From experimental projects to a community art space: Woofer Ten

Text: Lee Chun-Fung / Founding Member of Woofer Ten

Origin: A series of independent “community / art” experiments:

Woofer Ten was not established around a single ideology. Instead, it serves as a rather open platform that sets its focus on addressing certain issues.  Its future is unknown.  By constantly exploring new ideas and making adjustments to existing ones, we try to answer the following questions:  What can this space eventually become? What should it be like? And, how should it be managed?  In the blink of an eye, we have come this far.

The original idea for Woofer Ten came from Ching Chin-Wai when he stumbled across the Shanghai Street Artspace Exhibition Hall Project application posted on the Arts Development Council website.  The council defined it as a space for “community art.”  Thus, he began to explore the field of “community art” through the operation of this space, which  was located in a rapidly developing neighborhood along Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei.  Situated in a grassroots community, it was able to conduct its operations through guerilla tactics, while also establishing a base and connections with the surrounding community.  Over the years, artists whose works focused on social and political issues were invited to join the cause .  Woofer Ten was created as a result.

Woofer Ten was never intended as a long-term project at that time.  Rather, it was meant to act as an artist-run space, an experimental project that would last no more than one to two years.  The platform was intended to let artists explore and create community art in a neighborhood setting, while providing an escape for their imagination.  It also opened up a conversation about society, prompting discussion regarding art and its ability to enliven a community.  The premise of the project was based on bilateral communication and sharing.

Community and art in daily life:

The development of Woofer Ten utilized a two-pronged approach.  One consisted of daily operations that catered to the neighborhood.   The other focused on the implementation of experimental art projects.  The former revolved around the notion of a “living room,” which can be thought of as an official institution, as well as a hub where the public and private domains intersect.  The space was decorated into a cozy living room, and featured a sign that read “drop by anytime” next to its entrance.  The space provided amenities like water fountains, a study room, computers, etc.  It successfully blurred the lines between a community center and an art space (a place where art is displayed).  Yet, the most important element to a “living room” is people.

Generally, many themed projects are brought into fruition with such a pretext in mind.  For the exhibition, Few few prize, Many manypraise, artists scavenged the neighborhood to search for something interesting; Mastermind and FungShan Shui Hey ; Faking it focused on political incidents and clashes; 64 Incidents discussed the history of the community and the Tiananmen Square incident. For the See Through Project, artists were invited to display their art, and art was distributed as small gifts for Monthly Jet-so.

Through such an approach, Woofer Ten provided artists with an entrance into a grassroots community.  Neighborhood residents also participated in the dialogue by sharing their perspectives.  Each project featured an experimental theme and executed alongside events organized by frontline members. This resulted in an interesting combination.  Human elements also acted as a core theme for the exhibitions.  For example, Mastermind served as a tribute to the local arts and crafts industry.  It not only brought much insight into the industry, but also established a unique dialogue between artisans and artists in an attempt to form a “story.”

From experimental projects to a community art space:

However, just one year after its founding, the Arts Development Council revealed its intention to recover the space.  Woofer Ten found itself facing a tough challenge: should it stick to its original plan or continue its planned development?  After much deliberation, a consensus was reached: members who were willing to continue would work alongside new members to find a solution.  The original plan was for Woofer Ten to be handed over to the community once its operations stabilized.  Only then, would the founding members discontinue their involvement.  In response to this, a few members began to draft a proposal. Thus, Woofer Ten survived.

During the third year, a new generation of members joined Woofer Ten based on a foundation established by the ten founding members.  Most of the new members were born after the 1980s and carried little experience.  Yet, they provided new perspectives.  With these changes to its initial framework, the development of Woofer Ten also steered towards a different direction.

First, Woofer Ten’s experimental format for creating art was loosened.  As a result, members spent more time interacting with the surrounding community, which helped establish a local network.  Member who worked on the front lines also increased, and they did not just show up only when required.  Certain individuals forged deep bonds with the local residents, and their relationship with the community became even more significant.  Those who became involved included rooftop gardeners, street vendors, social activities, and artists.  The experience and knowledge obtained from these newly formed relationships helped Woofer Ten deepen its roots as a platform.  Many of its projects continued previous themes.

