temporality be done away with? Until a structural transformation takes place, it seems that all we can do is engage in such collective conversations on the ground level. 

For this exhibition, I have also curated an exhibition of films and documents that I have called What If “Death In HK”. It is a meditation on the collective nature of the Oil Street Art Village, a documentation of the effervescent vitality of the artistic community that existed in that space and time. The films capture, through the use of interviews and footage, a project called the Hue Art Association, that existed between the years of 1989 and 1994. These artists rented a workshop on Lamma Island, where they conducted various aesthetic experiments while surviving on farmed produce. The results of these years were exhibited in an installation exhibition, and the fruits of all of this were shared between members of the association. At the same time, To Wun and various others rented a former mortuary in Oil Street, where they organized an exhibition fittingly titled Death in HK, a powerful artistic statement that was condemned by contemporary critics. I remain very nostalgic for the directness and the rawness of these times. 'Death' is something that our culture actively suppresses and disavows, which does nothing to negate its invariability. Koreans say that the body belongs to the earth, and death in Chinese culture is traditionally connected to the place of one's birth. I would like to plunge into the archives of our city's artistic history, in an effort to restore its explosive potentiality, a force of imagination that could give us a glimpse of another kind of life. 

Conclusion: The Future Is The Path We Make By Walking Together

Today, life in this city is riddled with insecurity and anxiety, as spaces for collective discussion and communal life are disappearing. Can We Live Together? is a question that we have to respond to collectively, especially as neoliberalism forecloses possibilities of conviviality and social responsibility. Now that the gospel of economic development and the promises of parliamentary politics have exhausted themselves, questions of sustainability, mutual aid and self-help are once again on the horizon. The future, then, is contingent on our own initiative. 

Over time, the divisions between the 'mainstream' and the 'alternative scene', between “commercial enterprises and non-profit ones” in the art world have passed into oblivion. Non-profit cultural organizations are invited to fashion the facade of gentrification projects, to 'educate' the public about the merits of appreciating art and to train consumers of art products. Are such efforts really in the interests of cultivating culture, or do they simply facilitate the expansion of cultural markets? The 'critical' attitude that is expected of the artist has become a cruel joke, if it hasn't lost much of its effectiveness already, consumed by the transience and attention-deficiency of the market. Having said this, can we conceive of the establishment and the independent cultural initiatives of which we speak as being in opposition with one another? The game theory example that we raised earlier points to the possibility of coexistence and equilibrium, and I believe that artists and art practitioners each have their interests to pursue. From these interests, a form of coexistence can be constructed. I hope that this exhibition will help to initiate a conversation between different organisations. Whatever the case, in such bleak times, autonomous spaces that escape and challenge the dictates of the state and the market have to be built and defended! The future of art cannot be left or delegated to anybody else. We must get together to create and safeguard these spaces! It’s almost impossible for us to retreat. Let me use a heated catch phrase, “Let’s Save Our Own Art Together!”

In conclusion, I regret that I have not been able to make a fuller presentation of the groups whose work I deeply esteem and admire. This exhibition is but a modest contribution to a conversation that I hope will continue long into the future. Many thanks to all the artists and groups involved, as well as each and every person who has contributed to the exhibition in some shape or form.