Peer to Peer: UK/HK, a programme designed to encourage meaningful cultural exchange and to forge enduring partnerships between the UK and Hong Kong’s visual arts sectors, launches publicly with an online festival from 11-14 November.

It includes a series of online exhibitions of new and existing digital artworks from UK and Hong Kong based artists, alongside a series of digital residencies and curated panel discussions.

The Festival is led by Ying Kwok (Festival Director and independent curator, HK), with Lindsay Taylor, (University of Salford Art Collection), Open Eye Gallery and Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), supported by a project team. Here Kwok, Taylor and Sarah Fisher, Director of Open Eye Gallery, discuss how the project developed, the themes addressed by the artists involved, and the importance of digital platforms in the current climate.

Where did the idea and concept of Peer to Peer: UK/HK come from?
Lindsay Taylor: The concept of working between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong came about around two years ago when there was a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the UK and HK around sharing culture. Not long after that we had a meeting with Nick McDowell who is the Director of International at Arts Council England, Anna Maloney then of the Department of International Trade and GREAT campaign who were collaborating for the first time on how the UK and HK could work together culturally.

They tasked myself, Sarah Fisher and Zoe Dunbar who runs CFCCA to lead on the visual arts element of a delegation to HK. We were asked to do that because of our collective knowledge and experience of working within China and HK.

We made an initial trip in March 2019 to Art Basel HK and met with Ying, who was really instrumental in introducing some of our partners to different organisations. We received additional funding to develop a more in-depth trip in December of last year.

Myself, Sarah and Zoe worked with ACE to invite organisations to apply and be part of the delegation. Ying then helped curate the trip, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to the protests in Hong Kong at the time. It was rescheduled to March 2020, but then didn’t happen due to the pandemic.

How did this change your approach to the project?
LT: We realised we had to find a way to work differently. Following a series of webinars between the partners we decided to do an online festival in November as a public facing event.

Peer to Peer is a project that Open Eye Gallery initiated last year by working with photographers from the UK and China, asking experts in each country to nominate photographers that they thought deserved more international recognition. They might be well known in their country but less so elsewhere.

This resulted in exhibitions in both Liverpool and Shanghai, and we felt the process of people nominating different artists worked really well in that when you are putting your name behind someone you are really advocating for them. It is someone that you want to go on and do well, but also you are interested to see who has nominated other artists and why they have been chosen.

Ying Kwok: It’s actually shared ownership with others and trying to learn something new together. When we came up with the idea of an online festival it was interesting because none of us are digitally native. But we were thinking this is a platform that we can really make use of at this difficult time. We decided to try and learn it together with our peers.

LT: We were really keen to develop that model for this project, with it becoming Peer to Peer UK/HK. It is about all the partners coming together and nominating the artist that they are interested in. It uses everybody’s collective expertise and distributed leadership – collaboration is at the heart of everything that we do.

What do you hope Peer to Peer: UK/HK will achieve?
Sarah Fisher: We are hoping to forge a new model where we look at how we work internationally in a more intelligent way than we have previously. Coming together, seeing if we can support exchange and build real relationships that can help the whole of the sector. I think the way we have previously worked is you visit internationally, you become interested in an artist’s work and you bring them into your programme in the UK.

What we are trying to do is develop deep relationships with organisations, rather than it being just a one off project. It is about ongoing potential to collaborate, which means the exchange of artists becomes much more normal.

We are providing an arena in which we can look at different artists’ work and talk about different themes, starting that process of organisations working together internationally and introducing artists to one another.

Is this a model for international working that could be implemented more broadly by other organisations?
LT: Absolutely. If we can share the learning from the model then I think that it’s completely replicable.

SF: International travel isn’t cheap and so this kind of model, particularly in relation to distant places, is the way forward. Hong Kong has an incredible art scene and it is one of the biggest centres in terms of the art market in the world. People are perhaps more familiar with New York, but if you look at what’s happening in that part of the world, Hong Kong is where all of that converges.

At the moment, we are not connected in the way we should be. We are very connected with the west, but everything is moving east and Peer to Peer helps to navigate this.

