Ash Moniz and Li Jingxiong were the first artists-in-residence at A307, a residency and experimental "space which allows artists and audience to communicate directly" nestled in an apartment near 798.
China Residencies: How did you hear about A307 in Beijing and what got you interested in going?
Ash Moniz: I was invited because I had heard about it from the curator who runs it, Li Zhenhua. He invited me and Li Jingxiong, the person that I was collaborating with, to propose something.
CR: And that was the first project they had hosted, right?
AM: Yeah, it was the first thing that they had actually hosted. They had an event before in December with the people who were going to be in the residency. It was just a party for the opening of the space, each person who was going to take part in the residency contributed something to the space. It wasn’t really an exhibition because the space is an apartment. It was sort of a weird treasure hunt of objects that may or may not be art, in an apartment.
CR: So you knew Li Zhenhua from before? How did you two meet?
AM: I had met him before a couple times, mainly through mutual friends and he had come to Nanjing to see an exhibition that I was a part of. However, the invitation for this residency was primarily through Li Jingxiong. Also he was curating this Cosmos show at the Minsheng Museum in Shanghai and I also knew someone else who was working on the curatorial team for that project.
CR: How did you and Li Jingxiong start preparing? How far in advance did you start thinking about what you would do and how did you go about setting up how things would work out before you went to China?
AM: I was already in China when we were asked to propose something for it because I was working as the assistant curator for the AMNUA Museum in Nanjing. I was also working on my own independent art projects in Nanjing and Li Jingxiong lives in Nanjing as well (I was living on his couch for a bit). After our first meeting, we knew pretty much what we wanted to do. I have been doing my own series of reenacted events, so this is kind of part of a larger series of projects that I’ve been doing. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to do something related to Hong Kong and related to my project of reenacting events that were happening elsewhere. I don’t know why, but we didn’t put the two together right away and it took us a couple months to really figure out exactly what we wanted to do with that--to reenact events from Hong Kong while we were in Beijing. And I set a deadline for myself that if we are going to reenact events we have to at least start a month and a half prior to the actual residency starts. I’ve done projects like this before and I know how long it actually takes. I had to email hundreds of different people in Hong Kong and email tons of universities asking professors to spread the word to their students. The research period takes a lot of time in order to actually be able to collect all the information for all the events that are happening. So I had a huge archive of different events and selected a couple from there. Most of them were events that I had been introduced to by people who were in some way affiliated with the protest movement, although the events themselves may not have had any affiliation with the protests.
CR: What brought you to China in the first place?
AM: I’ve been living back and forth between Canada, and China for the past couple of years. Originally I went to China for an exchange program at Nanjing University of the Arts, where I studied sculpture, and also where me and Jingxiong met and became close friends. I kept coming back on my own accord for exhibitions and residencies, and was then invited to be the assistant curator for the AMNUA museum. Coincidentally, my parents also moved from Egypt to China. They teach at international schools so they’ve been moving every few years for most of my whole life.
CR: So did you move around a lot, growing up?
AM: Yeah, I was born in Canada but I spent the majority of my formative years in Abu Dhabi and Casablanca, but I also lived in Australia for a bit.
CR: Tell me a little about the other restaging projects you’ve done.
AM: There’s one I’d done in Toronto that was pretty different from the one I did in Beijing. The one I did in Toronto at the Roundtable Residency was reenacting events that were happening in many places around the world. I had 20 different events in 20 different cities in 20 different countries happening throughout the course of one week. I did about four different events a day and every hour I would change everything--the props, the scenery, the music, the situation--and then it would be another event that was happening somewhere else in the world at the exact same time. Completely different events, large and small, taking place in different cities and small towns around the world. I was more experiencing with the methodology than working with a concrete statement. The two main sources of inspiration for this, were my personal relationships with people in my life, and my relationship with current events happening in the world, dissecting the relationship between proximity and intimacy. The original project was the summer of 2014, during “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, so a lot of the things I was doing were experimenting with forms of solidarity, specifically for Palestine. For example, there was a film screening in Ireland looking at the Israeli apartheid, and I staged the same screening in Toronto. I got in touch with the people running it and they actually stopped the whole screening so we could press the play button at the exact same time. So it was something happening in Toronto about something happening in Ireland about something happening in Palestine.
CR: How do you go about selecting which events to include?
