Performing the Commons: The (In)elasticity of Social Engagement in the Face of Political Suppression

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
yau, wen. “Performing the Commons: The (In)elasticity of Social Engagement in the Face of Political Suppression.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021.

wen yau

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend. — Bruce Lee, Longstreet[1]

This saying by Bruce Lee in 1971 has trended in Hong Kong and “Be Water” has become a popular mantra, especially in the civil unrest and protests in recent years.[2] The philosophy embedded in this phrase can also be found in some art projects in Hong Kong engaging the community in a flexible and critical manner that embraces the communal values. In this paper, I examine three substantial projects of Art Together (藝術到家), an artist collective based in Hong Kong, actively doing socially engaged art and community work since 2008. They are also sociopolitically concerned and obliged to respond to the social and political change in Hong Kong via artistic means. In their projects, I find some intriguing tactics that they have developed over the years to perform the commons with meticulous planning and great care for local cultures and histories. I argue that these tactics offer inspiring insights into how the practice of socially engaged art can help build civil society. Their resilient and elastic approaches for engaging other artists, their collaborators, audiences, as well as formal institutions also illuminate the possibilities of using art as a tactical means of building communal values in civil society in the face of political suppression.

To set the stage, I briefly discuss the development of civil society in Hong Kong and its recent paradigm shifts. These sociopolitical contexts provide a reference for the increasingly repressive situations Hong Kong has recently faced. My research draws on my personal observation and participatory experience as well as on my continuous dialogues with some members of Art Together — fellow artists with whom I have collaborated on various art projects in the past few years. Through their projects, I analyse the possible role art can play in strengthening civil society despite the unfavourable conditions we faced in Hong Kong.

Civil Society in Hong Kong: From Defender to Protector

Hong Kong has witnessed a significant paradigm shift in its civil society following the 1997 Handover. Since the mid-1980s when news about sovereignty transfer from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) emerged, the composition of Hong Kong’s civil society had shifted from pressure groups demanding improvement for living conditions to political groups and parties advocating democratic reforms (Chan). In the transition to the PRC’s rule, Hong Kong’s civil society had become more active in social mobilisation and protests. The 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement marked a significant shift in civil society from being a “passive defender” to an “active protector,” fighting for autonomy as promised by the PRC before the Handover. At the same time, the government threw its partnership with civil society, which used to have a role in governance, into disarray, thus losing the trust needed for civil society players to participate in policy-making (Chan and Chan).

The 2014 Umbrella Movement was a turning point in the development of civil society in Hong Kong. The campaign “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” (OCLP) was originally proposed by Reverend Chu Yiu Ming, as well as university professors Benny Tai and Kin Man Chan; it was as a non-violent civil disobedience fight for universal and equal suffrage by occupying the central business district for a day.[3] Triggered by students’ protests, the movement sharply transformed into a seventy-nine-day occupation, or the so-called “Umbrella Movement,” which took place in three major areas across the city. On the one hand, the Umbrella Movement seemed to open up people’s imagination of reclaiming urban public space through occupation, and of reactivating the civil society by some self-organised initiatives. On the other hand, “localism” gained tremendous support during the Umbrella Movement, as the PRC refused to grant genuine democracy and the promised high degree of autonomy to Hong Kong. Post-occupy localists called for militant approaches in defending Hong Kong’s autonomy (or independence) from the PRC, and at the same time championed intolerance, exclusion, and hostile sentiments towards mainlanders and social groups or parties serving new immigrants from Mainland China. Their championship has challenged the values of a “good” civil society (Chan and Chan 148). Militant resistance, or violent clashes of localist protesters in civil unrest, called the “Fishball Revolution” (2016) further aggravated the antagonism. The government lost the trust of civil society after their massive prosecution of activists as well as non-violent campaign leaders, who were charged with and jailed for “unlawful assembly,” “unauthorised assembly,” “public nuisance,” and even “riot” — a charge inherited from dated colonial law.

It is amidst these paradigm shifts that the artist collective Art Together was established in Hong Kong. Founded in 2008, Art Together is keen on doing “outreach” programmes, bringing art to non-art audiences and different communities through their educational projects in schools, festivals in outdoor public spaces, and exhibitions in unconventional venues. The group converted to a registered charitable organisation in 2014; they received a three-year grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), which provides long-term support for their work in a sustainable manner since 2019, and won the Hong Kong Arts Development Award for Arts Education in 2018. Through a few series of on-going projects, they seek to encourage art-making as a creative and critical response to social issues, contextualised in local cultures and histories. Their projects often employ performative and quasi-guerrilla tactics to explore public space that has been overlooked and sometimes to convey political subtexts. They also insist on having their unconventional programmes and activities legitimised by official recognition, approval, or permits from the authorities. This requires a certain degree of resilience and elasticity for them to meet the demands of bureaucracy and at the same time to sustain their subtle rebellion against the establishments. In this paper, three of their serial projects are examined, including “In Search of the Coastline” (2014-), “Once Upon A Goose” (2015-), and “Sustainable Fest” (2016-), which reveal Art Together’s resilient tactics of social engagement. I see these tactics as acts of “commoning”[4], which they performed together with the participating artists, members of community, and the audience. These acts show the possible roles that art and the artists can play in fostering the development of civil society in such a repressive situation as in Hong Kong.

