Imagine If It Weren't All For Nothing - A Few Musings On Communities, Art, and Activism

Imagine If It Weren't All For Nothing 

- A Few Musings On Communities, Art, and Activism

Lee Chun Fung

Throughout the duration of Wooferten's residency programs, I would often be on the receiving end of a number of criticisms:

Critique 1: The neighborhood is already rich with aesthetic significance, and those who live in it are severely lacking in resources and platforms to showcase their creations, so why on earth would you give this space to artists from overseas, rather than those who might need it?

Critique 2: We have enough problems here at home, why don't you use the space as a forum where they can be discussed and treated? Instead you give room for artists to turn our attention to things that are happening elsewhere...

Critique 3: Community art has to be given form and sustainable life over a long process, whereas residencies are often short-lived and transient. If the resident artist is simply a vagrant who moves from place to place, a hired hand without ties to any concrete place, are we witnessing a form of neoliberal cultural imperialism at work?

To begin, I would like to state for the record that I am not essentially opposed to these criticisms. On the contrary, I share much of the sympathies that they express about the ephemerality of residencies, about the ethical and political implications of it all. In reality, the residency program has never been a focal part of Wooferten. Rather, it has always been a somewhat peripheral concern. Establishing roots in the community has always been at the center of Wooferten's vision.

That does not mean, however, that the residency program is superfluous or pointless. That this program has spawned two books, this being the second, attests to its uniqueness. Yes, it is absolutely true that community art has the responsibility to investigate the connections that can be made between art and the form of life that takes shape in a concrete community. The experiment that Wooferten undertook, however, is somewhat different from much of the community art that I know. The artists in Wooferten themselves do not live in Yau Ma Tei. The space began with a set of concerns shared between artists, each of whom had established modest reputations prior to Wooferten, which we must remember was established with government funding. From the beginning, Wooferten has been about transforming the practice of art just as much as it is about exploring the confluence between art and the community. What experiences can be born between this convergence, this collision? This question has been at the heart of Wooferten. We have wanted to bring out its political resonances in our work in the community, its challenge to established institutions. Putting all of this in context helps me to understand why Yuk Hui, in an essay that he wrote about us in the past, suggested that Wooferten was instigating a revolt against Art itself. 

Much community art privileges the role of the audience, who are often solicited to participate in its creation, over the artist. When this is done, a number of political and ethical questions about form and aesthetics are left by the wayside. When privileging participation about all else, where does the politics of the artist come into it? For example, conservatives and anarchists alike can paint a wall with their neighbors, though the results could be wildly different. What is the aim, then, of community art? To create a space in which those marginalized or excluded by the art world can become the subjects of participatory creation, or for the artist to create a 'work'? Or is it an experiment in the staging of equality and sharing? We still don't know the answers to these questions, and the pursuit of equality, respect and sharing is an arduous one that we only just begun.

Here, we can turn to the second criticism about our evasion of local problems. I will not deny the import of the accusation- if I were asked to set an order of priorities, I would certainly say that the problems that we face in this city are of paramount importance. Does this mean, however, that we should divert our eyes from what's happening elsewhere? This, for me, would be disastrous, because problems that originate from outside one's scope can offer radically new perspectives. 

If activists simply restricted themselves to thinking about things that happened at home, we would quickly suffer from myopia. We also have to consider the repercussions that our actions have on faraway places- the events of 1989 in China and Hong Kong had a discernible influence on events in Eastern Europe, while, in more recent times, the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan left its imprint on the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. When you think about it, nothing that happens in Hong Kong can remain 'local' in any conceivable sense- Hong Kong is an epicenter for global financial flows, one of the foremost outposts of global Empire. Whatever happens here is historical and global, and the fact that Hong Kong presently holds 400 billion dollars worth of foreign reserves incriminates us all, serving as proof of how deeply our fate is entangled with the oppressed all over the world.

Criticism three, then. When people talk about sustainability, we have to be more specific about what that term could mean. Subjected as we are to the imperatives that neoliberalism commands for artistic production, the ethical implications of this question become that much more ominous. 

