HIJACKING THE PUBLIC SPHERE: PERFORMANCE, POLITICS, AND THE
EVERYDAY CITIZEN AT HONG KONG TIMES SQUARE
Linda Lau
TUFTS UNIVERSITY
Abstract
Home to over seven million people, Hong Kong is a paradox that defies typical categories of postcolonial, urban, Chinese, political, and traditional. As a city that has developed quickly over the past fifty
years, the changes of the city can be described through the interventions that social activist theatre and art
produced during this time. Political activist artists refuse to accept the reality of the spatially challenged
city and find alternative ways to perform. They create their own performance spaces for creativity,
intellectual exchange, and dialogue where none existed before. The concept of space is not limited to
physical concrete terms, but is also interpreted as a free-form venue in which to interact, socialize and
communicate with others. One such event that encapsulates an important moment in Hong Kong history
is Hijacking the Public Sphere, an event that grapples with the idea of public space while using everyday
citizens as their audience and conspirators.
CHiE! and In-Media
Hijacking the Public Sphere was an event that was organized by In-Media as part of a larger festival,
titled CHiE! or Culture Seizes Politics, that took place from March 15, 2008 to April 27, 2008.1 This
festival was an exhibition planned by Jessie Chang and Jaspar Lau Kin Wah, who were both participants
at the Para/Site Art Space’s curatorial program. Founded in 1996, Para/Site is a non-profit organization
that holds exhibitions at its venue, produces publications, and organizes talks and workshops on local and
international contemporary art.2 CHiE! was financially supported by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the
Osage Art Foundation.3 This project involved works from people in different fields including art,
animation, museums, photography, film, fiction, poetry, music, dance, performance art, and new media.
The purpose of the festival was to “assembl[e] a network of individuals, self-initiated groups and activist
organizations that demonstrate a range of viable models of critical cultural engagement across the
different disciplines.”4
In-Media was approached by the curators of CHiE! to create an event for the festival. In-Media was
an unconventional group of people to organize performances, since it is primarily an internet site that
functions as a forum for discussion of public issues. In-Media also runs two other websites (interlocals.net
and openknowledgehk.net) that are similar in nature. Their missions are to, “call for social concerns,
widen humanistic knowledge and to network critical thoughts and movements of different regions” and
they do this by, “facilitat[ing] participatory journalism and interaction between the local and the
1
The title CHiE! have many political implications as explained by the organizers including, as reference to “a quotation from
Bull Tsang,” “a word play on che (Ernesto Che Guevara),” and “in the animation film of McDull, Prince de la Bun, in which the
certain proper Putonghua pronunciation for students ended up undistinguished from a common Cantonese expression of
dissatisfaction.” Quoted from Jessie Chang and Jaspar Lau, eds, CHiE! (Hong Kong: Donbosco Printing Co. Ltd, 2008), back
cover.
2
“Introduction”. Para/Site, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.para-site.org.hk/about-us/history/introduction
3
Chang and Lau, CHiE!, 118.
4
Ibid., front cover.
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 2012
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
global.”5Within this online community, there are citizen-reporters, social and cultural critics, and only a
few art critics6
Public Space and the Public Sphere
Prior to this project's launch, there was much discussion in Hong Kong and within the In-Media
community about the issue of public space and how “Times Square has invaded our public space.”7 The
problem of public space being co-opted by corporations (and especially Times Square) for use as private
space – for profit – was a hot topic following a discussion on a radio program, “On a Clear Day” from
Commercial radio on February 2, 2008.8 Callers complained that they were being treated unfairly outside
the Times Square shopping mall at Causeway Bay, and were not allowed to sit or stand in the area by
security guards. The mall itself is owned by Wharf (Holdings) Limited, but the 3010 square meters
outside of the space were not part of their property. The government proceeded to file suit against Wharf
for illegally leasing this public space to companies, including Starbucks, for the past fourteen years,
charging fees ranging from HK2800 to HK4000 on Mondays to Thursday, and HK100,000 to HK124,000
on Fridays to Sundays and on holidays.9 In response to this situation, the Hong Kong Director of
Buildings, Cheung Hau Wai, went on “On a Clear Day,” stating that, “The proprietor [of Times Square]
should provide open space for three purposes – as a pedestrian access, a passive amenities activity area,
and a venue for exhibitions.”10
This incident was soon followed by an investigation by the Lands Department into other public spaces in
the city, a total of 150, that were under the management of private companies like Wharf (Holdings)
Limited.11 From this research, it was determined that 156 of these developments had public access, but 33
of them had a similar situation to that of Times Square.12 Given the seriousness of the situation and the
involvement of the Hong Kong government as mediator between the Hong Kong citizens and the
corporations, public space was a topic that demanded immediate action and response.
