Email Forum on Art and Social Change, June 2011

HOU Hanru
Rasheed ARAEEN
KAO Chien-hui
Hoy Cheong WONG
Valerie DORAN

In our May newsletter, AAA published the first part of an email forum on art and social change. In an effort to continue the line of questioning, and to broaden the perspective of this forum, AAA welcomed more art practitioners, critics, and curators to the conversation, inviting them to follow up on a further series of questions. The second round of the forum began by addressing some of the points raised in the article 'Good Intentions', written by Negar Azimi in the February 2011 issue of Frieze.

In this article, Azimi points out that art often comfortably addresses sociopolitical issues at arm’s length, without really interrogating core issues. But at the same time, she does acknowledge that the power of art is its possibility to unsettle people and to present the complexities of society.

As Lee Weng Choy, Raqs Media Collective, and others pointed out in their responses on AAA’s initial email forum, art may not be the most effective means with which to confront particular issues and it often has more impact when not in direct ‘response’ to an event. Having addressed the social and political role of the artist, AAA asked:

1) Can artists and art professionals (especially those claiming to be political) seek a more proactive role in integrating art into the ‘complex society’?

2) ) Obviously, we need to renew our language to address the relationship between art and its possibility to engage/intervene in society instead of continuing to use the almost-too-convenient, if not archaic avant-garde's status quo. But, what kind of specific criticality do we need to develop to talk about art and society today?

Responses follow:


Friday, May 27 2011, response from Dr. YEUNG Yang, Founding member & Executive Director of soundpocket; Instructor I, Office of University General Education, Chinese University of Hong Kong

1. On specific criticalities around ‘art and society’

If the question of art and society is one of integration, or intervention, the assumption is there has been a separation in the first place. This separation may register difference, even opposition.

But it is absurd to think that art has ever been separated from society, if one focuses on the original purpose of society as an organized way of living together. Not all organized ways of living together were historically identified to be societies. But all human ways of living together can be called social in the Aristotelian sense of humans being social animals, that human lives can be called happy (in Greek, eudaimonia, which is not a temporary state of feeling happy, but a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and a sense of self-sufficiency, an end in itself) if human potentials are actualized in a human community: a happy life is a virtuous life. An individual’s happiness is very much to do with the happiness of other members of the community. It is in living well and doing well together, that the individual is virtuous. In this light, art making (by artists and others in the field) is always already embedded in some form of the social, as an activity that is carried out in the living presence of others.
If there has been no separation of art and society, there would have been no need for integration. In fact, one wants to be careful when introducing integration into the relation, for integration suggests deliberate policies. Are policies of integration what art needs, or rather, laws that safeguard the true (and multi-faceted) value of art as a human activity?
To lay open the parameters against which the art and society relation is posed, to prevent it from becoming a relation of inertia, societies as specific institutions that regulate in specific ways must be addressed. For instance, art wouldn’t want to be organized as packaged pleasures in leisure societies; nor would it want to be coerced into alienated labor in exploitative modes of capitalist production.
Instead of integration, I would propose that the relation between art and society is one of reconstitution, just as dry Chinese black mushrooms have to be reconstituted in water before they can be cooked. Society is complex, but its complexity isn’t what troubles art. It is when members of a particular society become confused about the principle of legitimacy that grants them the power to act (including making changes) that is the problem for art in society. The moment we stop asking why we come together in this form of society and not another in which we rely on brute force to preserve life and usurpation to preserve property, we stop being responsible for each other: we must not forget that we are responsible for each other

It’s lovely what Italo Calvino says. 'To plan a book—or an escape—the first thing to know is what to exclude.' Escapism has been regarded with negative connotations. Calvino argues otherwise: 'for a prisoner, to escape has always been a good thing, and an individual escape can be a first necessary step toward a collective escape.' ('On Fourier, III: A Utopia of Fine Dust' in The Literature Machine) As a writer, Calvino seeks to escape from the enslavement of verbal and symbolic representations of the world. What he does not explicitly say is that this escape is a moral choice, made on the principle that he has had enough, that the enslavement must end. In a similar way, though with different purposes, Jean Jacques Rousseau regarded anyone giving up her moral freedom in exchange for the tranquility of the cave inconceivable, for that tranquility is nothing but a passive wait to be devoured.

