Art Issues- Venice Biennale
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The truth matters – why questions need to be asked (about HKADC and M+’s collaboration in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013) 真相攸關 — 為甚麼要就香港藝術發展局與西九文化區視覺文化博物館M+於2013年第55 屆威尼斯雙年展的合作提出問題?
at 3:49pm on 11th September 2013
Photo: Wayne Wong and wen yau
(中文翻譯請往下看 Please scroll down to read the Chinese translation.)
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(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(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.
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(4) in hard copies before the beginning of a public forum on the incident(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.”(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
(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 email@example.com.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(6) Discovering Modernism. T.S. Eliot and His Context . New York: Oxford University Press. 1987:118-9.
An abridged version of this article was first published in Chinese in ARTCO No. 244, January 2013, Taipei.
真相攸關 — 為甚麼要就香港藝術發展局與西九文化區視覺文化博物館M+於2013年第55 屆威尼斯雙年展的合作提出問題？
香港自2001 年起參與威尼斯雙年展，今年一改以往由香港藝術發展局（藝發局）的公開徵集計劃書方式，變為由藝發局委約西九文化區視覺文化博物館M+（M+）合作，M+行政總裁李立偉擔任總策展人。單看過去籌備參展問題之多，政策似乎有改善的必要。例如2009 年，藝術家白雙全在展覽開幕前三個月才正式得到通知獲選，籌備時間過於緊迫。2011 年，由於有關於申請程序的投訴，藝發局在評審面試後取消了整輪申請，並重新展開第二輪申請，幾個本來參選的團隊都參與聯署行動質疑藝發局的做法。但是，今年的政策改動惹人疑慮，卻別有因由。
首先，就著雙年展的參與權，以往以平等參與為原則，如今的新方式以委約進行，是大原則的改變。可是，當局卻沒有向公眾解釋為何在芸芸政策中擇一而棄其他，或是曾考慮過其他那些方案。另外，是次政策改變對將來在雙年展中展示香港藝術的機制有甚麼意義和影響，以至藝發局和 Ｍ＋的「合作」是否會進一部建制化等議題，理應有公眾和業界的討論。早在２００６年１１月２３日， 西九龍文娛藝術區核心文化藝術設施諮詢委員會轄下的博物館小組發表新聞公報，宣佈成立「新文化機構」Ｍ＋，其任命為「以超越傳統概念及跨界別的嶄新手法研究及展示視覺文化。」召集人羅仲榮並說「小組十分重視Ｍ＋的研究及教育角色」。不同機構於香港藝術發展的各個層面上的職責，制定怎樣的政策達至怎樣的目的，都牽涉如何為社會建立和維護藝術價值的嚴肅問題。究竟Ｍ＋被邀策劃這傳統雙年展內的香港館展覽，跟它原本的任命，以及這次合作跟香港藝術未來發展方向有甚麼關係，兩個機構都未有向公眾詳細解釋。相反，藝發局把合作說成是與M+的一次「實驗」，把公共事項當成為只是兩個機構之間的事，不鼓勵公眾討論。這做法其實是在鼓吹一種思考習性：藝術不是為所有人而是為少數而設的。因此，這不僅是沒有咨詢業界和公眾的程序問題，更重要的，是當局違背了作為獲授權專責香港藝術發展的公營機構的根本使命，放棄了引發有關藝術價值的公眾討論和建立瞭解和欣賞藝術的公共文化的機會。
自六月份當局宣佈參展安排至今, 我有幾點觀察, 在此稍作補充。
2012年10月3日，藝發局於公眾論壇發佈聲明，說過去「每屆展覽都由不同的策展團隊籌備，欠缺固定的工作團隊承傳經驗」，這也成為要跟M+合作的理由。把承傳看作為以委任一個策展團隊而達至，不但表示藝發局對怎樣的條件能構成整體的、並非只則重策展一項的承傳的想法模糊有，也顯露了局方一直在屬於自身職責的領域（例如場地資料、宣傳、紀錄和研究工作）都未有做好。與此同時，M+強調自己是被邀請的，是被動的，業界也有聲音說M+是受害者。我不同意,因為M+作為一個公營機構有其任命, 要理解自身工作的合法性和合理性，也沒有一個專業機構能只在空中樓閣中運作。M+承諾跟藝發局合作, 卻在引發公眾不滿時跟藝發局保持距離, 似乎對藝發局作為香港本地藝術發展的任命和職分一點不理解、不關心, 這樣的「合作」, 又顯示M+對整體本地藝術發展的承擔有多少?承擔非屬個人，否則它就變成英雄主義；承擔也非由一個機構獨佔，否則它就變成政策傾斜。
Louis Menand 於十九世紀歐美專業組織如何成為認可專業水平的機構的研究當中，指出當這些組織提出一套專業資格的時候，也是為社會價值重整(redistribution of certain social values)。這時候, 個人（有別於由機構認可的專業人）每每會變得在身分上感到不自由，也會比之前較難做到要做的，較難在利益的競爭中堅守路向(1)。正因專業有其社會性和社會意義，公營機構對專業水平的界定，也應該是建立良好操守及其社會價值的過程。這些都是專業的公共性，也是專業在公共領域產生意義的責任，這也就是我在上文說的雙重責任。可惜，兩公營機構一直只說不是所有工作都能「公開」，這又見它們對「公」的粗略對待及其構成原素的矮化。我要重申，這不只是程序問題，而是理念之辯。「公」，是對公平、公義的取態，這當然艱巨，但這也是它的意義和力量的來源。香港仍未有公共檔案法，也未有資訊自由法，這也會是我們將來要努力的方向，好讓公營機構以公眾為任命的職份與法理更清晰。
(1) The autonomous individual 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.”Menand, Discovering Modernism. T.S. Eliot and His Context. New York: Oxford University Press. 1987:118-9.
原文以英文發表。節錄及中譯版原載於《今藝術典藏》No. 244， 臺北，2013 年1月。