Nothing is more daunting for a curator than critical analysis of projects past. Aside from the common professional difficulty of revisiting one’s accomplishments—something not restricted to curators—our profession’s parameters and vocabulary are crafted in such a way that innumerable specters are embedded at the onset of every proposition. This open-endedness and the neurotic ambitions that accompany it set the bar high enough to make almost every retrospective assessment disappointing. At best, it is an exercise in melancholy. Such is the case, for instance, with the second project that Venus Lau and I brought to fruition in April 2012 at Para/Site, entitled rites, thoughts, notes, sparks, swings, strikes. a hong kong spring. It was intended to be a pause in the institutional unfolding of discernible programming, and a space for reflection on what we are doing. What weight and implications do the things we do have in the institutional context of Para/Site (moreover, what exactly is this context?), in the city of Hong Kong, and in the grander scheme of the world?
Rites, thoughts, notes, sparks, swings, strikes. a hong kong spring was defined as a one-month long restless exhibition, predicated on the association of items of different physical quality and temporality. Artworks and poems were installed at Para/Site, and were combined with talks, performances, screenings and curatorial episodes by artists. They were presented in different sessions, held in different venues in Hong Kong, throughout the duration of the project. Contributors included professionals from all different fields, disciplines, and geographies. The nature of their involvement was heterogeneous, within a deliberately provocative framework: a “Hong Kong Spring”. We were acutely aware of the radical political specter that the word once again resurrected (complicated as it was by the unity and univocality of spring as a semantic and physical object, coming back every year with commencement and promise). The surrounding streams of tension in both Hong Kong and mainland China (which only intensified in the months after the event) entertained a sense of unease and unspoken hope. We filtered these moods through a reading of Ackbar Abbas’s analysis in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, in which he describes the Hong Kong phenomenon of mourning for the loss of things that still exist; a summoning of the ghost of collective history in the midst of its own miscarriage. In his opinion, mourning the ghosts of a spectral history—a history yet to come—is a defining state in Hong Kong. We tried to play this up, both in order to look at the art system in the city, and in order to interrogate the possibilities it offers for our own work.
Looking at the project retrospectively, I will leave aside the forensic comparison of our original intent and its outcomes, so as to develop upon a few questions sparked at the intersection of our initial ideas, and some lingering thoughts.
First and foremost, do we hold a fetishistic attitude toward the forms of our practice, and more precisely, does our work manifest a constant desire to dismiss existing forms? Indeed, our project followed neither the established structure of an exhibition, nor the conventions of delivering art works and discursive items to audiences. In this organism of unstable form, the participant’s involvement and nomenclature were also not in line with the usual roles expected of our practice. Nevertheless, this de-structuring was not the result of an a priori disengagement with such forms, but rather, a method of confronting every object that is constitutional to our profession, and the relations at work between them.
Looking at contemporary curatorial practices (and I am afraid that our project did more to feed into this logic than to effectively critique it), reveals a self-righteous disbelief in both the specific means and language of art and exhibition-making. Added to this is a fetishistic approach to theory and politics, which are rather sterile developments in these times when the intellectual and the political relevance of art is most under question. From large scale exhibitions based on nihilistic mantras that deny the very possibility of the art system to others that decompose exhibitions by staging them according to the logic of strolls in a park, curators have become uncertain of every tool at their disposal, starting with the very name of their profession, renaming themselves with various questionable synonyms. This looming sense of crisis in the vocabulary specific to exhibition- making feeds into the logic of the wider system—a system that constantly proclaims a crisis. In the same way, the elusiveness, disembodiment and ungraspable nature of many current curatorial projects (a critique that does not exclude our own) seem to be better serving the system’s need for flexibility and unaccountability.
In spite of being a central issue in the thinking about art today, the curator’s need to constitute his or her own autonomous space of production, away from the principles of production in the capitalist system, operates as if the very economic system that one opposes would still be organized along Fordist lines of production, and would not have employed disembodiment and flexibility as its main ethos.
