How does freedom sound? – reflections on how artists listen in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong
at 11:15am on 27th July 2020
Image courtesy to artist Brian Chu
The 2019 mass protests in Hong Kong were widely reported in international media.  In terms of numbers the protests reached their height on June 16, when, in one single demonstration, 2 million people marched peacefully on the streets. In terms of breadth, the protests became a territory-wide pro-democracy movement that sprang out in multiple locations, and in such forms as street demonstrations to creative collective actions. 
This essay is a small part of my ongoing reflection on how artists with practices in sound and listening in Hong Kong relate to the fight for freedom. I say freedom instead of democracy and universal suffrage because for the artists included in this essay, freedom in political life is in question and involves visions beyond what might be a better form of government. I notice that while artists supported the movement and come into alliance with protestors on the streets, they also demonstrated a concomitant commitment to art. While the social and political circumstances compelled them to respond, they simultaneously affirmed the need for their own personal introspection. Using my interviews with three artists as primary materials, I bring in works of art that are conceptually responsive to their concerns of articulating a different path to encounter the movement – How does the movement sound? What responsibility do artists take on as listeners? Artist Felix Hess says there are three kinds of listening – listening to time, to space, and to meaning.  If public political life prioritizes listening to voices and interests in their diverse appearances, hence listening to meaning, these artists demonstrate that there is much more to listen to and listen for. In so doing, they bridge inner and outer freedom.
The notion of inner and outer freedom has been acknowledged by Hannah Arendt as central to political thought. Arendt acknowledges that historically, “inwardness as a place of absolute freedom within one’s own self” is regarded as the “prerequisite for freedom”, that is, when “external coercion” like tyranny denies a person’s freedom in the world, she retreats into this inwardness.  Inner freedom is therefore non-political. Arendt adds a level of complexity to understanding these two kinds of freedom as opposites. “[Man] would know nothing of inner freedom if he had not first experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible reality.”  It is in our interaction with others that we first encounter what freedom is and is not, and the inner freedom attained is preceded by liberation, but it is not only liberation. “Freedom needed, in addition to mere liberation, the company of other men who were in the same state, and it needed a common public space to meet them – a politically organized world, in other words, into which each of the free men could insert himself by word and deed.” In light of this emphasis on the condition of encountering each other, I propose that the artists are extending the movement into other “common public space” where the collective goal of liberation is taken up as an enduring fight for freedom.
Imagine the busiest street in your neighbourhood emptied of bodies, stripped of colors, the air, permeated with exhaust fumes and tear gas. Unknown, unlearnt, unseen.
Imagine being in exile right here. Memories of home are more alive than ever, but here, is no place called home.
Would you like to take a walk?
Or would you rather let your body fall?
Near the northern part of the waterfront in the Central district of Hong Kong is a 2-lane vehicular tunnel. It is not very long. It takes probably three seconds for a car travelling at the speed of 80km to pass through it. The eastern end of the tunnel was the Central Government Complex of the government of Hong Kong. It was also the main site of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a fight for universal suffrage. For 70 plus days, main roads were occupied by thousands of protesters, who camped out on the streets, organized mobile classrooms and “Open Mic” events, built supply stations, and participated in citizen art projects . During all this time, no traffic could go through the tunnel.
On a quiet morning, artist Samson Cheung took a walk in the tunnel. Suddenly, it occurred to him he could have a sense of place by listening. “I grabbed anything tiny I saw - gravel, and threw it again and again to the sides and the ground of the tunnel. The sound echoed along, carried all over the tunnel and died away.”  He listened to the emptiness of the tunnel by following how the sound drifted.
This relatively safe situation for artists to connect with mass street protests was not the case in 2019. The main slogan for the protests was to Be Water – that is, to move around like water, rather than to occupy a single site. As protestors moved, law-enforcement also moved, with increasing speed and implements. For months, life in the city was touched by the movement, and in places of intense protest, overwhelmed by it. I wondered how artists too, moved their bodies, eyes, ears, attention, perception, and ambition in and as water, in and out of the movement.
