Phoebe Wong, independent researcher and art writer based in Hong Kong, and Özge Ersoy, AAA Public Programmes Lead, speak to each other about artworks, museums, rivers, and distributed ownership
This conversation is part of Who Owns It?, a series that considers users as active participants with the agency to change institutions. How do people build a sense of ownership or community around a common aspiration? What unites a seed collector and museum curator, or a refugee camp and an impermanent shrine? AAA asks artists, architects, farmers, and scholars to reflect on users that produce, collect, build, and destroy.
Özge Ersoy: AAA hosted the public talk Uncommon River by architect and researcher Merve Bedir in late September 2017. Merve's talk was about the Maritsa River in the Balkans and it started with two open-ended questions: Does a river have memory? And who is the owner of a river? I’m curious about how we can discuss ownership models in the visual arts after these questions.
Merve’s research looks at how the knowledge about the Maritsa River has been largely lost or displaced since the mid-nineteenth century. It explores several ruptures that influenced the way people use and associate with the Maritsa River, especially in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Merve says that the river became a “non-place” after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when it was set to constitute part of the official border between Bulgaria-Greece and Greece-Turkey; the river became the border of Fortress Europe when Bulgaria entered the European Union ten years ago. In the meantime, several major floods drowned hundreds of people and destroyed homes, which only furthered the perception of perennial crisis and trauma around the river. Once a popular site for public baths, picnics, and agriculture, the river and the river side have become synonymous with danger: The Maritsa has lost its people, and vice versa.
As part of her curatorial work for the ONE Architecture Festival in Plovdiv, Merve, along with a team, facilitated the creation of a temporary library that documented the living knowledge around the river—how the Greeks worshipped Ardeskos, the river god of Maritsa; how Armenian picnics were famous for food; how Bulgarian orthodox, Turkish, and Romani rituals were related to the running water; and how elderly people collected and used medicinal herbs that grew around the river. The library was submitted to the foundation of the festival and its future depends on the desire of the participants and the foundation to continue with it. The work was an ephemeral gesture or rather a proposition with a potentially short time-life, if you will. I wonder how thinking about this type of temporary gesture around a set of living knowledge can help us to think about what we own as an archive, and what we find valuable enough to pass on.
Phoebe Wong: Bedir’s Maritsa River project reminds me of two art projects related to rivers: Samson Young's Liquid Borders (2012–14) and Plum Tree Stream Project (樹梅坑溪環境藝術行動) (2009–10) led by artist Wu Mali in Taiwan.
In view of the disappearance of the border between China and Hong Kong in years to come, artist Samson Young felt the urgency to document the border through soundscape, which he calls “the audio divide.” He seems eager to archive and monumentalise the to-be-disappeared “divide.” Young's Liquid Borders is “a body of recordings that are comprised mainly of vibrating fence wires captured by contact microphones, and running water from the Shenzhen River gathered by hydrophones.” Young did the recordings on the Hong Kong side—the restricted zones that required a permit to enter. Worthy of mention is: different from the English one, the Chinese title of the project literally means violent borders.
Using water as the metaphor and linkage, the Plum Tree Stream Project is a socially engaged art project to revitalise a heavily polluted creek, and its neighbourhood and community in Taipei. It was a year-long project with various components such as the monthly breakfast gatherings, hiking trips, and environmental studies of the stream, school projects, community theatres, and the like to engage a multitude of participants, to include residents, farmers, students, and the community stakeholders. The strength of this project lies in its tremendous efforts to look for means for people to make connections with the creek, and among themselves.
ÖE: What intrigues me is how both of these projects play with the sense of ownership: Samson Young uses sound to abstract a border zone, looking for ways to transform a non-man’s land, and Wu Mali creates a community around the river, asking how people engage with, settle in, and grow a sense of ownership of their environment. This is a term I try to think around art institutions as well. When do we use the word “public” next to a museum, an institution, or a library: When they are given public funds? When they are publicly accessible? When we feel like they are transparent about their decisions? Or when people outside the institution feel like they can participate in building the institution?
