// The interview is originally published in the publication <ART IN CONTEXT: Learning from the Field>, and did by Elaine W. Ho in 2016
LEE Chun Fung is an artist and curator from Hong Kong, his practice best known for his work with WooferTen, the artist-run community art space active in the Yaumatei area of Kowloon from 2009-2015. As a young practitioner whose art school days coincided with what critic Jaspar LAU Kin Wah describes as the “late arrival of ‘the real 1997’” and growing politicisation of art and artists in the early 2000s, Lee has grown to become a veteran of the Hong Kong aesthetics of protest. He is the only original member of WooferTen to staunchly stick to the project, from the time of its initial stewardship as recipient of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s (ADC) Shanghai Street Art Space commission all the way until the lamentable closing of its doors after a two-year controversy and stalemate. The following interview is an insight into Lee’s reflections on the practice of WooferTen and socially engaged art practice in the context of Hong Kong.
Context, locality, criticality
Elaine W. HO: During the TransActions in the Field master class, a great deal of discussion was placed upon context-specificity, which at times makes the possibility for learning and exchange difficult when we are all working in extremely different situations with diverse resources, sociopolitical backgrounds and intentions. While terms such as site-specific, context-specific or site-conditioned have been often used in the art world to describe varying degrees of relation between time-space and the artwork, within the discussion of socially engaged practice the consideration of these terms perhaps needs to be refined further. I think very much about the place-making nature of people, events and situations themselves, which then creates an ongoing dialogue between time and space.
LEE Chun Fung: Actually I don't really understand the differences between context-specific, site-specific or site-conditioned, but context and site are very often considered together; they have an interactive relationship. Generally, my practice begins from the concept and topic. How can meaning be established between people, groups and society at large via the dialogical capacity of art, and can this meaning also trigger action? Very often, context and site are misplaced targets; the ideas and relations between people take the real leading role.
EWH: To speak of a practice towards triggering action exactly needs its own vocabularies and categorization to understand it more fully. Because you address work and a way of working inherently tied to human relations, perhaps there is no way to compare with the final ‘piece’ or resulting outcome of much context-specific and site-specific art. Considering relations is a constant feedback and feed forward dialogue of a never-ending, processual nature.
But looking at the more recent work you’ve done this year in Zürich then, were there any elements directly taken from your practice in Hong Kong that could be transferred to the new context?
LCF: Zürich this time was not really a residency or period for my own creative work. I was working together with friends there to develop a trans-regional education programme. At WooferTen, many of our ideas and activities began out of impromptu talks between members of the community or friends. The accumulated rhythm of these kinds of ‘jam sessions’ is very important.
The kind of coming-and-going practice of entering a new environment is different from my work at WooferTen. It takes time to go more deeply into a place, and it is not easy to develop closer interactions with others. So in cases like these, I rather take the position of the observer or share perspectives from my own background. There was one time when we visited an elderly woman in Tokyo and listened to her story of protesting the highway to be built in her community. For several consecutive years, she went every morning to the station to hold up her sign in protest, but even then many of the city residents were unaware of the situation. So I organised the details of the story together, and by means of several artistic interventions and workshops hosted by 3331 Arts Chiyoda was able to connect the protest, an exhibition space and several different people together. However, what I want to stress is that while these kinds of externally imported practices have a certain significance, my focus is still upon the rooted locality of Hong Kong.
EWH: Is it possible to have the same measure of criticality when working in an unfamiliar environment? What is the relationship for you between criticality and locality?
LCF: I think criticality is universal and not something limited to those from certain backgrounds. Self-criticality is an evaluation of the degree of sincerity between concept and praxis, and criticality towards the other points out the orientation and meaning of one’s action, revealing the complicated power relations and structures of reality.
As for localness, I think of it as the identity and relations created by the ‘soil’, which has nourished your development, including the political soil, economic soil and the socio-cultural soil. It is also a commitment. For example, I grew up in Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s, and all of the major events, urban development, pop culture, education system, and resistance movements of those before me, etc., make up who I am today. This is reflected in my thinking and action like the accumulation of history. I create a promise with these layers of history in order to protect that which I value. Similar to receiving a gift, the soil becomes my property, but also something I am indebted to, and for this I am thankful; there is a need to acknowledge it.
