by Iona Whittaker
Claire Hsu is co-founder and Executive Director of the Asia Art Archive, a unique Hong Kong-based resource for contemporary art. Through an expanding range of activities including documentation, digitalization and educational, exhibition, residency and research programs, AAA re-imagines the concept of the archive for the current moment. Thus far, its online database holds materials numbering some 300,000. “36 Calendars,” an ambitious participatory project by the artist Song Dong conceived through a recent residency with AAA, will open in Hong Kong on 21 January 2013.
Iona Whittaker: In your own words, what is the Asia Art Archive?
Claire Hsu: The AAA is an independent non-profit organization with the goal of documenting the recent history of art from Asia. There are a number of ways that we do this. One is through this physical space which is open to the public free of charge, making information as accessible as possible, activating the material within the collection and seeing how the collection can become a catalyst for new research, ideas and thinking around the field.
IW: So, not just accumulation, but trying to approach the material actively?
CH: Exactly. It’s about how we activate what is collected together, how we reflect it and inflect it – ie., not just a static collection that waits for the researcher to come in and discover it. I think also in terms of the archive being set up in relation to the specific context that we are in — and I don’t want to generalize for the entire region. There has been a trend of course with the market and with growing recognition and interest from governments of the cultural capital of contemporary art. We’ve seen a lot of museum projects, for example, especially in China; it’s very much about the physical space — the buildings. We’re really trying to come at it from a different point of view which starts from the content and the software, and then the walls of the institution grow around it. In the future, it’s possible that exhibitions will come out of the AAA collection — but right now that’s not what we’re able to focus on. At the same time, if you were to read the resume of programs that we do, they are things that you might find a museum doing outside exhibitions. So, I would say first of all that the archive is a reaction to this focus on hardware and buildings, and secondly that it tries to re-balance the way that global art history is being written, and through encouraging scholarship.
IW: You founded AAA in 2000 — twelve years ago — an amazing thing to have done straight after university. At that time, did you foresee this being the shape of your career in art?
CH: I think it was in part the ignorance of youth (laughs) — being completely naïve and not realizing the responsibilities that would come with it. In a sense it was accidental; I was not born saying “I’m going to be an archivist.” It’s a story that interviews often like. But at the same time I have to emphasize that it’s really been a community effort, and the fact that the collection is 80-90% donated, and that there are so many different forms of support from the team that works extremely hard to the board members and our patrons — yes, of course, you often need an individual to lead, but I would say that I’m just one of many factors that have made AAA possible. It’s also really a matter of the right timing, like so many things in life.
IW: And how do you feel your role has developed? You have become a figurehead in this region, hosting discussions, forging programs and reaching out to other organizations.
CH: I think there was the hope when I started the archive that I would actually be reading all the material that came into it, but of course that isn’t the case! Obviously a lot of my job is organizational and very much day to day – there are multiple foci, for example strategically in terms of where we are going to be in five years, the bigger picture and how the archive is evolving with what’s a very different ecology from what it was when AAA began in 2000, even in Hong Kong. The team is growing, and with that there comes an increased need for organization.
IW: How big is the team now?
CH: Thirty-four. Then there’s fundraising, of course. We’re an independent organization, so we get a grant from the government (which is really 50% more than they give for an organization like ours), and that means we have to raise 93% of our budget every year. But what I’m really interested in is the programs, and I would love to be able to spend more time doing the research and developing some specific areas of interest I have. I am able to get involved in a lot of conversations, but not go into depth.
IW: AAA affirms the value of documenting Asian contemporary art history. How do you interpret the responses of other organizations internationally to this mission?
CH: In general the feedback has been very positive. We are not wholly unique — in terms of content and structure, yes, but I think we are part of a global phenomenon around the promise of the archive. The internet age is significant because information can be shared in a very different way; the traditional world was one in which there was a role of authority in terms of who is privileged with knowledge. This has been blown open, and with this comes our belief in really trying to make this as accessible a resource as possible. We don’t want to be the “gatekeepers”; we realize that there is a judgement process, and that the projects we decide to take on are a reflection of what we are interested in and feel is important. But we also hope that by putting the material out there, people will come and use and interpret it in different ways. So in that sense, the way that we work is not about ownership; it’s about the object. We subscribe to the idea of the Commons in preserving this material and making it accessible. We have a digital collection of about 300,000 items so far. But we don’t take the originals – we leave them in their place of origin, and make digitally accessible copies. Then, this information is read in relation to or in comparison with other information – we are very interested in this comparative model. We can’t be comprehensive, but we can generate different entry points for rethinking the material through different voices and perspectives. The comparative is something very important that is rarely discussed – China is discussed within China, but there is always an East/West discussion going on. There is very little that happens otherwise.
IW: What is the breakdown of your audiences here?
CH: We have people who come in to use the archive — about two thousand and several hundred per year. 30% are those coming specifically from overseas. And then we have audiences who attend our programs. For example, we had Open Weekend which worked with students and teachers in the broader community beyond the arts. Over two days, over 700 people came to participate in different programs. Then we have the Backroom Conversations which are part of the educational project of Hong Kong Art Fair and where we see more mature audiences. It’s a range, and it depends on which programs we are running.
IW: How do you balance the role of AAA as at once a local venture invested in Hong Kong’s art and art history, and as an international organization contributing to the relationship with art and its histories in general?
CH: I think that’s a very good question. Of course we’re based in Hong Kong, and we need to be aware of its local context. There are always complaints that there’s not enough being done for Hong Kong art. We used to get this question when we went in for the Hong Kong Arts Development Council grant: “You are covering Asia, but what are you doing for Hong Kong?” and we thought, “Wow,” because AAA is about putting Hong Kong into the context of the region from a very different perspective of what Hong Kong means, and that’s when it really becomes interesting, especially vis-à-vis China, bringing a different narrative from the official Chinese art history. I think Hong Kong can offer a real alternative. It’s something we ask ourselves a lot, and obviously there’s a big museum being built in Kowloon (M+, to which Uli Sigg recently donated a large portion of his collection) whose main focus is Hong Kong. I think it’s really about figuring out ways to articulate this narrative that are not being told through other institutions. Our previous researcher, for example, was looking into performance art in Hong Kong, and this has been one of the areas we have identified as being important within the region. It’s something that tends to get left out of official narratives as well, and I think that is where we can step in and offer authentic perspectives.
Interview conducted at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, 13 December 2012.