Although the emphasis surrounding the public space debate in Hong Kong has been on the economics
of the controversy, the impact of Wharf Holdings’ action should also be understood by its effects on the
public sphere. The idea of public sphere is defined by Jurgen Habermas as:
a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the
public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in
every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public….Citizens act as a
public when they deal with matters of general interests without being subject to coercion; thus
with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their
opinions freely.13
5
Ibid., 98.
6
Damian Cheng, Email message to author, June 1, 2012. Interlocals.net defines a citizen reporter as an individual who explore
issues “in order to arouse public concern,” in hopes of effecting policy discussion and influence government decision. from
“Hong Kong: Digital Revolution,” Interlocals.net, accessed May 20, 2012, http://interlocals.net/?q=node/357
7
Chang and Lau, CHiE!, 99.
8
“Visual Arts and Public Space Issue,” Hong Kong Visual Arts Yearbook 2008, accessed August 8, 2010,
http://www.hkvisualartsyearbook.org/2008/publicissues_items.php?post_id=10051
9
Timothy Chui, “Plaza sued over exorbitant rentals,” The Standard, June 18, 2008, accessed November 13, 2010,
http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=30&art_id=67363&sid=19388986&con_type=3
10
Diana Lee, “Pushy Times Square guards raise hackles,” The Standard, March 5, 2008, accessed November 17, 2010,
http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=11&art_id=62525&sid=17904294&con_type=1
11
“Visual Arts and Public Space Issue.”
12
Ibid.
13
Jurgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere,” in Jurgen Habermas on Society and Politics: A Reader, ed. by Steven Seidman
(Beacon Press: Boston, 1989), 231.
36
Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
While the origins of the Times Square discussion came from individual complaints from the public about
poor treatment by security guards, this issue became part of a public sphere when others contributed to the
conversation. Habermas notes that the public sphere consists of private individuals coming together, and
the Hong Kong public achieved this by using the radio show and new media outlets (via internet websites
and blogs) to bring this issue to the forefront.
Building upon Habermas’ idea of the public sphere, Zheng Bo also proposes "four tenants of
publicness:”
We need to understand publicness not as a single trait, but as a set of values. Publicness rests on
four interconnected elements: the freedom of private citizens to express critical opinions, the
attention to matters of general concern, the accessibility of the site, media, and discourse, and the
commitment to reflective communicative practices based on reason and affect rather than status,
coercion, or profit. Each of these elements is indispensible.14
Zheng reiterates the accessibility of public space for opinions, and calls attention to the idea of reflective
communication, two important facets that have also played a role in the controversy of public space in
Hong Kong Times Square. The artists of Hijacking the Public Sphere adhered to this form of publicness
and these tenants can be seen from the organization of the event, the method of performance, and
response from the spectators.
With the help of Luke Ching, one of the artists who organized Hijacking Playground, In-Media put
together a Hijacking the Public Sphere competition. Anthony Leung Po-shan, performance artist and
editor of In-Media, believed that “once that space is open, the public will be able to communicate directly,
set their own rules rather than abide by those of the security, government or consortium. Once there is
room for public forum, then 'Times Square' finally has the right to call it a 'Square'!"15 Because of the
significant involvement of the public in this web community, the approach In-Media took in organizing
performances was different from that of artists who work within more traditional structures of theatre. In
soliciting submissions for this event, In-Media posted a call on the social networking site, Facebook.
