[Editor’s Note: “Designing the Revolution” is a multiple article series on the role of designers in social movements, uprisings, and revolutions. Whether engaged visual artists, intrepid graphic designers, or conceptual innovators redesigning quotidian living, though typically an unidentifiable melange, their role in visualizing, constructing, and remixing cultural production and social interaction has been crucial to the sustainability of the movements they are a part of. It is our hope that this series will offer insights and visions for you to engage with wherever you find yourself. Without further ado, we present to you our first installment in the series, an in-depth look at Hong Kong-based artist and utopian provocateur Kacey Wong.]
Kacey Wong hustles hard for the cause. From professorship at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to undercover psychotherapist at Occupy Central, cultural critics may be hard pressed to categorize this Chinese visual artist-cum-activist. Yet, Kacey has long been an active contributor to the provocative, using his weapon of choice (art) as a platform for social commentary in a political environment where critique is anything but the norm and may even land you in jail.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Kacey on Skype to see how the hyper-fusion of art and politics is manifesting on the streets of Hong Kong where a budding movement to activate democracy has just turned one month old. If you haven’t had a chance to follow the events, you can catch up here, here, here, and here.
‘This is a Mad, Mad World’
Years before occupy movements began to emerge across the globe, Kacey Wong was provoking the political elite with visual remnants, structures, and performances. In a public exhibition he deemed “The Real Cultural Bureau”, he took up the surreal mantle of a flag-waving cultural director, mimicking party lines on the streets of Hong Kong to an audience of pro-Beijing politicians and party leaders, armed with a handful of fake cash for bribes to coerce, well, the politicians themselves.
“Part of my work is to bring this craziness out so at least we can, you know, reflect and take a deep breath and look at how crazy the world is. I totally enjoy it because during that exhibition, I get to yell at every single party member, the whole day. As we were parading down the street, and on one side of the street there was a real political party, and [because] some of them are quite violent, I was basically yelling at them: ‘Go back, you must disperse right now! I’m warning you in the name of the body, you should disperse right now! Here’s some money, take my money and go away, go home!’ I was yelling at the democratic party, I was yelling at the pro-communist proxy, I was yelling at one of these local parties. And I got away with it. Because the show was so big, and it attracted such a crowd, my flag is high, they don’t even know who I am, they just think this guy is totally crazy. And I got away. I didn’t even get arrested.”
After I commented on the fact that you would most likely be arrested for trying that out in Cairo, where I’m writing from, he added, “I got arrested in Egypt, you know?” But we’ll save that story for another time.
Despite the fact that his art can be interpreted as incendiary, his seamlessly productive aim is to engage with critical issues in a way that contributes to a better understanding of the problems plaguing his (and our) society. Sometimes that means riding a bike through the alleyways of Hong Kong pretending to be the ghost of a student killed in Tienanmen square circa 1989. Other times, it means hashing out various prototypes for transportable living.
Years ago, Kacey decided to study the homeless community in Hong Kong in order to better understand, from an architectural perspective, how they protect themselves from the stark environment they inhabit daily. As a response to his findings, he designed a graphic on how to efficiently create tent-like structures out of recyclable goods found on the streets while avoiding the consequences of rainfall. Years later, he posted the design to Facebook for a new community he found sleeping on the streets of Hong Kong: the students of Occupy Central.
‘The Top Three Prizes Are Freedom, Justice, and Democracy’
On a flight from Taiwan to Hong Kong during the early days of Occupy Central, Kacey realized the need for global interaction with the movement. This need to construct a safe space where protesters and supporters could share their visions prompted him to create a design competition that would produce the official logo for the “Umbrella Revolution”. But the reward wasn’t bragging rights or design XP for creating the movement’s logo. Instead, he offered abstract bounties, namely freedom, justice, and democracy.
The competition wielded more than 200 designs from graphic designers and visual artists in Hong Kong and across the globe. Even at the time of writing, Kacey is still receiving and uploading submissions to a Facebook page entitled “Umbrella Movement Art Preservation“, which is cataloging, archiving, and disseminating all forms of artwork produced by the movement. Maybe I’m biased as a former gamer but one of my personal favorites, by Kacey nonetheless, was a remix of Resident Evil’s Umbrella Corporation symbol.
Whether or not one believes that art should be remixed is a case for obsolete art critics to take up. For people on the ground, creating new takes on iconic cultural symbols through appropriating and re-envisioning their context is a way of getting the message across.
“The idea is not about this authenticity of originality man. This is not the time for that. This is not the time for individual glory. This is the time of do or die. So you must do something. Everybody can do something…Most designers say ‘I can’t do anything, I still need to practice my business, blah blah blah.’ But actually, anybody can contribute. You first have to understand what you can offer, right? Maybe if you’re only good at taking pictures, take a picture. Or if you’re only good at talking, setup a forum. If you are a lawyer, help those protesters who got arrested. You don’t even have to be there, you can just stay outside the police station and wait for them to get arrested and you can be their hero,” solemnly adding, “in your own way.”
‘Aristotle Was Like a Philosophical Social Worker’
Among the plethora of projects Kacey has taken up amid the occupy movement, he has also set up an “Art Study Station” in the city’s student-designated Occupy Zone with two chairs and a surplus of signs displaying topics of discussion such as architecture, design, and composition, to name a few. Though the art study pop-up invites protesters to speak with Kacey about all things considered art, in his capacity as a professor, it also doubles over as an undercover psychotherapy pit-stop for occupy participants to ease the stress they’re facing or to vent their concerns about the movement.
“There are two chairs and I have all this paper printed on topics like architecture, design, appreciation, composition, pictures, whatever. My station is pretending to help the students have a space for extra studies, if they want to chat with Dr. Kacey Wong. But actually, it is a psychotherapy station…They are really stressed because they want to help out but they are in the Occupy Zone. And I see that as an opportunity to have a conversation. Kind of like Aristotle. I read about Aristotle when he was, in his time, walking around in a forum asking people, ‘Do you have a problem? What’s your problem?’ He was like a social worker. A philosophical social worker. I’m doing that except that I’m a bit more lazy and I’m just setting up two chairs. And these topics are just a front for them to choose whatever they want to talk about it. But that is my expertise, right? So that is what I can offer.”
‘Hide Underneath the Shade’
While Hong Kong’s Occupy Central has become a dynamic social force to be reckoned with, the movement is still facing challenges. Artists, designers, and architects have created a cacophony of visual imagery and interactive structures that contribute to the synergy of the movement, yet the space in which participants find themselves is continually being contested by the very state they are wishing to change. As we have witnessed from previous movements, whether in Cairo, New York, or Sydney, the road to utopia is one that requires determination and perseverance, as Kacey kindly reminded me.
“But I have to tell you this. I think what we’re facing right now will not be resolved even after I die. It is a war on culture. So let’s be professional. And the professional way to deal with this situation is endurance. Make yourself comfortable. Dig a hole. Find a rock. Hide underneath the shade. Enjoy the breeze. Because this thing is going to last for a very long time. And excel through this thing. Put all of your focus in victory. There’s a saying: ‘It is not that you see hope that you become persistent, but because of your persistence, there will come hope.’ That is what we Hong Kong people are.”
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Summary: Interview with visual artist Kacey Wong