Hong Kong’s emerging ‘Occupation Points’: Linda Lai – interview

One year after the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong is seeing a crop of new, artist-run spaces appearing throughout the city. 

Art Radar profiles the latest to appear, Linda Lai’s Floating Projects in Wong Chuk Hang, and conducts an interview with the acclaimed professor, historian and new media pioneer. 

Performance at grand gpening of Floating Projects: “Moving Moving-Image” by FP artist Bill Tam; audience weaved in to the choreographed Moving-Image towers. Image courtesy Floating Projects.

Performance at grand opening of Floating Projects: “Moving Moving-Image” by FP artist Bill Tam; audience weaved in to the choreographed Moving-Image towers. Image courtesy Floating Projects.

During the last two weekends in August, a scene played out in a converted industrial space in Wong Chuk Hang on the southern side of Hong Kong Island. Linda Lai, one of Hong Kong’s foremost intellectuals, historians and new media artists, was celebrating the launch of her new space, Floating Projects. The Cantonese name of the space means ‘Occupation Points’, and indeed part of the impulse for it was born after the Umbrella Movement of 2014.

Floating Space is a far cry from the white cube, glitzy spaces of Hong Kong’s burgeoning art scene. Here, you will find scavenged furniture, a donation-only coffee bar, a Wi-Fi reading room – filled with Lai’s collection of art catalogues – and a space refreshingly free of any commercial intention. You will find scholars and intellectuals descending here for concerts, sound performances, talks and conversations. It can perhaps be expected from a founder who is Associate Professor in Intermedia Arts at the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, whose teaching there revolves around “the criticality of micro/meta narrativity”. As a founder of the Writing Machine Collective, and a pioneer of new media art in Hong Kong, Lai can be relied upon for bringing an intellectual edge to things.

Yet this new space also speaks to an emerging development in Hong Kong. In a similar vein of the new arts space Things That Can Happen launched by Lee Kit and Chantal Wong this summer, Hong Kong is seeing a new wave of artist-run spaces opening. Art Radar speaks with Linda Lai about this trend, her new project as well as her artistic works that fuse history with storytelling, intensive research and the ‘History of Everyday’.

Linda Lai. Image courtesy the artist.

Linda Lai. Image courtesy the artist.

Linda, your new space, Floating Projects, fuses together an art production site, with a “wi-fi reading room”, a balcony/organic farm and a coffee bar. Why did you decide to embark on creating a physical space?

It’s been in my head since last November or even earlier. I’ve had a couple of personal dreams always cooking in my mind over the years – and suddenly I felt I had the mental space to put them together. One of them was my dream of running a café many years ago. I feel like coffee represents more than just the drink, but to sit and read, to hang out and chat. But recently in the past one year, it sounds like a cliché, but it has to do with the Umbrella Movement.

The movement for me was not just a moment of protest or revolt, but also a moment when so many of the hidden problems were suddenly exposed. To me, I’ve particularly felt how people who are younger than I find it more and more difficult to find space to mature, to grow or have opportunities – to become somebody who is more than just a wage earner. I think if you are in business or you are a civil servant, it’s different. But if you are in the humanities, you don’t have that kind of technical skill and you only have the mind – or if you are an artist – it is rather difficult.

On top of that, I know real human beings around me who just don’t get anywhere; students who basically gave up art making right after they graduated. For many reasons, personal reasons beyond what I can do to help – I’m not the world’s saviour! But there are concrete things like people not finding a place where they can exercise their skill and talent, or people who actually want to keep making art and yet because curators are not looking at them, they are not famous enough, they don’t get the incentive to keep making work. And part of that is that if you want to keep making work, you need space.

Wi-fi reading room at Floating Projects, viewed from art production/exhibition area. Photo courtesy Floating Projects.

Wi-fi reading room at Floating Projects, viewed from art production/exhibition area. Image courtesy Floating Projects.

It feels like there is a bit of a paradox right now in Hong Kong. On the one hand, there was the Umbrella Movement, which revealed how the people of Hong Kong are moving through such difficult times; yet there is also this creative explosion, in terms of the new growth of artist spaces appearing. What is happening?

