(about HKADC and M+’s collaboration in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013)

On June 22, 2012, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and M+ announced their collaboration and the selection of artist at the 55th Venice Biennale to take place in 2013. Hong Kong’s participation in the oldest visual art biennale in the world is not new, but the fact that the artist was selected by invitation rather than open competition marked a major policy change.


There could be many good reasons for supporting a policy change. Consider the simple but crucial fact about how much time artists and curators had to prepare for the exhibition in the past. In 2009, artist Tozer Pak was formally notified that he was selected only three months before the exhibition. Last year, HKADC called off the application and selection for artists in response to a complaint that questioned the legality of the application procedure. A second round of application was launched. The artist and curators were announced five months before the opening of the biennale (Note 1). If better conditions of production, communication and presentation of the art are long awaited, why is the recent policy change greeted not only by agreement, but also dissent?


1 Legitimacy, Reasoning


The collaboration of HKADC and M+ in the biennale is puzzling for several reasons. First, it institutes a different way of distributing the right of participation in the biennale. The former open call was principled on equal right of participation. The new one is principled on commission and invitation. Both policies involve discrimination because selection is involved. Both policies pass value judgment on what art should be honored. How we choose which one (or neither, or which other one) to adopt must be discussed and deliberated openly and in public. There are many ways of doing this, and our choices could be very different depending on the purpose of presenting artists in the biennale. All these could have contributed to a public culture that seeks the truth and debates about values by reason. But none of these have been made room for.


The policy change was major in another way. Two public institutions on the governmental level work together for the first time, instituting a new infrastructure for the presentation of art from Hong Kong internationally. Does this entail a different organization of the public sector devoted to the Venice Biennale or other biennales? How would this new infrastructure relate to the existing topography of museums that also work in the field of contemporary art and overseas projects? What are the implications on the institutions’ future responsibilities in various aspects of art development in Hong Kong? Not only are these serious questions about values that the public has the right to ask and the duty to understand, but they could also have contributed to deliberations about our ideals on art and culture, and in the longer run, to building a quality audience that is receptive to the unresolved debates that art itself often raises. Again, no room has been made for the practice of this kind of civic freedom. A whole spectrum of possibilities for the communication of art and for the public to make meaning of it is reduced and trivialized into what HKADC calls an “experiment” that will be reviewed after the presentation (Note 2). By not giving information, the institutions are fostering the habit of governing without those being governed in mind. By not giving information, they are depriving the right of the art to become socially relevant to the public, which constitutes a violation of their mandate as public institutions. By not fostering discussion, they are promoting the habit of mind that art is not for all, but for a privileged few. The original purposes and responsibilities of public institutions to research and analyze the need for the change of policy, to compare and contrast options, to define, situate and evaluate our current state, to devise, propose, articulate, and explain the new policy, and to argue for it persuasively in public, are dissolved.


To be sure, the public is very much on the Executive Director of M+ Lars Nittve’s mind. In his public presentation on April 11, 2012, he says M+ has a “very strong public service ethos”. The collaboration with HKADC seems to suggest that M+ seeks “public service” in the HKADC, rather than progressively, seriously, rigorously, and with ingenuity in a wide spectrum of ways to engage with the people of Hong Kong. If M+ is a different kind of institution, one that does not only make exhibitions and events or showcase artworks, but, with an independence of mind, gives compelling reasons for the intellectual contexts in which it works, to accept what seems to be an obscure proposal by HKADC seems unnecessary, even unwise. What might have informed this choice made by a free agent?


2 Freedom, Responsibility


Freedom may not be our daily vocabulary, but if we stop and pause, we would appreciate all kinds of basic freedom that constitute our lives. We value self determination – the freedom of making choices for ourselves about our lives, of expressing our heritage and creating meanings for society and culture. We value possibilities that develop our capacities and those that lead us to new ones. We value being recognized as free and equal human beings. These fundamental freedoms give moral guidance to our lives. They tell us what is a life well lived. These freedoms make sense only when there is mutual recognition of the same freedoms that others also enjoy: we value freedom insofar as there is equality of freedom for everyone. This reciprocal recognition is precisely where and how our freedom is limited – not by private interests but by a shared sense of the public good. With rights come duties, which include the duty to listen to others, to understand difference even though we cannot embrace it, to be humble in face of compelling arguments that invalidate our beliefs etc. When we exercise this kind of freedom that carries moral force, we are no longer guided by intuition. We are transformed by our regard of the public good, which compels us to take responsibility for our own and others’ lives, just as others do for us.