Another thing to take note of is that ‘localness’ takes on distinct meanings in different contexts. For example, the Chinese translation of ‘local’ has different versions: 本土 bun tou (local referencing an ideology?), 在地 zoi dei (referencing a mode of action?), 本地 bun dei (referencing place/space?), 地道 dei dou (referencing common or folk culture?), etc. To use these concepts without a clear grasp of which particularity is being referenced can often lead to serious misunderstandings.
Po, Laap: Community x Art x Activism
EWH: From what I understand of WooferTen's practice, media and communication were very crucial aspects of the project. But looking at it from another angle, I sometimes sensed a kind of conflict between the internal organisation of the group and its external publicity or representation. Where does community stand within this conflict?
LCF: In the context of neoliberalism, ‘community’ in Hong Kong could be understood on one hand by the word ‘破 po' (to destroy), and on the other as ‘立 laap' (to establish). At WooferTen, a majority of the artists’ practices tended towards ‘po’. Rather than direct creation or building up, we smash down and critique issues relating to the current situation as a way of pointing out new possibilities. As a result, in our context of po it becomes rather difficult to grow in the process of publicising and communication. In the long-term, it is a reason for internal conflicts and the inability to sustain our development. Community cannot wallow at the levels of posturing, activity or critique; it must also include the establishing of a ‘common’ and continuous communication. But many community art projects in Hong Kong suffer various constraints, and it is difficult to push towards that point.
EWH: If the attitude tends closer towards destruction, can it still be called ‘community’?
LCF: I think that to destroy and to build up, unmaking and making, are parts of the process of establishing and constructing. The reality of critique or destruction is one phase, and the organisation of smashed fragments to re-establish something new is another. They supplement and complement one another. But within the situation of Hong Kong, usually too much emphasis is placed upon thorough destruction, with too little know-how to positively ask, "What kind of life can we create?" Actually, the reason is probably that here you have little possibility to take hold of the power necessary to create change. On the contrary, a so-called freedom of speech means that action at the level of posturing will always manage to be seen. Does the ability to continue only point out our greater powerlessness or our continued hope? You could say hope and despair are both fabricated, but at least it is through hope that we go towards a future.
EWH: Why is this label of ‘community art’ so important for describing WooferTen? Are there better terms to describe you and how you perceive community? If we take two projects from WooferTen as examples in order to make a comparison, like Few Few Prize, Many Many Praise from the early period, and one of the last projects, Pitt Street Riot: Rolling Theatre of Tiananmen Massacre, how did these two projects conceive of community differently?
LCF: During the early period of WooferTen's practice, ‘community’ corresponded to those quickly disappearing and ruptured social relations. But as those social problems were addressed, the responsibility shifted toward ideas being practiced in real life. Those later projects all hoped for longer-term development.
Few Few Prize, Many Many Praise and the Pitt Street Riot projects have five years' distance between them. The concept behind Few Few Prize was quite flashy, but the actual publicly participatory elements were rather cheap. Artists went out to interview neighbours, look for interesting bits, later made trophies, and then the neighbours became the happy recipients. This project was of course much more down-to-earth than those public sculptures that appear to drop down from the sky into a community, and it is also a bit more inspiring than “let's paint murals together with the neighbours.” But did we really create something deep within the community? Probably it was only just stirring things up, and maybe it was somewhat inspiring, but the project only lasted one to two months. What was interesting was that because of that project, we were able to engage in longer-term relationships with the neighbours, like for example with one neighbour who came back three years later with her trophy asking for it to be repaired. That meant that trophy was really quite important to her. But the key point is that that could also only happen because we were continuously active.