AM: For both projects I did the main criteria was the idea of trying to find something as local as possible and in the search for finding something local was also the search for defining what “local” means. Moments in time that are defined by individual people and small pockets of communities rather than larger corporate media because that’s usually how our notions of things that are happening elsewhere are dictated. Usually when we look at “global” things it seems like there’s a large, global platform rather than a collection of “global” things made by individual locals. For the Hong Kong project, we also selected events that were metaphors for the situation that was happening. For example, there was an empathy workshop that we reenacted in Beijing that was happening in Hong Kong. I thought that was really beautiful--the idea of trying to associate with how other people are feeling, in a city that was (or wasn’t) attempting to understand the political and emotional situation of another place. That was a tongue-in-cheek way of talking about something without talking about it.
CR: Were you deliberately trying to avoid overt references to the protests in Hong Kong?
AM: Yes and no. On one hand we were trying not to directly talk about it by obviously talking about it. I thought it was interesting that the protests were talked about all over the world but not in mainland China, and not in China’s art world either. I feel also as a foreigner it is not really my place or desire to attempt to represent a movement that I am not a part of, so that point of “not talking” became more interesting. We also knew that people were not allowed to talk about it, and if we made it more blatant, then we would probably get in a lot of trouble. For the first day, we actually didn’t tell anyone that the event we were re-enacting was happening in Hong Kong.
CR: Why did you choose not to reveal that in the beginning?
AM: We thought it would be interesting to experiment with how people can be part of a situation and contribute to a moment that's happening somewhere else without actually realizing it. And I also thought that people would eventually kind of figure it out.
CR: What was the first event?
AM: It was a Cantonese lesson that was happening in Hong Kong that was being taught in Mandarin. In Hong Kong, it would have had the specific context of people coming from mainland China and having to assimilate to the culture by learning Cantonese. But in the context of Beijing, it meant something very different. We got a pretty good Cantonese teacher to teach the whole class, and people came to what they thought was a performance at an exhibition but then we told them to sit down and gave them little notebooks. And then right when the Cantonese lesson was finished, there was a birthday party for someone in Hong Kong. One of the funny things about that was that on Facebook, it said that there were only 14 people attending the birthday party in Hong Kong, but at the A307 opening, there were probably around 35 people. And the person in Hong Kong didn’t know we were all there celebrating their birthday. We spent the largest portion of our materials budget on a nice birthday cake and balloons and stuff. People started realizing what was going on when they asked who’s birthday party it was, and we told them it was the person whose name was on the cake, who was somewhere in Hong Kong. So those were the only two events where people didn’t entirely realize what the project was about.
CR: And were you also living in the space at A307?
AM: Yes. I was there the whole time, and Jingxiong spent a few nights there as well but he also had a place to stay through his gallery, White Space. I lived at A307 for a month, on one hand it shifts the space that I consider my primary residence, but it’s also like I’m inviting people to my house. It was less like going to some exhibition -- the artist-audience relationship was one of hospitality. We would make and serve tea every day, and we’d clean up after everyone left. Living there was also part of the art.
CR: Who else lives in the building?
AM: I don’t know, definitely no one from the “art world”.
CR: Did you invite the neighbors?
AM: We tried, but they seemed confused and didn’t end up coming.
CR: And did any of the people in Hong Kong know that you were going to be staging these events in Beijing?
AM: I don’t think so.
CR: But you were doing them at the exact same time right?
AM: Yes and we were very strict about that.
CR: In theory, if you didn’t know any of the people, it could be that some of the events in Hong Kong didn’t happen, right?
AM: Yes, that’s true. [Laughs] For the birthday specifically, it was based on a public Facebook event that hadn’t been updated in awhile, so we weren’t entirely sure if it even happened.
CR: And since you’re doing the events at the exact same time, you also can’t be sure that your staged activity is exactly how the original event panned out.
AM: For sure. And I think that our attempt to do something at the same time was more important than whether or not it actually happened at the exact same time. It was almost a ceremonial thing to get people together for this ambitious attempt at something that, in the end, is absurd and irrelevant. Definitely more of a collaborative gesture.
CR: I like the idea of these parallel universes because mainland China and Hong Kong are separated by these arbitrary and imaginary barriers that restrict people from finding out what happens in the other place, even in the way that Facebook is blocked.
AM: That’s true, I never would have been able to do this project if I didn’t have a VPN.
CR: It’s a fascinating way to give a physical presence to this imaginary divide. So beyond the birthday and the Chinese lesson, what’s another of the events that was really memorable?