In response to members of the public exercising their right and duty to know about the change of policy on the biennale, M+ coins the importance of “curatorial freedom” in that the selection of artist should not be done by “vote, committee, and under pressure.” I find this claim unconvincing for the following reasons. When curatorial freedom is set up to be in an oppositional relation to the public, it becomes a superior kind of freedom that is more worthy of upholding than those kinds of freedoms that the public enjoy as fundamental rights. I am not sure if this is a possible argument, and I am not sure if we start measuring one kind of freedom against the other that we are still talking about freedom and not privileges. I do support curatorial freedom for other reasons.


Curatorial freedom expresses the same kinds of freedom that all humans enjoy. When we are free from coercion and domination (which could be physical, like having a gun pointed at the curator, or social, political, and symbolic, like having to take up or give up on holding certain opinions for the threat of retribution or political persecution), we can reason independently and seek out the truth. In curating, this means seeking out the truth for art. Curatorial freedom is also derived from the same kinds of freedom that all humans enjoy. As an analogy, take editorial freedom that news organizations uphold. Journalists and editors safeguard editorial freedom not out of their own interests, nor the perception that their profession is superior and worthy of privileges. Rather, they do so out of the recognition of the equal right to access information that every member of the public enjoys. Like editorial freedom, curatorial freedom is also limited by that which delegates power to the curation in the first place – the common good. Only then, when we acknowledge the limits of freedom, that it can acquire moral force. Otherwise, freedom is no different from intuition. To say that curatorial freedom is the expression of the same kind of fundamental freedom is not to say there can be no distinction between good and bad art. When there is curatorial freedom, independence of mind is cultivated. It welcomes and learns from criticism and challenges. It seeks out for truth rather than authority or glory hidden behind fortresses.


What could curating freely mean in the context of a public institution? Curating is a kind of valuing. Many aspects of our lives are valued by the market today by price tags. Curating values art not by giving it a price tag – if artists and artworks are mere commodities, if the free market is all that comes into determining the value of art, really, there is no need for the trouble to even talk about curation. Curating values art by bringing knowledge to it, contextualizing it, by way of selection, presentation and articulation. In doing so, it sets up different, even competing ways of valuing art from the market. It is through learning about and discussing these differences that our public life (our life of living together) and the public life of art are enriched. When curating exercises this freedom of expression, the curation becomes political not because it serves particular partisan interests, but because it exercises the same freedom that other members of the society does. It participates in and enriches a public life that belongs to all – equally, reciprocally, and freely. It is this relation between each other in a civil society that curation is political: good curation of art is integral to the long-term infrastructure of civic and public life. It is integral to the idea of what makes a good life. It describes the quality of relation between people in a society. Good curation takes good care of this universal and humanistic value of art – its autonomy and controversy. This is why no good curation is single-minded, for no art is single-minded as a human endeavor. The ability to deal with complexity, which means plaited together, interwoven, or connected together in Latin, is precisely a demonstration of the freedom to act responsibly with regard of others, be they physically present or not. It is to acknowledge freedom alongside determination, and independence along side dependence.


If curation gives the works a life, a context, a way of alignment or contest, an intellectual rigor, then, curatorial freedom is relevant to all. If the valuing is also based upon sound reasoning that makes the honor worthy, its source unquestionably legitimate, artists, just as anyone else in our society, would benefit from the civic function of art. Without this civic function, any “world class” curation could offer nothing but the same empty slogan that local property advertisements circulate.


The museum today faces an immense and difficult task. Its traditional role as arbitrator of taste is dwindling. Its powerful competitors are the media that is always faster and more far-reaching with visual language with the help of the market. To stand, the museum needs a kind of closure, which, as Groys argues, is the precondition for openness. This closure is attained through knowledge and experience, as much as through care and sensitivity. Any closure sets up an inside and an outside, but the two sides do not have to be disconnected, hierarchical or oppressive. Above all, the need for intellectual closure should not be conflated with an isolationist and protectionist policy that closes the institution off from the inherently open-ended nature of any humanistic endeavor – the ambiguity of knowledge, the open debate, the hospitality and humility that continue to shape our shared experiences.


No world-class institution operates in a vacuum. No world-class curator works in the air. Our institutions and our many more curators to come will not be the exception. Their practices may be controversial; they may be in unsafe positions. They may do things we cannot embrace. But we should be sought after to lend support, not because we need any more heroes or martyrs, but for showing civil courage in their search for truth. There is a lot we are all responsible for in changing things for the better.


Postscript (Note 3)

Since the announcement in June last year, I have had a few observations to add here.