Compounding things is the fact that the face of this city is changing at an unprecedented rate. All struggles in Hong Kong are situated struggles over territory as gentrification sweeps through the metropolis, leading the Umbrella movement to declare that umbrellas have to be raised across neighborhoods. With culture playing a leading role in renovating the facade of the city, it is imperative that we remember our complicity in this process, as well as consider ways in which we can resist and possibly extricate ourselves from its grip. Can we make use of the abundant resources and opportunities that come our way because of these developments, diverting them to subversive new uses? Or should we refuse them altogether, declaring the need for a boycott?

These are important ethical considerations. When an artist sets foot in a community, what can she build? What attitude should he adopt, so that her work does not is not assimilated into the existing state of things, rendering her an accomplice to the enemy? Is it possible to make use of resources without being bound or, worse, corrupted by them?

Community Art- Unpacking An Ambivalent Term 

Whenever one begins to speak of 'community art', one is invariably struck by its vacuity. Every community is a concrete, corporeal entity, rich with history and geographical significance, rendering the abstractness of the term that much more palpable. 

'Community', as many of us now, has its etymological root in the Latin word Communis, which also serves as the root for the words 'communicate' and 'common'. Community, then, signifies a group, a form of life shared in common. Who, then, is the subject of community art, and who is its supposed audience? The artist? Those who live in the community? Is the subject of community art the shared situation of the artist and the community? What is the ontological basis for this sharing, this creation of the common? How can we forge a language through which this common can be communicated? 

In Cantonese, we commonly use the term 'kai fong' to speak of our neighbors. This term is incredibly useful because it synthesizes, in one conceptual compound, 'community' and 'neighborhood'. The prefix 'kai' literally refers to the street, whereas 'fong' refers to the place where one lives and works. Thus, 'kai fong' refers to the web or the dense tangle of relationships that accrete over a territory, a network of mutual aid composed of those in which one depends, places one's trust in.

However, we shouldn't romanticize the community or postulate it as some sort of embryonic utopia. Every 'kai fong' 街坊 is a singularity, a difference. The question is how can these differences, without diminishing or attenuating themselves, create a form of being together that is not eviscerated by conflict and embitterment? Can community art contribute to the elaboration of this sense of the common? 

“But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. ...real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you.”

- Zygmunt Bauman

Art, or Non-Art?

Another thorny question is, of course, that of art itself. Is community art 'art' or is it not? How to we evaluate its quality or lack thereof?

The complexity of this term leads us into irresolvable disputes. For me, the term 'art' no longer has any essential, intrinsic significance, and its definition is entirely contingent on those who have the power and the influence to determine it. Between my 'art' and your 'art' lies a bottomless vacuum. Does this mean that we have to give the word up? And if we don't, how do we consolidate and enrich the meaning that it has for us? That is, making art has to start from a personal vision of what 'art' means and what it can accomplish. This is much more productive than obscure debates about the term. The word is saddled with so much significance, but I often feel that art simply signifies the primordial medium through which stories, emotions and thoughts can be communicated. That this communication of singularity is a political act is obvious to me, now that cultural capital is premised on its marginalization. 

We also have to ask ourselves what sorts of discussions the artwork facilitates or makes possible. Here, it might be useful to consider what Jacques Ranciere has referred to as the sensus communis. Aesthetics, in its original sense, does not refer to art as such. Rather, it is a science of the sensible. Anything that impinges on sense is within the realm of aesthetics, and the 'material' of the aesthetic forms between people, in the sphere that we call 'political'. Keeping this in mind, we have to ask ourselves how art and activism participate in a larger aesthetic or semiological environment. What community, what affects can it help to sculpt? 

To elaborate on this, I will break down, in a schematic fashion, the three types of relationships that community art can have with politics and social conflict. For me, there are three possible forms that this can take. The first is the 'dialogical' kind- which establishes a conduit for communication between people. The second is of the 'confrontational' variety, which attempts to break through an established frame of approaching or imagining a certain issue. The third is more 'dynamic' than the other two. Rather than being  the expression of an attitude or a position, it situates itself on the terrain of life and regards living as form, transforming the life and the body of the artist into an instrument to be tested in the field of everyday life. 

I will end this section with a tangential observation. When, in social movements, we speak of the joy in activism and stress that struggle can be humorous or even 'fun', this doesn't mean that we proscribe sadness or rage in favor of 'positive emotions'. Rather, it is about putting emotion at the forefront, emotion that can be channelled into creation and expression. This makes the struggle affirmative, the creation of form, rather than simply a war against a designated 'enemy' that has to be obliterated.