Slogans, when shouted, are intriguing sonic objects. They squeeze willpower and feelings into a something throwable. When delivered in a “call and response” style, as in the 2019 movement, slogans become connectable points that weave together wavering ideas into a compact, at times even stately mass. For instance, Call: “Five Demands”, Response: “Not One Less”. Squared and efficient, they arrest resonating bodies and push them forward along a straight line.
Some of the responses have evolved – while independent musician Brian Chu never shouted slogans in protests, he remembers being excited when the response to the call “Hongkongers” (hoeng1 gong2 jan4 香港人) changed from “Ga Yao” (gaa1 jau4 加油), which literally means to add oil, to “Fan Kong” (faan1 kong3 反抗), which means to revolt. But he was frustrated when people started shouting “Po Shou” (bou3 sau4 報仇),  which means to take revenge. During the early phase of the protests, Brian Chu, who has an improvisational acoustic practice with found objects, was in a drum team. Members were recruited by open call. Anyone could join, and they could use drummable objects. Korean drums were popular, inspired by the Korean farmers’ protests in the WTO meetings in HK . To “jam” with their deep sound, Brian would play a snare drum. He had aesthetic benchmarks for the drumming. “I want the sound to be pleasing, to impart a positive layer of energy.”  Whether this could be attained depended on how fellow protestors responded.
He stopped bringing drums to the protests as police brutality escalated. One night, when running to find shelter from tear gas, he fell onto the ground. An officer pointed a baton at his face. The next thing he remembers was being on a bus, its doors taking forever to close. It was as if the pounding of the drums transposed to the weight and deafening silence of fear within.
When I picture Brian’s body falling and standing up again, I think of mix media artist Jeffrey Shaw’s interest in the human condition of falling. In Jeffrey Shaw’s interactive installation Fall Again, Fall Better (2012), a screen shows silvery, genderless bodies standing still. Modelled on push-puppets, they seem human and non-human at the same time. When the viewer steps on the activation device, all the bodies fall onto the ground. Some are flat, others, contorted. Some have fingers twitching in spasms. Step off the activation device, the bodies rise again. There is more falling in the participatory performance Waterwalk, initially created in 1969 in Amsterdam, and re-enacted at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The artist made a bubble in the shape of a pyramid. Two or three people would go inside and move it along water. The bodies wobbled, fell, rose again, fell again. About the work, Jeffrey Shaw says, "In practical terms, an impractical means of transport."
When I asked Jeffrey Shaw about his interest in the act of falling, he said, "We began our lives by falling; sometimes we laugh when children fall. Then the fall takes on varying degrees of risks, and there is the final fall, from which we don''t stand up again. The fall is the two book-ends of life."  I wonder if Brian Chu would share his view, and where his fall might land in his lifetime. He kept going to the protests carrying the fall in his nocturnal dreams.
During the day, Brian is a farmer in Nam Chung. “Finishing late in a protest, going home safely, and being in this ‘paradise’ the next day make me feel torn. But this helps me think. Destroying isn’t enough. The next question is what should be set up.”
Like Brian Chu, artist Natalie Lai-lai Lo is a farmer. “I treasure private space for myself but I also seek out others – but for me this isn’t about a group shouting and singing together.” 
Sangwoodgoon,  the small farm she joined in 2010, and had since become a core member, mostly provides for the artist and activist collective who work it. When there is a harvest yielding more than they need, they sell the extra. After participating in a series of protests against the government’s development plan that would destroy traditional villages, farmland, and fishponds in the Northern part of Hong Kong,  Lo and her peers in the protests had some profound reflection of what the ultimate and long-term goal of the protests were. “Many activists live a lousy life. We need to make adjustment on how we satisfy our material needs, how to have enough rest, how to treat food, our relation to nature…These are things we want to actualize…Art making is like this, too.” 
Our interview took place on the farm as the sun was setting. Birdcalls accompanied us the whole time. Sangwoodgoon became the source of inspiration and materials for her subsequent art works. Fire is one example. Burning woodpile and tree branches is routine work – ashes are used as fertilisers. Fire has also been a subject of Lo’s photography work “Transform (I-III)” (2009-10). “It’s something primitive, she says. What will be yielded in time depends on lots of conditions – our hardwork, the weather etc. It’s about the transformation of energy. We suffer when our subjective time is not synchronized with objective time. This is especially so during difficult times. So how we pass the days is important – it’s like letting others overcome, too, so we overcome together.” 