Pitt Street Riot was actually not so different, but it could only happen with entering more deeply into the context. Actually, we had been investigating this historical incident for many years, so once the project kicked off we were able to refer to many people and research materials. Considering the factors of time and space, the significance and spirit of this project are very different from Few Few Prize, Many Many Praise. For example, on the day of the performance many good friends from the Yaumatei area came to participate, and the whole event was like an explosive climax; there were many lengthy discussions afterwards. Not long after the performance, there was an action to raise funds against the northeastern New Territories development plan, and a few months later the Umbrella Movement began. All of these are the echoes of spontaneous resistance from the people. The group organisation of Pitt Street Riot actually brought the greatest number of possibilities to the project, because after entering the community to look for answers, together we were able to gain a picture of how, back in 1989, the Yaumatei community was able to support the student movement. For those of us of this generation, not present at the scene in '89, we were able to make a connection to this history. June Fourth is precisely an event that goes beyond that time-space; it is our connection to the past via this place today. As for the community, at least it’s possible to say this event could resuscitate a vanished history to become an ‘event’ at all. In one instance, during our street play we reenacted the action of a neighbour who had been there that year and hung banners at a nearby middle school. Seeing this, he also began to ask himself, “This incident has been discarded for so many years…what can we still do today?”
If you ask me to compare the two projects, I would actually say both were one-time experiments, unable to communicate very deeply, and unable to reach a more in-depth ideological reflection. They stress a form of questioning and inquiry, not a long-term thinking about building-up and organizing .
What kind of relations have these projects created? What kinds of connections, futures or possible movements? That is what is really important. Allowing for the accumulation of time, for an intertwining, can lead us towards real relations of resistance, and only then can the foundations be laid for social change. Otherwise it's only populism and emotional catharsis. This is the general meaning of “Community x Art x Activism”.
EWH: Because the term ‘community art’ is often referred to even in the Hong Kong context in English, it is easy to make the connection towards its genealogy in the west, like its use by state-supported initiatives in the United Kingdom from the 1960s. Seeing that WooferTen also stems from a government initiative, do you think community arts in Hong Kong have extracted certain elements from this history of western social practice? Where do they depart from western practices to become something specific to the Hong Kong context?
LCF: From the Chinese to the Japanese speaking worlds, the translation of the word ‘community’ itself varies based upon different local cultural and political contexts. For example, the word ‘街坊 kaifong' in Cantonese is relatively closer to ‘community’ in English than the word ‘社區 se keoi’ (more like district or sub-division). If you look at it from the angle of intimacy between people, these words are created from particular historical, temporal and spatial, political, economic and cultural contexts (like how residents self-organise a "kaifong mutual welfare association" under colonial rule). ‘街坊 kaifong’ does not necessarily have the same associations and connotations in Taiwan and mainland China. Therefore, ‘community art’ becomes a complex discussion, and different cultural contexts necessarily explain ‘community art’ in varying ways. Without starting from the cultural context grounding why people go and do something, genuine dialogue and exchange is almost impossible.
To put it simply, no matter whether in Hong Kong or any other place, we must ask upon what relations do the practice of 'community art' reflect? What values does it propose? What problems does it reflect in that society? What temporality and spatiality does it correspond to? What are its methods, its content? Who are its targets? What ethics are embedded? These are the questions to be answered when using this word, otherwise it is only a casually applied diversion in reaction, without any greater possibility for deeper development—only a consumption of the radicality of this concept. As for strategies adopted from the west, I think it is mainly an issue of the discrepancies of 'modernity'. Some things that have been experienced in 'the west' and brought to a different context will naturally diverge and have their own specific development. But to stress again, it should not be a kind of mere 'cultural transplantation', and it is very necessary to tie in to a contextual background in order to answer those questions.
EWH: As TransActions in the Field participating artist KAGEYAMA Zulu also brought up during the master class, this word has indeed created many misunderstandings in the Asian context. I would like to hear you explain a bit further about the meaning of 'community' in the context of the art and activist spheres in Hong Kong particularly, including how you would answer those challengingly posed questions above. Can you answer them with respect to your own practice?
LCF: It is exactly when we discuss 'community' within the context of Hong Kong that we can be more precise about what is meant, but the questions above are already answers, and they are what give meaning to community. Does the Pitt Street Riot project correspond to the questions of who controls the voice of history? If history is in the hands of individuals, are the methods and hopes underpinning it a rhizomatic, decentralising platform for action? What are the reasons this can or cannot be realised? If we think that Hong Kong's manner of grieving June Fourth is too simplified, would a more diverse and spontaneous form of civic discussion be feasible? Between the lines of these questions is the hint of a commonality or individuality amidst authority (the multitude?). How do we resist the oppression of the system and conceptually link together? Would that be a possibility for saving ourselves?
