My Response to Asia Art Archive’s "THE AND: An Expanded Questionnaire on The Contemporary"
at 3:00pm on 16th August 2012
Yeung Yang’s very general response to the following questions put forth by the Asia Art Archive:
What role has the institution played in defining contemporary art? And where does individual practice locate itself in relation to institutional practice?
Does the discipline of contemporary art reside within the greater paradigm of visual culture, in the context of the region? Are the discipline of visual culture and its manifestations (art and visual theory) detrimental to the disciplines of art history, and contemporary art criticism?
Are we trapped in a trope of ‘the contemporary’?
Revised April 14, 2012
What could put contemporary art under threat? Not institutions per se, but institutions that forget how they come into being and why they are needed in the first place. Let me explain via a detour.
I currently work full-time in an institution of higher education. Among co-workers in the programme that I teach, there has been a lot of talk about the mandate of the university as an institution. We discuss a lot the role the university plays or has stopped playing in the education of virtues and values. These issues are the crux of our teaching and learning, not an add-on. The university, like any other, has a mission statement laying out its mandate. When the university relates to other institutions as a single unit, the mission statement becomes a quick reference. It is a matter of administration. But when the university relates to its body of members – staff, teachers, students, the mandate is a matter of teaching, learning, debating, and examining values and virtues as something we all contribute to and are a part of. It is to do with morals, or the right thing to do. My point is that the institution as an administration that exercises a set of procedures in a systematic way must be distinguished from the individuals within who make the institution possible in the first place. The institution needs to exist because there is primarily a tacit agreement that coming together and being associated with each other make us better; it helps us do the right thing. Institutions receive a mandate from their members – be they citizens of an entire society, stakeholders sharing common values etc. – to exercise their wills, not the other way round. How they have become reversed and mixed up, I do not know.
Another institution I relate to, though in a different capacity, is the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), which has been managing the grant that supports soundpocket1 since 2009. We have had to put its logo and the phrase “supported by” in projects we do. For us, this phrase isn’t just an empty label. It is an acknowledgement of our public nature, which is as important and pertinent as what we do. As we work, we also ask the question of the public and its concerns that we address. This is a matter of accountability that rests with any institution with a public mandate. When and how this may get lost in the speed of production and the imperative to stop thinking, I do not know.
In “A Case of Being ‘Contemporary’”, Wu Hung says that the term “contemporary art” in the domestic sphere of China “conveys a strong sense of avant-gardism and signifies a range of experiments that aspire to challenge established art institutions, systems, and forms.”2 I think Hong Kong is in a similar situation. My question is, if avant-gardism comes under too much pressure to justify or defend its value – that is, when the contemporary comes before the art, would it be exaggerated and become an attitude and gesture to lose sight of what could be the common interest that it always already addresses – that of doing justice to even the most singular operation, practice, idiosyncrasy etc.?
If the power of contemporary art is in the flexible and open engagement with and intervention in all sorts of situations, it can only coarise with them in contexts. Sometimes, a project wanting to be contemporary as avant-gardist may end up not being so. Sometimes, a project that does not claim the contemporary becomes so by accident. If avant-gardism needs structural support – which is valued for being stable, consistent and sustainable, it takes primarily not a category in grant policies that sets aside cash for it, but a commitment from all of us to safeguard freedom and equality. By extension, an institution as a way we have chosen to come together can contribute to the definition of contemporary art by first defining it in relation to the society in which it stands and the public with which it stands. This sense of “defining” is more like clearing the way for a house before building it.
At this point, I would like to bring M+ into the picture. Lars Nittve’s presentation on April 11, 2012 emphasized the “public ethos” of the new museum. It is a fresh and important start. Not that it is new, but that it contextualizes what the claim “for Hong Kong people” means. The mentioning was brief, but it was enough to put legitimacy of its power into the picture. If the pledge on education were also to be pursued as Nittve suggested, as a core and not derivative value of the art and the programming, the education would include how the people of Hong Kong are to learn that they, too, are masters of the museum. I see this as Nittve’s call for public attention and engagement. I also see this as Nittve’s commitment to accountability, which is welcoming in the current political climate.
