In our series of conversations, Coffee With A Curator, contributing writer Caroline Ha Thuc sits down with curators working at the fore of Hong Kong’s contemporary art scene to take a deep dive into their careers to date, curatorial vision, and more.
TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
For our ninth conversation, we sit down with Eunice Tsang, founder and curator of Current Plans, an off-space based in Hong Kong.
From 2016 to 2020, you worked as an Assistant curator in Tai Kwun, yet you come from a media background. You were also trained as an artist and obtained an art degree in London. How did you switch to curating and what was your main drive?
It was never my intention to “switch to curating”—I didn’t have a clear vision of my career trajectory but I’ve always had a clear idea of the questions that I was pursuing. I think that trying to satiate my curiosity about the art ecology led me down this path rabbit hole.
In fact, you haven’t stopped working in the media industry, be it working as a journalist for Time Out Hong Kong or doing documentaries for RTHK. For you, there is a connection between curators and journalists, in the sense that both need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of others and ask questions.
Definitely. I feel that both require curiosity, empathy, and flexibility. I loved being a journalist because it meant being able to ask anyone basically anything. I’m always fascinated by the idea of parallel worlds—the identities and lifestyles I will never experience because of the decisions I’ve made—so to interview people was a way to live vicariously through their stories. Similarly, curating offers me a way to spend time with certain artists, to live a small part of our lives together for a moment. Is that not beautiful? I need to have personal relationships with the artists I work with—I want to know not just about their work, but also about the books they read, the music they listen to, their relationship with their cat…
One of your important projects in Tai Kwun was the establishment of the Asian Artists’ Book Library and the annual Art Book Fair. In the history of curating, there is a strong link between books—as catalogues or even as exhibitions’ formats—and curators. What is your personal connection with books?
Early on, in my research into artists’ books, I read that John Baldessari said he made artist books because he didn’t want his art to be only accessed by the elite, in a white cube. With multiples and publications, his works are able to be spread amongst personal libraries anywhere. I love that sense of democracy and generosity, on a smaller (in terms of size and price) but wider scale. I think there is definitely a link between artist publishing and curating. I have been running a small press venture called Sulla Fuffa since 2017 and found that a very meditative practice alongside curating a space. Be it on the page, or in a room, both require a strong sense of trust and collaboration between artists and publisher/curator.
What would be your takeaways from your experience in Tai Kwun?
Being one of the earliest members on the Tai Kwun team (I joined before it opened), I gained insight into how structures and systems are created from scratch. Under the wonderfully generous and precise leadership of Tobias Berger and Xue Tan, I learned to do things like writing artist contracts, proposals, and ways of dealing with finance and procurement—things that are tedious but essential groundwork that I realised not many art workers are informed to do. At Tai Kwun, I was able to link up and work with many top international artists (going shopping with Francis Alys!) that I would not be able to reach in other contexts.
My favourite experience was producing new commissions, which led me to meet many local fabricators and sifus (“masters” in Cantonese). I loved conversations with them, learning about their ways of finding creative solutions in very physical, material ways.
In 2020, you founded Present Projects, which has now become Current Plans—with a word slippage. What pushed you to open your own space?
Ever since I saw a show my art school classmates made for a derelict kindergarten in London (of which I only have a very blurry recollection), I have been fascinated with people who run their own space. Also, after researching artists’ books for Tai Kwun Contemporary, I have learned a lot about independent publishing practices, which often involve having one’s own space for writing, editing, printing, sharing, and exhibiting books or ephemera. However, being in Hong Kong, I never thought it would be possible to run my own space, due to unaffordable rents. So when I was presented with the opportunity to come up with a programme proposal in a lovely space (that just happened to be right across my home), I was filled with adrenaline and wrote down everything I had been thinking about in the past five years in the proposal.
The space is defined as an experimental space dedicated to knowledge sharing. What does it mean for you?
There are two main things I focus on while creating this space—experimentation, as in encouraging artists and also myself to play with ideas through trial and error and not having to worry too much about the end result, or even about completing an installation for the opening date, but to focus on the process of dialogue and material exploration.
Secondly, knowledge sharing, which, for me, comes in many different formats. Exhibition-making is one method of presenting a constellation of ideas that converge in the same space and time in Current Plans, but I want to explore more ways of opening up the discussions raised by each artist I work with, for instance, through lecture performances, film screenings, and workshops. One thing I’m excited to try out is a programme series I’m developing called “Coping Mechanisms” in which creative practitioners will be invited to share something upon the theme inspired by sustained emotions of discontent and fragility recently. By inviting thinkers from different disciplines, from architecture to music, I want it to become a platform for lateral thinking and knowledge sharing.
You also wish to redefine your space as an off-space, inspired by Svetlana Boym’s concept of “off-modern”. What do you mean?
I try to be cautious of how Current Plans is defined because it’s still a work in progress. Recently I came across the writing of Svetlana Boym where she coined the term “off-modern”, which I found immensely relevant to my practice. It’s about cultural evolutions that go off the beaten path, left out of History with a capital H, but instead invite us to embrace performance-in-progress, trial-and-error, and improvisation.
The space is relatively challenging. How do you conceive the display and the visitors’ journey?
Great question. The space is really unique as an old fabric storage/shop, renovated as a co-working space. With its uneven walls and colourful tiled floors, it is definitely not a clean white cube. The space becomes much more of a character and lends itself to developing site-specific works. One of the first things I did was to build a “moon gate” between the two main gallery rooms to get rid of the foldable zigzag and office-like existing wall. A lot of artists are attracted to the curvature of the moon gate. There are two entrances, which necessarily impacts my curatorial approach. I usually prefer people to move freely from either entrance, and install works in such a way that each speaks to one another, so one can view them from different vantage points.