Secondly, when questioning the nature of our global encounters, what roles, hierarchies and translation issues are still at play? The most visible and perhaps the most successful component of rites, thoughts, notes, sparks, swings, strikes. a hong kong spring was the staging of encounters between a number of practitioners of our field, people who each came from various contexts with different experiences of participation in the contemporary art system. In order to fully approach this question, however, I would like to go back to the beginnings of Para/Site and to another time in the history of contemporary art. Para/Site was founded as an artist-run space in early 1996. It emerged in circumstances specific to Hong Kong, such as the lack of contemporary art institutions in the city at the time (a fact that was made even more obvious by the earlier opening of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, a museum that lacked satisfactory contemporary art programming) and, in a more diffused but perhaps more catalyzing way, the impending handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, on July 1st, 1997. In that time of great uncertainty, a sense of heightened political awareness and a need for self-organization emerged in the city’s public sphere.
Historical specificity aside, however, the institution was in many ways also a symptom of a global phenomenon specific to the era. The middle of the nineties witnessed an accelerated expansion of the system of contemporary art throughout the world. Following the great trade routes of the globalized era, contemporary art set shop throughout the emerging world, reproducing institutions, practices and vocabularies.
The lack of contemporary art institutions started to be recognized and named for the first time as such, in many different parts of the world, not just by the founders of Para/Site in Hong Kong. This happened as the places began to be regarded as part of the same realms as the regions in which the contemporary art system first emerged; bundled together by great economic forces. This “resetting of the clocks” in the art scenes around the world and the abrupt synchronicity that the highly unified system and common language of contemporary art had brought about in the early nineties has nonetheless been imperfect, leaving some strains only partially connected and some narratives still un-translated in the different genealogies and the vastly different realities of production that were amalgamated. The methods of implementing the system relied on different agents—from biennials to residency programs, from newly established magazines to artists-turned-curators (and often, later, curators-turned-gatekeepers). Yet perhaps the most available format, the one that required minimal resources and better fit the pioneering ethos of the times, was the artist-run-space.
It is important to note that the geography of expansion towards the margins did not only follow the old colonial routes of expansion, as margins within the central realms have been important pieces of this process. What occurred in Hong Kong and Singapore was analogous with what occurred in Glasgow and Scandinavia. During that phase of expansion, the anchor institutions performed an enthusiastic ambassadorial function, promoting the system within their contexts, and projecting production from their surroundings in the international field, often directly towards the centers, which still acted as filters of what was to be circulated further within the system.
Fast forward to 2012: a very different landscape emerges. The expansion has been remarkably successful. Following the fluctuations of the economy more directly than ever in the history of art, the global animal of contemporary art has indeed managed to impose a unified voice: common tools, mutually recognizable institutions, and this in spite of the remaining (and mutating) differences. The above analysis was our premise, which we accepted both as a critical description of our realities and as an aspirational project. We chose to extract ourselves from the logic of furthering the global institutional construct but also from questioning the adequacy of contemporary art as a space for approaching our reality, assuming that this internationalized field still has untapped potential for creating new forms of solidarity in addition to diving into the specificities and the un-translated blind spots that persist alongside the contemporary art nuclei in various parts of the world.
Whether or not this premise was naively ambitious (as many other previous attempts to create vehicles of internationalism were), or a strategic mistake altogether, taking us toward a dead end with yet more mistranslations and false assumptions along the way, is still a burning question for us.
Third, and finally, is our more melancholic question. Following the growing sparks and strikes that have been occurring in Hong Kong over the past months—ones that have primarily been set off by a young generation which has started to craft a new understanding of politics and self-organization that nobody would have been able to predict even at the beginning of the year—and following the language and use of spaces that are beyond the reach of art and its institutions, I cannot help but ask the question that has been in many ways our greatest fear in the past decades: is the true nature of curating a metaphorical one?