“In Search of the Coastline”: Local Histories Uncovered

“Mobility” is one of the key tactics that Art Together has been using to reach different communities in their project. The collective organised a “mobile” exhibition titled “Art for Survival” (2009) in which each participating artist created an installation on a trolley and then joined the annual July 1 Rally on the anniversary of the Handover. Their original idea was to proactively bring art to the public and reach out to non-art audiences during the most popular protest in the city. Later on, this project transformed into an educational initiative called “In Search of the Coastline” (2014), which invited five artists to each conduct a series of workshop in a participating high school.[5] In the workshops, artists led students in conducting an on-site field study and literary research on local histories and stories of Hong Kong, and in creating their own mobile installations on trolleys. Some of them built an old shop on wheels; some created a miniature tram, which was one of the earliest forms of public transport in the city built along the coastline since 1904; and some made a collage of various things they found in their neighbourhood. Art Together also collaborated with the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHe) for their research support and to produce a learning kit on the history of Hong Kong’s coastline. Before the workshops were held in schools, Art Together had invited teaching artists and a few more artists to join a “home-made trolley parade” in April 2014 from Western District to Central. Participating artists made their own installation-trolleys and marched along the 1960s coastline. They chose the coastline dating back to the 1960s because of the significant change in the colonial government’s policy of public administration and economic development in the aftermath of the 1967 riot in Hong Kong. They also subtly parodied the “Festival of Hong Kong,” which was held for three editions by the government in the late 1906s and early 1970s as post-riot whitewashing propaganda.[6] This small-scale parade served as a scouting and a trial run of the route. It also served as an example to show the students how the activity would likely take place.

Art Together has often adapted a Janus-faced tactic in the programme. When organising “In Search of the Coastline,” they complied with the regulations and at the same time attempted to push the limit of these regulations, which had been inherited from the colonial government and then used by the authority to confine the freedom of assembly. They adapted a highly flexible and elastic approach in playing by the rules and at the same time covering their creative resistance to these rules with art. The timing of the “Art Parade” joined by young students that took place in November 2014 made it a particularly intriguing event. As the Occupy movement was happening at that time, the police were in general very alert to public activities on the street level. Yet after going through some formalities in advance to obtain a “letter of no objection” from the police, Art Together managed to lead a hundred students marching from Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park (which was indeed across the road and opposite to the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in HKSAR, the main office of PRC’s government in Hong Kong) to Central Star Ferry Pier (which was less than a mile away from the occupied site outside the Government Offices). I joined the parade with the group and was amazed by the police’s minimal intervention strategy as we moved around with those trolleys on footbridges and pavements. The official permit from the police also made the event assured — it was a sidewalk parade but not a street rally — and participating students feel at ease, notwithstanding the social turmoil at that time. Along the parading route, participants were driven by the constables, especially at the front of the crowd, to move fast and without stopping. Yet they continued to march along the route at their own pace. Even though a few of their trolleys were broken or not working properly in practice, the responsible students moved on by carrying their installation.

The empowerment that the students experienced when displaying their own work along the streets was impressive. “Chi sin” (黐線, a Cantonese colloquialism, literally meaning “insane”) was a word that I heard a lot on the way when the participating students expressed their amazement in the course of the parade. They looked shy at the beginning and then were amazed by their encounters with curious local residents and their mostly positive responses. For the students, they had approached art-making and exhibiting their work in a rather unconventional manner. Walking their trolleys on crowded pavements made them highly aware and responsive to other pedestrians. Instead of showing their work in a gallery statically, they took an active role in presenting their work and the programme flyers to the passers-by upon their enquiry. Participating students also found this experience of reclaiming public space by creative means novel and exciting, especially amid the tension aroused by the Occupy movement in town. Meanwhile, they felt safe and supported all the way as they were accompanied by the teaching artists and Art Together staff members. To wrap up the whole project, there was also a documentation exhibition displaying the “making-of” photos and videos; it served as further recognition of the students’ effort and consolidation of their learning experience. The basic structure of the 2014 programme repeated in the second edition of “In Search of the Coastline” in 2018-2019, which took place in Kowloon, the other side across the harbour in the city.

