May Fung discusses the relationship between art and space, and her experience building art education programmes in Hong Kong.
This year, Asia Art Archive is exploring institutional and non-institutional approaches to artist-driven pedagogical models, and how they shape art histories in their respective regions. Art & Culture Outreach (ACO) is an independent bookstore in Foo Tak Building, Wan Chai, that has hosted free talks and workshops, poetry readings and photography exhibitions, and other community art education programmes for over a decade now. It also manages other spaces in the building, renting them out to artist initiatives and cultural practitioners at a nominal rent. It was founded by May Fung, a veteran art worker in Hong Kong. Before her retirement, she was Creative Education Director, Acting Principal, and Deputy School Supervisor at HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity (HKSC), the first art-only senior secondary school in Hong Kong. She speaks to Karen Cheung and Chelsea Ma from AAA's Editorial team.
Karen Cheung: Can you tell us more about your role at ACO, and how it all began?
May Fung: It began around 2002 or 2003, when the majority landlord of Foo Tak Building in Wanchai learned I was involved in the Oil Street Artist Village, and told me she wanted to convert her units for art and cultural use. We began with fourteen units, and later when the commercial tenants moved out, we took over and now have twenty units in the building. ACO was established around 2008. The idea was simple: since the most prominent obstacles faced by emerging artists are a lack of money and space, leasing them our units at a nominal rate would make the perfect solution. I invited artists I knew, who I felt would be suitable for this, and adopted a pay-what-you-can rental policy.
At first we converted most of the units into artists’ studios, though not all of them—the precursor of the now established literary magazine Fleurs des Lettres (字花), also Anthea Fan’s art magazine ArtMap, had their humble beginnings here—they later moved out to make room for newcomers who need it more. We had also housed movie clubs like Ying E Chi (影意志), which needed a place for meetings, seminars, screenings, and programmes. At that time, our residents were mostly creative entities, and we wanted to incubate these different art forms. It started from there and grew into what we are today.
KC: ACO still has an experimental art space where curators are sometimes invited to run programmes, and you also host artist residencies. What is the importance of having non-commercial art spaces in Hong Kong, and who are Foo Tak Building’s current tenants?
MF: The artists who had already made their way to the major shows wouldn’t be here in the first place. But some of our former residents have subsequently made their names in the art field—for example, Ivy Ma, one of our earliest residents, was here when she was just starting out and needed a place to paint; also, Samson Young, when he arrived, he had just finished his PhD and wanted to collaborate with other video artists to expand his creative horizon. At first our residents were almost all young, burgeoning, and unestablished; but our ecosystem has evolved. Now we are accommodating more organisational residents and less artists. We still have artists’ studios, just not as many as before.
In recent years we’re housing more organisations with a focus on independent, alternative, and community-level education. ACO has gradually shifted from a pure art to a broader cultural focus; now half of our units have been dedicated to accommodating organisations that promote cultural education, or aim at facilitating change with regards to our sociopolitical environment. We hope this place can nourish mutualism between art and culture, as well as community-level education of whatever kind and form.
Think about people who have left school and are no longer going to school—where do they receive art education? Art lovers may go to galleries or museums, to look at art themselves—this is one way of doing it—but how do they learn more ways to appreciate art? The theoretical basis for art appreciation is equally important.
KC: In 2018, Foo Tak Building hosted a day-long seminar titled 香港未來需要 (怎樣的)民間教育與文藝? [What sort of civic education and arts is needed for the future of Hong Kong?] How would you answer that question yourself? And how might ACO create an environment that’s conducive to what’s needed?
MF: One of our tenants, the House of Hong Kong Literature (香港文學館), promotes local literature and educates the public on literary appreciation. Liber Research Community (本土研究社), on the other hand, initiates a range of sociocultural and sociopolitical studies on, for example, land policies—an issue at the heart of art and cultural development. Mobile CoLearning (流動共學) hosts diverse programmes, such as book clubs, discussion panels, and even beer brewing workshops—the concept is to imagine the possibility of a self-sustaining life where everyone can produce one’s own food, beer being one of the examples.
