Building Resilience: Creative Expression as Toolkit
Essay by Winnie Yoe
Winnie Yoe is an artist, designer and educator hailing from Hong Kong and based in New York City. Her practice utilizes digital tools, graphic design, and performance to communicate information around complex social justice issues. In this article, she introduces her works in a chronological fashion: On My Mind: Digital Portraits (2019), Magnetic Bullshit: Hong Kong Police Edition (2020), Interpreted Narratives (2020), (2020) along with her personal reflection as the movement at home unfolds locally and globally.
In February 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition bill amendment allowing extraditions to mainland China and other countries which it has no formal agreements with. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, fearing the amendment would lead to politically motivated prosecutions and erode the city’s high degree of autonomy. I watched the Hong Kong protests unfold over the summer of 2019, while I was in the U.S. completing my graduate studies. I saw Hong Kongers march peacefully in the city’s largest protest to date (16 June 2019), followed by the horror of mobs attacking commuters in Yuen Long (21 July 2019); countless livestreams, reports of police brutality, sexual misconduct allegations, to accounts of protestors risking their lives while escaping the besieged Polytechnic University (November 2019). This year, I watched as 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists were arrested and charged with “subversion” (January 2021). Over the last decade, I’ve repeatedly found myself thinking about the efficacy of creative resistance, and the role and value that creators assume in creative expression for activism. In living 8,000 miles away from events for which I deeply care, I have felt an overwhelming sense of disconnection, as well as disorientation from living in two realities — one physical, one digitally-mediated. This Becomes a strong motivator to embark on a process of sensemaking, which manifested in a series of projects. Each one was created with different sets of tools drawn from my multi-disciplinary background in art and technology. Each has been driven by different states of mind and intent, as my concerns related to the protests shift.
Sensemaking: From Personal to Institutional
To make sense of the rapid decline of civic freedom in Hong Kong, I collected different forms of protest artifacts through analog and programmatic means to create a series of works. Each explores the relationship between distance and narrative — from my physical distance from the protests, the distance between pro-Beijing and pro-democratic narratives, to the distance between media rhetoric and interpretation.
I. Assembling a Personal Archive — On My Mind: A Digital Portrait
Boston, Massachusetts (June 2019): I first started following the protests intently when a newsflash about Hong Kong protestors storming the Legislative Council popped up on my phone. My devices became windows of connection to the protest. The digitally-enabled movement, with efforts coordinated through Telegram, LIHKG, and the popularity of media livestreams, made real-time information incredibly accessible. Like many overseas Hong Kongers, I spent every possible moment awake or half-awake, refreshing the news and other media communication platforms. To capture and understand the extent of my behavior, I began taking screenshots of all media pertaining to the protest I was consuming daily. I recorded time and type, and then visualized these personal data points into an interactive data portrait.
On My Mind: A Digital Portrait. Image credit: Winnie Yoe.
The portrait speaks to the isolation, guilt, and despondency one feels being physically distanced from events they care about—a feeling shared by many in diaspora. It is as though the only act of solidarity and attempt to bridge disconnection, is through consuming, sometimes over consuming, as much information as possible.
II. Shifting Narrative Power — Magnetic Bullshit: Hong Kong Police Edition
Starting in August 2019 and the few months following, the Hong Kong Police Force held daily, live-streamed press-briefings to address events pertaining to the protests. Excerpts from these police responses were often circulated among protestors. While it was difficult to confront the police narratives, blocking them completely would create an echo chamber. I was curious if I could use programmatic approaches to address this emotional and mental inability to confront the pro-establishment rhetoric that I disagreed with
I collected over 120 Hong Kong police press conference YouTube videos, uploaded by Mainland Chinese media with auto-generated English captions, to create a 627 page transcript. Although the resulting compiled transcript is not perfect, there seems to be a parallel between the machine-generated interpretation and authoritarian narrative. Using the most frequently used 300+ words, I then created “Magnetic Bullshit” — inspired by the popular Magnetic Poetry fridge magnet kit and creative writing aid — and set up an installation asking participants to select words to create sentences starting with “Hong Kong Police.”
III. Understanding Interpretations — Interpreted Narratives
Remarks by peers from Mainland China regarding media access and its influence on their understanding of the Hong Kong protests, prompted me to take a closer look at how Chinese and Hong Kong media shape information. Those conversations also highlighted how reading the same information or seeing the same situation, can result in very different interpretations.
Inspired by Alexandra Bell’s “Counternarratives” (2017) — a series of revised and deconstructed New York Times articles revealing the perpetuation of racial prejudice and editorial bias in media representation — I created an interactive exercise as an experiment. I composed one article drawing content from eight pro-China and pro-Hong Kong news articles reporting on the siege of Polytechnic University; each reported the events with a different focus. Through an interactive platform, I asked participants to highlight the three most important sentences in the article, submit three words in response, and then chose one headline image to understand their takeaways from the article. Upon completion, participants could view aggregated responses from all participants, which were stored in a database. In creating this work, I also read Chinese media accounts of protest events for the first time.