Time, Ethics, ‘The Demonstration Area’
EWH: I heard before that criticism towards the ADC’s decision to end support for WooferTen was premised on the question of time: “How can you place a time limit on community?” How do you see this issue?
LCF: It is exactly that the ADC sees the Shanghai Street Art Space as temporary, so the longer WooferTen stayed there, the greater the pressure for us to leave. This is actually how the government understands the resources of these spaces and programmes as their 'demonstration area'. They control 99% of the resources anyway, and the invitations are in their hands. The significance of WooferTen lies in whether or not it was able, despite these kinds of rules and limitations, to break through this ‘demonstration area' to some degree. What relations and imaginaries of resistance could be created outside of their frameworks for production, and what are the knowledge and ethics of them? How to continue? At that moment and place of existing as WooferTen at the Shanghai Street Art Space, these were the main questions to reflect.
EWH: If that is the case, I think to some extent perhaps you were always clear that what WooferTen was doing did not necessarily fall under the label of community art, and actually the urgency of action and response follows what you mentioned previously concerning criticality. If the space was merely a 'demonstration area', what kind of power does your criticality have? Looking back, do you think the practice of
WooferTen was indeed able to break through the 'demonstration area’? And yes, what were the relations and imaginaries of resistance created outside of their frameworks for production? To ask you that question exactly, what were the knowledge and ethics of the work?
LCF: It all refers back to the problem of the vagueness of the concept of community art. Without referring to a particular context in reality, it is harder to focus. Are we saying we want to create community? To service the community? Or to solve some problems within the community? Can art solve problems? If what it resolves are not real problems, then what are they? I think what I actually wanted to address with the practice of WooferTen was in between ‘community art’ addressing issues of the community and the community as a target of 'community art’. The former is like many of the art projects that come from the system—relatively focused upon the ego of the artist and actually grounded by the elite. The latter is like many of those neighbourhood beautification art projects. Their protagonists emphasise participation itself, and aesthetics and criticality play relatively small roles. Even so, whether or not there is a kind of platform for equal dialogue, is there a place for each one's ego?
Simply put, what I want to do is rebuild ‘heterogenous relations', and the aesthetics within these relations can spur on and inspire dialogue and creation. Under neoliberalism, can the role of artists come down from that of the elite and privileged classes in order to organise and revolt, to become a role of positioning? I don't dare to say clearly going forward one step at a time will bring about revolution, but at least it will be the right direction, and we will be able to create a social space in which we can live sincerely. Maybe our generation will not bring us to the point where each person can live with dignity and freedom in equality, but there is still hope for the future.
Are we able to break through the 'demonstration area'? If the knowledge and relations accumulated by our actions can positively enter the situation, I think our resistance will already be stronger than simply remain inside the demonstration area. There are reasons for artists to choose to remain inside feeling self-satisfied; the demonstration area is safe. But this zone cannot directly lead to action, because it is also programmed by the system. It is only in the moment when you actively cross its rails or border tapes that you really strike at the nerve of the system, and only then can it be called a real movement. Isn't that the reason for the demonstration in the first place? Ask yourself the ethics embedded within this: is there a responsibility to take that which has been accumulated from within the demonstration area to the next level? Or do we remain forever within the demonstration area attracting people’s favour and support with facebook ‘likes'? Artists can grasp cultural resources and the right to speak more easily than the weakest or lowest levels of society. Therefore, I think that responsibility exists, and we cannot say each person just does their own thing, doing what they're good at without discussing the ethics of it. If we did that, then it would be too easy for artists to gain from those oppressed and in the end, play a part in the machines of oppression.
Continuity, Going Back to the Beginning, Real Resistance
EWH: Looking back at WooferTen's work, which project do you think is most worthwhile to continue in the future? What is the most important lesson for you personally as an artist?