YK: It becomes not just about shared ownership but sharing resources and knowledge in a way that is really effective – through doing rather than just talking.

What themes will the festival explore?
YK: We have 33 artists, including those who were commissioned, plus the social media residencies and online showcase. It’s a really great way of learning about other artists’ work. But one of the interesting things about the festival is that we do not have an overall theme. The nominations were open, so were not just focused on a subject matter that we are familiar with. I think framing the festival around artists gaining international exposure rather than a particular theme is quite unusual. The festival is not curated by one particular person, and as a committee we are just trying to have an overall view that allows different voices to be heard.

SF: What crops up is some shared interest. There are things that we are all dealing with, but in different ways, whether that be culturally or different models of operation that we can all learn from somewhere else.

For example, socially engaged practice, which in the UK is really taking off. In fact, a lot of the stuff that’s taking place outside galleries now is perhaps more interesting than what’s being created in them. The UK has been involved in this for a long time.

In Hong Kong where there has been such a strong market focus because Art Basel is there and it’s seen as a gateway to the artworld for the whole of that region. There are a lot of commercial galleries, and yet you’ve got some incredibly interesting curators, artists on the ground and artists groups that are asking questions about how they fit with communities and how they interact with them. So in fact the social agenda is much higher than it has been for decades.

Other global issues like climate change are also high on the agenda, and people can really learn through local examples. How artists operate in the world is a very important thing in the time that we are currently living in.

Does the lack of an overarching theme provide different perspectives and ways of thinking?
SF: Let’s face it, how many Biennials have you been to where the theme is X and you are trying to work out how the show fits with the theme? I think it is very difficult to bring a lot of different practices together and make them knit. If you really tightly tie it into a theme you get a very boring biennial, and if you don’t fit it in to a theme you get a lot of people walking around asking how is all this work connected?

I think what is interesting about this is the themes that we have got have come from all of those organisations on the ground looking at what artists are doing and saying ‘this is now’. That is what we are sharing – a sense that these are the things that are important now and have surfaced.

LT: If there is an overarching theme it is collaboration, and that is about the people. When we were selecting the work we tried to make sure that there is a balance between UK and HK artists across the whole programme, but also in terms of their practices and what is going to be of interest to the wider audience.

YK: This is something we have all tried to keep in mind when it comes to curating. The diversity is something that should be reflected through this collective collaborative.

How did the distributed leadership model enhance your engagement with digital working methods?
YK: None of us were necessarily digitally native and we have really learnt by doing it. It has provided us with a moment in time where we gather our experience, take a pause and review what has been done in the last seven or eight months and then really try to understand our situation and where we are going. It is about trying to find an answer together.

SF: This distributed leadership model means we have got real experts who live and breath particular types of practice. An example is Derby QUAD, which is an organisation that has spent its whole life thinking about digital practice. As such, you are constantly learning from everyone else.

I certainly find that all of the people that I have worked with in Hong Kong I am learning all the time because there are slight cultural differences and ways in which organisations are run. There is a lot we can learn from other parts of the world and hopefully there is a lot we can do for artists working in the UK to help them connect to those places.

Peer to Peer: UK/HK includes a series of online residencies. What are these and what do they bring to the programme?
YK: With the online residencies we are really thinking about ownership and taking care of artists. The residencies are taking place on different partners’ social media platforms. Each one volunteered to host an artist and we asked them to think about a theme, such as one related to their seasonal programme. Quite a lot of them were really open and brave in terms of the content.

When it came to the selection, various artists were nominated by the partners, and then it was up to us to do some matching up. Some had a very open brief about what type of artist they would host, such as the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art, but others had particular artists in mind, like the Hong Kong International Photography Festival which nominated Alex Chung. This was because Alex, in addition to being an artist, has a sociology background, which fits with their approach to the programme.

In terms of platform, we are encouraging people to use Instagram as their primary tool. Of course, some of them within the discussion have suggested linking to Facebook and sections within their website, but the idea is that the organisation has to give up ownership of the platform for a couple of days. That can be a continuous day or a weekend up until the festival, which is up to them.

