Geofictions: Interviewing Alvin Li and Junyuan Feng, curators of Liquid Ground

This interview was originally published in Geofictions: Work in Progress in Spring 2021. After meeting at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea in 2019, Zara Arshad and Yaloo established Geofictions, a research-based practice that explores anthropological landscapes of the past, present and future via historical research methods, spectral geographies, critical fabulations, and speculative design. Put together as their work-in-progress in the year of COVID-19 (2020) the book, following the postponement of a three-month residency in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in April – July 2020, the book collates their work so far exploring ‘how natural landscapes have been altered and manipulated for economic, political and other human-made purposes’ through the lens of coastal ecosystems and seaweed using combined historical and transdisciplinary methodologies. A long time friend and fellow design historian, Zara invited us to contribute an interview with curators Alvin Li and Junyuan Feng who have been exploring similar themes in the context of Hong Kong through their upcoming exhibition at Parasite, Liquid Ground.


Visual from the exhibition Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find curated by Oscar Ho, 1998. Image source: Ha Bik Chuen Archive. Courtesy of The Ha Family and Asia Art Archive.

Liquid Ground

Introduction

Hong Kong’s relationship with the land and the sea has been ever present in the city’s history, both empirical and fictional. As Hong Kong’s future becomes more and more constricted, the last year’s political climax has driven, with great urgency and fervour, further speculation and freedom-dreaming in an attempt to imagine and critique an entirely new historical landscape for the territory. 

Shanghai-based curators Junyuan Feng and Alvin Li were recently awarded with the 2020 Parasite emerging curatorship for their exhibition proposal Liquid Ground, which has been postponed until September 2021. In the meantime, they published ‘Four Cautionary Tales from the Future Asia Metropolis’ in the October 2020 special edition of e-flux journal in collaboration with TBA21-Academy. Narrating the dystopian, oceanic states of Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tianjin in various vignettes within the current century, we were transfixed by the imagination of Hong Kong in 2098 as a submerged, submarine landscape with a population grasping for a history found in the legend of Lo Ting, a mythological half-man, half-fish creature said to be the ancient cosmic ancestor of the people of Hong Kong. In their story, an archivist manages to steal away, and share in augmented reality, visual evidence of the itself legendary exhibition by Oscar Ho, Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find, created as a direct response to the handover of Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1998.

Vivien Chan and Juliana Kei, two of the co-founders of the Hong Kong Design History Network (HKDHNet), invited Junyuan and Alvin to a conversation over Zoom, to ask about their process between these two open-ended outcomes, exhibition and speculative fiction, politics and land policy past and present, and the discourse of terraforming across non-Western territories.


Arriving at speculative fiction and terraforming of Hong Kong

Alvin Li (AL): I came across the Oscar Ho exhibition, because I guess it’s an exhibition that’s been revisited a lot in the context of Hong Kong. I mean, I actually, I first came across this exhibition at a presentation Michelle Wong, a researcher at Asia Art Archive, gave in Shanghai two years ago as part of this exhibition histories program organized by Rockbund Art Museum. I mean, obviously I thought Lo Ting was just so enchanting as a story, and then I also thought how interesting that the exhibition was organized as part of this trilogy that coincided with the handover of Hong Kong. And the use of the speculative fiction in that context became this kind of an… illusion or metaphor for the power and capacity of the people to construct their own identity. 

So for Liquid Ground, the exhibition that Junyuan and I have been developing, it started with a lot of conversations around ideas of material transformation and energy. I was working on this other curatorial project and I was consulting Junyuan a lot because he’s more knowledgeable than I am in these strands of theories. And then we kind of started talking and then – Parasite has this really amazing opportunity, the emerging curator program – we thought about doing something around the idea of new materialism, material transformation and how that is entangled with recent terraforming initiatives and technocratic ways of managing urban planning.

And um…(smiles) Junyuan feel free to come in, I feel like I’m talking too much… [JF: Don’t worry!]…yeah, so last year, I spent a lot of time in Hong Kong because a lot of my friends are based there. And I also grew up in the South in the US so… I don’t know, I feel very attached to the place. I became very interested in Hong Kong’s geographical set up and, I didn’t even know until last year that the city as we know it actually has more than 260 islands. And this [gestures in swirling motion] oceanic environment also became a source of inspiration for this project. 

