Tear Gas City: How the Microwave Arts Festival Reflects Hong Kong in 2019

Recently, when Ray Kwong suggested meeting a reporter at a café in Happy Valley, the reporter’s first thought was that it was one of the last neighbourhoods in Hong Kong untouched by tear gas. A year ago, that would have been an incredulous thought. Not so much today – at the time of writing, over 6,000 canisters of tear gas have been fired by the police, affecting an estimated 88 percent of Hong Kong residents, according to a report by Bloomberg.

The tear gas has even found its way into the arts festival that Kwong serves as programme director. The 2019 edition of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival includes a main exhibition, a satellite exhibition and the Unconference, a cheeky take on a typical festival conference.

Interestingly, the English and Chinese titles of this year’s festival mean different things – an allusion to Hong Kong’s bilingualism but also Kwong’s affinity for drawing associations from multiple sources. The festival’s English theme, E.A.T., is a nod to the infamous 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of exhibitions and performances organised by the Experiments in Art and Technology that broke down the barrier between art and science in 1966 in the U.S.. For Microwave’s main shows, Kwong deliberately chose works that are related to the act of eating, global food production or agricultural systems.

By contrast, the festival’s Chinese title, (jin1 hei2 tin1)—literally “smoke flaring up in the sky”—references Hong Kong in 2019, a city besieged by teargas. There is one work in the main exhibition that deftly combines food and smoke. In Smog Tasting, Take Out, egg foam is used to harvest air pollution from different areas in Hong Kong, and the batter is turned into meringue cookies. Visitors to Microwave will be able to get a taste of them – if they dare.

“You’d immediately think, ‘Ew, disgusting,’ but that isn’t so far away from us breathing in teargas-laced air every single day,” says Kwong. “If you feel that this sponge is disgusting, you should also be wearing masks whenever you’re outdoors.”

also appears to reference fung1 jin1 sei3 hei2 (烽烟四起), a Chinese idiomatic expression. In ancient China, whenever guards at the Great Wall saw an enemy advancing, they’d light a fire to warn their own troops. One fire would turn into two, then three and four until the entire stretch of the Chinese border is enveloped in smoke. With what’s happening in the world right now, from global warming-induced fires in California and South America and massive protests in Chile, Catalonia, Lebanon and beyond, Kwong wants this year’s festival to sound a warning signal. It is this interweaving of human and the machine, the latest technologies and ancient history, that makes Microwave Festival stand out from other art festivals in Hong Kong.

Kwong describes herself as a latecomer to the art scene. In university, she’d opted for a degree in sports science, though she didn’t care for a career in it. “For me, what I studied at school and what I’d eventually do in life were two separate things. I picked sports science because I didn’t want to study one thick book after another,” she says with a laugh.

It wasn’t until she met Ellen Pau that she got hooked on new media art. Pau, an artist, curator and founder of Microwave, would sit her down in front of a screen and the two would watch one video art after another for hours on end. While others might find video art abstract or unapproachable, Kwong found the medium empathetic. “After spending so much watching these video pieces, one day, I finally went, ‘I see! So this is time and space,’” she recalls. “Ellen never starts with the heavy, academic stuff. It’s always about watching [the art] first. Only after that will she start talking about theories.”

In subsequent years, Kwong got a Master of Arts in Cultural Management at Chinese University, but it is Pau’s mentorship that informs her curatorial approach for this year’s Microwave, where the seeing and feeling precedes the reading. One only needs to be present for the art to speak to you. The festival does away with the chunks of accompanying text that weigh down many contemporary art exhibits. What unites the works in the main show is their humanity. Rejecting the notion that tech or science-driven art is cold and calculating, E.A.T’s Smog Tasting, Take Out (2019) and Tear Mirror (2019) are lived experiences. With the amount of tear gas remnants staying in the atmosphere, imbibing one smog meringue is probably enough to send you to the hospital. One could also make dozens of jewellery from the tears shed in the last five months.

This rethinking of the food we eat, our history, and the things that make us human also penetrate the other components of the festival. In the Project Room exhibition at openground, “You Exile and My Rove” by Ipa Chiu retraces the journey that the artist’s grandmother took while escaping from war tensions in Shanghai 70 years ago. In the Unconference, Hong Kong-born, Holland-based designer Adelaide Lala Tam will talk about how her investigation into the industrial meat industry led her to conclude that cartilage case of stun gun used to kill a cow that weighs 0.9 grams, and how that discovery resulted in “0.9 Grams of Brass,” in which one can buy a 0.9 gram paper clip from a vending machine at the same price as the bullet.

“I’m not entirely sure how these speakers will present their talks,” admits Kwong when asked how Unconference differs from your usual festival conference. “I saw [Tam’s] work, loved it, but we couldn’t bring the piece itself to town, so the idea is to have her talk about it on stage.”

The Microwave International New Media Arts Festival is a labour of love – something that has been distilled down to the website design itself. The design features three different backgrounds in purple, yellow and red. While the red background features a superimposed image of a soft drink can, images of a corn and teargas canister are superimposed on the yellow and purple backgrounds. The three visuals are associated with themes underlying the art at this year’s festival: global capitalism (the soft can drink), the impact of global warming on crop yields (the corn) and current socio-political situation in Hong Kong (the tear gas canister).

“I love the multiple associations,” says Kwong. “If you think of a microwave, what does it do? It uses [electromagnetic] waves to heat food. We want to serve a similar function – that pinging off of different ideas in all directions.”


The Microwave International New Media Arts Festival runs until 17 November 2019. Click here for more information.

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