Coffee With A Curator: Joel Kwong

“Transmutation”, presented by Input/Output Gallery, installation view at Highline Loft, Hong Kong, 7–15 March 2012. Image courtesy of the artists and Input/Output Gallery.
“Sachiko Kodama Solo Exhibition”, installation view at Input/Output Gallery, Hong Kong, 2 December 2011 – 19 February 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Input/Output Gallery.
Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Alvaro Cassinelli, Move on, nothing to see (SHY BOT), 2015–2021, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Justine Emard, Co(AI)xistence, 2017, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
NONOTAK studio, NARROW v.2, 2017, light and sound installation, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13 October – 22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Darsha Hewitt, Electrostatic Bell Choir, 2013, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13–22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
TASKO inc., Perfumery Organ, 2015/2017, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13–22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Yao Chung-han, DzDz, 2015, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13–22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Keith Lam & Dimension Plus, The Sunata – The Prelude: Rain, installation view at K11 Art Mall, Hong Kong, 7 November 2019 – 1 January 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.
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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 tenth conversation, we sit down with Joel Kwong, Curator and Programme Director of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 Originally, you studied Sports Science and Leisure Management at University of Hong Kong (HKU). How did you get to be involved in art and curating?

Since my early age, I am an avid reader. I have always thought that I would become a writer or a reporter. However, because of Hong Kong’s rigid system of education and my family background—they all studied science—I chose a scientific bachelor, although the less scientific I could take! During these years at HKU, I have learned a lot, notably through students in the dormitory who introduced me to independent music and films. I was still writing but got very much interested in independent productions, so I applied for a General Education summer programme and wrote a proposal to make a video documentary for indie music in Hong Kong. My project was selected, and this is how I met Ellen Pau, who was one of the tutors in the programme. I discovered all the independent art spaces, including Videotage. Ellen became my mentor and I worked as an intern at Videotage afterwards.

 

What was your learning process?

Ellen’s training was about “learning by your eyes” so, basically, she would give us piles of VHS tapes that we had to look at several times. She would then ask us to talk about what we had watched. I learnt editing techniques and produced a work that was submitted to ifva (incubator for film & visual media in Asia), so, at that time, I felt I could become a video artist. However, I am not skilled at editing; I think I was better at research and storytelling. I decided to be a flight attendant for one year after my graduation so that I could travel and see more art, and also got free time to volunteer for art projects.

 

Did you already think about curating exhibitions?

I had no idea about curating until 2006. That year I joined Microwave Festival as a project manager, and I guess this is when I started to learn about what would later become my job as a curator. I worked closely with the curator and began to look at things in a more systematic way: space, audience, artworks… I was also involved in funding. After a few editions of the festival, I got a more solid experience, however, I still lacked an academic perspective. In order to enrich my insights, in 2006 I joined a master’s programme of Cultural Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong with Ellen, who was also an autodidact. It was a great opportunity to learn about other art practices and mediums.

 

Microwave Festival began in 1996 as an annual video art festival but it is now recognized as the most important international festival of new media art in Hong Kong. What is your personal journey towards new media and how did you embrace new technologies?

For me, videos and technologies have always been linked. I do not see them as “new media” because this has never been new to me: I immediately jumped into technology without any formal training in traditional art. This is all very natural to me.

 

“Transmutation”, presented by Input/Output Gallery, installation view at Highline Loft, Hong Kong, 7–15 March 2012. Image courtesy of the artists and Input/Output Gallery.
“Sachiko Kodama Solo Exhibition”, installation view at Input/Output Gallery, Hong Kong, 2 December 2011 – 19 February 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Input/Output Gallery.

 

In 2008, you were the artistic director of Input / Output Gallery, the first media art gallery in Hong Kong. Working for a commercial gallery must have been very different from working for a non-profit organization.

Yes, I felt I had to split my mind. Teddy Lo invited me to join the gallery, which was a small gallery space in Central at that time. We quickly moved to a two-floor space where we could show bigger installations and a wider variety of media artworks. Teddy was very open to any form of presentation, and working with a commercial approach is indeed very different, where you can commission artworks and engage in creative collaborations. For instance, we were commissioned by Nike Shanghai to develop an interactive installation, inspired by Kobe Bryant’s works, for an exhibition in their space.

 

Microwave Festival is a festival open to public for free—as a curator, how do you come up with themes that can appeal to a large audience?