All photos courtesy of Art Together.

“Under the Bridge”: Public Space Discovered

Art Together continuously explores the possibilities of using forgotten, neglected, or inconspicuous public space in Hong Kong. Another on-going project of theirs, “Under the Bridge,” illustrates well their idea of using art as tactics of subtle and resilient urban intervention. In 2015, they launched the first edition of the project “Once Upon A Goose,” featuring comic art by five local artists on the columns under a major flyover motorway.[7] The featured work touches on local cultures or community stories in the district. The project location was in a place formerly named Bowrington after the Governor in the 1850s and nicknamed “Ngo Keng” (鵝頸 or literally “Goose neck”) in Cantonese because of its landscape. Canal Bowrington was built at the opening of Wong Nai Chung Gap in the middle of Hong Kong Island, leading to Victoria Habour, and was one of the urbanised areas during early colonial times. The canal was covered in the 1970s for urban development. The area under the flyover has now become a transportation hub consisting of bus stops with heavy daily commutes and exhaust gas emitted by vehicles. Some parts used to be resided by the homeless and were later rebuilt into a small recreational park under the bridge. The “Ngo Keng” area is also a popular place for “petty person beating” (打小人) rituals especially during the springtime. Some old ladies sit in front of miniature shrines, and people can drop by and pay them to beat a paper effigy loudly and repeatedly with old shoes so as to drive away evils and troubles for them. The place is mostly perceived as a messy area where people just come and go, and its histories and stories are seldom explored or highlighted.

The serial project “Under the Bridge” was started serendipitously. Members of Art Together were first approached by a realty company, which had built new commercial towers nearby, and invited to curate an international art exhibition in this place. The group soon realized that the land developer wanted to display art under the bridge for decoration and gentrification that could help lift the prices of its realty. Art Together was more keen on creating local art exploring local histories than doing flashy and spectacular art that would be inaccessible to the public. After some discussion, the developer’s interest fizzled, and they decided to pursue the project in their own way. They quickly realised the difficulties in identifying the corresponding government department(s) that they could propose to. Highways Department, Home Affairs Bureau, District Council, all disclaimed their responsibility for the columns under the flyover. It took them a lot of time and effort to liaise and negotiate with various bureaucrats and formal institutions to find the “right person” to speak with. Even the government officers had no experience of handling their request or proposal for doing a project on “beautifying cityscape” in this dark, messy, and overlooked space.

“Under the Bridge” has been another test of Art Together’s mettle in seeking formal collaboration with institutions. This, again, required an elastic, two-pronged approach in dealing with different government departments and the funding body. Their persistent pursuit of the project and formal liaison between different government departments stemmed from the goodwill to have local cultures and histories, which were often undervalued, validated indirectly through art. They also wanted the artwork displayed to be kept in a more permanent and sustainable manner. Later on, Art Together received a multi-project grant from the HKADC, which enabled them to realize “Once Upon A Goose” (2015) as well as “In Search of the Coastline” (2014). Other than commissioning artwork by five artists, the programme also included a guided tour, storytelling, and performances on site. “Once Upon A Goose” as a trial opened up the possibilities of “hacking” this kind of “no man’s land” in the city. On the one hand, Art Together strived to celebrate local history and cultures, which have often been disregarded since colonial times. On the other hand, they reclaimed a public space that was administrated by the government and/or bureaucrats, transforming it into a monument of local histories. In order to obtain funding from the HKADC, they had to talk about “art” and emphasize the artistic value of the project. In order to obtain permission from the government departments, they had to speak “institutional” language and pander to their policy on public amenities and landscape services. Other than diplomacy, Art Together had to remain responsive and elastic so as to meet their own needs and the requirements of other institutions. “Once Upon A Goose” laid the foundation for further development of the whole serial project. “Under the Bridge” launched its second edition “Once Upon A Horn” (2017) in Ngau Tau Kok,[8] and its third edition “Once Upon a Lychee” (2019) in Lai Chi Kok[9]. Comic art is a popular and accessible form for the public to represent local histories and stories. The displayed artworks on columns are more than decoration; they serve to celebrate and, more importantly, to facilitate people’s connection with and reimagination of the place they live and its histories in an everyday-life context. The add-on events also allowed artists and audiences to re-interpret these histories in a dialogic and performative manner, reminding people about stories of the places they had forgotten or ignored.

All photos courtesy of Art Together.