All artists make moral choices by, each and every time, engaging with the world in their own terms. Artists specialize in escapes. They are not afraid that societies are corrupt, for they continue to live a moral life. It is not bringing change to society or the imagination of its success that makes art morally valuable. It is the conviction to refuse even when no consequence is in sight that makes art morally valuable as a truly human activity.
It is therefore the human that art is always already putting back into what it does. It is not society, particularly society cast on the outside. In this light, I cannot accept the idea that the value of art is in its ‘making uncomfortable’ unless with a footnote: (I am thinking of Paul Virilio’s condemnation of pitiless art, and I am thinking of states and supremacies of power that make uncomfortable, too.) art makes uncomfortable by artistic means of each and every artist. It is our responsibility to articulate what these artistic means are, and their limits. It is our responsibility to safeguard the individuality of the individual.

2. On 'strategies'

Strategies are at their best when not noticed as such. Here are some of mine that are specific to social relations that I find myself in when making art happen:

1. Collaborate not for the sake of organizational expansion but for mutual learning;
2. Mind the difference between seeing everything as resources and being resourceful;
3. End geographies of blame; sustain geographies of honesty and truth;
4. Acknowledge sources of inspiration.

In my other trade of teaching, we share an insight from an anonymous source, ‘Lead students to a place where the only escape is to think.’ 


Sunday, 29 May 2011, response from HOU Hanru, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs and Chair of Exhibition and Museum Studies, San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco; member of AAA’s Advisory Board

My brief contribution to the conversation:

Artists dealing (critically) with politics are meaningful, but artists acting as politicians are dangerous . . .


Sunday, 29 April 2011, response from Rasheed ARAEEN, London-based conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator; Editor, Third Text, Pakistan; and member of AAA’s Advisory Board

My response to Hou Hanru is that we don’t have to deal with politics or political power either. Those who are involved in confronting this power are either naïve or are trapped in the delusion of heroic confrontation. History tells us that this confrontation has never achieved anything that can or would impact social change; it achieves only what ends up in the art galleries and museums to be looked at and admired. But beyond this there lies tremendous power of artistic imagination which is capable of reconstituting our view of the world so as to enable humanity to move forward. What is imperative today is to liberate this imagination from the system that has brought our planet earth to the brink of total disaster.  


Sunday, 29 April 2011, response from KAO Chien-hui, Chicago-based critic and independent curator; Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Interdisciplinary Art, National Normal Kaohsiung University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and member of AAA’s Advisory Board

Let me add another key issue:
As far as I know, the educational institute, Taipei Fine Art Museum continues its plans for Ai Wei Wei’s solo exhibition in the coming fall. It will be an exhibition of the work of a living artist who is unable to participate in the curatorial discussion. Hence, it could bring out new thoughts for the art society.

1. Who is going to select and interpret the artworks for the presentation? Could the curatorial team play the alternative voice for the artist?

2. Under the shadow of the incident, how do we esteem the meaning of the exhibition, a regular exhibition, or a supportive action for the artist?


Monday, 30 May 2011, response from Hoy Cheong WONG, Malaysia-based artist

I did an extensive interview with (Japan) in April 2011. It was a three part interview, and the 3rd part is on the relationship of art to politics. Perhaps this could be used. The link is:


Monday, 30 May 2011, response from Valerie DORAN, Hong Kong-based independent curator, critic and translator; and member of AAA’s Advisory Board

Dada seems like a good place to start.
They (Dadaists) were not out to improve the world according to some specific agenda, but to implode the mythology of nationalism by throwing a light on something that people were failing to notice—even as it was right there in front of them—because they (the people) were focusing on something else. To shock awake, not through a violent physical attack but by an aggressive scrambling of the rational mind: the same rational mind that allowed for an insane war.
The key value of any kind of art, politically engaged or otherwise, is its ability to help us shift our focus, to reframe, to shed a light, so that we see something new, or experience something familiar in a new way. And the part of human experience that art illuminates may well be brutal or ugly: but this is not the same as adding to the world’s brutality or ugliness. This is why I take strong issue with Negar Azimi’s championing of the work of 'engaged artists' like Santiago Sierra or Phil Collins. We all know that white men with money are able to go out to impoverished areas and pay desperate people to commit acts that they would otherwise never do. So when Sierra or Collins go out and repeat such an activity in the name of art, it sheds no new light that I can see. Rather, it runs the very big risk of deteriorating into what Rasheed Araeen describes as ‘the facile idea of the individual “freedom of expression” that merely produces the banality of media scandals and sensationalism, widening the gap further between art and life . . .’ Better the ‘refractory’ effect of a work by Chris Burden or Marina Abramović or Wu Shanzhuan, where the human states of exploitation, vulnerability, and danger are taken upon themselves, channeled through the artist’s own being.
For an artist (visual, literary, or otherwise) to engage in the political, in my view, is most of all to recognize the true state we are in, and possibly to tease out the roots of how we got here. Last November a gallery in Alsace, France showed a video by two Romanian artists documenting an action they undertook outdoors on a freezing winter day. The artists walked around a huge marsh-like area, surveying the site and constructing plotlines. They were marking out the site of an ancient monastery that had been destroyed by Nicolae Ceauşescu, where he later ordered the construction of a sports stadium built to glorify the achievements of Romanian athletes—which itself was later demolished. I can't get the image of the two artists moving slowly through the desolation, plotting the forms of absence and destruction, out of my mind.