On Activism

“In a divided community stratified by class, the members of that community are formally equal, each having a part in deciding political affairs, but because of economic inequalities, political equality and democracy are voided of any real content...Sadly, the Chinese study and copy aspects of community building in Taiwan, while evading the question of class. Unless we change the politico-economic structure of power, culture cannot be reproduce the same contradictions. You can't close your eyes to these problems if you want to fundamentally change the world in which you live.”

-Zhang Hui-Peng

If we take art to be the sphere of affectivity and the community as the place in which a form of life takes shape, activism is the space of political action. The politics that we speak of here is that defined by Carl Schmitt, an oppositional activity premised on antagonism. As such, 'action' that follows from this is contestatory, conflictual. 

Although I believe that 'community' and 'art' operate on different levels and in different spheres, both ultimately involves relations of power, the stuff of politics. Whether we are speaking about the conservation of buildings in a neighborhood, compensation for evicted residents, or the like, we are speaking about questions of power and right. In each sphere, we confront institutional constraints that invariably raise the question of resistance and direct action. 

At this point, I would like to raise two salient points. First, are we able to clearly delineate the object and the antagonist in each struggle that we engage in? Second, if we can't find a way to situate struggles in our everyday lives, in the communities in which we live, are we then admitting that the only space in which politics can take place is in the virtual non-place of the media spectacle? 

When the question of objects and antagonism arises, I cannot but be reminded of the point that Kojin Karatani, the Japanese philosopher, made of the imbrication of consumption, production and exploitation in capitalist society, entanglements that render us totally complicit in the production and reproduction of social relationships. This is why he maintains that we need to situate struggle on two planes, which happen parallel to each other and simultaneously- one which happens within the confines of the structure, pushing its limits back (here we can raise the example of struggling for better working conditions, wages, rights and the like), the other being the attempt to go beyond these limits towards a non-capitalist world. 

The protagonist of this struggle might be imagined as a class, but a class that is broader than that of the classical Marxist understanding. Maybe the (non)figure of the 'multitude' that Hardt & Negri put forward would be more apposite here- an anomalous, non-exclusive, nomadic (non)subject that fights its battles across the breadth of imperial, biopolitical space. When seen in these terms, the supposed 'antagonist' of this struggle cannot be restricted to that of a party, a state or a billionaire. The struggle becomes total, continuous and protracted, and in this process questions of tactics and means become incredibly important.

“What gather the activists to take actions are often a certain mutual feeling, mutual consciousness and the sense of collective that came from participation in the action. Among the collective, “we” share injustice, humiliation and insult, as well as the same moral concept.” 

- Law Wing Sang

What then, does it mean to resist? Can we imagine a different way of organizing the economy, a different way of life, a different way of relating to our lives, a form of action that would involve all of these things at once? The case studies in this book are all exemplary demonstrations of this form of action. They all raise the question of the use of life, the politicization of its form. To speak of autonomy in relation to the economy does not mean that we have to find another form of exchange or value, it means that we have to find a way of going beyond relations prescribed by the market. What is produced in each of these examples is not a product or a value, but a form of relation, an elaboration of the common.

“What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘common’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.”

Slavoj Žižek

Case Studies

Him LO, a former professional athlete himself, is responsible for the first of our examples, a 'Community Sports Day' in Yau Ma Tei. Having done extensive observational work prior to holding the event, he then set up various stations around Yau Ma Tei where different games could take place. When Him raised, in a retrospective on the event, the question of whether art can solve problems, we have to ask what 'problems' these might be, and on what plane they are situated on. Should 'problems' here be taken in a sociological sense, or does art pose and resolve problems on another level altogether, changing the parameters in which they are thought?

Michael LEUNG, initiator of the Community Farming Project, has applied the principles of permaculture to his project, which we cannot but approach as a form of artistic creation. Michael himself is a 'kai fong' of the Yau Ma Tei area, and though he wasn't born here, his interactions with his neighbors and familarity with the neighborhood can be deeply felt across the whole project. When speaking of this project, it is impossible to ignore the deep influence of a homeless farmer, the legendary 'Mango King', whose farming enacts permaculture practice in the unlikeliest of places, under a flyover. Examining this fortuitous encounter between Michael and the Mango King will yield us rich insights into the ways in which we can bridge the void between art, politics and the production of emancipatory theory in a new way. 

