During the busy whirlwind of Art Basel Hong Kong in March, we took an afternoon to visit Things That Can Happen, art space and residency in Sham Shui Po, formed in response to recent political resistance movement in the city. We spoke with Things That Can Happen's co-founder about their aim and vision for this two-year project that "engages with issues of social concern."
China Residencies: How did you get interested and involved in the arts?
Chantal Wong: I’m originally from Montreal and studied Art History, which was kind of a fluke: I failed calculus and had to choose something else, so ended up in art history instead of business. I did my last year as an exchange student in Paris, then moved to Hong Kong and worked for Asia Art Archive. I moved to London from 2009 to 2011 to do my masters at Goldsmiths in Cultural Studies. I wanted to broaden my vocabulary beyond art, then I moved back to Hong Kong.
CR: Do you think you’ll stick around?
CW: Yeah, especially after setting up Things That Can Happen, I’m growing roots in the city and carving out a space for a community to grow around some things that seem to have a resonance with people. I don’t know how long that will last, but there’s a lot more work I’d like to pursue and affinities to build.
CR: And why did you choose to move to Hong Kong originally?
CW: I came here every year of my life with my family, so when it came time to venture out, I chose Hong Kong.
CR: What is this building?
CW: It’s a residential building from the 1960s. Its owned by a company called Blake’s that belongs to Alan Lau and partners, there are plans to redevelop the building in one to two years.
The view from the street where Things That Can Happen is located.
CR: Do you know when?
CW: I'm not sure, but Things is conceived of as a two year project.
CW: It depends on whether the building comes down first, if we get exhausted… Lee Kit [one of Things That Can Happen's founders] travels like mad, I work full time, and making a huge commitment is scary for both of us. And, we don’t want to raise money forever. It’s exhausting for us and the people we ask for money from. But who knows? We may change the shape of things. Anyhow, we would need to see how the community responds after two years. We see it as a community project, not our own project.
CR: How long had you been thinking about starting something?
CW: For years it was on the back of my mind, then I visited the Shanghai biennial in 2014 and visited some art spaces, but I can't remember which --
CR: Bazaar Compatible, or Basement6?
CW: Maybe, there was another one in a residential space.
CR: Maybe am space?
CW: Yeah! And I thought it would make sense to do this in Hong Kong since there weren’t many artist run spaces. The only person I could think of doing this with was Lee Kit, so I sat him down and said “I have this crazy idea...”. We were eating and drinking and talking about how there’s a rupture in society, but nobody’s really speaking about it. And the hopelessness of the white-cube gallery situation in Hong Kong, how it’s limiting to the imagination, and blablabla. And by the end, I said: “What do you think about setting up an art space?” and he was a bit stunned at first, then the idea grew on him - the alcohol helped. He always calls it a reallocation of resources, making sure energy and resources go into the right places and continue generating and seeding more.
CR: How long had you two known each other?
CW: We’d known each other since 2006, when I moved to Hong Kong.
CR: What was it like trying to get support and getting the idea out there?
CW: People were really excited about it from the get go. It was an unusual proposition, and curiosity around what a space run by Lee Kit would look like. I don’t know exactly what people were thinking, but there’s been a lot of support from artists and supporters. We don’t have tons of patrons but those who support really care about it, and Lee Kit and I are also financial patrons of the space. We give, just like everyone else, and it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not recipients of this money. We see it as a community project, so we'll see how people react after two years.
CR: The first time I heard of this was when you brought it up during the talk [on artist residencies at Asia Art Archive's Open Platform at Art Basel] last year in March, and it’s so great to be here exactly one year later. I love this kind of rapid response to this specific context, and I admire this concept of a limited time-span, since it allows you to not worry about setting up a foundation or formal legal structure. You can just do it for a year or two, and if people like it, keep going.
CW: Two years is great, longer is scary. Finding permanent space in Hong Kong is nearly impossible, so the funders might get nervous about that too. And this way, we’ll be here for as long as people will have us, and it also lets us phrase the question in the other direction: What will the community bring to the space? Some spaces end up being around forever in Hong Kong, and I kind of wonder why — but if you’re constantly re-evaluating your context and the reasons for existing, then you’re also forced to stay relevant.
