On publishing cultures and trends, conceptualisations of “Asia,” and care and community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This interview was originally conducted in December 2020 for the publication anthology of Publishing as Method (curator Lim Kyung-yong) in ArtSonje Center, Seoul. As part of this project, around forty initiatives around Asia were interviewed about their publishing activities, including archives, artist-run spaces, collectives, publishing houses, bookshops, art book fairs, and design studios. The conversation with Özge Ersoy, AAA’s Public Programmes Lead, and Paul C. Fermin, AAA’s and IDEAS Journal’s Managing Editor, is shared below. It has been updated and revised for IDEAS Journal.
Lim Kyung-yong (LKY): It seems that the small publishing culture is now quite active in Hong Kong. So is the annual Hong Kong Art Book Fair. What is the reason for the emergence of this kind of publishing culture in Hong Kong? Many artists or curators seem to use these publications as a stage for themselves, and as this publishing culture spreads throughout Asia, cooperation projects through publishing are increasing. How does AAA diagnose this trend?
Özge Ersoy & Paul C. Fermin (ÖE & PCF): We’re just as excited about all the book fairs and small publishing and distribution platforms that have emerged in Hong Kong in the last ten years—Small Tune Press, Zine Coop, Display Distribute, and Queer Reads Library, immediately come to mind—they breathe so much life into the scene. We believe publications made by these independent publishers are sites where art history is being circulated and contested, and that their voices are critical for a fuller understanding of lived realities on the ground—narratives unable to make it past the usual gatekeepers, or that do not register in, say, more academic discourses. That’s one reason they’re part of our Library Collection.
At the same time, there’s a much longer history around art publishing in Asia that we are committed to study and share with our communities. It Begins with a Story: Artists, Writers, and Periodicals in Asia—the 2018 symposium AAA organised in collaboration with The Department of Fine Arts at The University of Hong Kong, and the second symposium presented at Focal Point in collaboration with the Sharjah Art Foundation—was inspiring on this point, as it explored the countless ways periodicals have acted as sites of exhibition, artistic experimentation, and art history making, while shaping communities around them. For instance, Anthony Leung Po-Shan presented a paper on a group of Hong Kong artists invited to write and develop works for the Hong Kong newspaper Mingpao in the early 2000s, playing a crucial role in connecting art with society and politics.
On IDEAS Journal, we also have pieces that do the work of historicising various publishing cultures. Our former AAA colleague Michelle Wong wrote about three moments of art writing circulation in Hong Kong, with one of her case studies stretching back to the 1960s. Display Distribute wrote an ambitious piece that historicised zines and independent publishing cultures in East and South East Asia, locating alternative trajectories to the usual Western-dominated narratives in the region. Artist Merve Ünsal wrote about the prominence of self-publishing practices of artists and art initiatives in Istanbul, helping us understand it as, in part, a response to the lack of public funding and institutional support, and also a symptom of the need of self-historicisation in a geography ridden with coups, ruptures, and ideological shifts—and this is important to acknowledge.
Karen Cheung reminds us that smaller publishing platforms, especially with regards to zines, have been proliferating because they’re ideally suited to responding—real-time—to ongoing events and movements, given their low costs, ease of production, the fact that they’re less beholden to gatekeepers and institutional constraints, and how in many ways they capture visceral and affective perspectives often neglected in more traditional publishing platforms. Zines come to be a “perfect representation of the spirit of camaraderie and mutual support amongst strangers at protests.” A question we’re starting to ask, so powerfully articulated by Joy James (credit to Eunsong Kim for this reference), is the extent to which acts of care and support under situations like these become stabilising functions of what she calls the “captive maternal.” An open question for which we don’t have any good answers in the context of Hong Kong.