For Microwave, my focus is indeed the audience and how we can engage with them as much as possible. I am doing a lot of research, particularly through archiving news. I feel that my curatorial themes have to echo with what is currently happening in the society, both locally and globally. What you read in the media offers a good mirror of people’s concerns. For instance, in the 2013 edition titled “Terra Zero”, I decided to focus the theme on deep space, and I kept researching news about our future inhabitation on Mars or any other possible planets, the discovery of water on the Moon, etc.

What matters is the storytelling. I am not craving for cutting-edge technologies as the festival does not aim at showing the latest advancement in scientific research. I am interested in the interpretation of this research and how it has an impact on our daily life.

 

Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Alvaro Cassinelli, Move on, nothing to see (SHY BOT), 2015–2021, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Justine Emard, Co(AI)xistence, 2017, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2021, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 30 October – 7 November 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 

For the 2021 edition, “Yesterday’s Fiction, Today’s Reality”, you drew inspiration from science fictions. How did you conceive the visitors’ journey and their engagement with the works?

This edition was related to artificial intelligence. I have approached the theme like a science fiction story. For me, AI is like a new species. How will we cohabit with it? I am using the space to tell a narrative and I conceive visitors’ journey like a multi-layered game with hidden gates. The journey starts with a very concrete example of classic role-playing games: when visitors entered the space, an algorithm would choose for them whether they had to go right or left. Most people were happy to follow these instructions. From there, my team and I designed three zones, but people could enter anywhere from different gates. Each artwork was presented together with quotes extracted from sci-fi books: you could thus follow the route from different perspectives and build your own story. The last installation was Justine Emard’s Co(AI)xistence (2017), a scientific experience that centers on the relationship between a robot and a Japanese actor. For me, it was like a statement to end the show with this artwork, which is very much about how we could learn to live with, and love, this new species.

 

NONOTAK studio, NARROW v.2, 2017, light and sound installation, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13 October – 22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 

The exhibition space, City Hall, is not an easy space to work with. How do you approach the site?

We have many limitations, and there are many house rules to follow, but this is also my job to deal with this specific space. In 2017, the festival featured NONOTAK studio’s Narrow V.2 (2017), a LED installation that spans 36 meters. I could not show the whole artwork, but I played with the window reflection in order to enlarge it—perceptually. Since the beginning, we also benefited from a great team of designers who helped transform the space as much as possible.

 

Darsha Hewitt, Electrostatic Bell Choir, 2013, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13–22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
TASKO inc., Perfumery Organ, 2015/2017, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13–22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Yao Chung-han, DzDz, 2015, installation view in Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2017, at Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong, 13–22 October 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 

New media installation often involves the audience’s participation, a feature can be challenging for a curator. How do you avoid people’s frustration, say, when they have to queue to experiment a work?

Curating new media works involves many aspects that need to be considered: sound, interaction, QR codes, space arrangement including breathing spaces, as well as how to guide people’s emotions during their journey. The management of the crowd is something that I learnt from experience. For the 2017 edition, I wanted to explore the notion of performance and wished to include many performative artworks. It was a failure to me because I did not consider the effects of halogenic works, which were so attractive and photogenic that everyone wanted to take selfies, especially in Perfumery Organ (2015–2017) by TASKO inc., Darsha Hewitt’s Electrostatic Bell Choir (2013) with all its TV screens, and Narrow V.2(2017) as mentioned above. People were queuing outside of the venue, and I received so many complaints! It was a good lesson, and, from that time onwards, I have been trying not to aestheticise the shows too much so that people are not distracted by taking photographs.

 

How would you define the scope of new media art? Some artworks are very much like documentaries while other might look like research pieces, like Google Maps Hacks (2020) by Simon Weckert.

My definition of new media is very broad – Art x Science/ Art x Tech is media art, or even broader – as long as you are using a “medium” to convey a message, it is media art. The artistic approach is not necessarily about the form of the work. For some artists, coding is like poetry. In 2020, we also showed Don’t Follow The Wind (2015-2017), a virtual reality installation that invites people to enter the forbidden zone of Fukushima and walk there. You could consider this piece as a form of documentary. This zone is abandoned, and people cannot go there anymore, but thanks to technology, we can now bring people inside.