These organisations collectively push forward creative, progressive, and multi-faceted education, with a view to meeting people’s demand for knowledge that is able to respond to the present times, the gap that our tertiary education—not to mention secondary education—fails to fill. This is especially important amidst the current political turmoil that sees a trend of sprawling control over the formal education sector, where schools are pressured to abide by boundaries set by the authorities.
I hope Foo Tak Building can be a breeding ground for thoughts and initiatives as diverse and different as possible. Of course our main focus is still on art and culture, but the idea is that it doesn’t matter what you’re promoting within our city’s landscape—whether it’s art and culture, sports or science—it’s important to keep the city vibrant, prolific, and alive. Diversity nurtures ideas. When the time comes and Hong Kongers are called upon for solutions to our problems, we will be able to respond with a myriad of voices, opinions, stances, and ideologies, and think with critical and independent minds that won’t yield to the monotony and standardisation authoritarian regimes seek to plant in society.
KC: ACO used to run a series called Art Atom, which is described as “a platform for free art education for teenagers.” ACO’s Lin On Yeung said it’s been temporarily put on hold, although he hopes to be able to pick it up again in the future. What was the motivation behind the programme? How, in your opinion, does learning about art benefit young people in Hong Kong?
MF: I was the one who came up with the Art Atom programme, for kids during the summer holiday. My target was not rich kids, but those in Tin Shui Wai, or those from schools that don’t pay much attention to arts. We teach music and visual arts; we ran for two years and it wasn’t very successful. Atom means explosion—the idea is that if there’re a lot of small atoms around the city, the kids will all explode one by one and more will be exposed to arts. It was developed as a sort of preliminary introduction to arts that would get you interested in it.
The left brain is systematic, logical; but the right side’s your imagination. Art stimulates your brain—for instance, if you are asked to make a drawing, no two drawings are the same. If I keep asking you to do this, you’d be creative and take different directions because I didn’t give you restrictions. This allows a child to explore completely without borders or limits, and it builds a good foundation. Without this foundation, the institution would make them only analytical and disciplined.
It’d be great for kids growing up to just be able to keep this childlike spirit, but the problem is that we’re actively killing it. We aren’t born to be bound by rules, but systems, norms, and habits require them to follow the mainstream, and after following we become very sensible. We all know that art should not be sensible. That’s why governments and authoritarian countries are very scared of arts and artists. Once you’re in institutions—even art schools—it suppresses your spontaneity and intuition. You learn to be formal and theoretical.
KC: Do you think students in Hong Kong these days have greater accessibility to art education, whether it’s through free events at ACO or other avenues?
MF: Traditional schools in Hong Kong are still a bit more conservative with arts education and they don’t want to invest a lot of money in it. There aren’t many schools that have visual arts as a subject. Students should be able to approach alternative arts even from a younger age. But even though Hong Kong says it needs to have creative industries and creative talent, many secondary schools won’t actively pursue an arts programming, like organising art events or screenings for the extra-curricular activities at school, or invite visual artists over to the school. So it’s progressing very slowly. Most schools aren’t brave enough to put resources into this—at the end of the day, they’re usually led by a science stream or a humanities stream. Art is a supplementary subject. Sometimes there’ll only be one or two students who take the visual arts subject for their exams.
There are also schools like Ying Wah College, which is famous for their visual arts programme—it’s because of their teachers. It really depends on the teachers, and also whether schools are proactive and innovative enough in allocating more resources to the subject—there’s still much to be done in that regard.
KC: One of ACO’s series is called I Wanna Read, which invites artists or other cultural practitioners to discuss books that influenced them, which reminds me of AAA’s Mobile Library. What was the inspiration behind I Wanna Read, and what do you think “alternative reading” could do for Hong Kongers and Hong Kong artists in this moment in time?
MF: I was initially a filmmaker and then a visual artist. I’m always quite forthright with criticising film in Hong Kong—when you look at the films overseas, there’s a level of such depth, because they consume art, they read literary books—literature is the foundation of all arts. If you’re a filmmaker who knows your literature, your film will definitely be better than someone who doesn’t read.
KC: In what ways do you think your practice as a filmmaker influenced your pedagogy?