In Lo’s body of work there is also an ongoing series of video works that employ the form of a television weather report. A voice-over tells the weather from the point of view of soil, air, or other organisms. The weather is not told so as for humans to fashion or shelter ourselves, but for the crops to speak, for their needs to be heard. Her works present the equal value of self-sufficiency and interdependence, seeking the neuter in nature in face of violence and volatilities. “Artistic creation is my source of strength.” 
If, as Hannah Arendt proposes, political thought is constituted by a self-other relationship, “by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent” and “by being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not,” this “enlarged mentality”  manifests in Lo’s practice encompasses non-human beings too. In the way Lo regards tending the farm and supporting the movement as of equal importance, she nurtures her capacity to be answerable to both history (of herself and others fully immersed in a world made by humans) and nature (of all conditions of nature providing for her material and spiritual subsistence).
In Lo’s most recent solo exhibition “Give no words but mum” (2020), one video presents parallel narratives on how human movements and nature’s motion are intertwined in life. One narrative concerns bread making. The moving images show a close up of two hands kneading dough, breaking it up, putting it into the oven. The small pieces of dough slowly rise in the hot air. Suddenly, the second narrative intervenes: an image of bodies dressed in black with one open yellow umbrella in the middle – like a fallen leaf flowing in the current of the river. Sparks of light from smart phones turned the image into a constellation of glistening stars.
The video has no voice-over. Texts are superimposed onto the images. The a-synchronicity of image, text, and meaning is emotionally and intellectually challenging:
“You tried to be neutral”. A palm breaks a finger-sized piece out of a dough in a basin.
“No one could escape”. The palm presses into the entire dough.
“Afterall time is our fuel.” The protest dissolves into white smoke.
One of Lo’s artistic collaborators is Hin-yan Wong, an independent musician and singer-song-writer. In 2012, Wong re-arranged a protest song previously sung in Hong Kong in resistance against Japanese occupation of the then British colony during the Second World War , to address new forms of resistance around urban development in Hong Kong. Lo turned the song into a video work with the same title “Goodbye Hong Kong”. The work played on a double narrative – a video of Wong singing the song is played behind a semi-opaque curtain. A sign interpreter stands in front of the curtain and signs the song. The lyrics are displayed “karaoke style”, that is, appearing character by character, line by line, so the audience could sing along. Grand, macro histories are embodied by the dignity of the hand gestures, and potentially on the level of the audience – insofar as the audience does not sing along, the work would not be complete.
Lo refers to the song as a protest song. Wong Hin-yan, however, does not think of this and his other songs as such, not only because he seldom sings at protest sites, despite having participated in many protests since he was a teenager and having been inspired by them, but also for the texture of his music. His singing voice shifts and drifts between a story-telling mode and a singing mode, making space between the lyrics and the music. Like the gesture of the protest known as the “prostration walk” in 2010,  in which a single file of bodies walked several steps forward and prostrated, his music alludes to the level of soil on the ground. His voice treads deep down. This is in stark contrast to the sound of slogans in the 2019 movement that uplift spirits and throw brilliance into the air.
The first direct sonic action Wong Hin-yan took in social activism was during the 2006 Star Ferry and Clock Tower protests.  One night, after the closure of the pier, he went into the clock tower with four other friends – all musicians – to sound out the bronze bell. “It felt very personal - the dust, the bell, the mechanism of the clockwork…I don’t remember it as social activism. It’s dreamy, and quite romantic.” 
Last year, six months before the movement became big, Wong composed the Cantonese song “Despair is a kind of Gospel”.  A line in the song says, “It’s a matter of making ourselves, not that which enslaves us.” Wong has taken and translated the line from Guy Debord’s essay “Theses on Cultural Revolution”.  He gave an example of why he resonated with this line so much: “In the current pandemic, when restaurants refuse to take Mainland customers, we are constructing not who we are, but what enslaves us.”  For Wong, there is a lot more to be made of ourselves and our lives than representing the “opponent”.
