Ellen Pau was interviewed by Keith Whittle at Videotage in Hong Kong on 2 September 2005. She answers questions on the subjects of: global exchange and local art scenes; moving from lens media to new media; workshop and educational models; the roles of artist or director; and popular culture. Thanks to Teresa Kwong for helping set up the interview.
Keith Whittle: I was interested in speaking with you because obviously you have a wide range of experience of working in the local art-scene in Hong Kong, and you are representative both of what is going on here from the point of view of being an artist, but also as someone who has been specifically involved in the management and development of Videotage in Hong Kong. The first thing that I would like to kind of know is maybe if you could describe a little bit about your background; your involvement with Videotage and how you work both as an artist producing your own work and how that fits in with this organisation that you effectively set up. That’s quite a big question, I know.
Ellen Pau: Actually I started off working with many different media when I studied at Polytechnic, and I was a stage actor. I was also an organiser of pop concerts and an editor of pop music magazines. I had many different experiences at Polytechnic and then, in my final year, I started to make my own Super8 films (I had done photography at Secondary school). But I wanted to meet people or do things together with other people, so I started to play with other media. After working with Super8, I decided I wouldn’t do drama again, but after my graduation I joined Zuni Icosahedron where I began to do experimental drama, or rather visual theatre. At the same time I explored a lot of experimental film, trying to understand what the medium is, what the concept is, and I started to realise that there’s a whole bunch of visual artists that have moved to another field doing experimental film, like Louis Bunuel – those kind of people who were doing painting, sculpture etc.
So then I realised that there’s no definite field that you have to stay in. You can cross over. But the most attractive thing for me – and this was the first encounter of my art experience - was the accidents occurring through experimenting a lot and the accidents in re-forming yourself. All these ideas on one hand were very romantic for me, but on the other hand they were also very appealing because the process was very inspiring. So I had this on my mind all the time and that is actually the motive why I opened this group called Videotage, so that other people can enjoy the creativity during the production – a real hands-on experience of enjoying the production – and also get support from each other, and keep the idea that we have to re-form and experiment. Keeping the idea that we, as artists, collectively help each other. Also, having a collective we can do a lot of lobbying or bargaining with the government or whatever art body. So I felt this was an advantage when I first started Videotage. Of course the vision can be very big, because there’s only one person concerned – the person doing it. So not a lot of higher goal lobbying has been done, but we can manage an annual screening, or showcase what is happening in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong market’s response to products is harsh: in those times Super8 went down rapidly within one year and then suddenly there was a gap in the market (now, the increased speed means there would not be that gap). I bought my first video camera in a shop for tourists so it was an American standard video camera. There is a domestic video market now, but at that time we didn’t have any domestic video recorders and cameras because the middle-class was a small proportion of society. I guess right now about 40 or 50 percent of the people are middle-class and so we have an abundance of all this hardware. Back then, I used a tourist camera, and the first moment I picked it up, I already viewed Hong Kong at a distance – like a tourist – because I needed to do conversion. It all reinforced the idea that I am a tourist and doing video. This was a very important point.
But at the same time, when I did video I also did a lot of exchange because I was sending my works to overseas and international events to showcase them. My understanding was that the international community was better at networking, even though it was not very effective or efficient because there was no Internet at that time – in ’85 it was quite primitive. Then a lot of things were done still via the fax and so the information flow is not like now. It was old fashioned then. Because I had this experience of going abroad to see my work, I saw the development of a lot of Super8 or video festivals changed to become New Media Festivals. I don’t really care whether I should stay in the same media. For me, I only explore what is experimental. Naturally I followed the trend and then my attention was drawn to new media. So that is why at Videotage, when we first started out, we only managed to do an annual showcase and in the middle years we had public funding and we managed to do much exchanging with other people, and now in recent years we are doing much more of the new media stuff.
KW: When you established Videotage, was that out of necessity because no one else was doing that, or was it because you wanted to create an independent organisation and you didn’t want this affiliated with an existing institution?
EP: There was no organisation that I wanted to affiliate with. There were none. Yes, so I tried to run a one-person organisation at that time. This is extra!
KW: So you seem to have two different roles. One is that you are an artist and you have your own practice, but also you were an art director as well and you established Videotage?
KW: What would you call yourself first and foremost? An artist or...?
EP: An artistic director. I always think that an artistic director is better than an artist, maybe because an artistic director is more sensible to talk to, I don’t know! Well, of course an artistic director can always become an artist. It’s like a bagatelle. So I really like to be called an artistic director rather than an artist, but most people like to be called an artist, I think.
KW: Could describe your primary goal or main objective as an art director?
EP: Well actually we have a goal to re-form. Last year we had a re-form and we do now have an artistic director, but during the period when I was the artistic director I was trying to... well first I was very keen in looking at all the designs that the group is generating. I would be very keen on the quality control, like which artists are coming into our programmes and selecting work: sort of like a semi-curator role, but together also as a mentor for a lot of artists that are coming to work here and trying to be friendly to them. I won’t say that I am really a mentor, but trying to talk to them, to share what I have done. Even like giving a printer, if I have one that I can spare, I will just give them a printer. It’s that kind of help that I can provide. So, yes my role is really more businesslike: it’s more the image to nurture each new generation.
KW: Can you talk a little bit to describe the type of activities and the programme Videotage run?
EP: Yes. We have tried many different things, like we have tried to provide six months of lectures, and a series of workshops for the public to understand what new media art is. Every week we will have public lectures in the Visual Art Centre. We will have definite course content and we will have definite hands-on workshops for the people, so they can enjoy the practical side of doing new media work, but at the same time understanding the theory behind it and understanding how to appreciate new media art. I guess that is a very impressive programme for me because it’s long and substantial lectures done by a lot of good people, and also the standard of the workshops are very high. I see it as the first dedicated new-media workshop for the public and I guess the School of Creative Media, which is doing a lot of new media stuff in Hong Kong; it opened only in 1999, so it’s a fairly new institution. So actually before that we were doing a lot of preparation. Before that we are like other groups, that we organised Microwave and the International New Media Art Festival.
Microwave has gone through several phases of development. For the first two years of Microwave, because the budget was so small, we only managed to do a screening programme in CD-ROM exhibitions. Now it’s getting bigger and bigger including for example a seminar or a conference, or the artists will give talks at the conference. We will have school tours and we will bring kids to the exhibition space and tell them how to look at the work. Of course we have resident artists during the festival that will hold one or two workshops for the public. So actually the programme has expanded. The exhibition part has expanded quite a lot. They are not only presenting computer work: CD-ROM work – now they are also presenting more installation-type work that require higher technology skills. So Microwave has developed through phases up to the point it is now, and now we have decided we had to work harder in our curatorial techniques and so now we are trying to reform Microwave to see whether we should hire an artistic director or a curatorial director so that we will have very clear and complete ideas for curatorial processes. We are still having these kinds of discussion, but you know discussions can go on for a long time. But anyway, we are having this kind of discussion and I think that it will happen maybe this year or next year that we will definitely reform the whole Festival. The programme may not only fit to only what I have already told you of.
KW: And Videotage itself, is it currently government funded?
EP: Yes, it’s 99% government funded.
KW: What about the 1%?
EP: Actually, it is 90% government funded and 10% director funded.
KW: Okay. So how many years was the organisation in existence before it received government funding?
EP: Almost ten years and then we have had ten years funding.
KW: So before that it was self-financing?
EP: Yes for the first ten years. But it was quite easy because there were not many people doing things so you just had a short phone list – you just called people to go to any of the screenings or asked people whether they had some new work. It wasn’t much to do then. Actually, at that time most of the venues were not equipped with projectors and I don’t think even our centre had a media projector ...
KW: The work that you do both as an artist and also with your involvement with Videotage, and more generally the art scene in Hong Kong; do you undertake that work in relation to a growing body of knowledge which is research related, new-media art related, curating or looking at theories of media? Or is it just your personal endeavours, in that you are interested in actually making things happen?
EP: As I said before, I had organised these 6-month workshops and lectures. I guess a project like that is responding to the quest of knowledge and doing research, but at the same time I am very clear that I am not trying to compete or try to place myself in any academic network. So it will be more of a loose discussion and a loose encounter with artists so that we can generate new ideas. I prefer to have new ideas, rather than just gaining new knowledge because for me, I appreciate developing the ideas with other people, rather than just studying. Actually, Hong Kong has, from the 80s when I first started Videotage, undergone quite a big change. Even though economically the change started from the 60s, it applies to media art, technology, or even to the domestic technology market – it’s like what I said about starting from VHS/BETAMAX to Video8, Super8, High8 and then it goes on to the computer. So actually you see the change in technology over the last 20 years. The Internet plays a very, very important role and all these changes are something that Videotage – and even me – is quite aware of. Then politically Hong Kong has changed too – there was a very important change in ’97.
So it has had so many changes that we are responding to and I don’t think that we are only driven by the idea in media art or academic studies, or theoretical ideas. We want to get engaged in the social and political climate in Hong Kong. Of course with the change of artistic practice – we all want to respond to these changes.
KW: So do you find that, for example with the Microwave Festival, do you find that you are increasingly having an international audience that is attending the Festival and not just from say mainland China, Japan or Korea?