 

Some of the artworks that you show are very critical, such as Triple-Chaser (2019), a video work featured in your 2020 edition, about the implication of a member of the Whitney Museum board in the production of tear gas grenades. This time, you were exploring the complex and sometimes ambiguous relationships between truth and new technologies.

The curatorial theme for 2019 was “Sharp Chronicles”. As mentioned in my curatorial statement, the idea was first triggered by the determination and curiosity to pursue the truth. The forms of artworks keep evolving and, apart from the investigation itself, like in the case of Forensic Architecture that you mentioned, the whole process of education and engagement with the audience are works of art too, like “The Glass Room” by Tactical Tech.

These works, plus the online education programmes, aimed to develop a bridge and conversation with the audience: what are the other possibilities of an artwork? What if making art is always a way to explore the truth? Or what if making an artwork is a new form of archive? All these are open-ended questions, as long as we trigger one thought in one’s mind, that will create for them a ripple effect to explore more.

 

Keith Lam & Dimension Plus, The Sunata – The Prelude: Rain, installation view at K11 Art Mall, Hong Kong, 7 November 2019 – 1 January 2020. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

In parallel to Microwave Festival, you have been curating large-scale exhibitions, especially in shopping malls. In 2019, for instance, you showed Keith Lam’s “The Sunata” commissioned by K11 Art Mall. What are the challenges to work in a shopping mall?

I do not see this as specifically challenging—just need to consider the audience behaviours and adapt to the context. In a mall, people do not expect to see art and will usually show less patience. I try to change my curatorial approach to play with attractive colours and design and conceive messages that can be understood quickly.  Keith’s sculpture was hanging from the ceiling of the piazza, like a cloud in the sky. This organic cloud shape was derived from the rain data of Hong Kong in a 10-year span. In the mall, people could also book an immersive tour to explore more artworks in the space, yet this time they had to be focused and more active. With commissioned works, you have time to engage deeper with the artist, and to respond to the specific context the work is exhibited.

 

Research continues to be at the core of your practice. Can you tell me more about your current project?

I do research all the time, as a daily practice. Currently, I am investigating the gaps between art and technology, in the hope to offer various perspectives on how to integrate them in different projects. With the support from the Hong Kong Design Institute, we are now setting up a web portal with layers of content in order to facilitate collaboration between arts and technology in Hong Kong. Recently, I have been interviewing 24 professionals who share with me their experiences and insights.

 

Do you feel that new technologies are perceived negatively in the art circle today?

Not really, the nature of technologies is like invention and intervention–we now live with technologies every day and it no longer creates any fear among general public. This dates back to the Dada period, with the use of film as a material for art, then to Fluxus and the promotion of cross media, followed by Experiments in Art and Technology and the collaboration between Nam June Paik and John Cage. All this is perceived positively. Apart from using technology as a medium, communications and interactive technology are also key for audience engagement, even when we look at conventional art forms.

 

You have also curated online exhibitions. How much do you think new media will challenge the way we curate shows?

The pandemic gave us a chance to have a deeper thought towards online and offline approaches: before COVID-19, the online platform was only one gate to engage, promote, or archive the content of an exhibition. Now it has become the “core” of an art project.

I do think media artworks—for example, interactive games and video essays—are easier to adapt to online platforms. The challenge is to understand what we can do online and how we can use technologies to modify media art installations in a way that the audience can still engage with it. For instance, through a web app. How far can we push? These changes take time and require a strong collaboration between the technical team and the artists, yet as we keep learning I believe a new form of presentation can come to life.

 

You are also a writer, and it seems that writing and curating, in your case, are two related practices. As a way to experiment transmedia storytelling, you have curated “All about Life & Death”, an exhibition derived from your novels. What was it about?

From the four novels I wrote, I have asked various artists from different discipline to create a work. The novels are about a female writer who is writing in her room, which I see it like Virginia Woof’s famous room. Thus it resulted in a mise en abyme when multiplied by the collaboration from other artists. Composer Edward Chiu, for instance, created a sound composition based on the characters of the novel. Each score corresponds with a person, forming a narrative when you play them together. In the exhibition, when people opened the books, the music would play. I also worked with visual artist Joe Fang who created the front cover of the manuscripts. I enjoy this type of cross-disciplinary collaborations. In art history, I have always been inspired by the Fluxus movement, and its open concept of art is what interests me.

 

 

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