Susanna Chung and Samantha Kwok discuss bringing contemporary art into classrooms and caring for teachers with Zoom fatigue.
AAA’s Learning & Participation (L&P) team, led by Susanna Chung and Samantha Kwok, has been shaping art and education in Hong Kong by offering programmes and online resources for teachers' professional development. They've more recently launched a series of Artist Exercises—the first batch is themed "Learning at Home," and invites local and international artists to design a range of educational activities students can carry out at home during school suspension. The following conversation was conducted by AAA's Public Programmes Lead Özge Ersoy.
Özge Ersoy: In our Life Lessons series, we invite artists to speak about their learning and teaching experiences, and with the pandemic we’re pushed to reimagine learning, community, and care. In each session, we ask the artists to talk about a class or an early educational encounter that transformed their work and their teaching. I thought it’d be interesting to begin by posing these questions to both of you, since you’ve been developing AAA’s work with teachers for a number of years. What was the most influential lesson you learned in school? And how has it changed the way you have been shaping L&P?
Susanna Chung: I went to secondary school and university in the late 1990s to early 2000s in Hong Kong. During that time, there were few opportunities for students to be exposed to contemporary art. Teachers rarely brought students to visit museums or galleries. The art education I received was Western-centric, and it only got as far as Modernism. But I was lucky to have Ms Yeung Sau Ying as an artist and art teacher, who was innovative in our classrooms. She arranged styrofoam cubes for us to experience sculpting. We saw an exhibition and met an artist together. It had a significant impact on me.
When I started working at AAA in 2005, we were, at the time, the first stop for research for many scholars, curators, and art practitioners working on contemporary art from Asia. I organised public talks with them. I saw that art was a reflection of our current time and place, and a powerful tool for education and learning.
Samantha Kwok: I majored in comparative literature at university. I had no formal training in fine art or art history, but my education allowed me to appreciate art—not just the artwork itself but its context, its connection with the social and cultural background of its production.
In my freshman year, Chan Ka Seung’s A-1 Headline was a required text in a course taught by Dr Esther Cheung. The film is about the complex nature of reality and the inability of an individual to ever fully comprehend the truth. However, Dr Cheung stressed that while we have to acknowledge how everything is a narrative and it is difficult (if not impossible) to reach the “ultimate truth,” one has to be alert to becoming indecisive or rendered immobile by this knowledge. What makes it count is that we have to make our own judgment and take action at the end of the day. I think this belief still serves as my best guidance today.
ÖE: L&P started in 2009, around the time of the visual art curriculum reform in Hong Kong. The L&P team has worked with different formats, methodologies, users, and urgencies over time. For instance, we had educational programmes for high school and university students for a number of years, and more recently, we have been focusing on teachers—mostly secondary school teachers—rather than students, which was a strategic decision on AAA’s side. How have these changes come about?
SC: Before the 2009 visual art curriculum, art classes for secondary school students only involved making art. Following the change, students were required to develop four artworks and a research workbook during their three-year study. They studied artists and developed their own perspective through their artworks and writings. For the public examination, they presented their idea through an artwork, and compared and contrasted art across different time periods and cultures for a written assessment. Students have to develop a wide perspective of art across time and geographies, and in order to facilitate this type of learning, teachers have to acquire knowledge in contemporary art appreciation. We wanted to respond to the practical and immediate needs of teachers. When we started, none of the Hong Kong museums or independent arts organisations provided these educational programmes.
For the first few years, our programmes were aimed at young people aged fifteen to twenty-five. From 2012 onward, we have organised more educators’ programmes. I still miss the times when I could directly facilitate students’ learning. At that age, you can inspire and change a young person’s perspective on life, which is very rewarding. However, it takes time and effort to make an impact on young people and it’s not possible in the short term, especially when you have a small team of one or two people.
In 2017, with new contemporary art organisations entering the scene with bigger teams and resources, AAA went through a restructure and made a strategic decision to focus on L&P’s service teachers. The main idea was to focus our energy and resources to closely work with teachers, which could impact more students.
ÖE: Exhibitions are often the most visible public output of arts organisations. AAA is a different beast as our library and archival collections are the centre of the organisation, and we do programmes and publishing around them. The educational resources we offer are also different from exhibition-driven arts organisations. I want to ask you about the models you have been looking at to develop L&P. What were the lessons you learned about what worked and didn’t work so well?
SK: AAA’s school tours have been quite popular among both secondary schools and university classes. We offer a sustainable platform of resources that supports research and learning, instead of tours around a one-off exhibition or programme. More importantly, for each tour, we discuss with teachers to customise sessions that suit the learning goals of their classes.
In my three years working at AAA, my favourite tour was a collaboration with Florie Tse of Jockey Club Ti-I College last year, when class outings were not possible because of the pandemic. In the online workshop, we discussed how to ask questions and think of research as a way of learning, as well as set a framework for conducting the research projects. One student wanted to investigate parent-child relationships, and interviewed young people her age as well as parents around issues such as parenting styles, communication, and freedom. She also did a role-playing exercise with her peers in order to see things from different perspectives. This process pushed her to think about this topic in a more in-depth manner, before transforming her discoveries into creative works. After all, we want to not only introduce books and archival materials to students, but also explore how contemporary art is a way of reflecting on the world we are currently living in.
SC: At the early stage of L&P development, a teacher suggested that we should focus on providing knowledge of contemporary art to teachers, and teachers could in turn incorporate that knowledge into their teaching. That inspired us to form a teaching community, where teachers would share ideas they learned from us with other teachers. They were initially learners, but became our collaborators along the way. We call this approach “by teachers, for teachers.” A group of core teachers even formed a sounding board to provide continued feedback to our programmes.
