As online art festival Peer to Peer: UK/HK gears up for next week, CoBo Social spoke via Zoom with some of the masterminds behind the project—Festival Director and Hong Kong-based independent curator Ying Kwok; and co-organisers Sarah Fisher, Director, Open Eye Gallery; and Lindsay Taylor, Curator, University of Salford Art Collection—on this cross-regional experimentation on a new model of exhibition and festival making.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Peer to Peer: UK/HK
Some 18 months in the making and conceived long before the current global health crisis triggered enormous disruption and change to our lives, according to Kwok, Fisher and Taylor, Peer to Peer: UK/HK was originally intended as a cross-continent physical exchange. This has, of course, very much transformed. While the nature of presentation has been adapted into a digital festival, the beating heart of the project—to be a building block for forging long-term relationships between the visual art sectors of both regions—remains unchanged.
Supported by the Arts Council England and the GREAT campaign, Peer to Peer: UK/HK is co-led by Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, the University of Salford Art Collection, and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester. Together, they have partnered with more than 20 institutions and organisations across the UK and Hong Kong including: Wellcome Collection (UK); Nottingham Contemporary (UK); Milton Keynes Arts Centre (UK); Videotage (HK); Centre for Heritage Arts and Textiles (HK); and Eaton Workshop (HK), among others. The result is a diverse, trans-disciplinary meeting of some of the most active and cutting-edge organisations operating in Hong Kong and the UK’s visual arts sectors.
“I think the distributed leadership is the most important aspect of this in lots of ways. It’s about nurturing the partner organisations and helping them step up to be the leaders as well, because they are all in their own right, directors of organisations, but this is a new way of working for them,” explains Taylor.
“Because what we’re trying to see is a very balanced program. It’s not just focusing on one aspect, a particular subject matter, or one country leading more than the other,” adds Kwok. “This is really about how we’re trying to make sure it has diverse voices, but also everyone will still have ownership to it.”
For Kwok, who previously lived in the UK, Peer to Peer: UK/HK is an opportunity to bring the model of similarly large-scale, city-wide collaboration to Hong Kong, something of a rarity until recently. “It was something that I have had in mind for years since when I relocated back to Hong Kong, but I’ve been waiting all this time until this opportunity can really happen.”
“The sector in Hong Kong is incredibly vibrant, there’s some really interesting artists and some brilliant people working there,” says Fisher. “Those relationships in Hong Kong have been very important to me, in various organisations that I’ve worked in.”
“We are all hoping that if we could start to develop relationships for the sector in the UK and in Hong Kong, that actually a number of people would end up developing those deep relationships where it’s not just about one project with one artist,” says Fisher. Kwok and Taylor agree; their hopes are for legacy projects to develop between partnered organisations of this year’s festival, and for this iteration to be one of many to come.
COVID-19 has triggered the art world at large towards a greater awareness of our actions; it has sped up the urgency of addressing concerns and issues that were already existing pre-pandemic, and forced reconsideration of whether current models of collaboration and exhibition-making were truly working. “I think it is an insight for us to look into how we can do it differently in the future. I don’t think you’re going to replace the physical experience of research trips, or meeting in person, but it’s just that we have to think what can we make use of with the digital platform? And what is most important that we leave for us to do in person? This is something we have to rethink,” says Kwok. “So this is a time really, to break the ice. I think it’s not just about institutions starting to pay more attention to media and digital art, but we actually have a very big learning curve.”
Alongside five newly commissioned artworks, more than 15 artworks nominated by partner organisations will be presented in an online exhibition comprised of works that are both digitally native, and others than have been adapted for the platform. Selection processes are rarely an easy task, and even more so perhaps when the organisers have big hearts and wish to give back. Careful consideration for artworks that are better suited for online presentation was finely balanced with the delicate topic of which artists may gain the most out of this exposure and opportunity.
“It’s actually about a real opportunity that perhaps we can maximise for artists, and for curators too; curating online content has probably become much more important,” adds Fisher. “It’s not about replacing. Digital is here. It’s operating, and people are operating it. How can we support artists to operate in it as well?”
“We wanted to have an equal weighting of Hong Kong and British artists across the whole program, but also looking at the type and the style of work,” says Taylor. “We didn’t want it to become too weighted to one particular theme, or one particular aesthetic. It was trying to think from the audience point of view, and ask what’s the overall experience?”
“We are trying to invite artists and ask them to reconsider their work, think about other ways of showcasing. So even though their work was not produced for the digital platform, the festival has actually given them a chance to really think about the potential of it being viewed outside the gallery space,” says Kwok.
“This is just a pilot really. I think it’s been a way of engaging more organisations, more partners, and more artists,” says Taylor. One of the most ambitious components of the festival is the online artist residency, which has already begun and will continue through to the end of the festival. Comprised of social media takeovers, of which there are currently 13 planned, Kwok matched participating artists with partner organisations who volunteered to host an artist through a social media channel of their choice—Instagram has by far been the popular favourite. For each, the takeover date and duration varies—left open for the host and artist to decide. “So it’s really case by case, everyone is very different,” Kwok explains.
The important factor was not the format and final outcome, but that the match was meaningful for both parties. Kwok shares an example of pairing UK-based performance and installation artist Joey Holder with Hong Kong’s K11 Art Foundation (KAF). “We think with the multiple platforms of KAF, Joey will really be able to respond to more than just the online residence, or the online showcase.”
The social media residencies, they believe, also open up opportunities for discovery, experimentation, and exposure to a wider network online, and give a space for commonalities and shared experiences to be visible. One example cited is the residency exchange of Spanish-born Hong Kong-based artist Raul Hernandez who is taking over Open Eye Gallery’s Instagram account for four consecutive weekends. Sharing accounts of his experience as a foreigner in a new environment, Fisher notes how this is the kind of experience familiar to so many of us in this contemporary, globally connected world.
“It feels to me like, now is the perfect time for us to work internationally. And money aside, it’s the right thing to do, we should all be thinking about the world that we live in, how we connect internationally, and how we support artists to actually develop very important ideas, and inspire us all,” says Fisher. Peer to Peer: UK/HK is an experimentation in a new model of exhibition and festival making but moreover a new means of collaboration that is striving to be open-minded, accessible and fair.