AM: Every single one of them. The third event was a film screening with only 20 people attending on Facebook as part of a local agricultural festival. I managed to find the film that they were watching on Youtube. The screening in Hong Kong was supposed to have a discussion afterward about land reform. I thought the idea was really beautiful that here in Beijing there was a group of ten of us or so having a discussion about land reform while people in Hong Kong are having a very similar conversation. But it was also very different because the individual conversations went in different directions based on the context. In Beijing people had a lot to talk about, especially in regards to the Olympics, when gentrification and the repurposing of agricultural land for Olympic events was an issue. People were really engaged and passionate. And it was really amazing to think about how a conversation on the same topic was happening elsewhere at the exact same time. It created a type of unknowing intimacy, that I thought was appropriate for considering such a conflict. But at the same time, this was an example of how all of the projects were really about the translation that needs to occur when moments are transported between different contexts. Everything that we were doing was not what was happening in Hong Kong, we were just performing our own translations of the research.
CR: This idea about making people aware that the same things are happening elsewhere is something that, in theory, we all know in the back of our minds.
AM: That was the way we wanted to go about talking about the Hong Kong protests, to be able to feel, in the back of your mind, that it was happening, as opposed to being told propaganda about it. Just to be able to sit in Beijing and know, in the back of your head, that this was happening in Hong Kong. To personalize it. In a way this project was more specifically about the mediums through which we come to experience and associate with the world beyond our local space.
CR: Other people had tried to bring events to Beijing, like with the poetry reading in solidarity with Hong Kong protests held in Songzhuang, but the whole thing got shut down and many people got arrested. It’s definitely is not something that’s allowed to be talked about in China. Did all of your participants willingly take part or did they need some coaxing first?
AM: Everyday was a completely different vibe, depending on the audience. There were really great, interesting people. They brought up a lot of points that I hadn’t thought of. I think the fact that we had actually no mentioning of the protests anywhere helped, because we were simply talking about “what was happening in Hong Kong”, with things that were not the protests. There was one event that took place outside of the A307 space, and involved sketching the architecture of the army’s Museum of Medical Sciences. People felt quite uncomfortable with that, and most who met up chose not participate, which ended up being for the better, oddly enough, because it became a very serious ordeal with security.
CR: It’s interesting how people in Beijing learn to internalize what behavior is or isn’t acceptable in public.
AM: Yes, though in a sense people have to do that everywhere, in different ways. Many of the participants at A307 had felt that Hong Kong is a part of China and they are the same, though in Hong Kong you have the right to congregate in public spaces and on the mainland, you don’t. That’s a massive difference!
CR: Yes, it’s a very different place. That came to light a lot of different ways in your project. Were there any other events from your project you’d like to share?
AM: We had one event that got canceled in Hong Kong so we had to cancel it in Beijing. The residency and everyone involved were like, we can’t just not do your project. But us not doing it is doing it! The anti-climax of a lot of the projects was also important, a type of anti-spectacle to challenge the ways in which “current events” are spectacularized. Overall, I think it was crucial that me and Li Jingxiong were working on this project together. I have a more “social justice” background than he does, but he is from mainland China and had more personal relevance and perspective. I also often suffer from Western “rationalization” strategies, and Jingxiong has a really mysterious and seemingly un-”rational” way of thinking about things that I really appreciate. We each brought something different to the table. We worked together and argued and fought and really got to know each other much better. If Jingxiong was giving this interview he would only tell stories, but not mention at all why we wanted to this.
CR: How did you judge whether the residency and the performances were a success?
AM: By the end we realized the question of success wasn’t relevant to what we were doing. It was more of a process-based project in which all of the narratives that came together from just the mere attempt of trying to do this were much more important than anything we could have possibly accomplished. Creating the momentum of an attempt in itself was important.
CR: How did the project end, and what did you take from it?
AM: It ended really well. Originally, we were going to write something that would become the final product, but that didn’t end up happening. Since then, a lot of the conversation has been about how the work exists now. Is it a work that existed as a participatory project that could only be experienced by those who were there? Or can it also exist through documentation? If so, to what extent are the formal qualities of documentation relevant to what we were doing? We still haven’t answered these questions and I still don’t have a proper product of this work. Which is fine, because art is just the excuse for doing it, not really the focal point.
CR: Residencies can also just be a place for research. They don’t necessarily need an outcome.
AM: That’s true. So is this project a research experiment or a work of “social practice” or “relational aesthetics”? I don’t know, and I don’t know how much that matters. The fact that it happened is all that matters. In a way, the best possible way to show the project afterwards is just what’s happening right now: us having a conversation about it.