Interview with Milo Tse: Hong Kong Artist Union 香港藝術家工會

In this interview NAVA spoke to Milo Tse of Hong Kong Artist Union about the challenges artists have faced in the current political landscape in Hong Kong, and the ways HKAU are supporting artists wanting to enact direct political change. 

Can you tell me a little bit about how the Hong Kong Artist Union operates and what its aims are? 

Since the onset of the anti-extradition movement in June 2019, the membership of the Hong Kong Artist Union has reached 400-strong. About 60-70 of our members belong to the inner circle of our structure as the union is not governed by a designated central committee. Decisions and resolutions are formulated at round table meetings to avoid vertical hierarchy. Concurrently several teams such as the IT team, the labour dispute team, the protest team, the funding team, and the copyright team have been designated to support concerned artists who wish to take actions alongside our fellow members.    

We work on receiving members' requests for the backing from the union to secure their entitlements to fair rates, information equilibrium, freedom of expression and more. Our services include contract reviewing, voluntary legal consultation, legal and copyright education. We also work on establishing and maintaining connections with global artist unions and associations such as those in Berlin, London, New York, Belgium, Taiwan and Korea.

Recently at Dhaka Art Summit I attended an excellent panel discussion which Hong Kong Artist Union was involved in. What interested me about HKAU was the ways in which you played a role in aiding artists running for local councils, which saw a considerable shift in the Hong Kong political landscape. What were some of the motivations for encouraging artists to run for council? 

In the last district council election we were delighted to see the power of art deployed in campaigning, as our union members were enthusiastic about volunteering for a number of artists who run for public office. The union didn't officially endorse any candidate, but we did encourage our members to understand their platforms and experiences in their respective artistic practices. 

Speaking of Clara Cheung and Wong Tin Yan (both were successfully elected), we know they have engaged in community art for years and committed to tackling the difficulties they have seen in their neighbourhoods. Since they believe art and politics are inseparable, the upcoming urban renewal, gentrification, land development and heritage conservation in the city will be the political arenas they will dive into on behalf of our union members. We believe our expertise in art and creativity can contribute in seeking a way out of the current political turmoil.

How did you organise the artists' campaigns? 

Our union does not launch campaigns, but we instead work on facilitating our members to actualise their ideas. For instance Clara Cheung, the elected councillor of Happy Valley, conceived an idea of "Pet Portrait Day" last year to introduce herself to the community. A lot of artists volunteered to draw for local residents who had been eager to bring in their pets and meet Clara. We saw other artists who didn't live nearby Happy Valley also deploying their talents and creativity to support their favourite candidates in the last election. 

As you may have heard, the current social movement in Hong Kong is branded as leaderless and decentralised. We the union feel that endorsement is not the preferred approach at the moment. It would be more interesting and flexible for artists to start approaching their councillors in their neighbourhoods to seek future collaboration. 

What does HKAU hope to achieve through positioning artists and arts workers in council in Hong Kong?

We've known too well how the pro-government parties and politicians garner the support from grassroots communities by offering "bread and circuses". Once elected as majority in different councils, their judgment in relation to public spending often seems questionable. Millions and billions of dollars have been proposed to dubious construction projects (who are the bosses of those contractors?). For instance, a councillor once ordered to cut down the trees because of the birds dropping on a main street- eventually flocks of migratory birds were found dead. Then the same councillor urged to build a canopy along the 76m-long street that would cost 10 million HK Dollars. A designer-turned-councillor Dalu Lin thought of a solution and made a wuxia-styled clip to publicise his idea. 

He suggests that simply placing two buckets of umbrellas at two spots under the path of the tree could save anybody from being struck by the bird droppings. His idea and his creative way of video-making brings a breath of fresh air to the tedious council politics. 

With the growth of community art in recent years, we hope to harness the communicative power of such practices to connect the neighbourhood. Susi Law, an art administrator and councillor, serves the Wan Chai district which has been the main theatre of the street protests. In recent months she has organised emotional counselling workshops for local residents who have suffered from tear-gas and witnessed much violence. Aside from political conflicts, the local population is also aging and the wealth gap is wider. I hope artists of our time recognise the challenge and put forth their ideas of making our home city better. 

What advice would you give to artists and arts organisations in other contexts, who are hoping to inspire change?

Good art elicits your sensibility. Look at Jean-François Millet's The Gleaners (1857).  It may not entail political meanings but it makes us conceive the beauty and value of labour. It prompts an urge to be humble and content, as pride and greed has no place on the field. Change does not happen overnight. An impulse or a shock won't do. A gradual and piecemeal change may even take as long as a lifetime. If an artist can deploy their own power to influence the public to momentarily review our own individual lives, that would be a remarkable achievement. 

Since the umbrella movement in 2014, many private galleries and publicly-subsidised art organisations have shown artworks related to political movements. But some of them have been retaliated against in the way of budget cuts or sponsorship termination. I think this is utterly white terror. Some Hong Kong journalists have written to the upcoming M+ at the West Kowloon Cultural District. They asked if the institution would start collecting works of visual art and culture in the anti-extradition movement. The answer was NO, although M+ claims to facilitate art appreciation and disseminate cultural knowledge. Even though we are under the threat of being suppressed, I hope we won't be urged to back down or run away from our responsibilities. 

In addition, although the Hong Kong Basic Law states that Hong Kong people have the freedom to strike, it does not protect the interests of employees.The daily wages of employees working in arts institutions have been deducted and they are under pressure. Art institutions should take the responsibility to protect the rights and interests of art workers.

Protesters gathering together to occupy Hong Kong International Airport in 2019. Image supplied by Hong Kong Artist Union.