“Sustainable Fest”: Nature Recovered

The last example of Art Together’s work is the “Sustainable Fest” that Art Together has been organising since 2016.[10] Just like their other projects, “Sustainable Fest” shows their enthusiasm for embracing local cultures and identity, and reaching irregular art audiences in inconspicuous spaces. The festival has three editions in 2016, 2018, and 2019 and is devoted to highlighting co-existence and sustainability of humans and nature.[11] The 2016 iteration took place in Kai Tak Runway Park after their applications for some other parks with large green spaces in town were rejected by the government departments. As a former airport at the heart of the city, Kai Tak Runway Park has open views due to the previous height restrictions on surrounding buildings, and at the same time, it is a bleak place, exposed to tough weather. The festival was stopped by a cold snap in which some pieces of the installation art were destroyed by strong winds after its first day of activity in January. Art Together had to adapt new plans and staged the second day in April in Cattle Depot Artist Village, a former animal quarantine depot and now a heritage site, which contained indoor and outdoor spaces. There was installation art, performances, workshops, talks, BookCrossing[12], and a commodity exchange bazaar — all themed loosely around sustainable living. They also produced a booklet listing shops and organisations handling second-hand items, food salvage, local farm produces, conscious consuming, and preservation cultural heritage in Hong Kong.

The 2018 and 2019 festival followed a similar programme, taking place in Tao Samg Wai, Yuen Long — a suburban village populated by about 100 people, with many fish farms, and geographically close to Mai Po Nature Reserve wetland and the border of Mainland China. Named “Fishpond Diving Sustainable Art Festival” in 2018 and “Fishpond Sustainable Art Festival” in 2019, the festivals attracted in particular crowds of curious audiences travelling all the way to the northwest suburb, which had been very much unexplored by most city dwellers. Plans of developing rural areas in the northwest suburb as part of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area integration, driven by the government, also raised people’s awareness of the few remaining farmlands in Hong Kong. Art Together was invited by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society (HKBWS) to organise “Sustainable Fest” in that area. HKBWS has been running the fishpond conservation scheme as part of their habitat management for birds and wildlife in collaboration with local fish farmers in the area since 2012. The HKBWS gave them a lead on community engagement in the village, and Art Together could also reach out to non-regular art lovers through the HKBWS’s social network. The festivals typically consisted of a site-specific, (eco)work exhibition created by artists and art students, a mini-concert, a bird watching eco-tour, an art tour, a food workshop, a diving workshop, and a crafts/art-making workshop, which took place in one weekend. Months before each festival, members of Art Together spent time with villagers there, and participating artists of the festivals stayed in the village for short-term residencies for a few months, researching and working on their projects. Mutual understanding and trust were built over time during the befriending among artists and local villagers. With the villagers’ help and contribution, artists developed their site-specific work in correspondence with the festival theme, instead of imposing their own ideas on it. Their work therefore showed this deep engagement and close connection with the villagers and their living culture, as well as their reflection upon the notion of sustainable living through their practical experience. Unlike flashy and spectacular work aimed at photo-taking and/or social media dissemination, Art Together’s installation art responded to the environment and living culture of the fishing village, engaging viewers in a contemplative and even reflexive manner.

Unlike “In Search of the Coastline” and “Under the Bridge,” both of which involved formal institutions, the festivals by the fishponds were more about engaging the villagers, participating artists, members of the audience, as well as volunteers in a considerate and flexible manner. Art Together carefully planned to strike a balance among maintaining the fish farm’s tranquility, enriching visitors’ experience, and promoting the culture of sustainable living in the village. In the first place, they had to communicate with the villagers and build a trustful relationship. They also had to carefully select the participating artists who would be adaptable to the environment and the villagers’ concerns. During the festival, on the one hand, they booked a minibus especially for visitors and reminded them not to take the shuttle bus that the villagers used to commute to and from the town centre. Staff members of Art Together also consciously gave a face-to-face briefing to the festival participants about the etiquettes to be observed in the village during each bus trip to Tao Samg Wai, as they wanted to highlight the human touch. They also worked out with villagers the assigned routes for guided tours and areas for workshop participants. Their visits were all led by staff members, so as to minimise disturbance to the wildlife and villagers’ everyday life during the festivals. People had to register prior to the events, hence the limited number of participants in the two-day festivals. On the other hand, the programme they produced also aligned well with the festival theme: co-existence and sustainability of humans and nature. The artworks that were created by artists during their residence in the village set a modest and humble tone that illuminated the festival’s theme. Other activities also encouraged participants to observe and transform their contemplative experience into small work. For instance, participants in a workshop picked up feathers of wild birds and created quill pens for plein-air art on site. In another workshop, participants collected pieces of rubble from disused pond bunds and transformed them into ornaments. Through this festival, Art Together also attracted a team of engaged volunteers who were interested in exploring alternative lifestyles. During the festivals, some old villagers spontaneously set up their mini stalls, selling some of their farm produce and pickles to have fun as well. “Sustainable Fest” created an occasion for participating artists, villagers, and visitors to discover and appreciate the beauty of co-living with nature through participatory experiences. To reach a wider range of audiences, Art Together also presented a documentation exhibition in various arts spaces in town after each edition of the festival. They also put booklets and documentary videos on their website and social media for publicity.

