Leung Chi Wo (LCW): You are the only practising artist with international recognition currently holding the position of Dean in a university in Hong Kong: the last time this happened was 20 years ago when I was a student at The Chinese University. So your presence is very special. The first time I saw your work was in 1995 at the exhibition of Art and Electronics at the Hong Kong Art Centre. Did you come to Hong Kong then? What were your impressions of Hong Kong at that time?
JS: That wasn’t my first visit to Hong Kong because I had passed through a number of times before when travelling between Australia and Europe. But it was the first time I had a chance to get to know Hong Kong a little more intimately and I remember being quite enthralled.
LCW: But after that you came to Hong Kong to exhibit a number of times. It was almost a period of 17-18 years. Can you compare Hong Kong now and then?
JS: During one of those trips I visited the School for Creative Media in its formative days. I came here to give a presentation and met faculty and students. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and the excitement of this new initiative. Even then I wanted to become more closely involved with this school, but of course I didn’t anticipate I would one day become its Dean. When I came for a Goethe Institute exhibition and then later for the Microwave festival, the impression I had of Hong Kong and of its artist community was of a vibrant media art scene that was both innovative and qualitative. Since the 60’s media art has flourished in a number of global centres of enthusiasm and dedication, and Hong Kong is certainly one of them.
LCW: But after 15 some years have you seen anything change in general for the Hong Kong art scene or in this integration or development of media arts here?
JS: I have not been close enough to the Hong Kong art scene to say anything about what those changes may have felt like on the ground. There were clearly limited resources because the festivals I participated in were on a much more modest scale compared to those in Europe. I suppose this is a symptom of a lack of cultural funding in Hong Kong. Certain changes that I have seen here are similar to those happening elsewhere, and result from the consumerist integration of technology in people’s daily lives. For the broad public this makes media art practice not as strange as it may have seemed say fifteen years ago. While artists can benefit from this increasingly popular assimilation of digital media, the downside is that artistic experiments operate within (or against) an increasingly commercialised and simplistic discourse.
LCW: You are the Founding Director of the Institute for Visual Media at the ZKM/Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany) You are an international artist travelling everywhere. I am sure everyone would like you to work with them. Choosing Hong Kong as a destination, you must have had expectations; what potential do you see in art education here?
JS: I have always enjoyed situating myself into unfamiliar situations where I have to respond to new contexts and new challenges. My fifteen years in Amsterdam and ten years at the ZKM in Germany gave me a deep engagement with European contexts of media art, research and production. Then I moved to Australia for five years and set up the Center for Interactive Cinema Research (iCinema) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. One of the reasons for this was my interest in positioning artistic research in the context of academia, as I believe this is one of the next big challenges and opportunities for media art. So coming to Hong Kong is now a further step along this path. As Dean of the School of Creative Media, I want to integrate the spheres of artistic research into its undergraduate and graduate pedagogical structure, and introduce students to artistic research paradigms from the very outset of their education.
LCW: How would you describe the school you are creating through your work with the School of Creative Media (SCM)?
JS: I want it to be a next generation school that is the breeding ground for Hong Kong’s emerging generations of media artists. At the same time the school will respond to the growing needs of the creative industries here in Hong Kong, and give students the skills they need to bring innovative leadership to these industries. I am both excited and impressed by the pace of cultural development in HK. Developments like the West Kowloon project are exemplary, there are adventurous galleries like Osage, Para/Site, Artistree and I/O, and great festivals such as Microwave. These initiatives open up a whole new range of creative opportunities for Hong Kong and Asia, and the School of Creative Media should be a hotbed where students discover and craft their individual capacities to both shape and contribute to these new opportunities.
LCW: But how could the position of the school mediate this relationship between the old world and new world, and when I say old world I mean of the conventional and mainstream art world where galleries and art fairs heavily rely on the presentation of art objects an artefacts…you also have this traditional art academy training as well…
JS: Innovative art practices want to break boundaries and transcend the presumptions of the cultural status quo. At the same time there is an implicit collusion between this rebelliousness and a cultural establishment that is always on the look out for renewal. Even the most conservative forces in the art world are gradually influenced and transformed by the impacts of new energies and new discoveries. Just look at the recent HK Art Fair – Picasso is rubbing shoulders with Anish Kapoor, who in turn is there beside Bill Viola and a younger generation of Hong Kong video artists presented by Microwave. Together with Sarah Kenderdine I showed one of our recent interactive installations - UNMAKEABLELOVE - at this art fair. We had about 12.000 visitors in five days, which was surprisingly more than we usually get in a typical museum exhibition context. In general I believe we are facing a new situation compared to just fifteen years ago. The art world is becoming more and more engrossed by those new media whose force is indisputable when you see the way it impacts the world’s social and political landscape. We are at a moment when we have to recognize and creatively and critically work with the fact that new media technology is not merely an deluge of consumerist gadgetry, but that it constitutes a deep-going transformation of our lives on every level.
LCW: You mentioned that SCM could be the place to educate future Hong Kong artists. But could there also be opportunities to train art curators and art managers?
