Poetics of Witnessing from a Distance

Essay by Michelle S.

Michelle S. is a human rights and art researcher based in New York. She actively participates in organizing efforts that foreground international leftist alliances. In this article, S. analyzes the nature and potential of ideological alliances with Hong Kong protesters and advocates for the poetics of witnessing from afar.

In the summer of 2019, the implementation of a controversial legislation provoked widespread dissent in Hong Kong. The situation escalated as the legal community, followed by unprecedented numbers of civilians, protested the bill. As an international student from Mainland China in the U.S., I was one among many who closely followed, responded to, and expressed solidarity with Hong Kong. We were connected by how we positioned ourselves, near or far, in relation to the dissent that was unfolding. It was a period of both intense emotion and prolific intellectual output that attempted to make sense of and support the movement from multiple positions. A year later, a conversation I had with a friend in Hong Kong has prompted the question: as a distant observer, can one hold together both ideological alliances and embody a more empathetic mode of “being with”? 


During this continued conversation  on the Anti-extradition Bill (Anti-ELAB) Movement, I marveled at the multitude of tactics that had emerged during the protests, which included the use of encrypted communication apps, to bamboo scaffolds and traffic cones repurposed as shields and barriers against tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. To me, this fluid orchestration of mass civic unrest aptly embodies the slogan “be water.” In the context of everyday protests during the 2019 Anti-ELAB movement, it seemed  that the poetic spirit of the umbrella as a symbol and everyday object from the Occupy Movement resisting armed authoritarian forces, still holds relevance. In response, my friend, a Hong Kong resident who experienced the daily protests, emphasized that in circumstances of imminent calamity — when an umbrella is wielded as the last recourse against armed police forces — such a stark power disparity triggers an enormous sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. 


Her remark made me realize that perhaps my perspective toward the movement had an element of poetic imaginary insofar as I was observing from a great distance. One can only imagine that the immediate emotional and corporeal experience during the conflicts made any attempt at intelligible interpretation unthinkable in the moment. In situations of urgency, survival becomes one's sole concern. Seen from a distance, however, the literal material clash between umbrellas and military armaments is abstracted, and we distill from it a more symbolic articulation. Our conversation elucidated that on one hand, there is the symbolic and spectacular presentation of an event that prompts spectators into reaction and action; yet on the other hand, there are specificities to local struggles that manifest, and must be attended to on the affective register. The immediacy of a crisis felt by those directly impacted precedes any articulation — analytical, poetic, or otherwise — of the event. 


This dichotomy between poetic distance and on the ground action implicates the role of the distant witness in a political struggle. To witness means to not only see, but also to narrate an event in the first-person. The figure of the witness today is not only limited to those who experience something first-hand, but also encompasses secondary and mediated witness-bearing. Still, the act of witnessing implies greater responsibility and sociopolitical stakes than passively receiving information. If we consider ourselves witnesses, can our distant points of view present any assets or different opportunities? As demonstrated by the anti-ELAB Movement, protestors considered the recruitment of distant alliances to be constructive. A wealth of visual materials have been generated along with songs, slogans, and gestures that communicate Hong Kong’s struggles to a wider array of international spectatorship. The Anti-ELAB Movement’s official anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” was translated into numerous foreign languages. In addition to these intentional actions to increase visibility and marshal support for the movement, the ingenious tactics devised by protestors to combat police violence on the ground have been learned from and adopted by protests elsewhere, such as the Black Lives Matter chapter in Portland, and the more recent pro-democracy movement in Myanmar


On the topic of visibility, author Ahkok Chun-Kwok Wong writes about Hong Kong protestors’ consciousness and enthusiasm for media representation dating back to the Occupy Movement. She raises the concern that “by focusing on representation and re-presentation, what are we actually making of our present?” Her question can be reframed for audiences watching from afar. For distant observers, we might have a proclivity toward the poetic or aesthetic of spectacular representations of the movement. It is this that mobilizes us to move toward solidarity. But it’s equally important to recognize gestures, such as the opening of an umbrella, are both a communicative performance and a tactic devised out of a particular, urgent context. Theorist Lauren Berlant speaks of “the phenomenology of political affect within the scene of crisis,” which to me, points to the disconnect between political theatre and the specificities of local struggle. As a witness from a distance, can we hold together both the iconic and the poetic, while simultaneously attending to the real and the affective? 


An image from the earlier days of the anti-ELAB Movement has continued to strike me. It is a night shot of a street in Hong Kong. A layer of cling film is stretched across it, an attempt by protestors to hold back armored vehicles. The photograph is impressive for both its visual qualities and the story it tells: a delicate object deployed against and regardless of forces much more powerful than itself. This is only one instance of the make-shift and guerilla spirit that took place daily on the city’s streets. Yet this also implies a sense of vulnerability, given the fact that such methods are galvanized only because the protestors have been immensely outgunned. As beholders of this image and its beauty, how can we also imagine what it must be like there, to quite literally “stand with Hong Kong”?  To reiterate an earlier question: can we hold together both ideological alliances and embody a more empathetic mode of “being with”?


Plastic wrap barricade set up by protesters. Image credit: Wayne Chang.

Items and images such as the umbrella have become symbols of defiance and heroic resistance, but what is to be said about endurance and survival? The Hong Kong officials have declared war on free expression. Incidents such as the authorities’ classifying of common objects such as laser pointers as “aggressive weapons” demonstrates the draconian control of rhetorical spaces that went hand-in-hand with physical crackdowns. The implementation of the National Security Law that immediately culminated in mass arrests and banning of the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times 光復香港,時代革命” also resulted in the quieting down of any utterances of dissent almost overnight. In the meantime, protestors found ways to adapt and persist, i.e. by holding up blank Post-its and banners. 


As one who observes these events unfold from afar, solidarity with Hong Kong calls for more careful attunement to this increasing reticence, to where images and articulations eventually fail us. Far from being insular, symbols such as the Post-it Note and the umbrella exist within the context of a local struggle. In many cases including Hong Kong’s, they often emerge from confrontations involving extreme power asymmetry. Under such conditions, the responses that images elicit are not external, but rather integral to other modes of survival for the movement. 


Demonstrators hold blank signs during a lunchtime protest at a shopping mall in Hong Kong.

Photo: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images