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Issue 206

What Now for Hong Kong (And for Us)?

Amid widespread civil unrest, a timely show at Para Site speculates on the future of labour and politics in our technological age

BY David Markus in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 08 AUG 19

For months, residents of Hong Kong have flooded the streets in a series of protests sparked by a proposed extradition policy that threatens to erode the city’s ‘one country, two systems’ agreement with China. ‘Bicycle Thieves’, curated by Shanghai-based curator Hanlu Zhang, positions the ongoing resistance movement as just one of many interrelated struggles unfolding in the former British colony and beyond. The show’s framework is almost as complex as the issues it seeks to address. Its title alludes not only to the eponymous 1948 film by Vittorio De Sica but also to the difficulties Hong Kong has experienced implementing bike-sharing schemes in the metropolis. Its motivating questions involve labour, political action, the commodification of daily life and – crucially – humankind’s relationship to technology. While the sheer proliferation of reference points can feel bewildering, a number of individual artworks demonstrate how deeply the aforementioned issues inform one another. 

‘Bicycle Thieves’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Para Site, Hong Kong; photograph: Lily Yi Yi Chan

Exemplary here is Stephanie Comilang’s Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise, 2016), which centres on Hong Kong’s Filipina domestic workers. In Comilang’s self-described ‘sci-fi documentary’, the stories of three women are told through interviews and glimpses of their mobile phone uploads. A narrator, whose voice is heard over drone footage of the metropolis, embodies a benevolent technological entity, transmitting the women’s selfies and videos to loved ones. What impresses is the women’s camaraderie and sense of dignity in the face of gross economic imbalance.

A more contentious relationship between humans and machines is posited in Yao Qingmei’s video The Trial (2013). Dressed in Maoist garb, the artist stands before a Coca-Cola vending machine and harangues it on consumerist evils. When the machine suddenly begins talking back and defending itself, Yao appears startled but holds the party line. Ultimately, this is a humorous trial of outmoded ideological bombast. Where that leaves us regarding capitalism’s increasingly devious apparatuses, however, remains unclear. 

‘Bicycle Thieves’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Para Site, Hong Kong; photograph: Lily Yi Yi Chan

Scant hope is offered by Andrew Norman Wilson’s Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011). The video narrates how the artist was fired from his job at Google after he started interviewing and videotaping members of the ‘ScanOps’ division of the company, tasked with copying pages for Google Books. This disproportionately non-white group of workers, Wilson learned, is not given the same clearance or famously bountiful office perks as other company employees. In Silicon Valley, as in Hong Kong, access is for the affluent, while the underclasses are made to work like machines. 

This renders ironic, but no less profound, the quote from an unnamed protester that frames the final section of the curator’s catalogue introduction: ‘Just like a machine or a self-learning AI that can run by themselves [sic].’ The analogy is intended to conjure a decentralized approach to mass mobilization. Judging from the guerrilla tactics deployed in recent demonstrations – the spray-painting and lasering of surveillance camera lenses; the blocking of subway-car doors – Hongkongers have a knack for spontaneously assembling themselves into ingenious counter-apparatuses. Further information on the protests can be picked up from the exhibition’s reading room, where there is also a small collection of signs, pins and stickers, along with a VR work created from one of the protests, by the Hong Kong Artist Union. 

‘Bicycle Thieves’, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Para Site, Hong Kong; photograph: Lily Yi Yi Chan

The final work on display is a video by Angela Su (Dark Fluid, 2017), who invited a range of collaborators to participate in a sci-fi writing project centred on envisioning a future Hong Kong. After tarrying in the, by turns, utopian and dystopian imaginary, you can stare out of Para Site’s 22nd-storey windows at the streets below, where the destiny of this remarkable city is waiting to be decided.

Main image: Miao Jiaxin, Massage Therapist in Brooklyn, 2017-19, performance and Google page. Courtesy: Para Site, Hong Kong; photograph: Lily Yi Yi Chan

David Markus is a Brooklyn-based writer and academic. He teaches at New York University.