All photos courtesy of Art Together.

Performing the Commons: The Art of Reactivation

At this point, I want to use the notion of “the commons” to further examine Art Together’s socially engaged projects. The commons, a term that has often been used in ecology and human geography, refers to “a broad set of resources, natural and cultural, that are shared by many people” and are “open access” (Anderies and Janssen 3-4). Garrett Hardin’s renowned notion “the tragedy of the commons” warns against people’s overharvesting due to our inability to self-govern common resources, proposing private property rights and government restriction of consumption as possible solutions (Hardin 1243-1248). In her research, political scientist Elinor Ostrom calls the commons “common-pool resources,” which “refers to a natural or man-made resource system that is sufficiently large as to make it costly (but not impossible) to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use” (Ostrom 30). She also concludes with some successful self-governance strategies for natural resource management from her extensive case studies on commonality. These theories may not be completely applicable to cultural resources, which are shared, yet cannot be considered overused or overharvested. More relevant to cultural commons, other researchers shift their focus to the social practice of “commoning,” a term popularized by historian Peter Linebaugh in his studies of the Magna Carta as a recognition of civil rights and liberty for people co-living with the environment. Linebaugh suggests to keep the word common “as a verb, an activity, rather than as a noun, a substantive” (Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto 279); it conveys the on-going act of sharing them and building communal values and signifies face-to-face interaction, participation, and relationship (Linebaugh, Stop, Thief! 13-23). The act of commoning is therefore a continuous process, concerning how the commons are being shared by self-organized activities and mediated by social relations. I find the notion of “commoning” especially relevant when reviewing socially engaged art that intends to build communal values in communities. Art Together serves as a relevant example of using art elastically and resiliently to engage the public. It involved multiple parties to reimagine the commons and the act of commoning in a performative manner, which are unfolded in this section.

The three Art Together projects that I discussed in the previous sections demonstrated the various tactics they employed to engage the community through sharing the commons and building communal values. The commons that Art Together have been tackling through art include public space, local cultures, and histories, as well as shared experience and shared knowledge. As an education-based project, “In Search of the Coastline” offered an opportunity to teaching artists, their students, and their schoolteachers to research and co-construct knowledge of local histories and art-making skills. In the name of art, the parade was also a subtle statement about reclaiming public spaces, which have been increasingly policed since 2014. Through “Under the Bridge,” Art Together engaged participating artists, bureaucrats, and passers-by to rediscover and reimagine the possibilities of public space, turning it into a monument of local histories that artfully honours forgotten local cultures and histories. With its explicit theme of the sustainability of the commons and an awareness of the living environment for humans and other creatures, “Sustainable Fest” is an especially effective project of commoning. By repeated short-term residencies, over time, Art Together and the participating artists have developed social relations with villagers by the fishponds, as they were engaged to actively learn from each other and to re-examine the community’s culture through daily chit-chat and negotiations for event arrangements. All these projects created different kinds of embodied experiences shared by various participating parties. The sense of “being there” let participating artists and audiences connect themselves to the commons, including public space, natural resources, and local cultures and histories, which might have been forgotten or overlooked, and to rethink possible alternatives. A sense of community was built based on their shared experiences and knowledge in these events. Most importantly, from Art Together’s projects, I argue that it was these embodied experiences that flexed, stretched, and expanded the practice of commoning.

I see these shared experiences as essential components in the process of commoning, especially in art practices. Unlike other common resources, art as a kind of cultural commons is not as readily measurable and extractable as other natural resources such as water and oil. For art and culture, sharing does not imply subtraction but indeed multiplication or reactivation. For example, the artists shared their art-making and creative skills with students or participants who learned these skills through their embodied actions and (re-)enactment of the artists’ demonstration. The learned skills could then be integrated with their own skills, transformed imaginatively into different creative outcomes, and shared with others again. When perceiving these art-making skills as a form of cultural commons, the creative process indeed is stretching and expanding its capacity through continuous and repeated transmission in a resilient manner. The same applied to the shared aesthetic experience that event participants or viewers acquired in a sidewalk parade, under the flyover bridge, or in a fishpond village. By participating in the event or even by glancing at the artwork during their daily commute in the city, one could draw sensory and intellectual inspirations from it, discover or reimagine the possibilities of public space and sustainable living, and relate themselves to the urban or rural environments as well as the histories and cultures of these places. Through unexpected encounter, amazement, curiosity, and a sense of accomplishment and recognition, communal values derived from the meaning of the places that people created in the process, in connection with their individual or collective experience and memory. These moments of sharing the commons, including public space, local cultures and histories, experience and knowledge, as well as building communal values, add up to acts of commoning. Art Together’s urban intervention in quasi-guerrilla style, which conveys subtle, critical reflections yet is assured to some extent by formal institutions, also raises questions about how the commons such as public space and the natural environment are being used, administrated, accessed, and shared. Their experience of organising projects such as “In Search of the Coastline” and “Under the Bridge” added up to “Sustainable Fest,” in which they brought forward their socially engaged art as a practice of commoning. In the festivals, both aesthetic and communal values of sustainable lifestyle were shared and constructed in a network of social relations they had continuously developed among themselves, participating artists and volunteers, the villagers, as well as festival participants.

