Soundpocket Artistic Director Yang Yeung in Hong Kong, Reminds Us That Our Ears Are Conduits For Mindfulness
I started to be interested in sound after I encountered Su-mei Tse’s video “L’echo”, at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Tse is an artist from Luxembourg, who is also trained as a classical cellist and comes from a family of musicians. She sits with her cello near a mountain canyon, starts playing and pauses to listen to her echo, and then plays in response to it. The image of the cellist listening to herself, and to the echoes she, the cello, the air, the valley, and the sky make together, has stuck with me. It still does.
Soundpocket’s main business isn’t to show art, but to nurture and incubate. We have an Artist Support Program since 2010 which open calls for application every year, around the summer. We are facing some delay this year because of the pandemic. We give awardees a monthly stipend for 10 months and s/he gets to go on a one-month residency with either Art Center Ongoing in Tokyo or Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago. We also have a website called The Library by soundpocket. It encourages sound collecting by multiple means: recording, composing poetry, drawing etc. There, one also finds stories on listening and sounds, by artists and non-artists. In Hong Kong, the art of sound and listening is still under-addressed. One reason is the comparatively little support for artists working with sound in institutions and established systems of exchange. We believe supporting artists who are curious about this is vital, if artists are not doing well, the entire well-being of the art ecology suffers.
The way I find artists working seriously and creatively with sound (and silences) is varied. Art makes beauty particular and accessible, thereby making truth possible and communicable. Any art, serious about its relation to truth, needs support. Some artistic practices have not received as much support as others have, like the art of sound and listening. So I find myself where I am, and in a way, being framed by questions regarding ‘sound art’ because I founded an organisation interested in supporting sound and listening, as art and in art. I am with you on the idea that art has to be sought. I’d say start listening to everything: the pre-, the post-, the within, around, and imaginary, ie. what happens before one listens to a particular object of sound, what happens after a sound source subsides, what happens within ourselves when we listen, how is the inner experience coextensive of the experience of the world, how does imagination play out in this activity of listening. This may prepare us for the moment, any moment, when art calls on us. Yes, to listen, is to stay open. We may be caught off-guard when a moment of beauty arrests us.
I am interested in space. I also love moving around and noticing the ways boundaries (like where does one’s territory in an elevator ends, when you share it with other people), bodies (like how do people in a train compartment stand during the pandemic), directionalities (like how tall and wide buildings and highways go), and change. “Public space” is hard to come by in Hong Kong; we have spaces highly controlled by the government and/or corporations. Too long a story, but my interest, I guess, is in how a space/place is shared, even just provisionally, and how to make it shareable.
I curated an improbable space. “A Walk with A3” (2015-2017) was like a shop window that didn’t face the streets; an impractical shop window. I worked with artists to experiment with the space in a forgotten, dark back alley in a busy shopping district in Hong Kong. I don’t think it made any impact at all on public space, but it gave me a lot of strength in seeing how artists approached imperfect conditions… or, even better, their sensitivity, responding to the state, to their own needs: emotional, intellectual, etc., had given me a lot to keep going. I can’t imagine living my life without access to how artists interpret life. One example is Samuel Adam Swope’s Updraft. He made hundreds of paper replicas of seeds, and installed big fans in the space, so these seeds flew around. There is a timer that directs the fan to switch on and off, and this coincides with the way the fluorescent light tube turns on and off. He turns the back lane back to life through this kinetic installation. The piece of writing published on the website is also the aim of this project, we need more art writing in Hong Kong, and I took it upon myself to write a detailed piece on each artist’s practice, bounced off from their project in this space.
I am on the board of Make a Difference (MaD), as such, I am not involved in their programming. MaD is a Hong Kong non-profit organisation that encourages creativity through participatory programmes. When I was invited to become a Councillor, I was thrilled because I knew of how they were all for encouraging and providing concrete support to young people to socially innovate. It’s so important, young people are not only the future; they are the now (we are learning a lot about this during the pro-democracy movement). And innovation for social change, for a better shared life, is very important to emphasise, at a time when we celebrate only technological innovations (sometimes at the expense of the Planet Earth). Their projects include engaging citizens to re-design public libraries, working with relevant government departments to think of how to re-design urban space for accessibility for all, offering seed money for young entrepreneurs who have big ideas on, say, upcycling, crafts making, research on birds’ habitats in urban space etc.
I’ve been blessed with so many advices, the best one always depends on the situation. I’ll share one that popped in my mind: “To be near enough, isn’t good enough”. Sometimes this is what I remember when I need a little push to do better. It motivates me. But it could also be annoying when it means there is only one way to define success, or perfection as the only goal in life. It came from my professor when I was an undergraduate (‘Stone Age’ ago!), and he was probably responding to my being admitted to a very good university for graduate studies, just not ‘good enough’. At least, I understood him that way at the time. I did follow that advice, and over the years, I realized he might not be judging whether what I got was good or bad, but responding to some resentment or doubts I had in myself for what choices to make. My relation with this advice has evolved. Hidden between these words, is the question of ‘to be near what’ and to be good ‘for what’. These questions have been important guideposts. They still are.
The latest book that I really enjoyed was by community activist and writer Saul D. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a 1971 book about how to successfully run a movement for change. I finished it after confinement.
Writing or curating, which came first… ‘First’, what a word, carrying so much burden (smiling here). Silence came first, if there were any first. Or rather voicelessness. It’s not a chosen state, nor it is imposed. It’s just trying to know who I am. For a long time, it just wasn’t there yet. But then to say it simply, I was writing before I started curating.
I never curate a show without finding a place in my heart that itches.