Elaine W. HO and Fotini LAZARIDOU-HATZIGOGA present us with another exemplary form of field work and research. Having faced the impasses of engaged artistic praxis in their now-defunct space in Beijing, HomeShop, they came to Hong Kong to investigate the possibilities of building a catalyst around which artists, activists and the aggrieved from the lowermost reaches of society could converge. Would this convergence, then, condense into an outpour that sweeps through the dusty foundations of our world?

Our next example comes from Kuala Lumpur, the home of the Petaling Street Community Art Project. Petaling Street, predictably, is a street that is facing comprehensive destruction, and all the traces of life- from the hawkers to the stalls to the way of life of laborers- are being swallowed up by property developers. The resonances between Malaysia and Hong Kong are patently obvious- Malaysia too is a post-colonial society without a functioning democratic state, and their struggle for a right to the city under an authoritarian government is of close interest to us. 

The work of the Taiwanese artist, KAO Jun-Honn, 'Searching For The Lady', is a chronicle of his time spent observing the struggles that crystallized around a biennale held in Kwun Tong, a deindustrialized area that, having once served as home for poor musicians and artists, is now being gentrified in rapid and violent fashion. Re-enacting the arrests of artists who protested against the biennale, Kao then proceeds to probe the consequences of this conflict, holding a mirror up to the embattled, ambivalent state of artistic labor in dangerous, compromised times. In the essay that he has contributed to this volume, ' Zai-di Is A Mirror', Kao inquires into the differences between the Chinese terms ' 本土' (Ben-tu, indigenous) and ' 在地' (Zai-di, grounded). In a time when the invocation of the earth and its connections to the local are becoming commonplace in social struggles, Kao points out that 'groundedness' affords a class-oriented perspective and outlook that proclamations of 'indigeneity' might obscure.

Conclusion: Breaking Out Of The Cordons

To conclude, I would like to point out, once more, that community art needs to entrench itself in terra firma, or it becomes something futile. The sustainability of Wooferten has, after all, always been menaced by the fact that the government has always regarded our space in Shanghai Street as being a confined and bounded 'protest area'. 

A lot of people have asked if the ADC withdrew funding from Wooferten because of political reasons. Here, I think I can offer some help. From what I know, the ADC was of the belief that 4 years was more than enough as far as the lease of Wooferten was concerned, and that other art groups should be given a chance to use the space. This seems like a purely bureaucratic decision on matters of policy and the fairness fo this policy, but policy cannot be abstracted from concrete circumstances. If community art cannot be given space to bloom and endure, what is the point of it all? Shouldn't we adopt a different conception of time when it comes to community art endeavors, instead of applying a standard metric of duration?

This space on Shanghai Street has always existed in a sort of state of exception- inside, anything is permitted, every form of dispute and protest can be articulated. This is because it is purely ephemeral, subsisting on resources that can be cut off when the government sees fit, cutting the sustenance necessary for this dissent to consolidate into something that persists and grows. Now that funding for community art projects is being thrown about all over the place by private and public organizations, we have to wonder whether this whole racket is about manufacturing mirages. The question now is how Wooferten can survive all of this, while breaking out of the confines in which it was circumscribed before. To rely on government funding without interrogating the production of knowledge and culture in which one participates, without creating avenues of escape, is a certain way to condemn one's activity to future oblivion. 

One can struggle in many ways, and on many different fronts. Whatever it is that we are doing, however, the best intentions can sometimes lead to catastrophic, unintended results. Often, as Lo B tells us in the essay he has written for this book, we unwittingly become co-conspirators of capital. This is why we should probably relinquish asking what an artist can do in the neighborhood. Rather, we have to ask us what we can build, and whether this can endure. What is it that we struggle against? What do we learn from these struggles? What do they make us think? Are we on the path towards equality, freedom, trust and peace? Without these guiding principles, art is damned to irrelevance, at the mercy of fluctations of fashion. This is the quandary that we find ourselves in the present- everywhere we find the allurements that cosmopolitan Empire offers us for our participation, whereas on the opposing end we find the dead end of identitarian claims, proclamations of indigeneity and nationhood. How do we go beyond this outworn dichotomy? 

Translated by Nin CHAN

This article is originally published on Woofer Ten’s AAiR II: CommunityArtActivism, on June 2016