ÖE: At AAA, we often ask ourselves how we can work overlooked or less visible histories into our collections and programmes. For instance, in 2019, we organised a series of programmes around performance art, as the ephemeral quality of this medium is crucial to understand in Asia—many artists have used performance art as a means to respond to urgent political issues, especially in the context of censorship. I remember our conversations back then, when you said some teachers found it challenging to teach performance art to their students. What did you do to circumvent this and what insights have you gained from teachers through the workshops around teaching performance art?
SK: At first, teachers felt that it was impossible to teach performance art. They saw performance art as highly political and radical, which could pose problems in the formal school setting. After attending our talks and workshops on the topic, some teachers took the initiative to introduce performance art in their schools. One of our core teachers, Carmen Kwok, introduced materials from the Lee Wen Archive to her classes, and led S.4 and S.5 students to carry out a performative act. For one whole day, students had classes in a setting redesigned by themselves to express their feelings and thoughts about learning. We worked with Carmen to develop a lesson plan to share with other educators afterwards. Another teacher, Peggy Kwan, took a more personal approach and introduced performance art to a student who has been struggling with gender identity, and encouraged him to use his own body as a medium.
SC: Art taught in the classroom is often Western-centric. AAA introduced recent art histories in Asia to help enrich the way we teach art. Most teachers, for example, were already familiar with the performance artist Marina Abramović, especially her work The Artist is Present. By introducing the works of Lee Wen through our collection, teachers learned about performance art in Singapore and Southeast Asia, and themes around identity and the environment, which are topics still relevant to students today. When we manage to capture the interest of teachers, they bring that into their classes, and explore other artists in the region as well. We developed the programme Teaching Labs around these principles. We encourage teachers to develop a spirit of experimentation in researching and exploring topics, and hopefully they’re able to extend this spirit to their students.
ÖE: Through L&P programmes, we ask, what is the role of art in twenty-first-century education? Can you tell us about how you speak about this massive question with the artist-educators you work with? What are some of the answers/thoughts that resonate with you?
SC: Art offers space and flexibility for teachers to explore skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, information literacy, media literacy, and technology literacy through diverse topics and mediums. In the past, the main role of teachers was to transmit knowledge to students. Nowadays, there is no “hard knowledge” that students cannot access through the internet. Teachers instead become facilitators, guiding students to learn how to learn. AAA is a site for research and a resource centre, and enquiry-based learning is key to twenty-first-century education. We support teachers to become facilitators through hands-on research workshops at the archive, which in turn helps senior secondary school and university students in developing their creative research skills and manifesting their schoolwork, be it artwork or writing.
ÖE: In Life Lessons, we explore how our understanding of community, care, and learning change when we shift to learning online and endure “Zoom fatigue.” What are the insights you have learned from teachers in the last year? How have these changed the way you work with and support teachers?
SK: Earlier last year, when schools in Hong Kong suspended face-to-face teaching due to the pandemic, we asked our core teachers how AAA could support them during this time. Most teachers reflected that there was a lack of online resources for visual arts. We then came up with the Artist Exercises: Learning at Home series, in which we collaborated with local and overseas artists to design educational activities that teachers can help students carry out at home. When teachers and students had to start the new school year in September with online teaching, we organised our first ever online Teaching Labs workshop. It used the educational activities in Learning at Home to offer ideas for teachers, and address challenges they have been facing in the virtual classroom.
In the workshop, teacher Peggy Kwan said she adapted Artist Exercises according to the needs of her students. She observed that due to the pandemic, some students experienced a lot of stress and negative emotions. Unlike in-person classes, teachers were not able to give immediate support, and students were less likely to open up in the virtual setting. That was why she dedicated lessons originally intended for school-based assessments to activities that engaged students in the discussion around human relationships and social distancing. She also encouraged students to use art to channel their feelings. This is a good example of how we can bring potentially difficult conversations into the classroom through art. And we also invited Peggy to share her experience through the sharing of a lesson plan.
SC: Shifting our programmes online has broadened our reach of communities and opened up new possibilities, with audiences beyond Hong Kong joining the programmes. One of our Teaching Labs programmes was attended by teachers in Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, and Singapore. We didn’t expect to develop these close collaborative relationships with like-minded organisations in the region during a pandemic.
We have worked with The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) to address issues faced by educators in India and Hong Kong, including learning at home, online teaching, and the emotional wellbeing of students. By working with Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore on our programme about the Lee Wen Archive and performance art, we were able to invite Singapore-based artists Priyageetha Dia and Kai Lam to conduct online workshops for teachers in both cities. Many of our practices in Teaching Labs were adopted and shared with educators in Nepal through the collaboration with Siddhartha Arts Foundation on Mobile Library: Nepal.
It has been encouraging to see the regional community address challenges in contemporary art education together. We hope to continue expanding these networks of knowledge sharing and collaboration. In the past, we did exchanges by making a trip to a city, and then organising a roundtable discussion with practitioners in the region. That served the purpose of cultural exchange, but it was not as sustainable as doing it online.
Artist-educators and arts organisations are increasingly interested in addressing the role of art in education nowadays. As we continue to work with teachers, we hope to strengthen our network with local practitioners in the field, and to become a platform of knowledge exchange, developmental support, and peer-learning for and with artist-educators in Hong Kong.
Susanna Chung is AAA’s Programmes Manager and Head of Learning & Participation, Samantha Kwok is AAA’s former Learning & Participation Coordinator (Jan 2017–Feb 2021), and Özge Ersoy is AAA’s Public Programmes Lead.