What interested me about his presentation was also what he did not address much – “contemporary art”. M+ was profiled as a “new museum of visual culture” that specialized in visual art. While Nittve offered refreshing ideas on display, he spoke little about how the value of the collection of M+ would be determined – not just its monetary value, but also cultural value, to align its mission with collecting visual culture, which is by no means innocent. Culture collected institutionally was the norm during colonial times. “Savage” bodies in the colonies were photographed and studied in the name of science. Cultural artifacts were interpreted to fit the colonists’ preconception of the culture while claimed to be “authentic” representations. From anthropological perspectives, which have contributed much to the theorizing of culture, visual culture as a field of study makes such technologies of visualization as photography, film, and even writing a central part of the study. These technologies are theorized as apparatuses of power embedded in institutional practices. For instance, Jay Ruby argues that the study of anthropological cinema is the study of particular ways of looking at culture and its communication, and the historical and theoretical contexts of the issues involved.3 From the perspectives of Cultural Studies, from which the field of Visual Culture Studies emerged and which is today taught in several higher education institutions in Hong Kong,4 visual culture also embodies critiques of the ways of seeing. In the light, two issues emerge for M+: firstly, how can the idea of “collecting” and its power-laden history be opened up for critical examination, too? And secondly, how can the “contemporary” that is dependent on contexts and sites of production be collected when the act of collecting is opened up? When the kind of critique that has made visual culture studies is subjected to standardized institutional policies of collecting that are not put into question, any museum claiming to be new and contemporary could only become reactionary.
There is one further point about value I would like to make. Nittve talked about good artists from Hong Kong as being “international” rather than “local”. The term “international” was used to suggest a certain kind of value that was not clearly articulated in the presentation. The term “local” was also used to suggest another kind of value that, again, was not clearly articulated. To be fair, Nittve did add that the value of Hong Kong art would be understood in its local specificity, but there was also the suggestion that the “local” was irrelevant to defining good artists. I think Nittve’s idea was that if we are serious about being globally responsible for each other, we ought to do better than relying on the opposition between “local” and “international”. This is an important message. But with all the damage that capital without national borders has done to ways of life that value reciprocity (above ego-centric interests), mutual assistance (above self-help), and deep time (above speed) on a person-to-person level, it is understandable that some may react to Nittve’s affirmation of the international as an imperative to elevate the artists of Hong Kong to a language and other ways of circulating art from Hong Kong that may flatten their meanings. I am not saying Nittve’s is doing any of this. I am saying that there is still a need to theorize what it is about the value of artists from Hong Kong that M+ proposes to articulate and communicate on the institutional level.
For those of use who move in and out of institutions, we must not rely solely on artists to be contemporary. Organizations and practices need to be contemporary, too: be flexible and responsive to change, be critical and ingenious. How can these be achieved? Don't submit to pressure for production. Take time to think, even in an emergency5. We must be self-conscious, but not self-consciously contemporary. Are we trapped by the trope of the contemporary? This is one of the questions that initiated this discussion. Perhaps, but this is when we can start planning an escape. To evaluate escapism negatively, according to Itavo Calvino, is absurd, for in the ordinary language that traps us, writing for him is always an escapism. This escape would best be documented, as stipulated by the spirit of an archives law that is yet to be in place in Hong Kong, so that the public ethos of the museum will be substantiated and remain active. The day may even come that the question of contemporary art is relieved of the burden to mean for being such a well taken way of life.
This discussion is originally initiated by a need to put the “contemporary” as a question of the contemporary first, that is, a question of priority. Sometimes, questions of priority lead to things being broken up or excessively inflated. However, when they involve morals, they could become extremely important: What is the principle of our action? What is the right thing to do? It is in this light that I think the idea of contemporary as contemporary with, which has been coined by many before, is worth citing again. “With” is a word that suggests a combination, a union, even a shifting of a centredness (perhaps from the self) to embrace something new or different. “Contemporary with” is really a “being-with”, which is in listening to each other and participating in the give and take of discussion. “Being-with” is also to be at peace with oneself, to be without internal conflicts, without which being at peace with others would make no sense.
1 soundpocket was founded in 2008. See soundpocket.org.hk.
3 Ruby, Jay. (2000) Picturing Culture, Explorations of Film and Anthropology, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
4 The Chinese University of Hong Kong offers this as an MA program with the required courses listed as Contemporary Arts & Cultural Interactivity, Visual Culture Theory, Visual Research Methods, Cultural Studies in Film and Video. http://www.crs.cuhk.edu.hk/en/programme HKU Department of Comparative Literature offers courses in five streams. One of them is Film, Visual, and New Media Studies. http://www0.hku.hk/complit/courses/courses.htm Lingnan University has its Visual Studies within the Philosophy Department. http://www.ln.edu.hk/visual/about.php It would surely contribute to further research to consider the exact reading lists offered in the courses.
5 This is an idea inspired deeply by Elaine Scarry’s book Thinking in an Emergency, in which she argues that modern government’s “claim of emergency” undermines democracy. She shows how, instead, habits of thinking play a crucial role in preparing for such emergencies as a nuclear war. In the case of the Swiss Shelter System, for instance, Swiss law requires that nuclear shelters by built by all, a duty that arises from the right to the equality of survival. See Thinking in an Emergency. (2010) New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
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