That said, it’s important to acknowledge that practitioners in the cultural field operate under ever increasing precarity, and so whatever “emergence” or “trend” we’re seeing must also be understood as adaptations to decreasing social safety nets across the board, including for many artists and writers and freelancers lumped into that category euphemistically called “flexible labour.” Attempting to navigate the high barriers to entry—internships, gatekeepers, cultural capital, proximity to “global cities,” not to mention discrimination faced along various axis including race, class, gender—these all contribute to what Byung-Chul Han diagnoses as our “burnout society” (credit to Patrick Blanchfield for this reference). In this sense, the “cooperation projects” you’re noting, and perhaps we can also add the increased attention to “mutual aid” projects, come to be means of survival and solidarity under neoliberal precarity. While none of this is news at this point, we feel it is important to reiterate.
LKY: Within a heavily capitalised and highly developed society like Hong Kong and Singapore, a role seems to be required to produce knowledge or information and classify it. For example, we can expect various roles from Singapore for the practice of art in Southeast Asia. I wonder how AAA recognises “Asian” art, how AAA understands and conceptualises “Asia.”
ÖE & PCF: AAA gets the “Asia” question a lot—and for good reason. Lee Weng Choy even wrote an essay about it in 2004, in which he opens by wondering how often AAA deals with the “Asia” versus “Asian” distinction.
While it may seem like a hedge to say that’s an impossible question, and that any response risks a number of essentialising and reifying moves—really, one sense in which we understand “Asia” is as this endlessly constructed, contested, and contradictory space. It is imagined. It is historical and material. It is produced and reproduced.
“Asia” as a signifier has been wielded aspirationally as an organising principle for transnational solidarity or so-called “Pan-Asian” unity, while also being deployed for more nationalistic, imperial expansion. We like how David Xu Borgonjon, who we worked with on a solid IDEAS essay about the racial politics of art school recruitment, noted that “Asian” is also a fetish category. Because while Weng distinguishes “Asian” as an adjective (characterising something as “Asian” in its essence), against “Asia” as a signifier of a more “deliberately complex, contested, and constructed site,” David makes a distinction between “Asian” as “a biopolitical concept of race” versus “Asia” as “a geopolitical concept of place.” Lots of ways to frame this.
You also see “Asia” crop up in the competitive logic of “global cities” (as outlined by Saskia Sassen)—for example in the Brand Hong Kong campaign, launched by the government in 2001, where they attempted to rebrand HK itself as “Asia's World City”—this marketing/PR/branding exercise in turn becoming another site of ideological contestation for actors across the political spectrum.
But that discussion seems like a quaint, distant memory, with all the structural and material violence being unleashed, literally, everywhere right now in 2021. Stuart Hall put it so powerfully when he questioned his own discipline of cultural studies, asking “what in God’s name is the point”—given the urgency on the streets. He added that anybody taking these issues seriously as an intellectual practice “must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything.”
Your question also raises the issue of knowledge production and circulation. Elite capture and co-optation is a very real thing, something Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has written about quite persuasively. Who are these sorts of discourse ultimately for? What structures do they obscure and reproduce? How is the very discourse itself structured in advance by the subject positions of the speakers in relation to the state? Jackie Wang reminds us how market logics are often behind the compulsion to brand one’s analysis as the latest “hot take,” how you’re pushed to distinguish yourself and set yourself apart from others—as opposed to how your work builds upon and is in conversation with others—and basically how damaging this is for knowledge production.
On that point, it’s only right for us to acknowledge some people and institutions who have been influential for the two of us on the “Asia” question—especially the ways they help trouble narratives centring the nation-state or region in Asia, which in turn helps us see critical differences, entanglements, and linkages across these arbitrary demarcations. Climate change, for example, is no respecter of national borders—and groups like Feral Atlas have spoken to this point—“nature” as something that precedes and exceeds the human. At the same time, Iyko Day cautions us that certain calls to move “beyond the human” assume—and problematically so—a shared humanity that can be deconstructed in the first place, instead re-inscribing the very Eurocentric frameworks we hope to disrupt.