In terms of how we came to land reclamation, well, I guess part of it is the embodied experience of just going to West Kowloon. We never really thought about the identity of West Kowloon or how it came about, but you do feel the sense of emptiness, this lack of identity and culture, in this so-called ‘cultural district’ that they’ve been constructing for the past 20 years. So that’s how we came to the Lantau Tomorrow Vision project, which we didn’t write up about in the e-flux piece, but that’s the starting point for our exhibition. So this entire thing started as an exhibition and the writing is an ancillary kind of part of it. And so the exhibition actually takes this really controversial land reclamation project in Hong Kong, which is proposed by Carrie Lam, of course, that proposes to spend, I believe…. I forget the exact number, but it’s an insane number…

Junyuan Feng (JF): well, a trillion 

AL: a trillion Hong Kong Dollar to reclaim 1700 acres of land, in an attempt to turn the Eastern part of Lantau into Hong Kong’s third economic hub. Architecture professor Ying Zhou, from the University of Hong Kong, was quite influential and helpful to our research, because she wrote this really extensive paper on the history of West Kowloon, and how it’s a product of the piecemeal, technocratic planning, a kind of colonial legacy of the British government, and we can see how it has a lot of similarity with what’s currently going on with Lantau.

JF: Our research on Hong Kong and Lantau is also in line with our long-term interest in similar issues in other areas. Well… we’re eyeballing on Northern China and Singapore, because they are facing similar transformation in terms of their constrained or strenuous natural conditions. In Northern China, it’s mainly about reforestation, but in Singapore, they have their own sandbanks, they’re also obsessed with land reclamation and they deem sand as kind of a strategic resource. All these responses to forthcoming or impending climate collapse are different, but they are all technocratic at their core. So I think all our writing for the e-flux article, it’s based on our curatorial project about Lantau but it’s broadened in its scope. Our exploration in issues other than land reclamation, say, the sea level rise, is more clear or more visible in the writing, but maybe in the exhibition, it’s more hinted and contained in a way. While the writing is more auxiliary, the writing is interesting in its own right.


Research methods

Vivien Chan (VC): Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting to hear that the speculative writing came from the exhibition project as a way to construct this parallel narrative between all of these spaces, even if the exhibition is mostly focused on the Lantau Island reclamation. So in thinking of those parallels, what are the methods and approaches to, not only just researching, but then also in narrating it? How do you think it will differ in the exhibition compared to the writing?

JK: Yeah, because you are threading an amazing needle – We just really think it’s compact conceptually, but also representatively, very complex.

AL: Right. In terms of research methods, apart from the more conventional, there’s a lot of conversations with artists. And specifically artists that are based in Hong Kong, because I think Junyuan and I are both aware that we’re not based in or from there. In organizing this exhibition, we definitely want it to be grounded in the context, and we definitely want to engage local artists that will have this kind of immediate response and social engagement with this really urgent project that will have tremendous impact on the life-quality of the people, right? Also as I mentioned, there are conversations with researchers that are based in Hong Kong who have already traversed into these subjects. 

For me, the difference between the writing and the exhibition of course, is the issue of authorship. In terms of this speculative climate fiction we wrote for e-flux, we have the absolute authorship so it’s kind of in our right to go wherever we want. But as the curators of this exhibition, our job is actually providing a space for the speculation of the artists. So it’s more their imagination, and their vision, and their engagement that will be the core of the show, what we’re doing is finding a way of bringing them together and giving a kind of order to it.

JF: Yeah, because actually most of the works that’s going to be exhibited in the show are commissioned works. A lot of them are very very site-specific, several of the works are going to happen exactly in Lantau Island. So, I guess we kind of give the most freedom because as Alvin put it, we are very aware that we are not Hong Kong locals and we’re not very experienced in the geographic specificity of Hong Kong. Also, we invited local artists like say Michael Leung, and Zhen Bo who’s based in Hong Kong, and they participate in local community organizing events and their practice is deeply, deeply tied with the specificities of Lantau. There are also some works that are equivalently all over the place and very imaginative. So through these commissioned works, I think our job is to organize all these very diverse and different works into an organic whole. And the way I think we organize manifests or is epitomized in our writing which is fictionalized, but also speculative… 


Hong Kong land policy and the Mainland political stand-off

JK: I think it’s really interesting with Lantau Island… because I’m an architectural historian and also interested in land in Hong Kong. A lot of my work is based around the Crown Land rule. So basically under Crown Land rule all the land in Hong Kong belonged to the British government, and now the Hong Kong government, and this rule was put in place in 1850, two years after Hong Kong was colonised. So the imagination of an identity or the beginning of Hong Kong is about this grab of land, but also this narrative of there is not enough land, giving the government the absolute right to reclaim. That’s why I think we’re attracted to your narrative because terraforming is also ongoing with the imagination of Hong Kong, especially as right now, I guess our climate and our technology is also catching up in a way of making this imagination.

