SARA WONG (left) moderating YOSHIAKI KAIHATSU (center) and members of FADs Art Space, Tokyo (right) at “Space Traffic,” 2001. Photo by Brett Jones. Courtesy Leung Chi Wo.

MICHAEL SHAOWANASAI at “Space Traffic” conference, 2001. Photo by Brett Jones. Courtesy Leung Chi Wo.

“Space Traffic” conference, 2001. Photo by Brett Jones. Courtesy Leung Chi Wo.

Building Local Networks

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
I enjoy seeing really old things—photos, clothes, buildings—as there’s sufficient distance for them to feel exotic, and a general impression that everything just looked nicer then. However, when it comes to subjects that are more personal or are very familiar, nostalgia is not so interesting. For me, the reason to look back is to see how much something has changed, not how good it was.

In 2000, when I came back to Hong Kong after a one-and-a-half-year stay in New York, I found things very quiet. Perhaps it was my version of the New York syndrome—the heady if misguided belief that you’d been in the center of the art world—or some sort of hangover from the media frenzy that surrounded the handover of Hong Kong to China. I returned to Para/Site, which I had co-founded four years earlier, mounting a couple of solo exhibitions by artists I’d met in New York, but these shows were met with indifference from the local arts community.

From then on, looking farther afield to see who might share my interests became natural. After exchanging a few emails with Brett Jones of West Space in Melbourne, with whom I had already collaborated twice at Para/Site, it became apparent that we both were eager to push things further and wider. As the “local” really amounted to an individual in a certain spot, a network connecting different “locals” would be a very basic way of making you feel that you were not alone. Thanks to the internet, we were able to communicate in a way that only bigger institutions had been able to afford ten years earlier. Our budding network was extended by friends’ referrals and by trips to various biennials and exhibitions.

I met Hank Bull of Vancouver’s Centre A and Gridthiya Gaweewong of Bangkok’s Project 304 at the Shanghai Biennale in 2000. An email discussion group grew. There was no structure or institutional framework, only a bunch of like-minded people who wanted to develop links and possibly stage a collaborative project one day. In April 2001, I met artist and curator Qiu Zhijie in Oslo for an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, and, along with Ellen Pau of the Hong Kong nonprofit Videotage, we proceeded to introduce our independent organizations to the Norwegian audience. Memory fades but you always remember the excitement of trying to communicate something that interests you. This moment of sharing prompted me to explore the possibility of doing something similar in Hong Kong, but maybe bigger, longer and hopefully deeper.

In 2001, I was still running Para/Site and reserved the December slot for a collaborative project with West Space, which evolved into a multipartner symposium involving over a dozen organizations. It was Gridthiya who provided the idea of “trafficking,” while Brett came up with the word “space,” resulting in the title “Space Traffic: Artist-Run Spaces Beyond a Local Context.” At Para/Site, there was only me and one full-time assistant, Jeff Leung, to produce the program. Claire Hsu, who was busy founding the Asia Art Archive, kindly lent a hand in raising additional funding and in logistical support, while Elaine Ng, then manager of Videotage, helped to organize the symposium. It was the only time I had to work overnight at Para/Site, alongside Jeff and Para/Site co-founder Sara Wong, finishing the translation and graphic design for the Xeroxed exhibition booklet.

“Space Traffic” kicked off with a document exhibition at Para/Site and a two-day symposium at the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre. The 22 presentations were loosely grouped into sections: “Everyday Practices/Experiences of Artist-Run Spaces,” “Cultural Exchange – Building of Networks” and “Centre versus Peripheral.” Looking back, it may not have been thoroughly thought out but the raw encounter was full of possibilities and energy. Realized on a shoestring budget, it was a truly international gathering of artists and curators who just wanted to share and reflect. It may appear to have been a modest Asian answer to the “First European Seminar for Artist-Run Spaces” (FESARS) in 1999, but it should be remembered that many small, independent, artist-run organizations in Asian cities in the late 1990s and early 2000s were responding to contemporary art developments in the region, as very few institutions were actually addressing these. The inclusion of organizations such as Hong Kong’s Videotage, Singapore’s Plastique Kinetic Worms (PKW), Bangkok’s Project 304, Taipei’s IT Park and Para/Site itself in the 2002 Gwangju Biennale, curated by Hou Hanru and Charles Esche, is testimony to this observation. This phenomenon continued for a few more years, until the explosion of art fairs and of major collectors in Asia in the late 2000s.

So what has happened to our comrades over the last 12 years? To name a few: Qiu Zhijie, artistic director of Shanghai Biennale 2012, was representing the Loft New Media Art Space back then. Sadly its spaces closed soon afterward. Vincent Leow of PKW moved from Singapore to Sharjah to teach, and PKW ended its physical presence in 2008. IT Park continues in Taipei but is now a commercial gallery. Project 304 is confined to its Facebook page, which shows archival images—founders such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul are busy pursuing their own careers. However, Project 304’s offspring, the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, remains active. In Hong Kong, long-running nonprofit Artist Commune quietly dissolved last year, while founding Videotage member Ellen Pau resumed her crucial position as artistic director there. Me? In 2007, I retired from Para/Site, which, I hope, continues to rejuvenate itself.