Monday, 30 May 2011, response from Zoe BUTT, Ho Chi Minh City-based Co-Curator and Director, Sàn Art Independent Artist Space

Sàn Art’s collaboration with AAA to produce the pilot program ‘Open Edit’ involved one event where we sought to celebrate the work of Dương Nghiễm Mậu, a Vietnamese novelist renown for his experimental fiction. He was also a military journalist during the Vietnam War. An artist, art professional, historian, and literary organization decided to co-present a discussion of this author’s fictional writings at Sàn Art. The Vietnamese government was quick to threaten arrest and remove Sàn Art’s business license (the organizing body) if we were to go ahead with the event (without public notice, the government had decided to ban this writers’ publications). Sàn Art was subsequently politely but firmly made aware that our operations were under close national scrutiny. They heard our side of the story, our reasons for why we wanted to carry out this event. The important thing here is that they listened. Of course, we continue to be monitored.

Were we, as artists and art professionals, seeking a more proactive role in furthering awareness of Vietnam’s creative history? Yes. Were we claiming to be motivated by this writer’s political views in presenting his material? No. Is it possible to avoid this interpretation of politicization from a governing body fearful of encouraging a re-evaluation of its past? No. Should we, as artists and art professionals continue to seek and create our own spaces of engagement that support creative enterprise despite the power structures that seek to censor? Absolutely.

Why? We live in a world governed by images that are placed in a structure of stereotypes for the easy (read ‘lazy’) digestion of its past. Without the intelligent imagination of artists and the reflective spaces they generate, our visual world and its relevance to how we think and behave becomes a two-dimensional rationalized space of bureaucracy.

What is more insidious and dubious an issue, particularly in places like Vietnam and what I am sure exists in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia, indeed all over the world, is how to prevent the self-censorship of artistic expression. Working and living in communities such as Vietnam, who are starved of knowledge, where inspiration can be inaccessible (e.g. no libraries so no books and a past that is undecipherable as all expertise is red-taped) creates producers without lifelines. They have little recourse to respond critically to their historical relevance and are economically tied to a structure they are given little asset to innovate. This is in addition to an innate level of fear surrounding what they are permitted to speak of—censorship can be an institutionalization of control that operates from a base of ambiguity and unpredictability. Thus you can never be clear on what you can or cannot do.

Within the current landscape of Vietnam, you are considered politically motivated by an examination of how you actively process and express your reality. Put more simply, if you are seen to engage your world with deductive analysis, then you are considered a suspect tempted to throw the social fabric off balance. Valerie Doran’s reading of 'xieshi zhuyi' is particularly relevant in this context. The subjectivity of the artist is what is rendered suspicious and ultimately dangerous here. What requires greater reading is that when working within these conditions, the literality of aesthetics becomes a desired and understood stereotype—the mode of aesthetics is approved according to the dominant language technique it utilizes (advertising, sport, fashion, tourism, etc). Within this milieu, I wholeheartedly agree with Raqs Media Collective that it is imperative for the artistic and cultural sphere to find and imaginatively complicate the slippage between stereotype and subjectivity. Without this slippage, our visual landscape threatens to become an arena dominated by economic demands, which in Vietnam, is sadly lacking awareness of the crucial role the diversity of contemporary culture can play in innovating economic opportunities. Art can give cause for collective celebration; create dynamic social events that enliven the public landscape and thus the lived experience of its community. Art can provide a positive, introspective escapism, a reprieve from the mundanity of everyday life, but it is also a crucial space for message making and should be wary of operating in narcissistic love of itself, for itself.