AL: Right. For sure. Yeah. 

JF: Also the undertone of our project, and this exhibition, is the more geopolitical side. The Hong Kong-Mainland relations, or the underlying history from the colonial era to the Handover to present day … Um, how can I put it? I’m trying to think of a proper word…the standoff? Maybe that’s the word, the political standoff between Hong Kong and the Mainland. So, as you put it, the motif or the motivation for the government to do such a grandiose scale land reclamation is the scarcity of the land and its importance as the engine driving the economy forward, in order to satiate the desire for kind of an ever-growing economy – which is a myth in the first place. But also that scarcity is conditioned by the One Country, Two Systems thing, right? So I think in our proposal and writing, we’re constantly hinting at this One Country Two Systems thing. 

We’re definitely trying to arrive at the effective discussion of the political system through the discussion of more apparent landscape or geographic issues. We’re actually extremely vocal in this political issue, but we cannot voice it out because we are like…Mainlanders and we live in Mainland. So we are trying to circumvent or trying to find a way to express our structure of thinking around the political system through the more… seemingly… only about land reclamation or architectural planning.

AL: Also the notion of cosmology. I think also what fascinates us with the story about Lo Ting is that this half man, half fish signifies a different kind of cosmology or a different kind of….embodiment or being that is tethered to its material environment. One of the strands of Liquid Ground is this critique of developmentalism, which for us, you know, might be kind of related to certain modernist tradition? In indigenous or non-Western cosmologies on the other hand, there are other ways of engaging, managing, and dealing with the material environment.


Visual from the exhibition Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find curated by Oscar Ho, 1998. Image source: Ha Bik Chuen Archive. Courtesy of The Ha Family and Asia Art Archive.

Archive as a vessel for political (his)storytelling

VC: Yeah, and I suppose in relation to the Lo Ting story, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking and visiting a lot of archives for our own forthcoming exhibition project for the Hong Kong Pavillion at London Design Biennale. We have been working on a similar project too for the London Design Biennale, using another Hong Kong ‘origin’ myth called Ah Kwun Dai Lo To, ’Ah Kwan Leading the Way’, which has become more and more political and problematic since we started working on it in early 2019. So I think that’s why we also gravitated towards your use of time, and the use of the exhibition as material evidence for this future population as something to hold on to, as a kind of proof of our alternative history and connection to this place. And we have seen a lot of crossovers with archives we’ve been visiting, the people we’ve been talking to, in their approach to collecting or constructing a kind of history of Hong Kong. In itself, that concept of an archive as the theme of an exhibition is very dry (laughs), but then we also wanted to use it to start to engage this conversation about what is worthy of being collected or, what are we using to define a kind of history or identity for this place? So it was really interesting that you’re creating this narrative through a constructed archive, but it’s archived somewhere real, in the Asia Art Archive, and the position of the archivists saving all this material…

AL: Yeah, I think while writing that, I also had this question in mind. At the time, I was talking to friends about… because M+ is owned by West Kowloon Cultural District… and West Kowloon Cultural District, although has its autonomy, is still part of the Hong Kong Government. Which means in the future, the collection that M+ is building will technically be owned by China. So the question of erasure becomes a really sensitive issue. 

JK: Hmm. Yeah, because I think that this erasure and this renewal is also tied to the land, right? In the most simple way, capitalism is about continued regeneration of land and production, so we can put it in that context. But also in our other work, we are looking into how archives but also history of Hong Kong, especially of particular groups of people, is very easily erased. Not in an overly political way, but because of this assumed regeneration of land. There are groups of people in the context of Hong Kong, like Vietnamese boat people or the Kuomintang for example, who also built a lot of buildings or left their spatial traces in Hong Kong, but those are completely erased, again, using the narrative of land not because they are removed. So I think there is also this sense of, like you said, developmentalism so embedded in Hong Kong culture that also shaped the way of history writing. And we have found that many people who are doing it, even without particular political antagonism, they are just so driven towards this idea of developmentalism.

VC: I think even coming from a practical point of view. I mean, we’ve had so many discussions about just going to an archive and things practically being missing without any particular malice, but because they’ll keep a receipt for a photograph rather than the photograph itself. So it’s kind of this spectral way of thinking about the archive as a space that has huge absences that say so much, but only if you’re looking for those absences.