For me, the sense of publicness is very much related to the sense of ownership or belonging. By ownership I mean usership and participation, so it’s not a fixed state or status given to a museum or an archive. There are some arts organisations and archives that I feel close to and I feel like I belong to a community around a common aspiration or imagination, and the archive/collection/museum becomes a centre of gravity around these feelings.
PW: You know what, a work partner of mine, Siu King Chung, we call him King (King and I belong to the same collective), who teaches design at the PolyU, shares the same broad sense of ownership of yours. His thumb of rule to engage people, be they in projects or in organisations, is through encouragement of taking up ownership. I would call it a “distributed ownership.”
You also brought up the idea of usership in view of ownership, it reminds me of art theorist Stephen Wright’s efforts to turn around the deeply grained user-owner dynamics through repurposing the existent conceptual lexicons. In his thought-provoking book Toward a Lexicon of Usership (2014), Wright proclaims the “retirement” of certain concepts, including expert culture, spectatorship, and ownership (Wright, 2014).
In Hong Kong everyday life, we more often encounter the orthodox type of ownership, as seen in the propensity and preoccupation to own an apartment, or a house, vis-a-vis to rent one. Renting as a less desirable option has certainly a lot to do with the high land price and thus high property price. On a similar note, I recalled in the design world in the 1990s, there was the advocacy of a renting culture from furniture to household appliances, but that never appealed to the consumers in Hong Kong. In this light, I reckon a missing link between this Hong Kong ethos and the recent emergence of the “sharing economy” made popular by the networked culture.
ÖE: How do you, as a practitioner based in Hong Kong, negotiate with the term “publicness” in and around art organisations here?
PW: In a Hong Kong context, generally speaking, as people would say, the city has no square or plaza, so, we don't have a strong civic sense about public spaces. Or, we have overly regulated parks, public spaces, and even school campuses (I have no idea if a university campus is a public space, or otherwise). An artist friend of mine works at a university. He is a smoker. So, whenever he needs a cigarette fix, he needs to go right outside of the campus entrance, then smokes on a narrow strip of pavement that is not yet the open air bus terminus, as both premises are smoking prohibiting areas. To me, this is somehow a vivid analogy for the threshold of publicness in Hong Kong, both physically and conceptually.
Or, we have shopping malls that take public spaces for private use, unlawfully. The abusive case of Times Square (revealed in 2008) was an utterly telling example.
Looking at the cultural context in Hong Kong, it is during the appearance of M+ that we began to pick up the notion of a public art institution. It is because the majority of our museums in Hong Kong are government museums, we tend to see them as “official” or “authoritative” rather than “public.” As a matter of fact, one of the early controversies of the West Kowloon Cultural District, back in early 2000s, was the proposal of a PPP model (private-public-partnership), which is unprecedented in Hong Kong.
Infrastructure-wise speaking, in the past decade or two, we have witnessed the development of a richer palette in terms of operations with different degrees of publicness, ranging from the government, public (e.g. M+, HKADC, JCCAC, CPSC), NPO (spaces, foundations), private-quasi-NPO (e.g. K11, Osage Foundation, Mill-6—admittedly, it is a tricky genre), to the private (commercial galleries, self-funded spaces). In a way, that is an interesting development. A note: privately funded spaces Spring Workshop (2011–17) and Things that can happen (2014–17) both started off with a time frame set, five years and three years, to run an art organisation, respectively. This model of institution as project deserves a close study.
Honestly, we do not have a strong culture of transparency though accountability counts, be it in public or private sectors. However, the collaboration between HKADC and M+ to organise the Hong Kong participation in the Venice Biennale (for the past three iterations)—the artist selection exercise used to be through an open call, this change of procedures without any consultation—have worked against the grain of openness and publicness. Apart from the fact that they are promoting their brand of meritocracy (professionalism and grooming top-notch talent) is superior to the meritocracy of the field in general, they have taken us back to the high concentration of resources scenario. To follow your line of thought on ownership, I would say they disband our ownership.
ÖE: For me, the sense of publicness is not necessarily related to how the organisation is defined legally and how it is funded. I’m more curious about when and how users grow a sense of ownership/participation for any institution. This is perhaps because I worked in cities where most of the contemporary art institutions that are founded, run, and supported by private individuals, banks, or holding companies.
