A City on Edge

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Protest at the opening of UABB. Photo by Espen Cook

Last week in Kwun Tong, Kacey Wong stood inside a burnt wood cocoon, explaining the concept behind his painstakingly hand-made installation. “I wanted to create a place where people could meet quietly and have a greater understanding of what’s going on,” he said. To access the space, visitors must duck inside one of two small entrances and make their way to an intimate inner chamber filled with tree trunks; embedded in each tree are books of history and political philosophy that span the ideological spectrum. Wong charred the wood to represent the social and political conflict that now grips Hong Kong. “Fire is a process of transformation,” he said. “It changes material, but if you’re not careful you get burned.”

It was an apt metaphor. Outside the cocoon, the opening ceremony of the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (UABB) had broken down into chaos after Chief Executive CY Leung arrived to give a closed-door speech. Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood, outraged by the government’s plan to turn Kowloon East into a new central business district, gathered to protest. Banners were unfurled from the highway overhead; “Don’t bulldoze our culture,” read one. Police and security guards clamped down, shutting off access to the exhibition, preventing some of the biennale’s curators and exhibitors from accessing their work. “It’s ridiculous – they won’t even let us into our own exhibition,” fumed one designer.

This is the fourth edition of UABB, which takes place every two years in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. It is normally a sedate, academic exploration of the issues facing cities around the world. This year, however, the biennale finds itself caught in a maelstrom of controversy over the so-called CBD2 project, which the government hopes will transform Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay and Kai Tak into a high-value business district, but which critics say will kill one of Hong Kong’s largest creative communities by making the area unaffordable for the small creative enterprises that now call it home. The question for the biennale, which opens this weekend and runs until February 23, is whether it can provide a space for dialogue – or whether it will exacerbate tensions that have already reached the boiling point.

In a way, the fact that the biennale has become the locus of controversy is ironic, because the biennale’s own exhibition touches on many of the concerned raised by the CBD2 project. “I’m very keen that our biennale should be a platform for discussion,” says Colin Fournier, a visiting professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the lead curator of UABB Hong Kong. He explains that this year’s theme, “On the Urban Edge: The Ideal City?” came about after the biennale’s organizers asked him to explore the idea of urban borders, to complement the focus of UABB Shenzhen. “For me, the border that counts is what’s on the edge of the city, the conceptual edge, the edge between what the city is and what the city will be,” says Fournier. “At the edge, the old rules of the city lose their hold, allowing it to reinvent itself, redefine its values and create new forms.” In the case of Kwun Tong, the biennale’s academic concerns have run head-on into their practical implications.

Initially, Fournier had hoped the biennale would take place inside the vacant Central Market, but the organizers—the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, Hong Kong Institute of Planners and Hong Kong Designers Association—opted instead for the waterfront in Kwun Tong. Most of the 80 installations are housed inside the Kwun Tong Ferry Pier, but eight are located in Flyover 1, an outdoor exhibition space managed by the Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO), which was set up by the government to manage community relations in the CBD2 project – and which community activists say has been particularly inept at its job.

“There’s fundamental problems with how EKEO operates,” says Michael Leung, co-founder of HK Farm, an urban agriculture group whose exhibition at the biennale explores the ecological “edge effect,” in which the greatest biological diversity is found in spaces where two ecosystems overlap. “They’re doing very superficial community work,” he says. “They should be getting local creatives to engage in their project, like getting someone from Kwun Tong to redesign Flyover 1 instead of working with a graffiti artist from Hong Kong Island.”

One of the biggest concerns in Kwun Tong is that EKEO is using cultural events like the biennale as a veneer for the displacement and gentrification that will occur because of the CBD2 project. Several biennale participants have already withdrawn because of the EKEO’s involvement. “I withdrew when I learned that the EKEO is involved in the event,” says composer Samson Young, who was slated to present a sound installation at the ferry pier. “I am very sick and tired of the government’s opportunistic approach to arts and culture. Here, arts and culture is used to ultimately facilitate gentrification, so art is a means and not an end.”

When asked about last week’s protests and the withdrawal of exhibitors, the EKEO issued a statement: “We consider it very unfortunate that participants have dropped out,” it said. “Kowloon East is going through an urban transformation process from an industrial area to a more business type area. … We understand that some of the existing users in the area may be affected by the transformation process. We endeavour to understand their needs and in the process of transformation with a view to finding opportunities to take care of them as far as possible.”

For his part, Fournier is quick to point out that EKEO and the government had no involvement with any of the biennale’s content. “We are not in collusion with the bulldozers,” he says. “To me, it’s a sign of a healthy city that there is controversy and dissent.” In his speech at the opening ceremony last week, Fournier was critical of government policies that have favoured economic development over social interests. “The city of laissez-faire capitalism has done a lot of damage to nature, to people, and it’s our responsibility as architects and planners to repair that damage,” he says.

Those concerns are reflected in many of the biennale’s 80 exhibits, which have been contributed not only by architects but by artists, filmmakers and musicians, among others. One installation by researcher Sampson Wong, titled “Things We Want are Annihilated, Things We Don’t Want Are Constructed,” draws a parallel between the controversial demolition of Kwun Tong’s town centre and the CBD2 project. An exhibit by University of Hong Kong architecture professor Tris Kee explores the effect of the government’s industrial area revitalization policy—which encourages the conversion of former factories into offices and hotels—on creative endeavours that currently take place in industrial districts.

Despite his anger over the mishandling of last week’s opening ceremony, Michael Leung remains optimistic that the biennale could provide a venue to explore the issues raised by protesters. “We can be like the protesters and be outside shouting, but that’s not our style – we have to be inside it to change it,” he says. Fournier says the very design of the biennale is meant to encourage discussion. “It replicates the dense urban fabric of Hong Kong, with a lot of exhibits around a central agora,” he says. Inside that agora are mahjong tables around which visitors can sit and discuss. “We want this platform to be open to all,” he says. And if it all gets a bit too serious, he adds, there’s always a chance for Hong Kong-style relief: “We hope that people will also come and play mahjong.”

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Kacey Wong’s installation, “House of Red, House of Blue,” at UABB Hong Kong. See more photos here.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday December 19 2013at 10:12 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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