Given that “commoning” is a continuous and on-going act of sharing resources and building communal values within a community or network of social relations, I further propose to envisage acts of commoning as performative practices. With reference to J. L. Austin’s notion of “speech-act,” an utterance is performative as it is a form of action, rather than a verbal description. As the utterance of “commoning,” or sharing common resources, indeed implies action, “commoning” per se can be viewed as performative. In the case of Art Together’s projects, the performativity of commoning lies in how the commons are being shared and communal values built in continuous interaction and through engaged dialogue. Furthermore, Diana Taylor’s theory of “act of transfer” can be called into the discussion here about the embodied practice involved in the performativity of commoning. In her book The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003), she discusses the myth of archive vis-à-vis repertoire. The archive is often supposed to contain “enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones),” which are “unmediated” and resist change, corruptibility, and political manipulation (Taylor 19). The repertoire, meanwhile, is presumably ephemeral and concerns “embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual),” requiring people’s participation in “the production and reproduction of knowledge by ‘being there’” (19-20). Writing as a form of archiving can be transmitted across distances, whereas the repertoire stored in the body has to be “transmitted ‘live’ in the here and now to a live audience” (24). In this sense, performances function as “acts of transfer,” (2) when the repertoire and the archive work together to transmit social knowledge, cultural memory, and identities. Instead of readily dichotomizing the archive and the repertoire in hegemonic relation, Taylor puts forward the idea that “scenarios [can operate as] meaning making paradigms that structure social environments, behaviors and potential outcomes” (28).

Using Art Together’s projects as examples, I see the potentiality of investigating how they are performing the commons as a scenario in each project, in which cultural memories and identities are shared and transmitted. The acts of transfer occur when cultural commons are shared through embodied experiences; at the same time, Art Together destablises conventional codes in their projects, such as spaces for exhibiting art, formal management of public space, and development of land. Taylor’s examination of the “scenario of discovery” found in the ethnographic writings of conquerors and colonists in the Americas is especially relevant here. She analyses how scenarios work “through reactivation rather than duplication” (32) as the repertoire and the archive lend themselves to each other in the process of legitimating their identities. For example, whilst colonial ethnographer Sahagún attempted to use his writing about Mexican indigenous practices to eradicate them, the archive itself preserves and transmits the repertoire, which is supposed to be eliminated (34-41). Art Together’s projects do not work on the archive per se, rather they focus on tactics of using art as a means of reactivating cultural commons that have been overlooked, forgotten, or ignored. Their insistence on obtaining formal assurance from the authority indeed helps transmit their repertoire of celebrating local cultures and histories, reclaiming public space, and co-existing with nature in a sustainable lifestyle. By performing the commons in their projects, they have raised critical awareness of the commons, such as public space that has been heavily policed or bureaucratized, farmlands that are coveted by realty developers, and local cultures and histories that have been neglected or undervalued by the authority and establishment. The tactics of performing the commons employed in these projects are especially essential in the increasingly repressive situation in Hong Kong, as political activities become more and more suppressed by the authority.

Be Water: Cover-up, Resilience and (In)elasticity

Year 2019 marked a big breaking point in Hong Kong for its year-long protests and civil unrest that shocked the world. At the same time, the people voiced strong objections to the government, as pro-democracy candidates extensively won a majority of seats over the pro-establishment camp in the District Council election. Mass arrests and extensive prosecution of protesters and activists were followed by the prompt legislation of the new Hong Kong National Security Law by the PRC’s National People’s Congress in June 2020 without any consultation with Hong Kong residents.[13] The new law criminalises any act of “secession” (separating Hong Kong away from the PRC), “subversion” (overthrowing the power or authority of the central government), “terrorist activities” (using violence or intimidation against people), and “collusion” with foreign or external forces, and apply broadly to permanent or non-permanent Hong Kong residents and people from outside Hong Kong. There has been fierce criticism about the law: its coverage is so broad that the boundary is unclear, and the “red line” is moving according to political needs. The chilling effect has been prominent, as numerous opposition groups disbanded, activists fled overseas, and people removed their social media posts or accounts with political contents and planned to emigrate and leave Hong Kong. Heavy stress and strains have been put on Hong Kong’s civil society. Since the law was passed, rounds of arrests have been made by police in a high-profile manner, targeting opposition figures, which has further deterred people from openly speaking up or participating in politically related activities.

