Materials in urban artistic activism

Year: 2021

Author: Chan, Kelly Ka-Lai

Type of paper: Symposium

The newly imposed national security law in June 2020 was amongst the most restrictive measures the Chinese Communist Party has taken to tighten its grip over Hong Kong, a former British colony now known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since the Handover—the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. People in Hong Kong have taken to the streets to resist and protest against the erosion of freedoms since the very day of the Handover. Hong Kong people’s freedom struggle and demand for social justice continue during the COVID-19 pandemic and the post-national security law imposition time. My research project focuses on the relationships between art, urban space, and subjectivity. The study examines how recent social movements inform artist-activists and how their practices, in turn, inform the movements. The visual ethnography, onsite in Hong Kong and online, follows the strand of public pedagogy literature, which covers deliberative, active (art) political interventions in society and focuses on the educational work to be done in and for the public sphere. The ethnography follows recent social movements in Hong Kong, including the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the ‘Be Water’ Movement in 2019, and the current COVID era in the development of public pedagogy at the intersection between art and protest practices. The emerging artistic tactics of creating spaces of publicness, which I call urban pedagogies of resistance, reveal what is possible in opening possibilities of ‘becoming public’ by enacting ‘interruptions’ in public places.For the symposium, a multispecies ethnographer, a cross-species-scales-shores speculator and I as a visual ethnographer explore the co-participation of materials in our projects to reimagine education research. Inspired by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s The Hundreds (2019), we collaborate in experimenting with writing in hundred-word units to explore materials as participants in our diverse projects. My study is informed by interviews with eight artist-activists in Hong Kong, using visual methods including videos and images to explore subjectivity. Through this collaborative experiment, I examine what and how materials partake in urban social movements. For example, collective art practices in social movements such as layers of post-it notes covering surfaces around the city, tens of thousands of bodies in a 35-mile-long human chain as a peaceful protest demonstration, an ocean of artistic work such as posters and songs circulated online anonymously. Further, I explore how the materiality of artefacts and the project are evolving with the pandemic-related interruptions and the continuing current crises.