Leung describes the response from the public following the announcement:
Facebook was swamped by hundreds of feedback comments over a matter of days…Yet, the
disappointing part was [that] most responses stop[ped] at the level of “Count me in!” So much for
Hong Kongers’ deeply-ingrained sense of freedom that lacks initiations, or for that matter, willing
to participate but lacking in imagination.16
Despite the initial enthusiasm for the project, the disappointment that Leung expresses highlights the fact
that while new media technologies may enable one to reach out to large masses of users, there still exists
a gap between virtual participation and real life participation. The submission period from March 9
through April 4, 2008 received fifty entries, and winners were awarded on April 6, 2008. Two of the
winning performances included FM Theatre Power's Frozen Times: Square Reborn series, which won the
“Unconscious” Prize, and Vasco Paiva (Joao Paiva) and Hector Rodriguez’s State Change, which won the
“Most Creative” Prize.17
Hong Kong Times Square
Both Frozen Times and State Change play with the idea of space in ways that speak to the everyday
citizens and encourage those around them to get involved and take action. Taking place in Hong Kong’s
14
Zheng Bo, “Creating Publicness: From the Stars Event to Recent Socially Engaged Art,” Yishu Journal of Contemporary
Chinese Art. Vol. 9, No. 5. (2010): 6.
15
Leung Po Shan, “ Hijack Playwright: Art Seiges Politics,” in CHiE! edited by Jessie Chang and Jaspar Lau (Hong Kong:
Donbosco Printing Co. Ltd, 2008), 105.
16
Ibid.
17
Ibid.
37
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
Times Square in Causeway Bay, these performances make art in crowded places that are frequented by
visitors of every kind.
Constructed in April 1994, Times Square is one of the many additions to Hong Kong’s list of mall
takeovers in the city. Times Square is home to 16 floors of prime retail space and “230 world-renowned
brands.”18 It claims to have over 150 thousand visitors a day and declares itself to be an “ideal platform
for staging cultural and artistic activities.”19 Likening itself to New York’s Times Square, Hong Kong
Times Square also holds an annual New Year’s Eve countdown and is a major tourist attraction for
travelers around the world. The mall’s use of space, both inside for retail space and outside for
community events, makes Time Square both a cultural and economic icon for Hong Kong.
The architecture of Hong Kong Times Square sets itself in contrast to the rest of the Causeway Bay
neighborhood. Its website proudly exclaims that, “Times Square is very easy to find due to its landmark
twin towers rising 46 and 39 storeys high above the hustle and bustle of Causeway Bay.”20 The open
space where approved and non-approved art displays and performances take place is on Russell Street. Its
modern architecture is complemented by a short clock tower that is supported by a half dome metal
encasing, a science fiction-like design that belongs somewhere in the future.21 The other distinctive
element of this public space is the jumbo screen located on the side of the building which marries
technology with its presence.
This postmodern architecture of Hong Kong Times Square does not neatly fit into the Causeway Bay
neighborhood. Ackbar Abbas characterizes this incompatibility as…
…an elsewhere that is quite aggressively indifferent to, and disconnected from, the local. One
surprising thing about Times is its choice of location, on Russell Street, which at the time was a
local market street. The mall, however, is not so much sited in a local area as it is a para-site of
the local, and not integrated with it. It was designed as an autonomous inner-looking space,
indifferent to its surrounds, strangely dislocated.22
The contrast of Hong Kong Times Square to the other older buildings in the neighborhood is indeed quite
jarring and Abbas’s reading likens itself to Frederic Jameson’s image of postmodern architecture:
The Bonaventura aspires to being a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city…it
does not wish to be a part of the city, but rather its equivalent and its replacement or substitute.23
As a building that does not seek the approval of its neighbors, Hong Kong Times Square references
another place, that of New York Times Square. This is a type of historicism that Jameson describes as
pastiche, or an…
…imitation of a peculiar mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such
mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of
laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily
borrowed…Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs…24
18
“About Us,” Hong Kong Times Square, accessed June 5, 2012, http://www.timessquare.com.hk/mobile/aboutus.php
Ibid.
20
Ibid.
21
Wong Kin Yuen analyzes the science fiction elements in Hong Kong architecture and explores relationship between the
fictionalized Hong Kong in American cyberpunk films and the real city. See
“On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong’s Cityscape,” Science Fiction Studies. No. 80. Vol.