And then there’s also Third Text Asia and Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, or more recently the fascinating work by folks at Verge: Studies in Global Asias. Individual scholars like Chen Kuan-Hsing, more specifically his 2010 book Asia as Method, still gets a lot of traction too—even if in productive disagreement—challenging us to think of Asia as itself a site that generates theory (not simply a site for “Western speculation”), enabling certain decolonial efforts. But we'd also like to acknowledge our indebtedness to scholars like Iyko Day, Shih Shu-mei, Lisa Lowe, Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Raewyn Connell, all our AAA Researchers—the list could go on—with the main point being that we aren’t thinking in isolation, and that countless others have been thinking longer and deeper about these issues—and one challenge for us has been enquiring into what’s actually helpful for clarifying the stakes, or what’s simply a form of co-opting or re-inscripting of the status quo.
Two of AAA’s own projects on the “Asia” question include Mapping Asia in 2014, and more recently the MAHASSA project, spearheaded by our AAA Researchers led by John Tain, which brings together a diverse group of faculty and emerging scholars to investigate parallel and intersecting developments in the cultural histories of Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. We present this project in partnership with The Dhaka Art Summit and Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University, with support from the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative, and have organised several talks and panels alongside closed-door sessions. For us, one of the most generative discussions involved the politics of famine in the context of anticolonial and antiauthoritarian struggles in South Asia and North Africa, and how social realism and abstraction responded to narratives of nationalism. The hope is to better understand common and divergent trajectories in cultural histories within Asia and across regions, rather than trying to find the definitive word on what Asia might be.
One last thing we want to say about this is that we aren’t actually walking around all day thinking about abstract notions of “Asia” and the impossibility of defining it—because no one is. (Well, actually, someone out there probably is…)
LKY: AAA has worked with many institutions, not only in Asia but also around the world. As you know, more and more countries around the world are now becoming culturally, politically, and economically conservative in their own interests. We experienced globalisation and took it for granted, but domestic centralism related to the coronavirus and minority hatred is also strengthening. How is this situation affecting your activities? AAA works on an invisible global art network, but it also seems that such a network is being threatened. I wonder how AAA recognises and responds to this situation.
ÖE & PCF: First, we want to express our gratitude to you and The Book Society, who in many ways are helpful models for responding to this trend—we want to ask you this same question! How do you do it? Every time we visit Seoul, we make it a point to visit your space, and last time we were touched to see a poster on your front door in support of Hong Kong. We also want to acknowledge your generous book donations to our library over the years. Even this very project is another instance of Book Society reaching out and thinking critically with institutions across the region. How can we continue to collaborate with and support you?
But, yes, your question notes the re-emergence of nationalistic and far-right movements across the globe. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities, and there continues to be a disproportionate effect on the same, already struggling communities. According to a recent World Health Organization report, low-income countries have received just 0.2 percent of all COVID-19 shots, while wealthier nations have received more than 87 percent. Some are referring to this as vaccine apartheid, as yet another example of this moment’s necropolitics. There is so much suffering and grief right now, more than any one person is able to properly frame or comprehend—it staggers us; it exceeds us.
Given the health crisis and the conservative pressures you mentioned, we are all pushed to think about existing structures for education, community, and care. Many of our collaborators across the region are asking how to re-imagine these structures, and our ongoing online conversation series Life Lessons started in response to these questions. Some examples include Melati Suryodarmo and Ming Wong speaking about traditional performance forms in Asia that influenced their teaching practice and the types of kinships they’ve developed around their work; Suzanne Lacy and Wu Mali discussing how social practice builds on feminism and ecology; Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Zeyno Pekünlü discussing collectivity as a form and method of learning, and the role of the university as both an enabler and an obstacle in developing collective pedagogical models.