We are also encouraging them to be more experimental. It is not about complete work – which makes the residencies something unique to the online showcase. It is about trying to communicate and initiate dialogue, sharing some ideas when it is not completely polished.

Does this ‘behind the scenes’ access enhance our engagement with the artists’ work?
YK: A lot of time artists make work for exhibitions and we only get to see the highly polished end result. But artists also have a lot of things that can’t really be showcased elsewhere. For example, an artist taking the residency with Open Eye Gallery at the moment, what he has shared on Instagram is almost a personal archive of his position as an ‘in-between native’. He is an artist from overseas living and working in Hong Kong, which offers a fresh eye on things. I think his reflections on Instagram are really interesting.

SF: As a curator, when you are working with an artist in the run up to a show, you are actually in a very privileged position. You have access to all sorts of things, such as the development of the work and how artists are thinking.

The beauty of these social media takeovers is that they give people access to an artist’s process, thinking and the way they see the world, in the same way we do when we are talking to artists in the build up to a show. When social media is used well it offers a little window into that making experience.

A lot of us are spending more and more time looking at our screens now, and it isn’t just because of Covid. This is a place where we need to make much more investment as an arts sector, and think about how artists navigate it. We need to use that space creatively.

YK: For so many years we have been trying to move out of the white cube, and social media is built on the public realm. It already has this break between the audiences and the art institutions, so it is a really great way to share work with the public.

How has work been selected and commissioned, and how has this maximised international relationships?
LT: Work was nominated by each of the partners and then the panel came together to make the selections. In terms of the commissions, we chose five artists, three from the UK and two from Hong Kong, and we tried to get a balance of different aesthetics and themes. It was really hard to make decisions because we had a limited budget and there were far more than we could commission at this time.

Most of them were nominated for a particular type of work that they were perhaps already working on, and depending on who it was, whether that has been followed through or not.

How will the digital exhibition be archived and has this influenced how work has developed?
LT: For example, Antonio Roberts, who was nominated by Furtherfield, his work will come into the University of Salford Art Collection. I actually think he was initially slightly thrown by the fact that we wanted to collect the work after the exhibition, and we had some really great conversations about what that actually meant.

We were also clear that we didn’t want that to affect what he was making for Peer to Peer. It is about us afterwards working with him to collect and maintain it for future audiences to enjoy. With every artist we have said it is about making the work that they want to make, rather than influencing them.

What other work is being exhibited?
LT: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, who was nominated by QUAD in Derby, has created I cant remember a time i didn’t need you, which is a game that explores a fog that has taken over a city. However you play will determine whether you survive or not. Meanwhile, Hetain Patel, who was nominated and co-commissioned by Skinder Hundal, New Art Exchange, UK, is presenting Spectrum 2, an animation that explores identity.

The Hong Kong artists are working very differently. Sharon Lee Cheuk Wun, who was nominated by Bess Chan of Hong Kong International Photo Festival, has worked with our technical director to create Same River Twice (newspaper stand), a work that considers memory, place and the concept of missing out on things. It features beautiful photography and archive images while utilising Google Maps.

Lee Kai Chung, nominated by Wang Weiwei of CHAT — Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile, Hong Kong, has made Theatre Exile (working Title), a video work which is part of a longer piece he created for an exhibition, bringing together archival and original material. It’s a really beautiful and poignant work, but again the fact that it is going to go on to be part of another show is important for us.

We are working with both QUAD and New Art Exchange in Nottingham to jointly collect the work. It has grown into something we couldn’t quite have envisaged when we started, but for us it is great as it is about the legacy of the project and what happens long term.

SF: Arts Council England have been great. It was originally meant to be a trip to Hong Kong and it has evolved significantly since then.

Peer to Peer: UK/HK takes places at, 11-14 November 2020. Explore the full programme and register here.

1. Sharon Lee Cheuk Wun, Same River Twice (newspaper stand), 2020, Gelatin-silver prints, 6-channel video on Google Maps
2. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, I cant remember a time i didn’t need you, 2020, Interactive Game
3. Lee Kai Chung, Theatre Exile (working Title), 2020, single channel video