His approach to the political life of a musician, or freedom in political life, reminds me of the anarchy of John Cage. “Writing through the essay On the duty of civil disobedience/ [after] Henry David Thoreau” is a collaborative work of Cage with seven other artists. The essay is reorganized into stanzas and letters of each word re-arranged to make them, at the first glance, illegible. Each page presents ample blank space around the letters. The gravitation on each page is unique. Occasionally, the printed pages are sandwiched between semi-opaque butter paper, retreating into a veiled existence. The New York Public Library online catalogue entry says, “Printed on double leaves, most of which enclose additional blank single or double leaves.” There are no musical notes nor staff, but it notates nameable and unnameable voices alongside each other. Like Cage, Wong does not make political statements, but rather stitches multiple textures of dissent onto voiced antagonisms.
“I always think of who I would like to talk to when I make a song. It’s like talking to someone sincerely, but it may not be about something pleasant. I want to respond to a listening situation that is not like the highly charged situation of the protest. They are more for moments when people need space for sedimentation.” Here also lies reasons why Wong couldn’t sing along with other protestors the song Glory to Hong Kong , at times nicknamed as the ‘national anthem’ of Hong Kong. “I sing with my voice. I have to trust what I’m singing. I want to sing songs I want to listen to, songs I’m willing to sing, and songs that I believe in.” 
Wong’s political stance is one of distrust towards the idea of the nation-state and its symbols. This interpretation is shared by the work Woodstock 2017 of Tsubasa Kato, a recent artist-in-residence in Taikwun, Hong Kong. In a staged performance and video work , the artist arranged a four-man band with arms and legs tied to each other to play the national anthem of the United States. They are tied just far enough from each other to reach their instruments, but not close enough to the instruments to play them properly. For instance, as one musician tries to hit the drum, he is pulling the other musician away from strumming a chord on the guitar. The tug-of-war never finishes. The national anthem ever remains a broken song. I see George Steiner’s idea of art-act  at work. When an artist’s perception of an event is an ‘art-act’, Steiner proposes, “it simply shows how naturally an artist’s ‘criticism of life’ is also art criticism in the most vivid and magisterial sense.”
Wong describes his music as dark, but one finds occasional humor. During the movement, Wong found a widely circulated audio recording on social media of a roast meat shop owner  speaking in support of the protests, with lots of foul language sandwiched in between. Wong found it sincere, well-said, full of kindness, and rhythmic. So he arranged the speech with an open source “J dilla mix”. The street chatter became a rap song.
to close…for now
As a beat, in the air, between a singing voice, the artists’ way of questioning solidarity and keeping a distance from it, adds a tinge of melancholy and caution to the explosive, full-bodied, and emotionally-charged mass demonstrations. That they are not always on the streets does not mean they are not with and in the movement – thinking of the movement in terms of bipartisanship has arguably limited the imagination of where the movement has been, and where it might go. For the artists, the movement’s border is fluid and porous. It has also begun way earlier in time and has been already prevailing and persisting in their struggles in life. For them, the movement is a slice of a vision that is and must be much more holistic and far-reaching. In the resonance chambers they make, they pace the movement by reciprocating the pulse on the streets. The lingering question of “How does the movement sound?” might be better formulated as “How might artists’ responsible listening extend the movement into the future?”
On permanent opposition, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “It’s like a river: the water ahead cannot draw the water behind with it; but the water behind pushes the water ahead.” 
 The catalyst of the protests was the anti-Extradition-Bill protests that began around June 2019. The bill potentially exposes HongKongers to unfair trials in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Hong Kong as a former British colony is governed by the common law system. Upon the change of sovereignty from Britain to the PRC in 1997, the idea of “one country, two systems” defined how Hong Kong relates to the PRC. The Extradition Bill proposed by the government was regarded as a violation of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The protests have since become a pro-democracy movement, which is the culmination of multiple protests over the past two decades regarding land urban development, education, electoral system, and security policies, to name just a few. More information: https://multimedia.scmp.com/infographics/news/hong-kong/article/3016815/hong-kong-protest-city/index.html, published July 4, 2019.