I don’t know what’s happening. Although, I think there is a discourse that has been very clearly formed in the past two months, about the second wave or third wave of independent spaces in Hong Kong. Antony Leung just wrote an article published in Taiwan, and called us the “Independent Space 2.0”. But honestly I was not aware of what others were doing…

Yet Hong Kong can afford to do more of this. I believe in circles of acquaintances. We need more occupation points, because the name, ‘Floating Projects’ in Chinese means ‘Occupation Points.’ We need more people to occupy space, to generate activities and ideas about things around them.

Now that I know there is this discourse coming up, and not only a discourse but something with facts and events, I think we might really be moving into another phase and we can do it more deliberately. This is not to say we shouldn’t rely on government funding anymore – I think Hong Kong has greatly benefited from the ADC (Hong Kong Arts Development Council), and I’m grateful to what the ADC has done since the 1990s, but it is also a moment when those people including me who can afford not to use public money, try to come up with another way. I believe in this type of democracy or open society. I think it’s more concrete to do something and think of this as an experiment.

Floating Projects’ coffee bar for FP artists and friends, "a life-line during their artistic production". Photo courtesy Floating Projects.

Floating Projects’ coffee bar for FP artists and friends, “a life-line during their artistic production”. Image courtesy Floating Projects.

Hong Kong’s industrial districts have been really changing over the past few decades. Why did you decide on Wong Chuk Hang for your space?

People did ask why Wong Chuk Hang and not Fotan, because Fotan is more grassroots. Kwun Tong is less surveyed by comparison – there are more younger musicians over there – and actually, Tsuen Wan and all these locations in the Western part of Kowloon are also going under changes – people are turning their factories into art spaces. So there is a lot going on.

For me, Wong Chuk Hang is already very developed as an art location, so there was the benefit that I didn’t need to suddenly make people go there. And yet I am not exactly thinking of doing what Spring Workshop, Pékin Fine Arts and all these major spaces with a lot of resources, are doing. Then there is the Art Development Council moving into Wong Chuk Hang too – they have purchased or rented a few floors in the building. They’ve turned them into small studios for emerging artists. I wanted the space to be not really for superstars but for young artists.

Also, I grew up on Hong Kong Island side. My father had been working in Wong Chuk Hang in a printing house, the last 15-20 years before he passed away. There were lots of printing houses here. It’s strange; I’m retracing his steps in a way I never did when he was alive.

Linda Lai, 'Voices Seen, Images Heard', 2009. single-channel video work, screenshots. Image courtesy the artist.

Linda Lai, ‘Voices Seen, Images Heard’, 2009, single channel video work, screenshots. Image courtesy the artist.

Speaking of your family, can I ask you about your work “1906-1989-2012: Guangzhou-Hongkong-Shanghai-Anji,” commissioned for the 9th Shanghai Biennale 2012. Within it, you play with ideas of childhood memory, the use of everyday objects and folk material, the postal history of Hong Kong and family stories. Could you explain the seed of the idea, and how you realised it?

This work had a precedence – shown at Osage called 1841-201X / San Yuan Li – Hong Kong – Da Tang Jie – San Yuan Li. 1841 was the year before Hong Kong became a British colony and I noticed that work captured some attention, because I was dealing with my connection to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, through my grandmother’s story and my maternal relatives because they are still in Guangzhou.

I had been asked in that first work to dialogue with Cao Fei and Ou Ning about a place called San Yuan Li in Guangzhou. I thought, what has that to do with me? Then some research immediately revealed that San Yuan Li was in fact the first place that had anti-British Colonial revolts.

Linda Lai, '1841-201X / San Yuan Li – Hong Kong – Da Tang Jie – San Yuan Li' wall installation, full frontal view of wall set, in dialogue with 'San Yuan Li', single channel video, 2003, by Ou Ning + Cao Fei, One World Exposition, Videotage, Osage-Kwun Tong, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

Linda Lai, ‘1841-201X / San Yuan Li – Hong Kong – Da Tang Jie – San Yuan Li’ wall installation, full frontal view of wall set, in dialogue with ‘San Yuan Li’, single channel video, 2003, by Ou Ning + Cao Fei, One World Exposition, Videotage, Osage-Kwun Tong, 2011. Image courtesy the artist.

