Cultural windows

Mike Leggett reports on emerging film, video and digital technology in Hong Kong

Videotage

Videotage

Hollywood Road winds its way along one of ‘the Levels’ on Hong Kong island. Its naming precedes its more famous counterpart by a couple of hundred years, being one of the original streets laid down by the British colonial traders. Antique businesses have since colonised the area, providing windows onto the artefacts produced by Chinese artists from the past several millennia. It is as if each diorama, viewed through the barrier of glass, reveals the vast wealth of craft skill and applied imagination in order to mock the ephemerality of cinema and its attendant real estate culture that throngs throughout Hong Kong and the New Territories. Within this context of the popular and the traditional, contemporary artists in Hong Kong are making determined inroads both locally and internationally. But in order to comprehend this, we need to go back again.

In June 1997 the British Colonial Authority “handed over” the administration of the region to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This was a highly promoted and publicised international event whereby one of the world’s biggest commercial centres, home to eight million people, changed owners.

The event was represented as the end of the colonial era and a return to the motherland. The people of Hong Kong are quite philosophical however, regarding it as saying goodbye to one coloniser and hello to another, for they are Cantonese and make up 90 per cent of the population, with the ex-pats (predominantly Europeans, mostly English of course, Americans and Australians), mainland and others making up the rest.

During the British colonial period, Hong Kong’s cultural activity was divided along ethnic lines with little integration and even less encouragement and support—until ten years before the British departure, when public money was invested into Museums, Galleries, Arts Centres, University art departments and cultural non-government organisations such as Videotage.

Videotage (www.enmpc.org.hk/videotage) was formed in 1985 as a video artists’ collective to organise screenings of work in Hong Kong and overseas. By 1996 it had established some non-linear post-production facilities, and gained the resources to maintain an office, library and archive, and administer events including the annual international Microwave Festival of media art. Its current director is Ellen Pau, a widely exhibited video artist who, like many Hong Kong artists, supports her practice outside the arts—she is a hospital radiographer.

In 1997 the Microwave Festival invited Kathy High (USA) to curate several programs of video, myself to curate a 10 day long exhibition of artists’ CD-ROMs (a long run by Hong Kong standards), and Steve Hawley (Britain) as artist in residence. The works selected gave a profile to the concerns and discourse prevalent amongst contemporary artists working within the ‘western’ aesthetic and language tradition. The audience were mostly under 30, had Cantonese as their first language and received the work within the multicultural context that is modern Hong Kong.

Computers are not expensive and CD-Video is a major consumer item. Software can be obtained cheaply if necessary—$AU7.00 will buy a CD-ROM with 30 top-line Mac applications, illegal copies like these being protected by the Pirates Union! Artists are just beginning to work with digital media as the opportunities become available through the universities and access centres like Videotage. Artists like Brian Wong, having pursued post-graduate study overseas, are not only beginning to produce challenging interactive multimedia but teach its basics in the universities.

The Microwave conference and seminar were well attended by artists, students, educators and members of the booming web industry. Many of the issues were, in parallel with realpolitik, about transition. From linear video art to options for interaction; and fears for the negation of one form by another; on an institutional level, in galleries and university departments, a tendency to hasten the eclipsing of one form by another, especially in those areas being driven by marketed technology. Repurposing the technology was felt to be a major component of any artistic enterprise and that this was not just restricted to technology but also to people and the wide range of skills and disciplines that, likewise, converge toward a multimedia outcome.

This expertise and experience has been around for 15-20 years. The performance group Zuni Icosahedron (www.zuni.org.hk) has at its core Danny Yung, a well known performance artist who spent some years in the USA, and is currently director of the Centre for the Arts at the University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Para/Site is an artists-run gallery (“the first of many” according to Danny Yung) which acts as a focus for people from a range of disciplines who publish artists’ books, including some digital output around the largely site-specific work, and also organise on-site forums. One writer explains that “it is necessary to think primarily in terms of ‘borders’—of borders as parasites that never take over a ‘field’ in its entirety but erode it slowly and tactically”. “The dominant group will have a well planned strategy to guard its field”, warns another.

Meanwhile the well established Hong Kong International Film Festival is now entering its 22nd year, showcasing the famous local industry and world cinema. The Independent Film and Videomakers Awards, a Cantonese-culture vectored event is run by Jimmy Choi at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, a multi-artform venue in the newest part of the CBD in downtown Hong Kong. Entries come from all over the world, representing an alternative viewpoint to that of the Film Festival and, intriguingly, reproduce the deliberations of the Awards Jury verbatim in the catalogue.

Funding for much of this activity (only a fraction is described here) originates with the government (the Provisional Urban Council), which devolves to the HK Arts Development Council (similar to the Australia Council and currently employing ex-pats Hiram To and Jonathon Thomson).

A double analogy could be made between the complexity of the many Chinese cultures and the many cultures on the internet, in comparison to Mandarin culture and the efforts of Microsoft Corp. According to Tung Kin Wah, the CEO of the Urban Council, “Hong Kong would be more stable if there are fewer dissenting voices…” Clearly there is official concern about accentuating differences between vibrant Hong Kong and cautious China. Since many Hong Kong artists, not only those working in the media arts field, speak about the issue of identity, the terms under which the 50-year window will be maintained will be central to their ability to contribute to the wider development of the regional as well as the national community.

Hong Kong Video/CD-ROM Festival, December 1997; Videotage, director Ellen Pau (www.enmpc.org.hk/videotage); The Microwave Festival, December 6 – 12, 1998; Hong Kong International Film Festival, April 3 – 18 1998; The Independent Film & Video Awards are in January 1999, director Jimmy Choi, Hong Kong Arts Centre

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 25

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1998