The specific critical language we now need to talk about art and society begins by understanding the need for role models and mentors in order to understand the brilliance of cultural diversity and its myriad artistic histories, to nurture a society that chronicles a writing of its past as a methodology of inclusion, not exclusion.


Monday, 30 May 2011, response from Nora TAYLOR, Alsdorf Professor of South and Southeast Asian Art, Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and member of AAA's Advisory Board

Thank you Hou Hanru for waking us up.
Artists have always played a role in society, what that role entails has depended as much on the artist as the artist's audience. In societies where the government tries to control an artist's output, either through strict regulations on content or style, the artist has a clearly defined role in the eyes of the government but the same artist may feel worthless and powerless, unable to have a voice in his or her own society. I know from my extensive experience in Vietnam, that artists have long felt impotent, incapable of changing what they feel are unjust policies. The path to resistance was passivity and apathy or non-compliance. Still, if the government imposed rules on artists it is precisely because the government believes that art has the power to change perceptions. But, artists have not been able to access the proper audience to instill change in the public's mind. Popular culture is much more effective in reaching audiences. Most artists in Vietnam can only show their work in designated art spaces which are frequented by other artists, foreign art collectors, or a few members of the cultural elite. This does not mean that artists are incapable of addressing political issues or even criticizing their own government. Far from it. Artists use their art to speak out; the problem is who is listening. 


Monday, 30 May 2011 response from John BATTEN, Hong Kong-based writer, art critic, curator, and organiser

I have read Negar Azimi’s ‘Good Intentions’ Frieze article and could I simply add the following personal contribution:
As many Hong Kong-based people know, I had a gallery for many years between 1997–2009 (and showed some critical and politically engaged art) and have been a writer and art critic since my arrival in Hong Kong in 1992. I have been a constant critic of the Hong Kong government’s art and cultural direction since the mid-1990s—writing many articles published in the English and Chinese media and as a commentator in the press and on radio and television. I suppose I have received respect from ‘supporters’ and begrudging respect from ‘opponents’. However, I rarely think that my criticisms have actually brought great changes to improve Hong Kong’s art and cultural spheres.
(Also—as an aside and stated as an example why much political art is presented in a muted way: my criticisms certainly did not help my business nor gained an advantage in Hong Kong: I am rarely, despite great knowledge, asked to join formal boards or panels. I am, in sum, known to be out-spoken and critically honest. Decision-makers often formally shy away from people such as me who are ignored in the broad decision-making process due to our honesty. Some others might just think I/we am/are negative and rude!!!).
About 6 years ago, I began my involvement in active participation in political and social activism about Hong Kong’s worsening urban environment. It began with debates about a large reclamation of land to be formed from Hong Kong’s harbour near the Hong Kong Central Business District (termed the Tamar reclamation). A group of individuals including myself opposed these plans and in about 2005, I and some friends set up a group, the Central & Western Concern Group, which has been very active in dramatically getting better urban planning and heritage conservation on the Hong Kong political and government policy agenda.
We have succeeded in many areas: changing government policies, physically saving many heritage sites under threat of demolition, raising public attention to issues around air pollution, bad planning, overly high and densely built urban areas, etc. This has been achieved by actively protesting, intelligent use of the media to gain public support, letter and email campaigns, writing letters and making formal submissions, addressing legislators and attending the Legislative Council, meetings with key decision-makers and crucially using the law itself (making our own planning applications using planning laws in particular) to push alternative plans and ideas for areas under threat of inappropriate development.
Sometimes we have organized art and cultural events on these topics, but the fact is, as Negar Azimi’s article explores, exhibiting art on a topic that the artist is unhappy about and wishes to change is one thing, but effecting actual change requires actual engagement and strategies to bring about that change.
I wrote an ‘eloquent’ article published in Broadsheet magazine in Australia in 2006 about the changing urban environment and the government’s almost suppression of the real (polluted etc.) depiction of Hong Kong and access to historic imagery and its promotion as an ideal tourist destination to the world. I used the Tamar reclamation, in part, as an example—this article is a good example of merely presenting the problem, but effecting change required more than writing this one eloquent article. Our group has actively been politically and socially active: some battles we won and some we lost.
You might like to include the following in the AAA discussion—an extract from that Broadsheet article (referring to events in 2005).
'Tamar: A Public Service Strangulation of Ideas'