One day, Qiu Zhijie said: can you do a bigger version? I gratefully – and very quickly – said yes. In Hong Kong, I don’t get to have space to do anything. The lack of space has killed some of the potential works that I have wanted to do. But immediately I felt, I don’t want to go back all the way to 1841. So I gave up the anti-Colonial dimension as I was not dialoguing with Cao Fei’s video anymore. I wanted to focus instead on my grandmother. It was a great moment because I had been dreaming of doing a work about my grandmother for more than 10 years.

Linda Lai's maternal grandmother and  cousin in Guangzhou in the mid-1970s. Image courtesy the artist.

Linda Lai’s maternal grandmother and cousin in Guangzhou in the mid-1970s. Image courtesy the artist.

There was one primary story: as a kid, I was always asked to write letters for my grandmother to send to my uncle in Guangzhou, because the whole family was there. The letters were very repetitive and through that long experience of repeatedly writing, I realised, through my grandmother, that we can’t say what we mean. It was a strange, prolonged experience in my childhood, where I sat through some enigmatic things.

My grandmother would save up everything to be sent back to China, I recall them buying a lot of towels and turning them into bags for parcels. There were lots of restrictions. When my grandmother travelled back to mainland China, she always told us stories of how scared she was going through immigration. It was the Cultural Revolution days, which were really very scary; they would be challenged suddenly by discovering a piece of peanut, which you forgot to declare.

I did some real research into the postal history of Hong Kong, regulations on weight, restrictions on goods, and the story was really very rich. Take for example, at one point, we were not allowed to send photographs. And you couldn’t bring a roll of film that had not been developed. The installation in the end turned out to be a gigantic load of things, full of big and small types of materials people used to carry goods in the trip, or to send home through the mail. In terms of the title: the Anji reference was a contemporary farmer’s workshop – through Qiu Zhijie, I commissioned the farmer workers. 1989 was when my grandmother passed away. 1906 was her birth date.

Linda Lai, '1906-1989-2012 / Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Shanghai-Anji,' mixed media installation, 7 x 8x 6 m, commissioned for themed exhibition "Revisit" at the 9th Shanghai Biennale, 2 October 2012 - 31 March 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Linda Lai, ‘1906-1989-2012 / Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Shanghai-Anji,’ mixed media installation, 7 x 8x 6 m, commissioned for themed exhibition “Revisit” at the 9th Shanghai Biennale, 2 October 2012 – 31 March 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

It’s interesting to begin talking about the Umbrella Movement and Hong Kong’s strained connections with the mainland, and this project, where you went way back in history and looked through the border in another way. How important is history in Hong Kong art?

I think there are more and more people dealing with history, but very few people are real historians who have a very rigorous, archival research experience. I am not saying that I am that great, but I did do very rigorous research. History is important but often it is only tokenised. I try to overcome that by bringing in some concrete knowledge… although there is no one, absolute story.

Detail view of '1906-1989-2012 / Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Shanghai-Anji', on the bamboo wall were the kind of family letters Lai wrote. Image courtesy the artist.

Detail view of ‘1906-1989-2012 / Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Shanghai-Anji’, on the bamboo wall were the kind of family letters Lai wrote. Image courtesy the artist.

This also speaks to your work as a critical researcher on the “History of Everyday Life”. Could you speak to what this means to you and how it resonates with your experience of being an artist based in Hong Kong?

It’s a rebellion against top-down political history alone, whereby everyday activity and the everyday person’s voices were not registered as valid historical evidence. That is the primary idea of Everyday Life. Because of this historical movement, they also developed a lot of new historiographical methods such as calling the writing that a historian does a ‘miniature’ instead of a ‘discourse’ or ‘story’. Stories, you have to tidy up everything: the cause, the processes, the consequences, you know, history book stuff. History of Everyday Life people think that we can write fragmentary episodes, and we call that miniatures.

This is how I have been reshaping my own academic work, to write and to stop worrying about the story not being complete or having ellipses. Basically to create a writing method that allows ellipses to happen. It’s okay to just show us the fragments and allow other historians, one day to see the connection.

Clare Tyrrell-Morin

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, new media, art spaces, venues in Hong Kong, interviews

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