27. Part 1 (March 2000), accessed May 10, 2012, http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/80/wong80art.htm
22
Ackbar Abbas, “Building, dwelling, drifting: Migrancy and the limits of architecture. Building Hong Kong: From migrancy to
disappearance,” Postcolonial Sutides. Vol1: 2. (1998) : 195.
23
Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review. I/146. (1984): 81. Wong
King Yuen also makes this link between Jameson’s ideas of temporality and Hong Kong in “On the Edge of Spaces.”
24
Jameson, “Postmodernism,” 65.
19
38
Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
Hong Kong Times Square imitates New York’s Time Square not so much through its technical
architecture, but from its function as a global market place where people meet, attend cultural events, and
celebrate New Year’s Eve. However, the reputation that New York Times Square has developed as a
cultural intersection from the presence of theatres, music halls, and other forms of mass entertainment in
its vicinity is nowhere to be found in the Hong Kong neighborhood. For Hong Kong Times Square, this
history does not exist and the square is nostalgia for a Hong Kong past that never was.
The massive structure of Hong Kong Times Square is not only out of place and time in the Causeway
Bay as Abbas suggests, but cannot be fully imagined by its visitors. The enormity of the structure in the
narrow streets is impossible to capture in its entirety on the street level from any distance. Second only to
an aerial view, the freeway offers the best view of the building as a whole. This is in contrast to the
experience of what visitors can see inside the building. Abbas describes this scene:
Visitors to the mall can ride up and down its glass-cased elevators, and thus protected by the mall
itself, look out with a certain pleasure straight into interiors and rooftops of the run-down
apartment houses just a few meters away on the other side of Russell Street.
The experience of looking is part of the allure of Hong Kong Times Square; while the building itself
cannot be seen, Times Square offers visitors the power to gaze at others from its windows. While the
performers of Frozen Times: Square Reborn cannot offer its audiences the same sensory experience of the
Time Square elevators, the performance art pieces proposes a new way of seeing and hearing.
Frozen Times: Square Reborn
Frozen Times: Square Reborn was organized by FM Theatre Power, a local theatre group that is
involved with stage shows, street performances, educational work, and improvisational theatre. It is a
performance group that is popular among young audiences, particularly those of high school and college
age. This is an important group for FM Theatre Power and other arts organizations to influence since they
have not fully been integrated into the work force. This liminal period into adulthood affords youth the
possibility of changing the cultural tides in Hong Kong society and the everyday habits of its people.
These young supporters of FM Theatre Power are often tech-savvy individuals who keep up with the
latest fashion and popular culture and the theatre troupe has the task of keeping up with these constant
trends as well. The idea for Frozen Times: Square Reborn was not original with FM Theatre Power, but
was borrowed from the work of New York-based Improv Everywhere’s performances at Grand Central
Station in January 2008, which they restaged in London and Toronto.25 FM Theatre Power’s application
of the latest performance trends from around the world was another way of attracting their young
audiences to participate in something new, fun, and exciting.
The series of Frozen Times: Square Reborn involved three different performances of the same
nature.26 The performances were simple and required performers to freeze in place for ten or fifteen
minutes as pedestrians walked around, stared, inspected, or interacted with them. This may have been
particularly jarring for both the performer and the audience, since traffic in Times Square is so intense
that occupying a permanent space on the pavement would require interrupting the flow of pedestrians
with its large number of participants.
The first performance, on March 20, 2008 at 7:30 p.m., included roughly 100 participants of various
backgrounds and many were about high school and college aged. These participants chose a pose and
remained frozen in this position for ten minutes as everyday citizens shared the space with them. Many of
25
These performances were also staged by other groups around the world in 70 cities and 34 countries.
http://improveverywhere.com/2008/02/28/freeze-events-around-the-world/
“Frozen Grand Central,” Improv Everywhere, January 21, 2008, accessed February 15, 2009,
http://improveverywhere.com/2008/01/31/frozen-grand-central/
26
March 20, 2008 performance can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/molai#p/u/27/9IWIDu0b3hs April 11, 2008
performance can be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/molai#p/u/26/RxIiHXAopUY, and April 27, 2008 performance can
be found at http://www.youtube.com/user/molai#p/u/25/Yxx8a4MZM48
39
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
these frozen peoples displayed moments of everyday action including walking, drinking, eating. In one
instance, a pedestrian untied a performer’s shoe laces and knotted them back together as the performer
stood frozen in a walking pose. Another spectator took the initiative to join the performance and froze
with a performer. In her interview with the organizers, she explained her rationale for her participation:
It’s a wonderful thing because it’s all real, but also so fake that reality and non-reality blend and
you are confused. So I love this confusion very much. Confusion is all about exciting things in
life, right?27
Her interpretation of the performance is quite sophisticated, and yet, simple. This audience member
brings to focus some of the important elements of the Frozen Times experience. She addresses the idea of
reality and non-reality, which can be understood through Guy Debord’s spectacle or what he defines as “a
social relation among people, mediated by image.”28 In Debord’s critique against capitalism, he states
that, “In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.”29 The society gives
rationality to the dominant ideology based on a commodification of life and Debord suggests that it is
only the moments of non-reality and of not adhering to the spectacle that truth can be found.30 In Frozen
Times, there were multiple realities occurring during the performance. The first was the performance
itself, which appeared to be an imitation of everyday life. Then there was the interaction between the
spectator and the performers. Finally, there was the practice of everyday life by the people who were not
watching, and only passing through the public space. What was real and not is blurred and these
representations of life by the performers became much more real than the routinized behavior of the
pedestrians.
One frozen couple showed this contradiction of reality and non-reality in their imitation of an
approved artwork placed at the Times Square open space. Standing next to the statue on display, they
imitated it by mirroring the image. A man held a jacket over their heads and shielded himself and his
female partner from the invisible rain. This juxtaposition of the cartoon-like statue (itself an imitation of
real people) with the real bodies in space challenged the authenticity of the sculpture and became lost in a
circle of self-referentiality.
The second performance involved a smaller group of people, but was perhaps more popular. This
revamped performance, subtitled the “Councilor’s Version” involved twenty Hong Kong councilors from
the Democratic Party. In this performance, many bystanders interacted with the politicians either
indirectly by taking photographs of the councilors, or directly by approaching bodies of the living
performers. In one instance, the president of the Democratic Party, Ho Chun-yan, was frozen while
reading a comic book. Citizens flipped through the pages of the book and read along with him in
enjoyment. Another spectator traded his scarf with a Councilor and created his own scene by using props
to make a connection between three politicians who were standing near each other, but had frozen in their
own independent actions. Here, the spectator was not only an observer but became the artist. He
controlled the scene as he saw fit and used his own creativity to manipulate the events around him.
The third staging took place on April 27, 2008, after the Hijacking Times Square competition was
over. In this performance subtitled “Echoing Olympics Version,” about fifty participants froze in postures
inspired by the Beijing Olympics. In this sports-themed segment, participants brought sports equipment
27
“Frozen Times: Square Reborn,” Youtube, accessed September 10, 2010,
http://www.youtube.com/user/molai#p/u/27/9IWIDu0b3hs
28
4
29
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Detroit: Black and Red, 1977), 9, accessed May
1, 2012, http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/16, emphasis in original
30
Debord further defines spectacle as “the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only
is the relation of the commodity visible to it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world” in Society of the Spectacle, trans. by
Fredy Perlman and Jon Supak (Detroit: Black and Red, 1977), 42, accessed May 1, 2012,
http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/16
40
Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
with them to use in their poses. Some of these performers chose to freeze with a partner since many sports
involve teamwork or direct competition with another opponent. The sports celebrated in this
improvisational performance included badminton, track, fencing, boxing, and ping pong. One fencing
couple held hot dogs as swords and a netted baseball cap as a mask. This creative way of using everyday
items as props for the performance was not only imaginative, but brought attention to how there can be
infinite uses and meanings derived from ordinary objects.
Some of the frozen performances also captured dramatic moments. One partnership involved one person
dressed up in full body training gear (a helmet, body padding, and a handheld training pad) while standing
across from another person who had his fists up, ready to fight. A circle of spectators surrounded these
two individuals and when it was time to unfreeze, the unarmored person performed several high kicks on
the trainer. Another performer froze with a ping pong paddle in anticipation to take a swing. When he
unfroze, he took his shot and dramatically jumped up, put his hands on his head and kneeled down. This
over-the-top expression could have been read as either defeat or success. The anticipation and drama that
was held in these frozen moments created a sense of excitement and storyline for the performances.