 Notable ones include poster art, Lennon Walls, umbrella sculptures, and human chains. See for instance, Facebook pages of Offbeat Village and Childe Abaddon, and reports in the media in: https://www.mpweekly.com/culture/設計-反修例-海報-122459?fbclid=IwAR2zWxTNECOUTqkgWuGKFnxu7QtK9pbykzwY13hFcnRgntOsMTXpaQzkd2A; https://qz.com/quartzy/1673655/see-the-posters-and-comics-from-hong-kongs-protests/
 Felix Hess: Light as Air, ed. Bernd Schulz, 2003. Kehre Verlag.
 Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin. 1954/1993: 147
 ibid. 148
 See for instance: https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/09/29/disappearing-act-happened-art-hong-kongs-umbrella-movement/
 “The tunnel on Connaught Road during Umbrella Movement, Field recording, 2014, Sound installation, 2016”
by Samson Cheung. See http://www.cheungchoisang.com/
 The pronunciations are taken from Humanum website: https://humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/
 The Sixth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization was held in Hong Kong in 2005.
 Interview with Brian Chu, April 3, 2020
 Conversation with Jeffrey Shaw at his solo exhibition “What You See Is What You Get” (2020), Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, April 17, 2020.
 Interview with Natalie Lai-lai Lo, November 17, 2019
 Sangwoodgoon in Cantonese 生活館 (saang1 wut6 gun2), means the “A hall [gun2] for life [saang1 wut6]”.
 This is part of the protest against the government’s plan to build the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link in 2010. See here for stories of Choi Yuen Village residents affected by the plan: http://varsity.com.cuhk.edu.hk/index.php/2012/12/new-choi-yuen-village/, published December 18, 2012.
 Interview with Natalie Lai-lai Lo, November 17, 2019
 Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin. 1954/1993: 241-2. Arendt further says, “[E]ven if I shun all company or am completely isolated while forming an opinion, I am not simply with myself in the solitude of philosophical thought; I remain in this world of universal interdependence, where I can make myself the representative of everybody else.”
 Goodbye Hong Kong is “再會吧，香港！” (zoi3 wui6 baa6, hoeng1 gong2) was composed as theme song for a theatre play in the 1940s. The music was originally composed by Yao Mu and the lyrics were written by Tian Han. A performance by Hin-yan Wong published in 2012 could be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7EgNuzcdCg&feature=emb_rel_end
 See Note 15 above. This particular gesture of protest took place outside the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
 The protests were against the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and Clock Tower and the Queen’s Pier in Central. More information here: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/10/world/asia/10iht-ferry.3482674.html
 Interview with Hin-yan Wong, March 31, 2020.
 In Cantonese, “絕望是一種福音” (zyut6 mong6 si6 jat1 zung2 fuk1 jam1)
 Debord, Guy, “These on Cultural Revolution”, translated by John Shepley, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, ed. By Tom McDonough, Cambridge, MASS: MIT Press. Originally published by Internationale situationniste 1 (June 1958), 20-21.
 Interview with Hin-yan Wong, March 31, 2020.
 Many versions of “Glory to Hong Kong” have been circulated on the internet. See for instance www.thestandnews.com/politics.
 Interview with Hin-yan Wong, March 31, 2020.
 More from Tsubasa Kato’s website: http://www.katoutsubasa.com/projects/songs-while-bound/woodstock-2017/
 Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago- University of Chicago Press. 1989/1992:18
 To listen to the mix: https://www.hk01.com/扭耳仔/343307/憤怒的燒味舖-hip-hop-版-製作者-黃衍仁-不斷loop的力量好勁?fbclid=IwAR2F8ZkwhLF23AQKACE-RnOqKc2DSUlIOYm74b9qz83olf7RRGDcXaABpEs
 Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan, The Raft is not the Shore: Conversations Toward a Buddhist-Christian Awareness. New York: Orbis Books. 1975/2009:99.
First published by Contemporary Art Stavanger, June 2020