LCF: Basically I believe that there is a great deal worth criticising throughout the process to the present. The question of what the team and the community reflects upon is more important than which project will continue. Whichever plan should continue is a technical question. To speak about continuing without having addressed the discussion of values would be to fall into another repetitive cycle, and it will be impossible to ever break through toward transformation of the social structure. In the end everyone only feels good and warm, and that is not something artists need to deal with.
EWH: Well said. I also think that the practice of HomeShop fell into the trap of hiding criticality behind fun and warm feelings, and too many people never saw beyond that. This veiled way of working is of course also due to the realities of the mainland context, but outside of technique, you must have learned or felt inspired by something from the experience over the years, no? Can you give an example? If we are to not linger at the level of 'feeling good', what have we changed after feeling critical or feeling bad? Depression is also a symptom of our individualisation under neo-liberalism! So how do we turn individual subjectivities, both the elated and the despondent, into collective action?
LCF: Like what was mentioned before, what have these practices actually established? What have they resisted? You must ask very clearly ask yourself these questions, otherwise movements will ultimately have no solid meaning. To build and to resist, you must point out the structure, not simply their appearance, of problems. If you make a rooftop farm and propose a type of green living, but in the meanwhile many urban spaces that could be self-organised for greening and planted upon are regulated, farms are repossessed and everywhere is gentrified and developed, how can you, with your bit of luck, continue to ignore the situation and keep watering the plants and flowers on your tiny rooftop? Can you call it the best of your ability? Is there a need to point out more radical possibilities? Are you willing to put forth more of a stand, or remain in a comfort zone? That is the question. To many of my friends have rooftop gardens, please understand that these questions are not personally directed; what I want to emphasize is an ethical responsibility over 'each does his own'. People like to do as they please, but who isn't thirsty after eating salted fish? Things shouldn't be like this, and it is necessary to overcome this kind of neoliberal logic, to interrogate the integrity of our ethics of responsibility. We must realise that there are some things that cannot be easily done or resolved alone. The premise of “Each person does their bit!” is personally directed, and there is a communitarian and altruist slant to feel good that you can play your little part without the ideas really changing. It's not so simply “Each person does their bit!”
One other point: where do resources come from? What is the significance of autonomy? What is the relationship between resources and that which you fight against? Some people think that going inside the system to take resources is one kind of strategy, but how far does the strategy then drift from intention? Where is the limit? As a basic, you shouldn't take from those whom you fight against. If you oppose redevelopment together in the neighbourhood, then take funds from the Urban Renewal Authority in order to make community projects, are you not selling out, for very cheap, the very image of grassroots radicality which you try to operate? Is the goal of taking resources from the system in hopes for reaching more people in order to mobilise a stronger resistance? Or have you only manufactured another kind of populism? If there is no in-depth dialogue, is it not merely a fast-paced consumption of the idea of resistance or a kind of replication by the system? In the long term are you able to help everyone to persist in revolt?I've seen many cases in which unrealistic results are homogenised by the majority. So it is still relatively important to have a solid concept before action. If the foundation is not even steady, who would assure positive change before even getting to the point of change? Most people are interested in action, experimentation and self-practice without asking about the starting points of the situation, and this can never lead to real resistance.
 Lee Chun Fung's work and writings can be found online here: http://leechunfung.blogspot.com/ or http://curatorsintl.org/collaborators/lee_chun_fung.
 For more information about Hong Kong community art space WooferTen, please visit: http://wooferten.blogspot.com.
 LAU Kin Wah, Jaspar. “Politics of a Bio: Hong Kong Art from Dissemination to Usage”. Hong Kong Eye: Contemporary Hong Kong Art (Milan: Skira Editore S.p.A.) 2012.
 On the 7th of June in 1989, just a few days after the tumultuous events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a riot spontaneously erupted from Pitt Street in Yaumatei. Over 7,000 protesters became involved and several injured or arrested, resulting in the cancellation of a planned public strike in support of the students in Beijing. WooferTen’s Pitt Street Riot project encompassed a street theatre performance based upon oral histories collected from the Yaumatei neighbourhood. The video documentation of this reenactment, with additional documents and texts, were compiled in 2014 for a publication of the same name. www.pittstreetriot.blogspot.com