Hong Kong has seen great debate recently over a piece of prominent Harbourfront land in Hong Kong’s CBD that previously housed a colonial-era naval dock. HMS Tamar it was called. Tamar is the site for a future large new administrative centre for senior government officials. The word ‘Tamar’ will surely disappear—the site will probably become more prosaically named: like The Hong Kong Government Central Offices.
Critics of the re-development of Tamar have called for a considered and planned design for this prominent Harbourfront site because of previous instances of extremely poor urban design and have even unveiled alternative visions and models of how Hong Kong’s Harbourfront, transport links, roads and pedestrian links that were of better design and sensible, but Hong Kong’s Planning Department officials have pushed ahead with their own outdated plans and given few concessions to the enormous planned height and size of the Tamar development with its impact on noise and air pollution, traffic congestion and illogical public transport links, and the centralisation of public officials when de-centralisation is obvious.
Tamar, however, is a metaphor for a city without democracy and true universal suffrage; concrete; air pollution and clasping hand-covered mouths; grass that can’t be touched; seats that can’t be sat upon; memories of quiet-but-gone Bird Street and Cloth Street and happy outdoor markets; blocked views of The Peak and Lion Rock; jack-hammer drilling and quickly covered ears; Wan Chai wedding card printers; low-rise buildings and neighbours that we know; woeful public architecture; pathetic smog choked roadside pot plants; traffic; planning that isn’t planning; Tiger Balm Gardens and tea houses gone; streetscape ugliness; pedestrians pushed off the ground onto elevated walkways and barren podiums while cars and roads stretch their insidious control despite an excellent underground train system; more concrete; footpath clogging property developers’ salespeople pushing the latest sixty floor development that proudly block sea views and access to airflow for everyone else; a Town Planning Board that isn’t a town planning board at all because it is stacked with sycophants; art, that isn’t art but bad design; more traffic; a Harbour that has been filled and abused and blocked and fenced off from Hong Kong’s residents except for the dismal Tsim Sha Tsui concrete path that memorializes a once great film industry now in decline; historic buildings replaced by sad faux-reminders; wonderful trees cut and made shapeless and shadow less; and bureaucrats who are increasingly dogmatic about deciding what is right for all, and now have the arrogant audacity to demand—with that sort of track record—the trust of the public to get the best view in town.1
Hong Kong has a particular political structure that allows the public service to control what is presented to a gerrymandered legislature and debate about any policy issue is generally muted and confined to a narrow range of decision-makers. Tamar, however, was front-page news for months because of opposition by prominent activists and various foreign-owned business groups. In contrast, Hong Kong’s large and influential local property developers avoided being embroiled in the Tamar controversy and just quietly lobbied the majority business members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Unfortunately, the public has not yet taken urban design or, indeed, issues directly relating to lifestyle (e.g. traffic noise, road drilling, access to urban area parks, improved apartment design, long work hours, art and cultural policy) to be worthy enough to mobilize and demand change.
Tamar followed a similarly ill-conceived Hong Kong urban development and cultural plan that echoes the scale and prestige of Melbourne’s Federation Square: the unglamourously named West Kowloon Cultural District (shortened to the acronym WKCD; the sort of name that only Hong Kong public servants could seriously think up and use!). The original plan of four separate museums, concert hall, exhibition hall and a large residential and commercial district intended to fund the entire project has now been put on hold.
The debate and changes in ideas for the WKCD were controversially torturous for two years and the entire project is currently in limbo. For Hong Kong’s independent artists, writers, actors, filmmakers and cultural commentators there is a feeling of inevitability reflected in the delay to build the WKCD. Their attitude is similar to the dire circumstances of Lau San-ching, one of the founding members of Hong Kong’s April 5th Action Group, who spent ten years in Chinese jails and labour camps between 1981 to 1991 after his arrest in China for ‘counter-revolutionary crimes against socialism’ activities. Enduring torture, confinement and deprivation Lau ‘tried to maintain his sanity by concentrating his mind on the moment only: Never think back, never think of the future, for that would provoke longing. Once you did that, you were done for’.2

1. Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories of a City, Faber and Faber, 2005, p 81–96. This is a list similar to that given by Orhan Pamuk.
2. Ian Buruma, Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, Vintage Books, 2001, p 224. Lau is better known for his membership of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic and Democratic Movement in China. See:

John Batten's article was originally published in Broadsheet magazine (Adelaide, Australia), March, 2006.

Relevant content

AAA Project Space, Archiving Materials
Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections