Open Letter to CFCCA, 9th March 2020
In the last few months, I have felt more Chinese than ever before. I don’t feel invisible, I feel overly visible. I have thought about it more than I ever have done before. Whilst I am acutely aware that my morning commute causes anxiety for others, I have also continued to encounter more subtle forms of racism elsewhere.
For several months I have been working on a project which draws on concerns of race, gender, diaspora, notions of a contested British Chineseness, and my relationship with Hong Kong, for the exhibition A New Constellation: Chinese Diaspora Now at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester. It has been a project that has both shaken and informed my sense of self and my place in the world. I was grateful that a space for this work to emerge had opened up. I now write to announce my decision to withdraw my participation in the exhibition. This is an open letter. It is open as in disclosed but it is also open because it is open-ended: it is inconclusive. It is not particularly written to any specific one, yet nonetheless, it is directed.
I would like to preface this letter by saying that I don’t know if I’m doing or saying the right thing here, but I feel like I am. The purpose of this letter is to invite an open and optimistic conversation, one that might imagine a way forward, and to speculate on what might become the unlocked potential of any Chinese Art Centre to contribute positively to our worlds. This is not a call to boycott, but a call to engage.
The recent and sudden departure of Tiffany Leung, as curator of CFCCA, has highlighted a problematic situation and one that ultimately creates a closing of the space in which such a project could be realized. Her departure, not by any fault of her own, signaled to me a systemic problem reaching in, which in my naivety, I had overlooked. Perhaps it is not surprising to most people that many of the dominant voices in conversations in the UK about 'Chinese' arts are white voices. In fact, it is very clear that the dominating frame of reference is still through the lens of a particular gaze. For example, of the 13 members of the CFCCA's team, only 1 of them is not a white person. Following a recent restructure at CFCCA, the vacant curatorial role may become an Assistant Curator role, which strengthens an existing hierarchy and limits the agency power of a new, under-represented, curatorial voice. Perhaps it is an assumption I am making, that most of the team do not identify as Chinese, but from our conversations, this alarmingly appears to be the case.
Given that this is the current situation, there seems to be a much more heightened danger that my work will fall into that same lens, illuminated by what is inevitably a residual colonial perspective. The space for this work to emerge has been closed. It has not closed in on itself, it was closed subtly but violently. Our galleries and institutions value academic qualifications and industry experience, which are more often than not more easily gained by some than others as a result of intersectional inequalities. For an organisation to stand as the "leading authority" on any under-represented voices in the UK, it should work to address that under-representation in all areas, from their volunteers and interns to their management team, not least because we must recognise that even the most well educated white curators won't possess the inarticulable understandings and the embodied knowledge of what it might be like to live in a non-white body. Whilst we continue to operate in systems that privilege and offer more authority to the white voice, that voice will inevitably become the perspective that is heard the loudest: the narratives that become histories. They are the custodians of that history. We might think that our galleries and museums are very trustworthy, they are backed up by academic institutions and full of leading experts. Their dominance is therefore, power, and those with the power are often those without the embodied experience of the experiences they choose to present, disseminate, and write. What is to become of our histories if they are to continue being shaped and moulded by such power? To quote Donna Haraway, 'It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.'
For a long time, I had denied that race had impacted my life, yet on reflection, somehow I always had to make the biggest artworks, the loudest artworks, the most obnoxious artworks. I had to shout to be heard. Our institutions are often built to function within (and so perpetuate) the status quo from which we need to be urgently liberated; this being often a white, cis, heteronormative, neoliberal, able-bodied, western-educated intelligentsia. The tools that are being used to see, present, and tell our narratives are wrong and the balance of power is so unevenly distributed. The only way this might change is for institutions to welcome in new voices that offer an alternative perspective and give them the agency to destabilise the status quo.
In striving to become a more mainstream Arts organisation, CFCCA privileges a Eurocentric leadership, whose authorship has, in turn, contributed to the politics and perspectives of the Chinese in the UK through a hierarchical form of selective cultural diplomacy that draws the labours of Chinese artists from across the world in order to uphold the powerful agency of a white knowledge, expertise, and perceptions of Chineseness narrated only in English. To decolonise a territory is to give up power, to give up control, to release a territory that has been occupied. To give back sovereignty to where it was previously taken. For us to attempt to un-write the western narratives of Chineseness whilst simultaneously supporting the writing of them creates a space which immediately closes in on itself. To participate in this representation does not offer the agency to enact change, disrupt or dismantle the status quo, it forces us to assimilate the values of it and excludes those who are unwilling from a successful place on that platform. This is a space that I cannot make work in, it is a space that we cannot speak, a space that frames our work through an exclusive lens. I will need to find space elsewhere.
When I pressed the team on these issues I was told that "To be totally honest with you, I have never experienced similar difficulties in the past five years I have been working at CFCCA; we have worked with numerous UK based artists (diasporic and mixed identity - depending on how they want to identify themselves) and international artists. They never voiced similar concerns and it was always clear how their work fits within the institution." On reflection, conversations about my work and my identity were met largely with a curiosity which felt voyeuristic. Our difference, our traumas, and our convoluted ethnic identities that through practice we navigate and attempt to both understand and articulate, are for others seemingly an exciting curiosity. Whilst there is obvious intention to open up as well as to participate in conversations on decolonising the arts, there seems to be no real belief that this is required, that this is needed, and that this space should be opened up, given up, offered up for sharing. For long enough, the standard has been that the authorities on art are white and until very recently, men. We see this reflected in our academies across the world. Of course, the participation of white scholars and curators in this conversation is not necessarily the problem. The problem is their dominance, afforded to them by structural and institutional racism which then forces artists and their artworks to surrender to the white gaze. In fact, there is a not unsubstantial archive of material at CFCCA which addresses some of these issues, and also the contestations of Chineseness through exhibitions. The problem is, as Sara Ahmed has suggested, that because these kinds of documents are often taken up as signs of good performance in diversity efforts and as expressions of commitment that they actually work to conceal forms of racism. They are used to tell us that the work is being done.
Where there is a scarcity of opportunity, people might say "we're just like you, we're just trying our best to get by and show good art". This unintentional wrongdoing is where the racism lies because there is often the assumption that things have just happened to fall this way, that on another occasion there could quite easily have been many more non-white members of staff, but such an assumption ignores the structural inequalities that make it easier for white people to get positions that are scarce. For an institution that focuses on the presentation of an under-represented and frequently misrepresented demographic, I cannot help but feel that my work, my experience, and my trauma, are being used as a leg-up into an industry for an already over-represented demographic, at the exclusion of everybody else.
We must still recognise that in 2020 we have an urgency to act, to catch up, to break free from the grasp of our residual colonial structures present and perpetuating in our institutions. How to define our future selves is uncertain, but what is certain is how we frame such uncertainty now will inevitably have a significant impact. I am announcing my decision now, to allow enough time for the organisation to make arrangements and adjustments for the show to go on. I do this so as to not no-platform anybody else through my decision not to participate. My withdrawal is my own, and I do not wish to forcibly withdraw a platform from underneath someone else.
Furthermore, I hold open arms to CFCCA. I hope that soon, we will be able to work together. Thanks to all of those, both in and external to CFCCA, who have taken the time and effort to talk to me, and for the support of all the other artists in the show. I offer my help to CFCCA in any way they need to move forwards, but I do not wish to perform until the broken stage is fixed.