EP: Definitely. I want to see Microwave have more of an international audience, but I don’t see it happening right now. It’s very difficult to draw international audiences to come to the Microwave Festival usually because the budgets are really, really small. It’s difficult to bring overseas artists. It’s not enough to commission. Also the people who are doing presentable, international standard work in Hong Kong in new media are only a handful. So if you are presenting one artist this year, then you have to look – you will be repeating artists work every three or four years. So I don’t think that we have such big resources right now for an international show, but I also see from what’s happened before, is that if Microwave had the vision to show Asia Pacific or even Chinese new media art, then this kind of work also would have to draw national audiences. But the money is being cut every year. We have the vision to do that, but we don’t have the money-people right now. So we are still waiting. The reason why we are trying to improve our curatorial ideas is to try to write very good explanations of how people can appreciate the artwork so that more business sponsors will come in once they understand what is being presented or what the show is about. When they are more interested in being presented as sponsors of a show then we will have extra money. Then if we have extra money, we will manage to find a person who would do research in those kinds of areas and then bring artists to Hong Kong – but that will take a long, long time and now I think we are starting on the first step only, trying to target and reach businesses.
KW: Having spent time visiting those festivals you mention outside of Hong Kong, has that given you a sense of the differences between the media art that has been created in other countries and what’s being created in Hong Kong. Do you see there being a distinct difference?
EP: I see too much difference, and a difference of the budget. Yes, for people who are doing animation... yes, I think their skills are more or less the same, whether they are talking about the content, or content-wise. Usually Hong Kong people are very good in working with technology – the hardware really – but with the software, and the content for instance, then maybe they’re a little bit weak. I would say technology wise or the visual outputs and concerns, or the quick response to what’s happening in the technology world, all these are really amazing things that Hong Kong people can learn. Yes, so I guess there is a special difference … even with movies, if you compare Hong Kong style, then it is very callous and ruthless. Those kinds of people are not gangsters, but they are very free-spirited, anti-hero type of people and I guess this is happening in the new media world also. You won’t see people talking very high culture, but low pop culture, with very loose ideas. They like to mock people and they like to criticise people – this is the attitude, and I guess you can hate us, but at the same time that is more interesting than people who behave very well, like in Singapore or Japan. Those people have their own characters, but Hong Kong people have this ‘pop culture character’.
KW: I was interested in asking, the Videotage is in its 20th year this year? What are your ambitions for both Videotage and also your own practice for the next 5 years?
EP: Not too long, because I have to think about my retirement. No, but I guess it is very important to sustain the practice in Hong Kong because, as I said to you, if you stop working here, then nobody really can find a window to see and find new media art in Hong Kong. So I guess it’s a very important practice. Videotage for the next 10 years will be maturing. We will do more work there, more substantial work. For example, we definitely won’t do glamorous openings and those kinds of thing. We are not too keen to do this. For me, I don’t believe that art openings are really for art – but for the sponsor. I think I have to learn what other people are doing in promotion and administration. What Videotage needs most in the next 10 years, is to do a really good art promotion and administration. But we are also having to do more grounded work such as building up a very good media library with artists’ catalogues, with festival catalogues, academic books or fun books. We try to change ourselves and every year we will try to complete some work. Before, in the early Videotage years, we could use the The Best of Videotage, which is a video compilation. Actually there are one or two versions and we will have a definite curatorial statement, but some of them are really loose in choosing the work that we collect in the two years. We then put it into a compilation, but because we have done six compilations – you will see it in our catalogue – it actually demonstrates a change and also you see the great diversity of styles that we have collected. But that is only for video and right now we really want to do more groundwork for new media explorations.
Actually, going back to your last question about the difference between Hong Kong new media art and international work is that usually the Hong Kong work is really, really cheap. The production fee is really low. But for overseas work, which is usually being funded or sponsored by a University or a research centre, usually we can’t compete with that. We don’t have a great big budget like the institutions.
So, the five-year plan. The groundwork will be the workshop – a very important workshop – and the artists exchange. It is our goal to do something that really represents new media art in Hong Kong. Also, to get in touch with overseas and international art practices is very important for Hong Kong people. It is so interesting, always touching the edge of the international, but at the same time at the edge of the primitive (laughter).
KW: How about yourself?
EP: For me, actually for the last two years I have really hated teaching, but I think I really want to get more academic knowledge so that I can be a better curator. But at the same time, I really want to learn marketing skills and how to do better parties. Actually we have a plan that has not yet been approved by the directors, that we turn this space into a launch. So every Friday night of the first week of the month, we have a new media launch and then we have a sort of party, but at the same time we need the artists to share ideas. It hasn’t yet been approved but for me, the programme gives me a lot of opportunities to host the work as a moderator for the workshop. So I guess, I feel that I want more knowledge so that I can be a better moderator.