CR: And organisations that were set up long ago sometimes couldn’t anticipate how the world has changed and as a result aren’t as flexible. Funders can be slow to adapt, and there’s less of a sense that finance is predictable.
CW: Time is also a luxury. I was just at a space called Kunci in Jogjakarta run by an artist collective, and they do residencies, and they’ve signed a 15 year lease — to have that luxury of time to make long lasting proposition to a community is incredible. But the sense of scale and urgency is so different here.
CR: I really like this idea of redistribution [of resources], since everyone has some excess somewhere. The start-up world is all about capitalising on excess, and squeezing profit out of every little thing that can be monetised, whereas art spaces can take the same strategy but reinvest that excess into creating a public good. Tell me about some of the projects you’ve run so far:
CW: We don’t take applications but we do consider recommendations from people we know of artists that can respond to the environment and to the conversations happening in Hong Kong, and we support other organisations - our next resident is with Sound Pocket, we let them use the space for a month. We like projects and conversations that deal with social issues and politics, but that can mean many things. We don’t necessarily require production either, it can just be thoughts or writing.
Godwin Koay leading a discussion during his residency
CR: The question you asked last year was about failure, from the standpoint of an organiser.
CW: It helps that our projects don’t necessarily have to lead to something. We ask that artists recommend books for our library, so there’s an accumulation of documentation around someone’s presence through the materials that they read, and we ask that they share something with the public. It could be writing or photographs, or anything. Even conversations are valuable. Our first artist, Godwin [Koay], wrote a text that’s on our website. And we chose him as our first artist because he came during the umbrella movement and is very close with Michael Leung, 18 Pitt Street and all these different autonomous art group spaces. We wanted him to answer some of the community’s concerns to and through us, and open up that conversation. He wrote a text questioning what we’re doing around what it means to be independent, as an artist and as a space, and that text was read in a group with So Boring [a pay-what-you-want vegetarian restaurant] to really open up the conversation. It questions our relationship with our supporters and landlords – we are a part of the changes in the neighbourhood and we’d like to keep on considering this role. So I guess I'm not sure what it would mean to fail.
CR: That’s so important. In our collective Public Science, our principals are basically reading, conversations, and seeing things in person. Through text, speech, and physically being in spaces and thinking about those things interact. And I love the name — Things That Can Happen — it’s so generative to say "come here, we’ll see what happens". I don’t have nearly enough background context to being to understand everything what’s been going on in Hong Kong, but it seems like it’s such a complicated set of issues that no one person or point of view can have all the answers, so conversations are so key to start to understand.
CW: The installation in the gallery is made up of objects, but the booklet providing context and notes by the artist Ocean Leung is just as important. We fetishised these protests around Chinese New Year, but this whole thing is way more complex than what we can see. We see people with riot gear and cops, but the group protesting is called Indigenous - what does that imply? And what does that have to do with these fish ball sellers? And is there an estheticisation of the protest?
CR: Watching the images with the sound of the construction [in Ocean Leung's exhibition 'A Response to an Intervention'] really drives in the point that this neighbourhood is changing. Gentrification and the protests are linked, but these complex issues are almost never discussed in tandem at the forefront of the conversation.
CW: Yes, he acknowledges and struggles with the role he’s playing as an activist who’s going back into art. There’s a line in there where he mentions that his friend criticises what he’s doing.
Ocean Leung's A Response To An Intervention
CR: I was just at the M+ Matters talk about collecting art and visual objects from protests, including the Umbrella Movement. It was interesting, the optimist in me was really excited that these conversations are happening, and the pessimist in me questions how trendy it’s become, and how institutions have no choice but to show work around things that young people care about so they don’t loose out on an entire generation of audience. It was a great talk that also left many questions unanswered.
CW: It’s a complicated question — what happens to this stuff? How do these objects continue to live, especially within the framework of a government museum? What histories will be constructed with these objects?
CR: How does the residency and the art space work in tandem?
CW: Our space isn’t about programming, it’s a responsive and fluid art space. It made sense to have a space for artists to live in, and it just worked out that this space had that. Residencies are a good way to get in touch with people who aren’t in Hong Kong but who could contribute to the conversation and bring them outwards to connect them with conversations happening elsewhere. With Godwin, he was never around, he was out every day engaging with groups and bringing these questions back to the space. Then Ocean was here for two month, and for him it really made sense to do an exhibition, and working with this space was an important part of his process. Then you have others that don't appear to fit - Mark [Thia], who just left, plays with light and shadows — which is not explicitly responding to socio-political environments. That’s ok, it’s not evident, but he’s also thinking about these issues now. It’s very fluid, it’s like having a friends over.
CR: What else would you like to make happen here?
CW: I’d like to use this space more, it still feels limited at the moment. I was talking with Samson Young about the idea of doing operettas in the entire building, because there’s something so incredible about the building that we could capture before it all comes down. For a number of reasons, security reasons, we’ve always kept this place locked, but I’d love to open it to the community more, to make the space more generous. There’s a constant sense of ‘Oh, if we could only do this…” We’re working with Angela Su on a book project, she’s working with different writers and activists across town and running a series of workshops around science fiction as a methodology for Hong Kong and different ways to think about our past — what if someone was able to intervene in 1984 before they signed the handover agreements? We've also started running language workshops with Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the space to expand the different types of community that engage with Things.
CR: That’s so important, we also wanted to work on putting together a collection of speculative fiction written by people who are very underrepresented in the field.
CW: Amazing! There’s so many more things like this I’d like to pursue, but that’s my problem, I get excited about everything.
CR: Not a bad problem to have.
CW: Lee Kit always says that slowing down and really listening is really important.
CR: It’s important to strike a balance between doing all the things and slowing down to listen. How did you come to the decision of putting your names so prominently on the project?
CW: I don’t know if that was intentional. It’s known that I’m affiliated with AAA and that Lee Kit is Lee Kit, but it’s more than just us. It came really naturally. People also sometimes see this as just me, since Lee Kit is based in Taiwan, but though he’s not physically present all the time, he’s fundamentally present in the way the space he conceived of, programmed and operates. He's an incredible partner.
CR: What’s the process of working together on figuring out what comes next?
CW: Sometimes we just agree on artists, like Wong Ping. It was just an enthusiastic YES from both of us. There’s a lot of trust, we recommend things to each other. Sometimes there are a few artists I put forward that he says no to, but that's healthy.
"She, Herself" Experiments from Chloe Cheuk
CR: One of my questions was actually about why you’ve hosted so many male artists. I know you’ve only hosted a few projects, but still.
CW: Yes, I'm aware of this issue... The first project was Chloe [Cheuk]’s and Angela’s is less visible because it’s based in writing, we have a resident from Montreal coming later in the year, Devora Neumark. But yes.
CR: I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that other leaders in the arts have stated, that we need to look to the census and match the data there in terms of who gets represented, since we’re so bad at recognising our own biases. Collectives like Guerilla Girls, BFAMFAPHD and research in the film world are collecting data around gender and race in the creative fields and the numbers are just so skewed. It’s also interesting that residencies are often led and staffed by women, but residents still skew male.
CW: It’s also on both sides, it’s a structural problem, but two of the female artists we approached withdrew. This is probably caused by the problem itself – vicious circle. It might even have been a little selfish, in that I knew we had this problem with the gender balance, so I wanted to tell them: "No, you cannot withdraw, we need you!”
CR: It’s always an issue but it’s important to keep asking how we’re going to fix this.
CW: Maybe I haven’t found a way to phrase why this is so important to the rest of the team, but yes, in the end, it’s going to be only one woman participating in the residency out of seven artists in total.
CR: One thing that came up in an interview with Fine Fine Small Mountain, a duo of amazing musicians and composers who we recommended for a residency at Lijiang Studio was that at some point during their seven month residency, when they invited lots of other musicians and friends to join, Jay Brown mentioned that it was the only time they’d even had all the artists there be women. That residency’s been running for 10 years!
CW: A lot of people say that they don’t want to chose women just because they’re women but that sounds less and less like a good reason.
CR: Using artist merit as the excuse is like not making the difference between fair and equitable.
CW: This is something I do want to commit to.
This interview was conducted in Hong Kong on March 24 2016 by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.