Also, over the last year, AAA has made accessible several Research Collections that look at artist-driven initiatives that take mutual support and solidarity as their core values. Womanifesto, a feminist biennial programme that was active in Thailand from 1997 to 2008, is an example we would like to highlight. This initiative started with an exhibition in the mid-nineties to make space for women artists, and has evolved into a biannual event with exhibitions, workshops, residencies, and publications, which reflected the changing strategies in contemporary feminist thinking and practices. For those interested, we would recommend the discussion “Backyards and Neighbourhoods” that brought together artists Varsha Nair and Phaptawan Suwannakudt with scholar Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, where they discussed what has changed since the mid-1990s—around the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing—when women artists and curators sought to create spaces for visibility and representation.
Two other archival collections we would like to highlight were spearheaded by a team led by Chương-Đài Hồng Võ: Manila Artist-Run Spaces Archive, featuring material on six initiatives active between the mid-eighties and the early 2000s, and Green Papaya Art Projects Archive, which comprises substantial materials on the longest active, artist-run organisation in Manila. Ringo Bunoan, who has been instrumental in the work around these archives, asks at what cost artist-run spaces in the Philippines adapt themselves to the current crisis characterised by pandemic fatigue and unfair practices in the arts field: “To be truly alternative now, artists must be part of the reckoning and reconfiguration of the structures that perpetuate divisions and inequalities that have long plagued the art scene in the country.”
As always, we keep learning from artists.
LKY: In addition to archive activities, AAA is engaged in activities such as research, publication, and exhibition. Please introduce some of them. In particular, I would appreciate it if you could explain AAA's publishing programme.
ÖE & PCF: AAA’s publishing practice started twenty years ago and has gone through many changes in form and content. At the beginning of AAA’s journey, our Co-founder and Director Claire Hsu printed 1,000 copies of the exhibition catalogue for China’s New Art: Post-1989 (1993), organised by Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong, as she received its publication rights. AAA then sold the books as part of its first fundraising project, and the sales allowed AAA to hire its first librarian and start building its database. Later, AAA produced monographs like Wu Shanzhuan Red Humour International (in collaboration with Inga Svala Thórsdóttir) (2005) and From Reality to Fantasy: The Art of Luis Chan (2006). Between 2012 and 2015, AAA published four bilingual volumes of an e-journal called Field Notes, featuring contributions by more than one hundred scholars, critics, artists, and curators. Each issue focused on a theme: from the significance of archival practices in the region, to the popular Mapping Asia project that challenged our inherited notions of bounded territories, turning instead to myth, liminal spaces, and active entanglements.
More recently, AAA shifted gears and, since the last four years, has been focusing on its online publication IDEAS Journal, which allows for a more flexible and responsive publishing schedule. IDEAS commissions essays, conversations, and also more visually driven notes, with a rigorous yet hopefully unpretentious style for people who like reading things with clear stakes—in other words, propositions and analysis over merely descriptive commentary. IDEAS is more interested in new ways of thinking, rather than simply new things to think about. It’s important for us to acknowledge Claire Hsu and Doretta Lau for bringing IDEAS into being; Janet Chan, Emily Wong, and Chelsea Ma for being fabulous and editing its Chinese language version; and Karen Cheung, without whom we would be lost, heartless, and lacking a decent soundtrack for our emotional undercurrents. All the incredible writers we’ve gotten to work with deserve recognition here, too—IDEAS literally doesn’t exist without them. Christina Yuen Zi Chung was the first writer Paul was privileged to work with when he joined, and in many ways she continues to be the gold standard and inspiration for us both. It was such a pleasure working with her that we invited her back to do a public talk on “Reimagining Feminism in Hong Kong.” Shout-out to the brilliant Christina.
We also have an AAA office in Delhi with an amazing team headed by Sneha Ragavan, where they’ve lead research projects like the Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art Writing of South Asia, gathering more than 12,000 pieces of published art writing in thirteen languages from the twentieth century. This bibliography is available online as an interactive online database. They also collaborate with foundations and sponsor research grants around art writing, artistic research, and visual culture. Currently they’re working on a three-volume set of dossiers, which bring together art writing from the region.