Spectators wanted to see “what would happen next” and became invested in watching these performers.
In all of the three performances, the feeling of surveillance was affirmed through the presence of the
security guards. In the Echoing Olympics Version, the security guards at Times Square played a
particularly interesting role. The men went up to each performer and showed them a yellow piece of paper
that described “Rule No. 7,” which they accused the performers of violating. They told the performers
that they were blocking public space. In the documentation of the event, FM Theatre Power interpreted
the involvement of the security guards as acting as referees for their sporting event.31 The look of
amusement on one guard’s faces makes this person’s participation in the event appear voluntary and even
enjoyable. Unlike the other Times Square security guards, this man looked like he was having a good
time and was aware of his special role in the Frozen Times performance. In reality, his occupation was a
security guard, but within the context of the improvisational work, he became an actor and the star of the
show.
In their explanation of the performance, FM Theatre Power’s objective was to encourage people to
think about what these sporting events meant. Some of the issues the group wanted to think through
included a critique about class and cultural issues:
The Rich possesses art
The Rich possesses athletes
The Rich possesses public space
The Rich could be the Olympic Torch Carrier
So everyone's eyes are just open for money…
What is sport?
What [are] the Olympic Games?
Sport is unequal to Olympic Games
Sport is not diplomacy
Sport is a lin[k] among people32
Their emphasis on the influential parties involved in sporting events such as the Olympic Games brings
attention to the inequality in art and culture and how it has been manipulated by those who have authority.
By FM Theatre Power’s definitions, sport should be above all else, a social thing that belongs to the
people and not a commodity to be sold to or by a particular class. Advancing this idea, their manifesto
closes with an intention for action: “A ball is round, Our earth is round, When we lin[k] up through
31
Frozen Times: Square Reborn,” Youtube, accessed September 10, 2010,
http://www.youtube.com/user/molai#p/u/25/Yxx8a4MZM48
32
Ibid.
41
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
sports, We will round the space.”33 The concept of attributing space a form and making it round gives
birth to a new system of chronology that critiques the system of “evolutive time” that Michel Foucault
relates with disciplinary methods.34 The idea of the round space derives from logic that space should share
the same shape of a ball and that the earth is no more illogical than any other kind of organization of time
and space.
Each one of these frozen performances was unique and involved a different group of performers who
were inspired by a distinct theme; what remained consistent about these three performances was the role
of play. Highly playful in nature, their invitation to the public to join with them was successful. The initial
response from many of the spectators was one of curiosity and amusement. One spectator exclaimed, “We
are interested in playing with you guys because this is a big game right?”35 This observer is right on the
mark and addresses the fundamental element of the performance. While these performances may be
artistic and political, at the very root of it, they are playful.
In his discussion of work and leisure, Victor Turner points out that “Leisure is predominately an
urban phenomenon:
It is certain that no one is committed to a true leisure activity by material needs or by moral or
legal obligations, as in the case with the activities of getting an education, earning a living, or
carrying out civic or religious ceremonies. Even when there is effort, as in competitive sport, that
effort – and the discipline of training – is chosen voluntarily, in the expectation of an enjoyment
that is disinterested, unmotivated by gain, and has no utilitarian or ideological purpose.36
According to Turner’s definition of leisure, then, shopping cannot be a form of leisure at Times Square.
Shopping has become such a huge pastime for Hong Kongers that it has become a stereotype and some
have even labeled this activity a sport.37 The role of the Hong Kong government in promoting such events
as shopping festivals since 2005 at Hong Kong Times Square also takes away the leisureness of
shopping.38 This desire for consumption as driven by capitalism also begs the question of whether
shopping is even a voluntary activity for these citizens or something coerced through heavy campaigning.
Echoing Turner, Henri LeFebvre also sees distinction between urban development and leisure. He
describes the importance of play in Everyday Life in the Modern World:
…play and games will be given their former significance, a chance to realize their possibilities;
urban society involves this tendency towards the revival of the Festival, and, paradoxically
enough, such a revival leads to a revival of experience values, the experience of place and time,
giving them priority over trade value.39
Le Febvre’s desire for the revival of the festival as a way to reinstate the prior relationship of the space
and time with the individual is precisely what the frozen performances attempt.