Let me give an example. In early 2013, a private university museum in Istanbul auctioned off one third of its modern and contemporary art collection to create funds for their classrooms as they claimed. At first, the auction company’s website didn’t provide any information about where these works were coming from. An independent group of individuals got together after they realised, with the help of their publications, that these works were part of the museum collection. This group started an online petition against the sales of these works and organised meetings to discuss why the works on sale had to stay in the public realm and what would happen if the collection simply dissolved.
In the meantime, we learnt that the university had the approval from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for the sales as these works were not legally considered as cultural heritage. After this, the group restated its disposition: The museum had an ethical—not necessarily a legal—responsibility of being a better custodian for the artworks in its collection. The following month, around sixty artworks (except the donated works that were withdrawn from the sales following the public debate) were sold at the auction for US$7 million, the former gallery space was turned into classrooms, and the university representatives championed the sales as a rescue plan as they said they couldn't even provide a good storage for the artworks in question.
Many people interpreted the auction sale as a failure for the art scene and lamented the lack of “trustworthy public museums” in the country. But some people argued that this was the moment when the museum became public. This wasn’t about the museum being held accountable, it was rather about the users making demands from this institution—it was related to a sense of ownership we had towards these works. But you can call me naive if you’d like. After all, all the works went back to private homes.
PW: True, the care expressed by the museum users matters. We sometimes overlook the fluidity of publicness that you mentioned. In his article “Cruel Form” that discusses the recent controversies over Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and the duo Peng Yu and Sun Yuan’s video Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other shown in two US museums respectively, art critic Matt Turner points out how the public voices of dissent as an agency to foreground the fact of an artwork as a public act.
All in all, the dynamics of the public and the private are getting more and more intricate. Recently, I had a small revelation on this matter. I am struck by a couple of dance scenes in the public spaces as featured in artist anothermountainman's documentary, Dance Goes On (2017). Mui Cheuk-yin, one of the three characters presented in the film, dances in the cityscapes, for instances, in the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai and in an outdoors wet market in Central, to render her relationship with a place she calls home. Yet, to my surprise (only me feeling surprised?), her dances draw no curiosity or interest of the people in the playground or in the market! People simply pay no attention to her. I don't know, but somehow, when I am pondering what this indifference suggests, I quickly come to reckon that, perhaps, is it due to the absence of a camera in situ (anothermountainman takes the shots from afar, more or less like using a hidden camera)? It seems to me, in the age of post-Internet, post-social-media, and post-smartphones, that is, "the real world is full of cameras; the virtual world is full of images", it is the camera’s gaze that defines a new realm of publicness? A public space seems to be more situational than we may think?
ÖE: It’s curious to think about these questions with the “vocabulary of hospitality” as Merve puts it in her talk. For me, the host/guest divide immediately implies property or ownership. When I invite you to my home for dinner there is a usually a clear distinction between us, about our duties that evening. For passers-by, the dancer in anothermountainman’s film is simply a temporary guest in the playground or the wet market, although one could claim she claims a sense of ownership as she transforms the experience of these places. Another example I’m thinking of is from Turkey, where the state uses the word “guest” for refugees, as if they are there only for a limited period of time, with no agency to transform the places where they live. This is a question we can think around art organisations, collections, and archives as well—about how we think about these roles when we share what is privately owned with a larger public. What are the limitations of hospitality? Is it possible to have multiple hosts? Giving public access to collections or archives is a starting point for sure, but is it really enough?
PW: I came across this video at documenta 14 this past summer, 33 Situations (2015) by Czech/Slovak artist Anča Daučíková. (Perhaps, it is worthy of note that in 1980s, Daučíková followed her lover to her country, the then called Soviet Union, where according to its government, homosexuality did not exist. She lived in Moscow as a guest for over thirty years.) The video work relates the absurdity of living in the communist Soviet Union back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and a great deal of the problems and traumas were from living in communal housing under the communist setup. There was this tug of war between the publicness and the privacy. Perhaps, a communal setup is the very blurring of the host and the guest. This leads me to think, the archive, by default, is indeed communal in temporal terms as it is a convergence of the past, the now, and the future. The more you think about archives, the more you can see a sense of publicness. With these understandings, we may find common ground to imagine commons.