MF: I’m more of an experimental filmmaker. I often encourage students to try new ways of doing or saying something—for instance, if you’re making art that revolves around a love story or discusses a social problem, can you talk about it in a different way?
Look at the Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, for instance—he sees a television, he’s spontaneous and innovative, so he plays around with magnetic fields and images. This becomes his video art, and he experiments with different things like synthesisers. The technology then enters the creative industry for other artists to use, in the form of special effects and so on. And that’s because there are artists like Nam June Paik—if you don’t try, how would you have a breakthrough? Art is so powerful—it’s impossible to say what one would make next.
Digital and new media art is not new to neighbouring Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore, or Taiwan. If we want our artist graduates to be up for the competition, we need to be cognizant of how far we are lagging behind. I’ve been to Seoul once, and powerful commercial corporations are investing loads in art and technology—inviting artists to collaborate with scientists and digital engineers to produce new works, which generate considerable profits when applied to commercial use. Projects of such scale can only be initiated by big corporations or the government, though I am not sure if we’ll see this happen in our city. Money and space are still two huge obstacles standing in the way of expanding contemporary art forms in Hong Kong.
But for us educators, it’s not like there’s nothing we can do. When HKSC asked me to be their consultant again recently, I immediately proposed to set up a multi-art lab. I hope initial steps like this will have a ripple effect on the long-term education of innovative art forms.
KC: Apart from being a video artist, you’ve also taught part-time at local universities and the HKSC. Can you tell us more about your role at the school?
MF: I’m lucky enough to have been involved in both the formal and informal streams of the education system. I’ve been with the HKSC for over ten years, and now I’m a consultant. I took part in the establishment and curriculum design of the school, as well as teaching in the university—government-funded institutions and, of course, important channels. I developed the curriculum in the beginning with the help of other artists and art administrators. I don’t actually teach much there. At the time what we thought was, we wanted to echo the Hong Kong trend of focusing on creative industries and the categories that fall within it—design, media, performing arts, visual arts, and so on.
The school is a very good prototype, since it’s the first secondary school dedicated to providing arts education as a formal curriculum. We are given the liberty to design novel courses and recruit local artists as tutors. In designing these courses, we hope to address the question: what new forms of art education should we provide for teenagers fifteen to eighteen years old, apart from the existing, traditional subjects such as “visual arts” and “design and technology” in the traditional mainstream curriculum?
But being adventurous in the curriculum design is not enough. With the new art education in place, we still lack the measures to make the industry sustainable. For one, I often come across young artists who struggle to secure a job, not to mention a job that pays enough to sustain a life wholly devoted to creative pursuits. If they are to become full-time artists, are they able to solely rely on artwork sales from galleries? If they want to make a breakthrough with, say, large-scale, eye-catching artworks that often appeal to the markets and international art fairs, or experiment with unprecedented, technology-heavy art forms, they’ll need to face the very practical concern of space.
KC: Space is something that keeps coming up in our conversation—either with ACO trying to fill that gap, or the challenges art students would face after they graduate. In Hong Kong, art development and land use are closely intertwined. The quest for affordable studio spaces has driven many artists to industrial buildings. What do you observe from the relationship between land hegemony and art development in Hong Kong?
MF: Art can only thrive from an abundance of space. In the past, there was no such thing as an artspace or artist village in Hong Kong. The Fotan Studios, one of the first artist studio clusters, began to take shape when some fine arts students from the nearby Chinese University moved there, as their school studios were too small. People gradually realised that space is essential for facilitating creative processes.
Since 2002, the government has placed more emphasis on developing cultural and creative industries, with a view to turn Hong Kong into a “creative city.” Our education institutions launched related programmes in response, such as the Academy of Visual Arts of Baptist University. Now our city’s art schools are producing a lot of graduates each year: almost ninety from Baptist University, around twenty from Chinese University, twenty to thirty or so from the School of Creative Media of City University, plus those from other institutions such as the Department of Cultural and Creative Arts of the Education University. Recent years have also seen a surge of art districts, such as the West Kowloon Cultural District. Apart from the government or the Arts Development Council, private real estate developers have joined the race of art and cultural investment, such as New World Development’s K11 Art Foundation. The local art scene is now more vibrant than ever with the inception of large-scale art fairs like Art Basel.
As a result, our art spaces are now teeming with artists and initiatives. JCCAC and Foo Tak Building are fully occupied, as well as various industrial buildings, like Wah Tat Industrial Centre in Kwai Hing, or those spaces in Kwai Chung, South District, Kwun Tong, Fo Tan, as many as you can name. At the moment industrial units are still relatively affordable, though rents are surging everywhere. Nonetheless, the expanding capacity in these art spaces, as well as the emergence of art-related education programmes, spur the growth of the artist population, which in turn leads to an increasing demand for space. It’s a kind of snowball effect.
KC: I’m curious, in your generation there wasn’t all of this arts education infrastructure in place, but there was still an emergence of artists. What made you decide to study and later teach art?
MF: I belonged to the 1950s–60s generation, and each decade has given birth to its own artists. If you ask me why I got into arts—my family was poor, and I didn’t study overseas. I went to see films on my own initiative and I had a really good art teacher in my secondary school years. I didn’t choose visual arts in the end as a subject, but I was very much influenced by him, and the way he taught was very special. Sometimes I just want to go to the visual arts room and chat with him, and I’d help him with some school art projects. He was the one who inspired my interest in art—this is how it is with every generation.
But in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, you had a strong sense of moral duty—you feel this strange responsibility to facilitate the development of arts because there were too few artists around doing this. We started organising events at the Arts Centre or the City Hall, or starting art initiatives like the Phoenix Cine Club. In the 1990s and 2000s there were a lot more events related to the arts; if you look at the big picture, things have improved especially on the level of numbers. It’s gotten better and better.
KC: In the past decade, Hong Kong’s suddenly become known as an “arts hub,” but much of it is still focused on the mainstream or commercial sector. Much of my own arts and cultural education came from attending events at HKU’s General Education unit in university, and it occurred to me recently that their programmes and ACO’s share similarities—the idea that there are so many more alternative lifestyles and art forms that are possible in Hong Kong than what currently exists. What is your view on how arts development in Hong Kong would change in the next couple of years? And what’s lacking in arts education at the moment that would steer it in the right direction?
MF: It’s optimistic in Hong Kong, because there are now many artists. One of the possible career paths for them is to teach at secondary schools, and they put the money they earned from teaching back into their art practice. There’s also that push from the art market, more art fairs and galleries and artists being commissioned.
Some say New York has already passed its prime as an art scene, but still, decades ago, they had already passed legislation to regulate and preserve artists’ lofts, so that artists can invest their funds on their art itself, instead of their rent. Of course we’re nowhere near that. Many local artists are sharing industrial units for want of proper studio spaces, living on odd jobs to afford the skyrocketing rent, waiting for opportunities.
And that leads us back to where we were. Space is still imminently lacking, especially in Hong Kong, where people are crammed in small residential flats. It’s quite impossible to, say, carve out a corner for a makeshift studio that could accommodate large artworks or innovative experimentations. For alternative and multimedia arts requiring strong collaborative input, you’ll need a place to brew the right chemistry, to have cross-disciplinary artists putting their heads together in conceiving an idea. A space with the necessary equipment for both testing out and realising that idea.
When the artist Hung Keung came to me years ago, he said he needed a place to try out the costly equipment he bought for making digital and new media art. I let him stay for two years and he indeed churned out something new. He was very grateful—he told me that without the space, he wouldn’t be able to test the new technology with computers and special screens and so on.
For there to be good art, there has to be space—also space in the abstract sense. Meaning, the government has to direct resources and offer support to cultivate an environment that’s conducive to the development of the arts—equipment, hardware, physical space. The scene’s also more vibrant the more freedom there is, when people can say whatever they want without censorship, and artists would be able to keep doing what they do and feed themselves.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
May Fung has been creating video artwork since 1986. She has been incorporating video arts into installation and theatre works, while keeping a close eye on the development of visual and performing arts. Fung is currently the chairperson of ACO, and she has been engaged in works of independent video arts, art administration, education, and programming. She is an assessor for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and advisor to Home Affairs Bureau and Leisure & Cultural Services Department. She is also Consultant (Art Learning) at HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity.