(Co) Learning in Hong Kong Urban Contexts

Having trained in Fine Arts, I work as a visual artist and curator based in Hong Kong. I started my career as an artist, and later I became more and more interested in creating participatory art projects. My practice is multidisciplinary, and educational workshops are one of my platforms to engage with different participants.

Art for me, is a set of universal skills, it can apply to different disciplines, although artists’ skills set is unique, such sensitivities and principles can apply to different topics, and bridge a new dialogue with other disciplines. Education workshops are a powerful platform for such experiments to happen.

Workshops focus on the process of participation, the boundary between artist and the audience/participants is blurred, the elitist gesture of the artist could be dismantled. Although usually it is still the artist to set up the framework of the workshop, the participants could have their own voices, thus it is a process of co-creation. People perceive art not only by watching, but engage in the process of realizing it.

Lastly, a workshop creates its own time and space. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities and space is very limited. People struggle to seek shelter and most of them don’t really have time and leisure to enjoy art in a gallery or museum, when they may need to work 10-12 hours a day. Therefore, a workshop could be an alternative way of engaging the people, it is more easy for people to join, and to open up space for dialogue and exchanging ideas.

Community Knowledge Exchange Platform: Woofer Ten 

In 2009, after a series of “Urban Social Movement” happened in Hong Kong1, that brought us the discourse of “ Democracy Urban Planning”.  We tried to connect this idea to a grass-roots neighborhood and started to run a community art space called WooferTen2. The space is situated in a neighborhood called Yau Ma Tei, it is one of the earliest developed districts in Hong Kong, and used to be a prosperous area, but now it is aging. The neighborhood has a hidden vibrant energy and culture, and can serve as a model for reimaging urban living. With the pressure of urban gentrification, the neighborhood has gradually marginalized, and many of the locals fear having to move out. With such context, we realized the importance in strengthening the community network, and connecting public awareness with this issue, to address its culture, stories, and the problems that they face. We connected art and community with activism. By linking the community together with artists and activists, we hope the space can be the platform for people to take action together.

Fig.1: Woofer Ten Community Art Space in Yau Ma Tei, 2012

There are many different types of activities in this space, a regular monthly workshop series, called “Dare to Teach, Willing to Learn” is one example. The starting point of this project is the idea of “exchanging skills and knowledge in the community”, and hope to build up a platform for an exchange to happen.

For example, Madam Kai is the owner of a hawker stall nearby, she makes Chinese sausage every year during the winter. Usually this kind of sausage is not made by hand, but is produced in a factory, but Mdm Kai is able to make it by herself, with her own special ingredients. She also made the sausage on the street and hung them in her stall. Nowadays, public space is often restricted, but in this neighborhood, people coordinate with each other in using the open space for different purposes. This awareness is getting less common in the city, as people would like more privacy. We invited Mdm Kai to run a workshop on making local sausage at her stall. By connecting the participants with such a context, they can understand this alternative model of “common space”, with a clearer picture of how this old neighborhood operates.

We have invited our neighbors to hold different kinds of workshops, such as cooking, gardening, traditional crafting etc. Artists and activists are also invited to share interesting ideas in their daily living, such as Painter Willson Shek ran a workshop on decorating plastic storage boxes at home, and activist Bull Tsang shared his skills in making protest props using cardboard.

Fig 2. Workshop with Madam Kai, 2010
Fig 3. Poster of “Dare to Teach, Willing to Learn”

Inter-local Knowledge Production In the Context of East Asia

Another perspective of my practice is to make connections across different localities. As the border between different regions is getting stronger, it gets harder for people to understand problems and conflicts. We hope to connect local context to different regions, and build up an exchange network in the Asia region. So we can have a deeper understanding of the common problems we are facing, across the limited sight from localism, or nationalism. This idea is achieved via face to face meetings with artists and activists in Asia, and sometimes a self-learning/co-learning workshop is another way to develop mutual understanding. In 2016, in an artist/activists gathering in Korea called No Limit3, I invited participants to draw a map outlining how we met and address the different issues happening in our cities. Participants from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, discussed the footsteps of social activism in our region, and factors that may trigger such linkage to happen. In this case, we do not limit ourselves to talk about action from a micro perspective, but from the bigger social and historical context.

Fig. 4 Meeting of Cultural activists in the Occupy Site, 2012

Coda: The Meaning of Co-Learning

As I have been working in the local context, as well as an inter-regional one, the issues in how to bridge dialogue among different social contexts are always the key aspect in my practice. I don’t see “change” as an immediate result but an accumulation of dialogue and the awareness toward the common problems we face. Workshops are a useful format, people join the process and dialogue can be generated. Participation is also an important notion, as people engage in the process of production, and find out their own meaning. The end result is not pre-set, but open as an outcome of co-creation; sometimes, we allow “conflicts” to take place along the process, as to stir up real participation and explore the radicalness of participative democracy, and it could sometimes serves as a starting point for discussing the complexities of certain issues.

Sometimes, working as an individual artist, my voice is limited. If we work as a group, we could do something more. Our limitation is, usually we work with visual artists and activists, most of us don’t have sustainable support, so most of our activities are project based. Sometimes we gain positive public attention and get to build a network, but due to a lack of resources, we are not always good at turning our activities into regular one. This is especially true since space is so limited in Hong Kong, it is not easy to get things on track within a short span of time. At the same time, mainstream art institutions sometimes organize similar educational programmes to compete with the local independent initiatives. Although they are limited to address the local context and conflicts within, their administrative support is much stronger as they have more resources.

As an artist who works independently, it is valuable to connect people with different contexts to generate new dialogue by “co-learning”. Making this work sustainable, while keeping the political attitude is always a problem. I think artists need to be creative, have good organizing skills, and also have a sense of running a “business”. For making social change, we can’t do it individually, it has to be achieved by collective efforts.

1 Manuel Castells suggested the term “urbanism social movement, in The City and the Grassroots (1983), to describe various protests against commercialization and privatization of space, surveillance and exclusion, as well as the limitation of the civic engagement. It highlight social conflicts in the context of urban development, rather than social class or national ideology. One of the local examples is the Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier Movement in 2006-07, See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Place_Ferry_Pier

2 For more about WooferTen: http://wooferten.blogspot.com/

3 No Limit is an indie culture festival, organized by artists, activists in East Asia region, see: http://nolimit.tokyonantoka.xyz/



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