What I appreciate about the art world in Hong Kong, is how more and more united we have become, and how much more we try to learn from each other and support each others’ work. I am very proud of this gradual change. A lot has happened in the past ten years or so: new, large-scale institutions; the art market arriving; change in the key players in the field; the many social movements having to do with one-sided economic development; freedom of expression; and certainly the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the pro-democracy movement last year. I see artists and practitioners asking more profound questions and sharing them with each other. Art spaces and artists respond to COVID-19 with grace and strength: sharing face masks, organizing initiatives like Parasite’s Paid Studio Visits to support artists etc.
I began interviewing artists on the way they position themselves in the pro-democracy movement in November 2019. It was right after my university’s campus was stormed by anti-riot police who used more than 2,000 rounds of tear gas. At first, I was interested in artists who kept making and showing works during the movement, which roughly began in June 2019, and comparing this to how they responded in 2014, during the Umbrella Movement. Now I have loosened this rule. I just speak with artists in their 20s and 30s and make a record through the interviews of their observations, actions, their views on art, the future, etc.
Fun times with artists are always about a simple gathering over nice wine and home-made food, chatting about anxieties, hopes, desires, and weird questions about life… I remember one of these chats with Rolf Julius, Felix Hess, and Miki Yui, perhaps a few more, under a starry summer sky at a Mount Davis hostel in Hong Kong. These artists are quite known in the sound field. It was during Around sound art festival 2010 when they were invited to Hong Kong to show works. More recently, at my home, a young artist brought plum wine he made and got so carried away that he sat on what was a coffee table and broke it. We had such a laugh, some ten of us together. He came back a week later to mend it. Ordinary things…
The question of the relationship between curator and artist fascinates me. This is a recurrent question in multiple contexts within the arts and in the communication of the arts. But I don’t think I have much to say except that it depends on who the curator is, who the artist is, and what the situation is. Otherwise, without a contract that says one is artist and one is curator, I don’t think one needs to think of this relationship as a special one. It’s always a human-to-human relationship, equally, freely so. As such, the relationship between curator and artist could be like small magnets, strangely attracted, while having to pull away.
I swim everyday in the sea, at the Plover Cove, on the edge of Tolo Harbour on the Northeastern part of Hong Kong. I don’t know if the cello I am learning at the moment makes me sane or insane (haha). It’s so hard…and it’s so embarrassing to not be able to move particular fingers in particular ways… But I love it, and I love it that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision three years ago, when I thought to myself: “I must learn to play”. A friend immediately helped me find a teacher. Must be something subconscious… I’m still trying to find out. I am still at elementary level. No favourite composer yet, but one time I listened to a quartet playing Beethoven and tears came running down. I told my teacher and he said I probably like Beethoven’s late works. (Perhaps I would add that all serious artists are my favourite composers!). Learning cello for its own sake makes me feel free, though practicing is never ‘free’. Same for yoga. A lot of good advice comes from my yoga teachers, too. Not just abstract philosophical theories on life, but how knowledge, skill and action combine to make one happy.
For fun, I watch people on the streets and imagine what they do at home. I love walking, swimming, and being out in the open. I laugh. I fantasise going into outer space, visiting the event horizon of the Black Hole, and coming back to Earth in one piece. I cook something with a texture I have no confidence in, eg. recently, pomelo skin. I failed and I have been trying again. I visit artists, have drinks with them, share gossips and jokes. I send postcards or little gifts to friends overseas.
What I could do without is a husband.
Recently, necessary anger struck me: I didn’t choose to connect with it, but when it struck, I became connected. I remember there and then, that moment when I expressed it with raised arms and a very brief question directed against something I thought was morally wrong, I saw (with my eyes, and with my inner eye) nothing but the seizure of the anger. In hindsight, I realised I hadn’t been so angry and expressing it so directly for a very long time, and it helped me understand the people around me and myself much more. There might also be occasions where I am more conscious of the moment where anger arises (usually because I notice something morally wrong, or something that’s unthinking, in some kind of inertia, that has become blinding). I have reacted upon these, noticing the anger, by writing my thoughts out, focusing on communicating them well, and sharing them where necessary. In a way, to connect with it, is to be ready to become answerable to it. On the other hand, getting older, I succumb to fewer occasions of unnecessary anger…but I won’t say for certain it won’t hit me some day again. Who knows what the future might look like.
In 10 years, my future self is visiting me, what do I want to ask them? And what advice might they give me? I hope my future self won’t ask me why I haven’t done this thing or that thing, despite having wanted to for some time. Perhaps it’d be helpful if this future self reminds me of getting rid of what I don’t need any more. Actually, I do this more and more these days, so that I prepare myself well in advance for my departure day, so I can leave lightly and quietly.
If I wasn’t curating I would try to make art!
Yang Yeung is a writer of art and an independent curator. She founded the non-profit soundpocket in 2008 and is currently its Artistic Director. In 2015, she started independent project A Walk with A3 located at a back alley in Causeway Bay in Hong Kong to support the right of art to be in the streets and right of pedestrians to encounter art as a daily experience. Currently Yeung is a member of the international research network Institute for Public Art and contributes research writings on place-making public art projects regularly to the network’s conference and archive. She is member of the independent art critics collective Art Appraisal Club (HK) and the International Art Critics Association (HK). She is also Councillor on the board of Make A Difference (MaD), a regional platform based in Hong Kong that encourages social innovation and creative change-making for good. She was awarded the Asian Cultural Council Fellowship in 2013-14. She was selected to participate in the UNESCO training workshop on the 2005 Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in 2018. Most recently, she was in the art writing residency with Contemporary Art Stavanger in Norway. She currently teaches classics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (text by Yang Yeung about listening to art here).