Current Plans is located in Sham Shui Po, a dense district with a few other art -elated spaces. I know that this community is important for you. How do you collaborate?
The neighbourhood is small but populated with a lot of art, design, and fashion people. I have great neighbours like Thy Audio Visual Lab, RNH Space, and Wontonmeen. Since last year I’ve been trying new forms of collaborating by extending a group show to Thy Lab, where an artist’s video was screened. I have started doing irregular weekend tours, where I invite writers and other creatives to visit the three of our spaces, then we head to a local bar. I would also like to build a shared online inventory of furniture, like plinths and projectors, that could be utilised among spaces. Of course, that needs a lot of trust and mutual goodwill.
When you worked at Tai Kwun, you were fascinated by the multiplicity of the talented people involved in the making of a show. You told me that you wish to pay more attention to the creative potential of everyone, how do you implement this idea at Current Plans?
As a start, I looked at the installers and fabricators I worked with, whom I knew had art practices but were not seen as artists. I also talked a lot with Wing Shya and Cheryl Ng, who started Present Projects with me. Our aim was to work with a plethora of creatives. Shya and Ng are mainly from the fashion, photography and filmmaking scene, so they also introduced a lot of interesting people and point of views, which would be great to expand on.
I am still trying to garner enough funding in order to involve more people in different facets of running Current Plans. For example, a new recurring programme this year is “Game Kitchen”, partly funded by the Goethe Institut. Allison Yang is a video game scholar and writer whom I worked with at Present Projects last year. I presented a video game created by Sometimes Monastery, which she is part of. For “Game Kitchen,” I take more of a back seat, and provide venue and various support for a bi-monthly workshop series that she curates, focussing on bringing together designers and writers from the video game scene, which I think is a great source of inspiration that has untapped potential in the contemporary art world.
Another program I’m developing is a collaboration with a Hong Kong underground label called SEEAHOLE. It started when I invited the founder, James, to hold a concert as a closing party for my exhibition “Fault Lines”. He expanded it by not just inviting musicians, but also by encouraging them to make samples through engaging with the installation materials of the show, such as throwing the foam bricks or rubbing the concrete components of a sculpture on the floor (all with consent of the artists, of course). In the end, the concert involved three musicians who directly responded to the conceptual theme of the exhibition. We are in talks of holding a mini music festival later this year.
You continue to work as an artist, having exhibited one piece in the exhibition “Fault Lines”. Do you think this artistic input changes the way you approach exhibition making?
I feel that I am constantly navigating between mindsets of an artist and a curator. I think having this awareness is immensely useful to my approach to exhibition making, because I feel more empathetic to the artist’s work process. I’m very interested in working step by step with them, from the development of a concept to finding the right screw for an installation. It’s really important that the artists feel they are heard and understood, and mentally and physically supported in developing their work.
I am aware of the pros and cons of showing one’s artwork in one’s own show, and “Fault Lines” was definitely a first for me. I don’t think this would happen very often. But in a sense, I do think of Current Plans holistically as an art project, so what’s an artwork in an artwork…?
You are mainly curating group shows. Why?
I enjoy curating group shows because it’s a great platform to bring together different voices and ideas simultaneously. After I come up with a brief curatorial concept, working with artists reveals new concepts and trajectories. I find freshness in the long dialogues between individuals that ultimately converge together temporally and spatially. It also has to do with the reality of running a space—I don’t know how long this privilege of having a space will last, so I want to share and expand its use as much as I can, and one of the best ways is to do group exhibitions.
Do you mainly work with Hong Kong artists? As a curator, how do you expand your network of artists?
Due to the realities caused by closed borders, I mainly worked with Hong Kong artists. It also makes sense because I started by collaborating with local art fabricators and installers at institutions who have their own art practices. Currently I’m developing shows with a Japanese duo called Tomihiro and Sayaka that makes stunning wigs, and French photographer Julien Levy. Hopefully they can come to Current Plans before the end of the year! I am also looking forward to curating outside Hong Kong.
I guess that you have also been enlarging your artists’ community while working abroad during your residency programme?
Absolutely. It was a privilege to be able to spend three intensive months in Turin, Italy, and meeting with artists in the Young Curators Residency Programme at Fondazione Sandretto.
There were two other curators (from New Delhi and San Francisco) with totally different backgrounds, and every week we were shown around different cities by a local curator. We did plenty of studio visits, mostly with young artists, also with museum directors, project space curators, and art publishers. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience in which you get to meet new people and delve into their practices, engage in deep conversations, and make lasting connections.
How much did it change your conception of curating?
It was fascinating to learn about the differing operation models in Italian cities, funding bodies, and concerns of the artists. For me, one thing that was striking was how many foundations were there and how it is a model that could potentially flourish in Hong Kong.
In terms of curating, it was a challenge to come up with a concept in only one month, with two other people I just met, but we managed to develop a framework that was both specific to Italy and inclusive enough to touch upon universal socio-politics. Our group exhibition “Camminiamo sul ciglio di un istante” (Walking on the edge of an instant) used the Carnival as a space to imagine, create, and critique temporary utopias.
How would you define the role of the curator?
I think a curator is an amalgamation of roles—a mediator, interrogator, problem solver, friend, interpreter, translator, therapist…
What are the biggest challenges of running an independent art space in Hong Kong?
The biggest challenges has got to be funding. I’m sure this is a universal issue. First of all, high rent is impossible to avoid in this city. Second, I want to ensure that all labour is paid, so I need to be able to cover artist fees and installation and production fees. I think another challenge, at least for me, is ensuring that what I am doing curatorially is urgent, relevant, and not a waste of money. We are living in such peculiar time, when every word you say and work you produce has to be scrutinised, but if you can deal with the stress I think one could turn it around and create the most touching, meaningful art.
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