Another change included an increased interest in activism.  This can be attributed to the new members who were already deeply involved in social activism.  However, I think this change is more attributed to “effectiveness”, and serves as a sincere reflection of itself.  As mentioned previously, most of the new members showed a tendency and desire to cultivate the local community.  In fact, the previous trial and error approach was just a start.  When Woofer Ten became established in the community, it had to figure out how to become a part of the daily life of local residents.  On another end, on-site events and exchange helped establish many connections.  Participants often became involved in the creative process, which led to a deeper impact on life as well as internal change.  Its events served as more than a mere single consumer experience.  

Neighborhood Activism - Art, Politics, and Social Action

During its interaction with the community, can we sense that Woofer Ten has been able to improve its operations, while increasing the amount of declaration, participation, and even action?  This is like Hajime Matsumoto’s The Poor Strike Back or Kojin Karatani’s proposal of the Association movement idea.  Within a community, there exists a group of “poor people” who share ideas similar to ours.  However, the question becomes: how do we mobilize everyone so that we can materialize this invisible network?  This idea might be not to limit the object of mobilization to the streets, but should also include participating artists, members, and even society at large.  From one small community to the larger society and back - this is the interaction between the two.  As a result, when one mentions activism, it is actually referring to how a person directly implements social change.  And, these are based on how we establish a sustainable regional network that can be spread into daily life.

For example, as compared to the earlier MiniWest Kowloon Biennial, which also served as a response to urban development issues, the Yau Ma Tei Self-Rescue Project & Demonstration Exhibition deliberately attempts to reshape and reconnect broken community relations.  An example is Mr. Feng, a painter who had his stall removed.  The exhibition also explored the community networks of the neighborhood, the rooftop gardens of Yau Ma Tei, and the non-stop bombardment of pamphlets that led to a situation in which the community formed an organized resistance.  The curators visited every corner of the neighborhood to gauge public opinion.  The purpose was not to produce case studies for the sake of enjoyment or discussion.   Rather, it was intended as a means to restructure a community, and spread such ideals to all corners of the neighborhood. 

Fusion of subjectivity and objectivity in community/art

On the foundation of a region actively constructed by members, some interesting phenomena began to appear at Woofer Ten.  Members of the neighborhood gradually began to take initiative in planning. They not only started to propose various events to us, but also planned activities on their own. Members only provided assistance. 

Interestingly enough, the subject of community became blurred because the artist no longer held the ultimate authority.  Instead, the members of the neighborhood began to take over the entire business.  Woofer Ten became a platform to spark this spontaneous energy of the community.  This also reflected the foundation for establishing a certain community network and developing a possibility for mutual sharing in a local gift economy.  In truth, this actually split from the previously proposal of being a “hall that served the neighborhood.”  As a result, under the guidance of new members, we followed the lead of the neighborhood a few months ago.  With artists helping in providing a direction, they proposed a new year plan.  Surprisingly, the Arts Development Council stated that there was “not enough diversity” as an excuse to stop our operation of this space.

How do we live and create art together?

In any case, we have to find the cause behind this.  If Woofer Ten was still an influential “community” experiment like it was three years ago, then that would be rather charming.  What makes us stay together?  What kind of community do we want to create?  These are not questions that can be answered without further deliberation.  Nevertheless, we strive to achieve a splendid ideal.  Since its inception three years ago, Woofer Ten has dared to experiment, creating many platforms along the way.  This is based on a very simple premise: I am an artist and an ordinary human being.  What can I do to make myself useful?

Either inspired by Woofer Ten’s initial experimental approach or its later focus on daily life, we always strive to approach the creative process with a bit more “liveliness.”  In this context, “liveliness” means art that lies close to the lives of ordinary people.  The result is engaging and unpretentious artworks.  Instead of making bold statements, we practice what we preach.  We engage communities with sincerity and listen to the voices of the residents.  It is as simple as that.  Of course, I want to say that this is already a big feat for an artist because it is not in their nature to do so.  In the end, I have to ask myself, “For whom am I doing this?”  Up until now, the neighborhood and the artists, each with their strengths and weaknesses, live together and share values that are both similar and different.  Over the course of three short years, how does one continue to live and create art together from now on?  For me, this is the most interesting aspect of community art, yet also the toughest question that needs to be addressed.

This article is originally published in the Publication of〈Reverse Niche – Dialogue and Rebuilding at the City's Edge〉in 2013