JK: Yeah, like even though we position ourselves as design historians, sometimes we feel like artists in design history because the absence is so profound that even as historians, we are making things up and simply have to write speculative history. And that, I think that is where the two things collide, right? I think you guys come from a more artistic perspective, but the history is so interesting, and it kind of [crosses hands over each other] overlaps. Because like when I research about the boat people, refugee camps, there is no structure and barely any visual or material evidence. And so I have to write that history in a way off of a ‘search’ rather than ‘this is what it is’, because the search is actually more interesting than what it is… 

AL: Yeah. I think the issue of the regime in Hong Kong is something that one of the artists in our show has been researching. Right. Junyuan?  Lee Kai Chung, one of his proposals? 

JF: Yeah. He also told us because there’s so many islands, Lantau is more like an archipelago. And he told us about how several have been used for hosting Vietnamese refugees. And there’s also several used for more like a prison, like a self-contained kind of Alcatraz. He even said, for part of the day, the prisoners will even be kind of roaming on the island because the island is so isolated. And so we are thinking about… if… this large scale reclamation is going to happen inland, then all these very interesting histories are going to be erased, right? Without trace. Lee Kai Chung also told us about, for the last one or two years, the government has been arresting those teenagers, and where are they going to put those arrested teenagers? So he’s kind of weaving this narrative about confinement islands and the ongoing political, civil disappearances and the struggles, which I find very fascinating. 

JK: Yeah. I think that maybe that is Chi Ma Wan, which used to be a Vietnamese boat people camp and then turned into a detention centre. And then now I think quite a lot of young people were put in there as well. And those islands, even though I’m born and raised in Hong Kong and I lived there until I’m 20, I have never been to all those islands. Or maybe if I encounter them, it’s on a boat, like on a junk in the summer, on the beach, but never landing on them. It’s like a parallel universe for most Hong Kong people. And I think this is what drove Michael [Leung] many years ago to start going around Lantau and all these beaches, because most people really have never seen them or never cared about it…


Travelling exhibition – terraforming in different locales

JK: So do you think the exhibition will happen on time in September right? The COVID situation in Hong Kong seems quite positive…

AL: Well…I mean, we really don’t know. I really hope it happens next year, because otherwise… actually this exhibition will also travel to a different institution after Hong Kong because, well, it came from a very practical place because almost a third, I think 14 out of 20 artists, gave new proposals, basically new commissions for this exhibition. And then Parasite only has the limited budget, so we decided with the extended amount of time, to approach another institution to co-commission some of the works and host a traveling iteration so that, you know, the artists can all have a decent budget to realize what they want to make. And as Junyuan said, one of the four stories in the pieces deals with Tianjin, so for that traveling iteration we also want to engage with environmental climate history or history of environmental policies in Northern China. So yeah, that show is currently slated to open in 2022 in March. But, um, but that really depends on whether Parasite opens, and you know, it depends on how everything goes in the world.

JK: Yeah, we were about just to ask what would be your next project, but thank you for answering (laughs). That seems to be a continuous thing. 

JF: Yeah, I was just going to say, The show in Parasite is kind of structured in a very obscure way responding to the ongoing political and climate situation. If it’s going to be postponed indefinitely, it’s going to maybe lose it’s contingency. So I hope that it will happen on time next year.

AL: Yeah. I mean, do we know if Lantau Tomorrow Vision is actually going to happen?

VC: Yeah (laughs)

JF: (smiles) Yeah it’s complicated…


Biographies 

Junyuan Feng is an artist and writer based in Shanghai, currently a lecturer at Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. He received his B.S. in physics from Fudan University and M.F.A. in fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania. His recent projects and exhibitions include Hic sunt leones, 798 Art Center, Beijing, 2019; Building Code Violations III: Special Economic Zone, Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2018; Parentheses, David Nolan Gallery, New York, 2018. He co-curated the exhibition Whatever works, whatever it takes with Zhihui Zhang at Goethe-Institut China in 2019, and was a finalist for the 2018 Huayu Youth Award.

Alvin Li is a writer, curator and Contributing Editor of frieze magazine, based in Shanghai. Li’s writing on contemporary art and culture has appeared in international publications such as frieze, Artforum, Mousse, Art Agenda, Spike Art Quarterly, and ArtReview Asia, as well as in catalogues published by New Museum, New York, among others. Li is the co-founder of CINEMQ, a queer collective that organises monthly curated screening projects focusing on East Asian queer independent cinema.