Hong Kong art show, unusually, explores the world of business

‘Hack Space’ arrives from London with an examination of the ways hacking can disrupt and subvert the world of work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 10:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 10:55am

Considering how every single facet of Hong Kong, such a poster child of global capitalism, is steeped in the culture of commerce, there have been remarkably few art projects in the city that fix their gaze on the world of business.

Other real-life issues are addressed through art: politics, China’s transformation, mass media, and so on. But the way office workers spend many of their waking hours from Monday to Friday, and how the companies they work for evolve, isn’t explored.

“Hack Space”, an exhibition opening on Monday at the K11 Art Foundation pop-up space in Sheung Wan, is unusual in that the framework of the show resembles a business school analysis, though fortunately not in a dreary way.

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Curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the globetrotting star curator from London’s Serpentine Galleries, and his colleague Amira Gad, this art exhibition explores the democratisation of businesses, either through removing management hierarchy or through hacking - that shattering violation of conventional boundaries.

The exhibition is structured using the open-source model that is increasingly prevalent in the technology industry.

In this case, the underlying “code” that forms the backbone of “Hack Space” is provided by New Zealand artist Simon Denny, whose sculptures and multimedia installations look at technological evolution, corporate culture and the internet.

Denny, using his own work as a starting point, has also sourced recent works by 11 Chinese artists (including Hong Kong’s own Firenze Lai) that provide local responses to technology and boundaries.

Denny made his name with his 2015 Venice Biennale project, based on Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information from the National Security Agency in the United States. But here in Hong Kong, the focus is less on national security and government surveillance and more about the positive aspects of information sharing, and the hacking of systems and spaces as a welcome challenge to authority.

One of his works that will be on show is called Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace, which has a circular organisational chart based on a management style known as holacracy perched on books with titles such as Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.

Holacracy can be applied to politics too. It means not top-down. It means a non-hierarchical structure
Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Holacracy, a method of running companies without hierarchy, bosses and, quite often, without job titles, is something Denny often refers to, Obrist says. The artist uses circles and rings to denote flat organisational structures, where each individual is part of a team pursuing specific tasks but also free to generate their own collaboration with other teams.

It may sound utopian but some companies, such as WL Gore, the American manufacturer of Gore-Tex fabric, are really run this way. In Hong Kong, the local subsidiary of WL Gore and Associates received a “best companies to work for in greater China” award last year.

Given China’s top-down, centralised approach to governance, Denny’s circles will have an added subversive aspect, Obrist says. “Holacracy can be applied to politics too. It means not top-down. It means a non-hierarchical structure,” he adds.

This framework may explain why some of the works in the show – most of which have been shown previously – have a somewhat tenuous relationship with the issues at hand, as if they really are the liberal results of open-sourcing.

But Obrist says he and Denny spent time with the artists in their studios in order to make the selection.

Those with a very tangible tie to economic realities include Li Liao’s 2012 personal documentary of working in Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory.

Hacking, in the Shenzhen context, is most closely associated with the enormous shan zhai industry of pirated or fake telecom and computer devices. But Li wanted the real thing for his project.

Foxconn, the main supplier of Apple iPhones, became synonymous with harsh working conditions when 14 workers killed themselves in 2010. Li effectively hacked into the high-security factory by going there undercover, and staying on the assembly line for the months it took him to earn enough to buy a new iPhone.

Another artist Xu Wenkai, who goes under his social media handle “aaajiao”, is showing his 2011 work called Poor Mining I, a box of computer components fitted with a speaker playing the noises produced by a computer in the process of mining for bitcoins, the virtual currency created purely by computing power.

Cao Fei’s video work, Rumba II: Nomad, is both a celebration and an attack on Beijing’s relentless urban sprawl that is constantly blurring the edges between the city and its suburbs.

At the site of recently demolished low-rises, Cao let loose her fleet of robotic vacuum cleaners – round discs that plot their own routes while gobbling up dirt, which could also be aliens from outer space collecting specimens from our obsession with urbanisation.

A similar clip of the same series is, incidentally, also part of an upcoming group exhibition at OCAT Shenzhen that looks at China’s relationship with land.

This is Obrist’s first exhibition in Hong Kong, although he has been curating shows in mainland China since the 1990s and has regularly visited Hong Kong over the past two decades.

“Strangely, I have never done an exhibition here, which is one of the most exciting urban laboratories in the world. One reason is that there is no space,” he says.

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The exhibition format is an experiment, he adds. “This is a breakthrough, since it is a solo-plus group show, both a solo exhibition by Simon and a group show of 11 other artists,” he says.

While Denny’s portion is based on his “Products for Organising” exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery last year, the Hong Kong presentation is not a mere duplicate.

“It was developed differently from the London show, not just by working with the Chinese artists but also in terms of how it reacts to the venue in an office building. To just ship over an exhibition would be homogenised globalisation that is insensitive. I believe in local research, local anchors,” he adds.

Artists included in the group show are aaajiao, Cao Fei, Cui Jie, Guo Xi, Hu Qingtai, Firenze Lai, Li Liao, Liang Shuo, Tao Hui, Xu Qu and Zhai Liang.

After Hong Kong, “Hack Space” will move to Brussels and take on a new iteration with a different set of partner artists.

‘Hack Space’, K11 Art Foundation Pop-up Space, Cosco Tower, 33 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan. Mon-Sun 10am-6pm. Mar 21 to Apr 24