Installation shot of Magnetic Bullshit: Hong Kong Police Edition. Image credit: Winnie Yoe.
Interpreted Narratives. Image credit: Winnie Yoe.
Brining Participatory Work in Local Context
In December 2019, I returned to Hong Kong after five months. During my stay, I had the privilege of showing “Magnetic Bullshit: Hong Kong Police Edition” at a local art book fair. Over the three-day event, participants created sentences such as “Hong Kong Police target the innocent public,” “Hong Kong Police needs to say sorry,” “Hong Kong Police close to the end.” To my surprise, many viewers also disregarded the instructions and rearranged the magnets into protest slogans and symbols, such as “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards), “Hong Kong Independence” (in Chinese characters), and “721” (the date of an indiscriminate mob-style attack on subway commuters).
Installation shot of Magnetic Bullshit: Hong Kong Police Edition. Image credit: Winnie Yoe.
It was only after observing participants’ interactions — arranging and rearranging the magnets, searching for specific words, reading, and discussing with their friends — that I realized the possibilities and power offered by a seemingly simple, interactive, and participatory work, especially when brought back to a local context. What the work created was a space to freely take apart authoritarian narratives, to piece together our version of truths and the hope for justice.
A Reality Check
Although I followed the protest events closely prior to my return to Hong Kong, I had not anticipated how foreign the experience would be, of returning back to streets where I’d spent the majority of my life walking. Following the news from afar had not prepared me for the panic I experienced when I first saw a group of police on the street, nor for the feeling of cowardice when I nearly fled from participating in a peaceful protest event. Particularly imprinted on my mind are the numerous “Lennon Walls” all over the city, plastered with the remains of protest posters that had been removed and painted over haphazardly.
Lennon Wall painted over. Image credit: Winnie Yoe
Causeway Bay Road Lennon Wall, July 2019. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
These were traces of collective trauma that bear the weight of the question: how does an entire generation, an entire city heal from this? In the face of such a reality check, I debated the efficacy of creative expression, and whether such work could truly provide a restorative approach to seeking justice.
Upon returning to the States, I stopped creating any new or substantial work around the protest. On 1 July 2020 — the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong and the day after the Chinese government bypassed Hong Kong legislature to impose a new national security law that gives Beijing unprecedented power in Hong Kong — I created a Chrome extension that struck through any text displaying “Hong Kong” and replaced “Hong Kong” with “China”. While the Chrome extension is currently private, if published, it can be easily installed by others. To many in the pro-democratic camp, the law and how it was passed signaled the end of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework set up before Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China. It is under this policy that Hong Kong enjoys a relatively high degree of legal and economic autonomy. To this date, I continue to struggle to find the words to describe what has been happening to the place I’ve been calling home for 28 years.
chrome extension. Image credit: Winnie Yoe.
In times of chaos, we have a need for sensemaking and spaces for solace, especially when what we’ve experienced misaligns with our worldview. My experiences creating out of personal helplessness have helped me realize that while creative expression can not topple regimes, the act of processing overwhelming emotions through such outlets creates a psychological distance, a sense of productivity, and a refuge needed to process traumatic events.
Perhaps the most valuable and surprising discoveries, have been the unexpected conversations and sense of community this series has created. In the year since I created the first project, I’ve become great friends with a number of my Chilean classmates. We share similar sentiments, bond over the shared pain of having witnessed mass protests and injustices back home, from afar. I also had an unexpected encounter with someone who approached me expressing that they wished they could create similar work, but were not in a safe place to do so. While the projects were specific to the Anti-Extradition Amendment Bill protests in Hong Kong, the experience navigating loss, trauma, and the helplessness in having to do so from a distance, is one shared by many in a diaspora.
There is a popular Hong Kong protest slogan that translates as: “We fight on, each in own way” (兄弟爬山，各自努力). Perhaps what creative expressions ultimately offer are additional tools to process complex emotions. While these tools seem inconsequential, when confronting entrenched institutions and incomprehensible scenarios, they empower people to reclaim their own narratives, to find space to heal, and thus imagine alternatives. When far away, these tools allow one to act and participate digitally, despite not being able to do so physically. My own experiments helped me find a set of personal strategies to deconstruct complex events, tools I continue to use as the world around me changes dramatically. These include digital tools to document and visualize personal experiences, the breaking down of language, and facilitation of participatory experiences that shift and subvert official narratives. No matter how temporarily or insignificantly, they allow us to pave our individual paths through collective trauma — in essence, to build resilience.