The pandemic outbreak in 2020 made for an even more difficult time in Hong Kong, as most public events and large-scale activities had to be suspended amid the lockdown. The political situation and social turmoil since 2019 also interrupted public events at times. Art Together had planned the fourth and fifth edition of Sustainable Fest: “Fishpond Sweet Sustainable Art Festival” in 2020 and 2021, and had launched a few pre-festival events in 2019 and 2020. However, artists’ residence and other public events were suspended, since the fish farm village was closed to the public and only invited guests could make short-term visits. All the events such as exhibitions and artist talks had to go online in both the 2020 and 2021 festivals. The group also planned to launch “Once Upon a Dragon Interchange,” the fourth edition of the “Under the Bridge” project, in Kowloon City district near the former airport. Again, the project has received funding from HKADC, yet formalities have to be done with District Council and other formal institutions. The majority of district councillors are pro-democratic and welcome their proposal. Yet the District Officer of the Home Affairs Department responsible for the district put their project on hold, claiming she had objections from the community that one of the proposed artworks was “unsuitable”. It is believed that the “unsuitable” work is the one that contains imagery of smoke, which may give a subtle hint of tear gas, a symbol of violence deployed massively by the police in the 2019 protests. Since the pro-democracy camp overtook the majority seats in the 2019 election, the government has openly showed their noncooperation with the elected council members and obstructed their proposed district work through administrative means. The District Officer’s interference in Art Together’s project is not exceptional. In fact, a former key member of Art Together ran for the 2019 District Council election and won a seat on the Hong Kong side. Art Together was also one of few art groups in Hong Kong that were actively engaged in project(s) directly addressing the 2019 protests. Therefore, they are probably recognised as an “opposition” group to the government, hence the hostility and antagonism.

Art Together’s Janus-faced tactic may no longer be efficacious when they are being involuntarily pigeonholed in a politicised and divided situation. In the process of negotiating with bureaucrats, members of Art Together strongly feel their noncooperation throughout their administrative procedures. For example, the District Office has remained unresponsive, using the excuse of the “work-from-home” pandemic measure. Furthermore, there has been no formal or transparent public consultation conducted regarding the artworks they propose to display under the bridge, and therefore the “objection” the officer mentioned might be cherry-picking. Censorship may be covered up by administrative means. Art Together are caught in a dilemma as the project has received support from the HKADC yet has been thwarted by the bureaucrats, who are responsible for district administration but not art. This may require Art Together to recall the persistence they learned from the beginning of this project, talking to officers from different levels and different departments. At the same time, the sociopolitical situation in Hong Kong has been very volatile since the 2019 unrests. The elasticity of Art Together, and even others in Hong Kong’s civil society, has been rigorously tested. As the red line is moving, the breaking point may come at any point when the authority turns against any party that they deem threatening or “subversive.”

In response to this volatility, Art Together has started a new and informal initiative in 2020 called “All Rounded 18 Districts” (十八般社區).[14] They have extensively researched the funding available for community projects in the eighteen District Councils in Hong Kong, which are dominated by liberal-minded pro-democratic members after the 2019 election. At the same time, they are working closely with young curators and artists to mentor a group of engaged young people recruited from local universities. Their idea is to make good use of the resources from District Council, which used to be in the hands of the pro-establishment camp, to facilitate individuals developing their own community projects exploring local cultures and histories and to put their projects in practice. “All Rounded 18 Districts” operates like a satellite programme of Art Together, and the community projects are presented by new groups formed by other artists and/or by the students. They envision this as a guerrilla tactic — that more and more groups are setting up and running their own projects in the future, and that the groups serve as “undercover operations” in which their members can conceal their personal identity and be protected from immediate attack. This mirrors one of the tactics that protesters used a lot in the 2019 civil unrest in Hong Kong, as a multitude of leaderless black blocs charged around in the streets, playing it by ear, and could not be seized easily. Again, this involves a high degree of resilience and elasticity as the multitude of people assemble or disband at any time — the crux lies in the tacit understanding they developed in the process of commoning, and the communal values that have been co-built and shared. “All Rounded 18 Districts” is a seed-planting initiative. Just like the workshop in which cultural commons can be multiplied, Art Together expects that their mentored young people will have learned the skills of organising community projects and integrated them with their own interests, to then pass on these skills to others in the future.

