When the Asia Art Archive invited the Raqs Media Collective from India to take part in its international residency programme, the idea was to allow the overseas artists to make use of its collection - 24,000 catalogued items from rare publications to images and videos - for an open-ended project. The exercise will focus mainly on the use of archives for arts research, but the three New Delhi-based artists want to take it further by spending the next four weeks examining how Hongkongers remember their past, using Kowloon's Walled City as an example.
Raqs members Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta will use materials from the archive to explore what Hongkongers remember about the Walled City and what they have forgotten.
'We'd like to investigate the possibility of using the archive to think about things that might have been neglected, forgotten, overlooked or barely glanced at,' Narula says.
The three artists say they are intrigued by the many layers of the site's history and are interested in charting the transformation of this dense urban area over time.
'The accumulation of lives, experiences, memories and histories ... are very rich depositories of ideas and images,' says Narula.
The artists also say they only learned about the Walled City from literary journals and online materials - which makes their upcoming research more challenging.
'So we're waiting to be surprised by it or what exists of it,' says Narula.
Owing to a loophole in a convention signed by the British and mainland governments in 1898, the Walled City came under neither colonial nor mainland rule. As a result, the former military garrison evolved into a slum infested with triads, prostitutes, gamblers and drug addicts. The concrete enclave was finally bulldozed in 1993 and turned into a park.
Phoebe Wong Siu-yin, the archive's head of research, says Raqs' work may not be topical but it is relevant and demonstrates that an archive is not just a static collection but offers a wealth of information that can be interpreted in new ways.
An archive's job is also to trace history and memory through objects and documents, she says. 'So when we thought of having an international artist-in-residence programme focused on archives, Raqs were the first ones who popped up in our minds.'
Indeed, urban space, memory, and history are recurring themes in Raqs' works. Last year at Manifesta 7, a major art exhibition in Europe, they curated The Rest of Now, which explored memory and forgetfulness.
Raqs work in a diverse range of media, from photography and video to multimedia site-specific installation and net art. They have participated in many international arts events, including Documenta 11 (2002), the Venice Biennale (2003 and 2005) and the Istanbul Biennial (2007). They recently finished an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London last month and have another under way at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.
Raqs are also serious researchers. In 2001, they co-founded Sarai, an interdisciplinary space for research and practice in Delhi, the objective of which is to generate new conversations about contemporary media and urban experience in South Asia.
'I first met Raqs in 2007, during my research trip to an academic conference in India,' Wong says. 'I listened to them talking about the copyleft movement and the Creative Commons. And it was so amazing - they dug into issues from different perspectives and they were so articulate they could explain concepts clearly without looking at their notes.
'Since the Asia Art Archive is a research centre, it makes sense for us to choose research-based artists to launch our international residency programme. We probably see things in quite similar ways.'
Raqs will also participate in exchange activities including a meet and greet session with the local arts community next Tuesday and a public presentation on March 26.
The artists say their creative process is organic, which means they often have no idea how their work will take shape.
'We usually decide on the medium we want to work in once we have a grasp of our material and a handle on the process. We'll let the work and the process dictate the medium, not the other way around,' Narula says.
'A residency programme can be of great benefit to artists and researchers if it provides an environment that leaves things open and if it creates room for development.'
Wong says the archive will act as a facilitator for the project and says Raqs is free to present the end product of its residency in whatever form it chooses.
'It can be a work of art, a formal report or even a lecture performance. It's even OK if there is not an end product.'
For Wong, it's the process of creating art that matters most in an artist-in-residence programme. 'Residency is an expensive way to practise art that demands time and space,' she says.
'But I do believe in it because it provides an opportunity for artists to get out of their comfort zone and work in another environment. I think it sets a challenge for the artists because it encourages them to adopt another way to create, which in return might change their way of thinking.'
Wong says the archive's artist-in-residence programme is no different from others, except for its specific focus on archiving.
'Even though we've been working here for a long time, we may not be able to express our understanding of what the archive means vividly and comprehensively when it comes to words,' says Wong. 'So we're expecting insight from Raqs that we can't perceive clearly from inside. The role we're playing here in this international residency programme is to open up new space and imagination for the archive and archiving.'
The Raqs Media Collective's meet and greet session. Mar 10, 6.30pm-8pm, Asia Art Archive, 11/F Hollywood Centre, 233 Hollywood Rd, Sheung Wan. Public talk on Mar 26, 6.30pm-8.30pm, 2/F IZI Building, 151 Hollywood Rd, Sheung Wan. Inquiries: 2815 1112