1. Regarding how to make of, name, define, or contextualize what happened

On October 3, 2012, HKADC distributed a public statement (Note 4) in hard copies before the beginning of a public forum on the incident (Note 5). In the statement, HKADC says, “Past exhibitions [in the Venice Biennale] were organized by different curatorial teams, hence there was no stable work team that passed on the experience.” This became their reason for having to work with M+. I find it problematic that HKADC regards appointing one curatorial team as an easy solution to “passing on” experience that comprises different kinds of knowledge and skills that around an occasion that has never been analyzed and evaluated in terms of the overall, strategic development of art in Hong Kong. HKADC’s claim also shows how unclear it is on the kind of conditions that make a wholistic process of “passing the experience on” – rather than one that focuses only on curation – possible. It also reveals how HKADC has not been performing well in their own duties in precisely passing on the Venice experience (eg. archiving, publicity, documentation, and research). Meantime, M+ emphasized that they were invited, and were passive. I have also heard art practitioners spoke of M+ as a victim of this incident. I do not agree, for M+ as a public institution has its own mandate. It ought to have an understanding of its legitimacy and the reason for its mandate. While M+ committed to collaborating with HKADC, where there was public grievances, it quickly kept a distance from its collaborator. This shows how little M+ understands, even cares for, the mandate and responsibilities of his collaborator HKADC in the development of art in Hong Kong. What does this kind of uninformed collaboration tell us about M+’s commitment to the overall art development in Hong Kong? Being responsibility for the public is an undertaking that concerns not only the individual – otherwise it becomes a kind of heroism. Being responsibility for the public is an undertaking that cannot be monopolized by one institution in isolation from the others – otherwise it becomes a slanted policy.

2. Whose matter is this – between professionals and the public

In a study on the emergence of professional institutions in the US and Europe during the 19th century, Louis Menand made the point that when institutions propose a set of professional standards, a “redistribution of certain social values” is involved. “The autonomous individual,” he says, “is now figured as less free than the person who operates as the extension of an organization – less free because less secure in his sense of identity, less likely to get done what he wants done, less able to hold his course in the winds of competing interests.” (Note 6) I propose it is precisely because there is a public relevance and aspect to the professional, any public institution that participates in setting up professional standards should be doing so as a process of setting up ethical practices and social values. This is the publicness of the professional, and the responsibility of the professional to produce meaning for the public. This is what I mean by the professional being doubly accountable. In this case, both public institutions claim that not all of their work can be “made public”. This shows how crude and reduced their understanding of the idea of the public is. I would like to reiterate that this is not a matter of “procedure” within an institution, but a deliberation of principles. It is a deliberation on what is fair and just. This debate is of course challenging, but this is also the source of its meaning and force of the idea of the public. Hong Kong is yet to institute a Public Archives Law. This will be one of the directions we could work for so that the mandate of public institutions, and what they are responsible for and legitimated by becomes clear to the public.


Post Postscript – Ought we not still be thinking today…

My learning in this incident and the problematics arising from it continues with the idea of “parochial” coined by Kevin Kwong in the South China Morning Post (Oct 7, 2012). I find it problematic that the writer assumes that the so-called parochial is a barrier and burden to a “common international practice”. To do so is to leave the idea itself, and what it is expected to give way for unexamined. The writing relies on labeling and blaming, not analysis and thinking. I have been reading Meagan Morris’ “On the future of parochialism: globalization, Young and Dangerous IV, and Cinema Studies in Tuen Mun” in Film History and National Cinema, Studies in Irish Film 2, 2005), and have found it helpful in addressing the complexities of the problematic. My learning continues.

September 9, 2013
*An abridged version of this article was first published in Chinese in ARTCO, January 2013, Taipei, No. 244.


Note 1 – A number of art practitioners met with Chow Yung Ping and other ADC staff regarding the matter. In the meeting, we emphasized that we are not an organized group. Many had different views for how to make the presentation at VB better, including, but not exclusively, the possibility of setting up a permanent office managing it. ADC also mentioned there was the consideration of pairing up with the Museum of Art. The overall atmosphere was one of sharing and brainstorming ideas, and the meeting was proposed in good faith by the practitioners. Minutes are available on request from the author at yangy817@gmail.com.

Note 2 – Email dated July 19, 2012, sent to Yeung Yang in reply to the letter sent by all conveners on behalf of the petitioners on July 10, 2012.

Note 3 – I added this Postscript in December 2012 when asked by the Taiwan-based Chinese-language magazine ARTCO to submit an updated version of this article. I have included the published version in the AICAHK website.

Note 4 – I have the statement in Chinese only and am not aware of any English version. I have also tried to locate copies of the document on the HKADC website but have failed. I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong. This is my translation.

Note 5 – A public forum organized by conveners of the signature campaign “Call for better ethical practices of public institutions for contemporary art” http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/ was held at the Fringe Club on October 3, 2012. Executive Director of M+ Lars Nittve and Chairman of the HKADC Wilfred Wong were invited to speak.

Note 6 – Discovering Modernism. T.S. Eliot and His Context . New York: Oxford University Press. 1987:118-9.