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An Afternoon Conversation Between Two Kongers

Essay by Joel Kwong


Under the threat of state surveillance, Hong Kong protesters have developed methods for efficient communication and expression through digital technologies in political education, legal support, real time fact-checking, to visual and sound culture sharing. Curator Joel Kwong and artist Eric Su archived the communicative tactics they witnessed during the protests since 2019 in recognition of the growing digital community that continues to foster a new collective identity and culture for Hong Kongers. The research project Be Water by Hong Kongers, which presented seven tactics, won the Prix Ars Electronica for Digital communities in 2020. In this article, Joel Kwong shares her thoughts behind this research project through the reflection on her personal experiences as a curator and a Hong Konger in this social movement.


It was a cold but beautiful afternoon in Hong Kong. JK and KFF met in a coffee shop located in Sham Shui Po, both wearing masks. JK, a media art curator, submitted “Be Water by Hong Kongers” to Ars Electronica in 2020. The research project is dedicated to Hong Kong protesters and runs in collaboration with media artist Eric Siu. The project received the Golden Nica, awarded to Digital Communities, from Prix Ars Electronica. This was the first time in history the prize had been given anonymously to a city of people. KFF, is an ordinary Hong Konger, who was born and raised in Hong Kong. 


JK: Do you feel the same struggles? At the very beginning, people joined peaceful protests to stand up for their beliefs and guard their rights, and then? Everytime we read the news, nothing has moved. At night, I ask myself, is there really anything we can or should do? 


KFF: Yes, I feel the same. 2019, 2020, 2021. Time flies, and we all have changed. Since 2019, there have been waves of Hong Kongers on the streets; particularly on the night of 9 June, 12 June and 1 July. After each exhausting daytime routine, I started asking myself: “am I useless during this movement? What have I done except walked the streets?”


JK: The same questions go through my mind. That’s why I’ve started archiving news since then. During sleepless nights, I conduct research on the internet and read local and international news. My working partner Eric Siu proposed that we could submit a project to Ars Electronica. So we started preparing research based on my news archive. During the preparation, we consolidated examples of smart and creative usages of digital technologies in Hong Kong, and how each communicates and creates social change. We were really inspired. The decentralized strategy of Hong Kong protestors allied with digital technology proves that such a combination can be a powerful means to safeguard democratic rights and freedoms. Hong Kongers are further able to alert the world to our struggle through the decentralized dissemination of digital material. 


KFF: You did something, good for you. I am so confused most of the time. You know what? Once I was in public transportation and all of a sudden something popped up on my mobile; from the airdrop function I received a full information set for the upcoming protest schedule and a “reminder” illustration package. I was really amazed by what other people were doing. I guess this is one of those smart and creative applications that you are showing to the world?  


JK: Yes, and there are also websites and applications that show people where the Lennon Walls were in Hong Kong. Anyway, the research is being awarded and needs to be shown in the Ars exhibition in Sep 2020. From a curatorial point of view, this work is going to “talk” to an international audience, so putting a research report on the table doesn’t work since it doesn’t bring in a “communication” purpose. Through this work, with Eric and I as the messengers, we hope to bring Hong Kongers to the center of art, technology, and society. We want to provoke a dialogue about how digital culture shapes civic responsibility now and into the future.


Installation shot of Be Water by Hong Kongers at OK Center, Austria at 2020.

Image credit: OK Center for Contemporary Art


KFF: A big vision. I’ve always had this question in my mind, of why writers and artists have encountered so many difficulties during momentous social change. Now I see why. Will this work at last? You mentioned September 2020, right? That’s after the national security law (NSL) goes into effect. 


JK: The aim of this work is “to communicate” to international audiences what this is all about. We’ve archived news from numerous media platforms since 2019 to around August 2020; e.g. BBC, CNN, HKFP, SCMP, etc. The content has been differentiated into various layers, from Tactical Media, Protest Art, Digital Activism, International Front, Yellow Economic Circle, Digital Democracy, Archive, etc. More than 300 posts are sorted, and then displayed as Printed QR codes and Wall Graphics with keywords in the venue. Viewers are invited to scan and read through the news based on keywords of interest. It’s very autonomous. A computer station is being set up too. Two search engines (Google and Baidu) are shown on a desktop application to be used for keywords of interest. Having two search engines yield results in parallel  demonstrates the realities of digital censorship as one will see totally different outcomes from each engine together on one screen. 


KFF: I see. Everything is autonomous, free will, and at your own choice. You decide you want to stay or leave, dig deeper or stay where you are, look into the core or look away. News and searching act as the content of the work and “communications.” Does the project go further? How have international audiences perceived this?


JK: I was in an online panel discussion a couple months ago entitled “About the Future in Times of Crisis”, and involved artists and activists from Belarus, Lebanon, Venezuela, and other countries. I was in one of the online panel discussions. I remember the host asked all of the speakers about how we saw the future, and how to encourage people to keep moving without losing hope. I recalled something I learned from Hong Kongers: 不是因為看見希望而堅持,而是因為堅持才看見希望. A lot of times you don’t choose to hold on because there is hope; you hold on, and so there is hope.


KKF: I visited an exhibition in a local café once where there was a poster exhibition titled “YELLOW OBJECT.” The curator invited 18 designers through anonymous participation, and used the colors yellow and black to make a statement within a frame; yellow is the color of the pro-democracy camp, while black is worn during the protests. Those works had a lot of impact. But now that the national security law has been launched… 


JK: Visual language becomes an incredibly strong tool during the movement. There’s graffiti, posters, and Lennon walls everywhere. Gathering small voices is key. People are safeguarding what they treasure. Voices come in different forms. Technology plus creativity provide various possibilities of voicing out. For example, after the NSL went into effect, people were holding strikes online in the game Animal Farm. Who says there is no way to go? “Be water: means be formless, shapeless; we can crash and we can flow.  


Ever heard of the butterfly effect? 


KKF: I know. The idea that small things can have non-linear impacts on complicated systems. Just imagine a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon millions of miles away. 


The coffee break is done. JK is KKF, KKF is JK; we stand as one. Struggles will be resolved through chatting with the self, and so it is.



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