Finally, we’ve also been building editorial collaborations and partnerships, such as Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series that we contribute to, along with the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. This partnership has resulted in three publications so far: Artist-to-Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992–98 (2018), FESTAC ’77 (2019), and Uncooperative Contemporaries: Art Exhibitions in Shanghai in 2000 (2020)—all focusing on exhibition histories.
LKY: What are your main projects now? I wonder about future plans.
ÖE & PCF: It’s AAA’s twentieth anniversary, and for us, this is an opportunity to celebrate all the artists and educators who have contributed to AAA and its communities. There are two ongoing exhibition projects we would like to highlight. The first is Learning What Can’t Be Taught at AAA Library, which looks at the major changes in art education in China from the 1950s to the 2000s through a selection of artworks, archival materials, and interviews. The exhibition focuses on six artists from three generations who were each other’s teachers and students at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou: Jin Yide, Zheng Shengtian, Zhang Peili, Geng Jianyi, Jiang Zhuyun, and Lu Yang. With this exhibition, we’re asking whether “artistic attitude” can be taught or passed down from one generation to another. In a text for Art & Education, Anthony Yung (who has been leading this research at AAA for the last decade) and Özge mention how Zheng Shengtian, who was born in 1935, studied art in the 1950s, and experienced the political turmoil in China in the second half of the twentieth century, has continued to test the boundaries of what is suitable for teaching and learning. When we recently asked Zheng about the moment when he turned from a student to an artist, he responded with a sentence that still resonates with his students: “I am still waiting for this moment to come.”
We are also excited about the exhibition Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys, which just opened at Tai Kwun Contemporary, and features newly commissioned works that engage the archive of the late artist Ha Bik Chuen, who was a self-taught sculptor and printmaker. Ha’s personal archive covers fifty years of art in Hong Kong. Curated by Michelle Wong, this exhibition invites artists Banu Cennetoğlu, Kwan Sheung Chi, Lam Wing Sze, Raqs Media Collective, and Walid Raad to explore the potentials and the limitations of archives, as well as our sense of scale, self, and history vis-a-vis Ha’s own archive. Özge is currently working on bewitched, bewildered, bothered, Banu Cennetoğlu’s artistic contribution in the form of talks, film screenings, and a publication, which delves into the politics of posthumous archives. The publication, titled The Orpheus Double Bind, features the English translation of a text by the literary critic Nurdan Gürbilek. Interested in how the author questions their authority to give voice to the dead, Gürbilek writes: “Orpheus looks back; because he wants to transcend the threshold of death and see Eurydice in all her invisibility, to give form to her dark obscurity. This desire the writer feels, for the darkness of the other, is at once the writer’s source of inspiration and his destructive act: Orpheus loses Eurydice a second time because he wants to bring her back, wants to give form to her absence; but what makes the work possible, in all its obscurity, is this gaze that wants to give form to absence.”
Another thing we’re excited about is working with Gudskul, a collective from Jakarta, to develop programmes around self-organisation and collective learning; and also the Mobile Library: Nepal project, which offers support for community-based, collaborative initiatives and universities in Nepal—spearheaded by Susanna Chung and Samira Bose. Co-presented by Siddhartha Arts Foundation, this project is another example of how we work collaboratively with like-minded organisations in Asia to enrich reference points within Asia. Lots of things to look forward to.
Paul is especially grateful to be working on an upcoming IDEAS essay by Eunsong Kim, whose writing over the years—clarifying, poetic, transformative, and always committed—should be on syllabi everywhere. She’s also working on a book for Duke University Press called The Politics of Collecting: Property & Race in Aesthetic Formation, and recently co-launched offshoot journal. Shout-out to the mighty Eunsong Kim. Thank you so much for existing—accelerating reality—a reminder that nothing’s ever a given. Wu-Tang forever.
Özge Ersoy is AAA’s Public Programmes Lead. Paul C. Fermin is AAA’s and IDEAS Journal’s Managing Editor.
All images are courtesy of Özge Ersoy.