As the government has further lost its trust of civil society and the regime has turned authoritarian, I witness how self-help and self-organisation among the people is empowering. Leisure-like art activities can serve as an effective cover-up of resistance or a retreat from political turmoil. “Be Water” and “Blossom Everywhere” (遍地開花) were two slogans that were often upheld by protesters in 2019. Art Together’s tactics of performing the commons offer us insights into the role that art can play in civil society in the face of a repressive situation. Water has a high density and is mostly incompressible. Its formless and shapeless feature makes it look like elastic, yet strain cannot really reduce its size and volume. In a repressive situation like Hong Kong, we may have to remain resilient and, at the same time, inelastic in striving for what we believe in. When the commons we share are multiplied by our engagement, the strength of civil society can flow and crash like water, despite any compression.

Works Cited

Anderies, John, and Janssen, Marco. Sustaining the Commons. Centre for Behaviour, Institutions and the Environment. Arizona State University, 2013.

Chan, Elaine, and Joseph Chan. “Hong Kong 2007-2017: A Backlash in Civil Society.” Asia Pacific Journal of Public Administration, vol. 39, no. 2, 2017, pp. 135-152.

Chan, Kin Man. “Civil Society and Democratic Development in Hong Kong.” Twenty-First Century, no. 128, Dec. 2011, pp. 23-31.

陳健民,〈香港的公民社會與民主發展〉,《二十一世紀》, 2011年12月號 總第128期。頁23-31.

Festival of Hong Kong exhibition, Central Library, 2019. Accessed 16 April 2021.

Hardin, Garret. “Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, vol. 162, no. 3859, 13 December 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

Lang, Sabine. NGOs, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. University of California Press, 2008.

Lee, Bruce, actor. “The Way of the Intercepting Fist.” Longstreet, American Broadcasting System, TV Episode, September 1971.

Linebaugh, Peter. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance. PM Press, 2014.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, 2015 [1990].

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Duke University Press, 2003.


  1. In the ABC’s TV series Longstreet (1971-1972), Bruce Lee played a character called Li Tsung in the episode The Way of the Intercepting Fist (1971). The quote cited was part of his conversation with the main character Mike Longstreet played by James Franciscus about Jeet Kune Do. More details: Accessed 16 April 2021. In “Bruce Lee: The Lost Interview” (1971) with Canadian journalist Pierre Berton, he mentioned that Stirling Silliphant, the scriptwriter of Longstreet was his student, and he was expressing himself honestly in martial arts and the series. More details: The Lost Interview: Bruce Lee. BN Publishing. 2009

  2. “Be Water” became popular among protestors during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 as they wanted to encourage more flexible tactics to counter the police. The catchphrase then appeared as a mantra for the 2019 protests, as leaderless and guerrilla tactics were often used on the street. More details: Accessed 16 April 2021.

  3. Accessed 16 April 2021.

  4. The term “commoning” has been increasingly used in recent discussions about social practices. It refers to Peter Linebaugh’s notion of using the term “common” as a verb to denote the act of sharing the commons. More details will be discussed in the later part of this paper, “Performing the Commons: The Art of Reactivation.”

  5. Accessed 16 April 2021.

  6. According to the government’s documentation, the government aimed to use cultural programmes to cheer up the society: “Ruined by two riots in 1960s, Hong Kong society had severely suffered from social turmoil and widespread sentiment over the territory. To alleviate the impacts of the riots and cultivate joyful atmosphere, the government held the ‘Festival of Hong Kong’ for three times in 1969, 1971 and 1973. From the opening ceremony to the closing parade, the Festivals aimed to bring joy to the people of Hong Kong through a wide range of cultural and recreational activities, including military performances, sports competitions, entertainment programmes, cultural exhibitions, which successfully attracted the attention and participation of thousands of citizens.” (“Festival of Hong Kong” 2019)

  7. Accessed 16 April 2021.

  8. Accessed 16 April 2021.

  9. Accessed 16 April 2021.

  10. Accessed 16 April 2021.

  11. There was a 2020 edition “Fishpond Sweet Sustainable Art Festival” planned, but the festival was postponed to January 2021 and relocated to Cattle Depot Artist Village as the originally proposed venue–the fish farm village in Tao Samg Wai–was in lockdown amid the pandemic.

  12. BookCrossing has been a popular practice in Hong Kong and globally in recent years. Typically, there is an attendant-free bookshelf set up in corner on the street or in shops. People can drop off their books and pick up other’s for free. The term is derived from a free online book club, /. Last accessed January 2021.

  13. Full text of the law: Accessed 16 April 2021.

  14. The project is informal and has a Chinese title “十八般社區,” which makes reference to a Chinese idiom about an all-rounded martial arts player being trained with eighteen essential skills.