The interaction with the spectators and collective effort amongst the performers generates a sense of
group mentality and of community. One performer testifies that, “the experience of performing with a
group was a very positive experience.” Other performers validate his experience with their own
enthusiasm while they prepare for the show. In the video documentation, we can see the artistic director
33
Ibid.
Michel Foucault , Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 138.
35
Ibid.
36
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (Baltimore: PAJ Publications, 1982), 37.
37
Liu Tai-lok, “The Malling of Hong Kong,” in Consuming Hong Kong eds. By Gordon Matthews, Tai-Lok Lui and Dale Lu
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 23.
38
Janet Ng also suggests in Paradigm City (2009) that following the SARS crisis in 2003, the Shopping Festival was a way for
the government to stimulate economy. This festival continues every year during the summer.
39
Henri LeFebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World. trans. by S. Rabinovitch (New Bruneswick: Transaction Publishers,
1984), 190-1.
34
42
Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
giving the performers a pep speech which culminates in a group huddle. The spectators’ laughter and
amused looks contribute to the festive atmosphere as well. These individuals are no longer preoccupied
with the exigencies of everyday life at Times Square, and are for a brief moment, caught up in the
excitement of the performance events. The role of FM Theatre Power in creating spaces for Hong
Kongers to play within a logic of consumer culture is subversive; in the act of play, these performances
attempt to reveal the preconscious interests of the individual’s desire for accumulation of goods as part of
a society that is directed by the invisible hand of corporate power.
Consumer Time
The consumer culture of Hong Kong and the desire for speed and efficiency affect Hong Kongers’
everyday lives, in which there is never enough time and everyone is rushed. From the fast-paced service
at restaurants to the rapid rhythm of Cantonese speech, Hong Kong requires one not only to move
quickly, but to always strive to be a little faster than everyone else. Design scholar Siu Kin Wai describes
this phenomenon as it involves the differences among people who use elevators around the world:
Speed is nearly everything for Hong Kong people – urbaners – who always need to compete with
time. Take elevators, a cousin of escalators, as an example. For most elevators in Hong Kong, the
standard time for a door to shut after the close-button has been pushed, is 2 seconds. But of
course no one ever pushes the close-button just once. According to an international survey carried
out by Otis (Knipp, 1994, November 5/6), Londoners wait a saintly 30 seconds before they take a
second stab at the button; Tokyo residents wait for 24 seconds; and even more nervous New
Yorkers will pause for 17 seconds. But we, the average Hong Kong people, cannot wait more
than 5 seconds before unfurling their full fury on the close-button a second time.40
In this study, the Hong Kong obsession with quickness beats all others. The intensity of Hong Kong’s
urban culture has created a society of impatient citizens who must use their time as efficiently as possible.
This preoccupation with time is not just the problem itself, but a symptom of a social problem in Hong
Kong urban living.
An example of this social problem of time can be found in John Chang and Pam Hung’s animation
short, The Tired City, where they explore a dystopic vision of urban living in Hong Kong. The main
character works multiple jobs (all done simultaneously) which physically and mentally wears her down.
In her depression, she jumps off a building, but cannot find relief even in this desperate moment. On her
way down her boss calls and tells her to, “Hurry up!” with her suicide. Unfortunately, her boss catches
her before she reaches the ground and drags her back to her work.41 While this story may be an
exaggeration of life in Hong Kong, this form of time determined by labor is what Guy Debord describes
in Society and the Spectacle:
The social appropriation of time, the production of man by human labor, develops within a
society divided into classes. The power which constituted itself above the penury of the society of
cyclical time, the class which organizes the social labor and appropriates the limited surplus
value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus values of its organization of social time;
it possesses for itself along the irreversible time of the living.42
40
Siu Kin Wai Michael, “The Escalator: A Conveyor of Hong Kong’s Culture,” Human Relations. Vol. 52 (1999): 669.