在過去的幾個月裡，我一直在開展一個個人項目—「現代華裔散居」，該項目本將在曼徹斯特華人藝術中心 (CFCCA)的「新星座」(New Constellations)展覽，項目的關注涉及到種族、性別、散居、對英國化華裔有爭議性的觀念、以及我與香港的關係；一個既動搖又啟發了我自我意識和自身在世界地位的項目。我很感恩這類工作出現的空間已經打開。我現在寫信宣布決定退出展覽。這是一封公開信。這開放的公開信就如公開一樣，但是由於它是開放的，所以它也是無限制開放式的：它是非决定性的。它不是專門針對任何特定的對象而寫，但是仍然是帶有針對性。
最近華人藝術中心 (CFCCA)策展人Tiffany Leung突然離任，特別反映了一個棘手的情況，此情況最終導致可以實現該項目空間的封閉和結束。她的離開，並不是因為她自己的過錯，這事情向我示意了一個系統性的問題，而我原本天真地忽略了這一點。在英國有關“中華”藝術的對話中，許多佔主導地位的聲音都是白人的聲音，這對於大多數人來說也許並不奇怪。實際上，非常清楚的是，主導的參照和參考仍需通過特定鏡片去凝視。例如，在華人藝術中心 (CFCCA)團隊的十三名成員中，只有一名不是白人。在華人藝術中心 (CFCCA)最近進行重組之後，空缺的策展人角色都變成了助理策展人角色，這加強了現有的等級制度並限制了新的和代表性可能不足的策展人的聲音。
為了努力成為更主流的藝術組織，華人藝術中心 (CFCCA) 授予特權於以歐洲為中心的領導階層，該領導層促成了上述的政治和對英國華人的觀點，通過階級式的選擇性文化外交形式吸引了來自世界各地的中國華藝術家的作品，目的是為了維護強大的白人知識，專業知識和對中國人和華人的生活經歷和故事之理解，然而只用英語來講述。使領土非殖民化就是要放棄權力，放棄控制，釋放被佔領的領土。將先前取得的主權交還。對於我們來說，在試圖重寫/ 改寫西方的中國文化和性質的敘述的同時，支持他們的寫作就會創造了一個立即被封閉起來空間。參與這種的代表並不意味著機構可以製定變更，打亂或打破現狀，它迫使我們被其價值同化，並將那些不願在這樣的平台上取得成功的人排除在外。這是一個我無法進行工作的空間，這是一個令我們無法說話的空間，是一個以獨特的鏡片框著我們工作的空間。我將需在其他地方取得成功。
當我向團隊提出這些議題時，我被告知：「老實說，我在華人藝術中心 (CFCCA)工作的五年來從未遇到過類似的困難；我們曾與眾多英國藝術家（流散和混合身份-取決於他們如何識別自己的身份）和國際藝術家合作。他們從未表達過類似的擔憂，而且他們始終都很清楚他們的工作如何切合本機構。」經過反思，關於我的工作和身份的對話很大程度上是出於好奇, 而有偷窺感。我們之間的差異，我們的創傷，以及令人費解的種族認同，通過實踐我們能夠繼續揣摩並試圖理解和表達，這對其他人來說似乎是出於令人興奮的好奇心。雖然顯然有著開放和參與非殖民化藝術對話的意圖，但似乎沒有真正的信念去相信這是改變是必需的，這像這社會現狀是理所當然的; 並且這個空間應該是開放的，有權力人士應把這個空間放手，以提供分享用途。幾個世紀以來，標準一直是所有藝術權威都是白人，直到最近，標準是男人。我們在世界各地的學院中都看到這一點的反映。當然，這場對話中白人學者和策展人的參與並不一定是問題。問題在于他們的支配地位，由結構和制度上給予他們的種族歧視，從而迫使藝術家及其作品屈服於白人的凝視。事實上，華人藝術中心 (CFCCA) 擁有大量提及一些此類問題的資料料檔案，亦有通過展覽對中國人和華人的生活經歷和故事提出討論和爭議。可是問題在於，正如薩拉·艾哈邁德（Sara Ahmed）所建議的那樣，由於這些文件經常被視為在多樣性努力的表現良好的標誌，並且以體現承諾的表達形式是去致力於掩蓋種族歧視。這些都是用來告訴我們多樣性的工作正在進行中。