Rather than train I prefer the word inspire. The strong presence of world class practicing artists and professionals at the School of Creative Media allows us to teach and inspire by example. Because the best learning experience comes from a profound understanding of what the actual practice is all about, its passions and ambitions. Coming into daily contact with these many modalities of creative professionalism at SCM, each student learns to discover their own unique creative capacities and direction.
A very important aspect of contemporary culture is the fact that the boundaries between the various creative disciplines are becoming blurred. Artistic competence today is multi-disciplinary and multi-tasking – it enables you to be an artist, a curator, a museum director, a designer or an architect, as well as to pursue many other career paths. It is exciting, challenging and necessary to bring all those possibilities into our school. For instance we offer a close partnership between SCM and CityU’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Science (CLASS) focused around the topics of digital humanities and cultural heritage, because we want to be able to educate and inspire people to take positions of leadership in the new cultural industries that are emerging in Hong Kong.
LCW: Is the future direction of the School of Creative Media to be collaborating with other institutions and do you have new ideas or directions that you will try?
We are moving from a three-year to a four-year curriculum and have come up with an innovatively new Bachelor of Arts and Sciences (BAS) program that will focus the school’s strong commitment to interdisciplinarity on all levels. A fundamental aspect of new media is its hybridity, its ability to mix all digital media forms, from photography to cinematography, to games and virtual reality and so on. All these can be linked together in different ways to generate various often surprising outcomes. Also fundamental is the way in which new media is deeply engaged with society and its many challenges, and artistic practices can be drawn to address and find solutions to those challenges. For example we are planning to work with CityU’s School of Energy and Environment, responding to a growing artistic interest in addressing environmental issues such as climate change. SCM’s Bachelor of Art and Science will also align with CityU’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE) because there is a close integration of artistic and scientific research in the emergent fields of Information-art, Bio-art and Nano-art. Under the banner of Discovery and Innovation and a discovery-enriched curriculum, CityU is hiring more interdisciplinary faculty members who can further forge SCM’s ties with all the other colleges, schools and departments,
In the future I see SCM students and graduates becoming creatively and constructively engaged with the those important cultural, environmental and social issues that concern and impact Hong Kong citizens, especially in the context of Hong Kong’s relationship to Mainland China and its unique positioning as a crossroads between East and West. Creative media is all about creative involvement with society.
LCW: In Hong Kong I find that something is lacking in academic institutions. For example in the United States, university museum systems have contributed a great part to the development of art in the country. Though here in HK several universities have art programs, in terms of exhibiting, there is still a lot missing. The SCM has now moved to this fantastic new building, the Creative Media Centre designed by Daniel Libeskind. Could anything be done on this side?
One of the reasons I joined CityU is that SCM is exceptionally fortunate to have a Daniel Libeskind building in which to work, educate and research – it is a truly inspirational environment. This landmark building will also be a place where the Hong Kong community can come into close contact with SCM activities. Its exhibition and performances spaces will give faculty and students the opportunity to present their creativity to a broad audience and develop ongoing interactions with local citizens. On October the 28th this year we will launch a grand opening cultural festival that will run for six months, with numerous world class exhibitions, performances, conferences, visiting artists, curators, theorists, scientists, etc. We want to establish the Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre as a national and international cultural landmark, one that in Libeskind’s words will be ‘a beacon of creativity’ that Hong Kong can be proud of.
Besides this great building what also sets SCM apart is it emphasis on world-class creative research. Its cutting edge technological facilities include film and video production, digital photography, 3D cinematography, animation and motion capture, virtual reality and immersive visualization. These offer platforms for the most advanced forms of learning and research at the forefront of the evolution of our technological society, and give our students the creative, critical and technical skills they will need to be successful players and leaders in an ever changing future.
The last topic I would like to talk to you about is the controversial and sensitive subject of being local and being international. So as a school here with a diverse faculty, what do you think about how the school could contribute to the ideas of localism and internationalism?
JS: I don’t see this as controversial because localism and internationalism are inseparable. You cannot be international without embracing the local, while in today’s world the local is always part of an international context. In a parallel sense, the personal and the general are also inseparable in art. Art making is simultaneously an individual and a communal enterprise. Broadly spoken this is how things are nowadays. On the other hand Hong Kong presents a quite unique situation on so many levels – its geography, history, culture, economy, urbanism, etc. Every artist coming from outside is fascinated by Hong Kong’s local specificity. The School of Creative Media’s heterogeneous faculty of local and international faculty and students is therefore a crucible of reflection on Hong Kong’s past, present and future identity.
LCW: Could the school also be welcoming to students from abroad? At the moment we have students from mainland China and a few areas from outside of China. Could the school open up to more foreign students?
Certainly. CityU is deeply committed to internationalisation and one of SCM’s goals is to make its programs attractive to students from all parts of the world and thereby create a richly stimulating learning environment. Besides its core Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese faculty, professors at SCM come from Holland, Hungary, Australia, Spain, Finland, New Zealand, USA and Germany, and this diverse community of teachers and students is of enormous benefit to our Hong Kong students who are destined to become globally competitive professionals. Furthermore, our cutting edge MA and PhD programs are also a big attractor for students from Mainland China and other countries, making SCM into a centre of intellectual and creative ferment on par with the best universities in the world.