The Tired City by John Chan and Pam Hung is part of a collection of animations by Hong Kong Arts Centre students that were
developed specifically for the i-city program. These students were directed to develop short films on how they view their city. icity was part of the marathon of films titled “I see my city” that played on June 30th, 2007. i-city included an ensemble of
animation of varied form and content, but the connecting themes of pessimism, destruction, and depression were visible in each
film. A brief summary of each film can easily detect the symptoms of troubled youth growing up in a society that does not offer
any outlets for their problems, and The Tired City is an example of this world view.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZdIje6dyYQ
42
Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 128.
41
43
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
This appropriation of time by society demarcates temporal values onto the human body that requires
people to work into this framework, rather than time being defined by the workers. An organization of
time based on the maintenance of labor then, becomes impossible to sustain in the long term.
Time or the lack thereof, is what FM Theatre Power plays with, and there is no space more
appropriate for understanding the lack of time than at Hong Kong’s Times Square. This lack in time is
emblematic of the problem of consumer culture that Henri LeFebvre argues:
Consuming creates nothing, not even a relation between consumers, it only consumes; the act of
consuming, although significant enough in this so-called society of consumption, is a solitary act,
transmitted by a mirror effect, a play with mirrors on/by the other consumer.43
LeFebvre’s harsh critique on consumption is echoed by Zygmunt Bauman who describes the consumer
drive as, “unlikely to be ever satiated, as it leaves unscathed the basic structures which make this drive the
only outlet for the tensions they generate.”44 In this postmodern consumer culture, time is made concrete
and given a value dependent upon labor. The transformation of time into an object that can be obtained
and managed gives everyday citizens a false sense of security. No matter how much time is earned, saved,
used, or wasted, these actions become part Debord’s pseudo-cyclical time and brings one back to the
same routine of commodity-time.45 The only action one can take to step outside of this structure is by not
following the rules of time. FM Theatre Power obstructed the normal codes of social behavior and one’s
relationship of time in the city, carving out a space by which a different reality could overlap an existing
one, and turning a place of nothingness into fullness.
Although efficacy remains a difficult quality to quantify, the frozen performances played with the
here and now. It became a way for the participants to broaden their own senses by fully existing in the
present. In their attempts to stop time for ten minutes in the square, these performances allowed
participants to think and reflect on their own lives and possibly about the community around them. One
participant, a legislative council member, mentioned that for those ten minutes of stillness, it was “very
relaxing” and he was “able to appreciate the space he was in and others around him.”46 Another council
member was so relaxed that he did not even notice that the performance lasted 15 minutes--5 minutes
longer than the originally scheduled event.47 These spaces are no longer empty, but given the full value
from the lived experiences of the performers.
The gesture of stopping time, even for a brief moment, to allow the space to be occupied by a
particular person, changes the dynamics of how the space functions and is defined. It can be more than
just a transitional place where pedestrians walk from one destination to another, past consumer goods and
shopping malls. The opportunity to reconceptualize the public space around them and what it means to
exist within another framework may not guarantee a permanent change in spectators’ everyday consumerdriven patterns. However, the simple act of occupying this space in front of Times Square transforms the
space to a place of consciousness and action, rather than one of consumption.
“Kick FM Theatre Power out of Mongkok”
Shortly after these performances, FM Theatre Power became the subject of a controversy involving
the debate over public space. Facebook had just come into use by Hong Kongers in 2008 and in a period
of one day an individual, Roger Lee, had created a “Kick FM Theatre Power out of Mongkok” page
which immediately gathered 10,000 supporters. This rapidly escalated protest against the group organized
through a social networking site shows that the general population is concerned about public space in
their city and is upset about FM Theatre Power’s use of public space.
43
LeFebvre. Everyday Life, 115.
Zygmunt Bauman, “Industrialism, Consumerism and Power,” Theory Culture Society. Vol. 1 No. 32 (1983): 41.
45
Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 149.
46
“Frozen Times: Square Reborn,” Youtube, accessed June 28, 2010,
http://www.youtube.com/user/molai#p/u/26/RxIiHXAopUY
47
Ibid.
44
44
Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
Following this incident, the founder of FM Theatre Power, Banky Yeung, announced that there would
be a public discussion about the Facebook petition in the streets, which took place on August 20, 2008,
only a few months after the Hijacking the Public Sphere competition. Since the problem which provoked
the Facebook response involved the use of public space in Mongkok, Yeung felt that it would only be
appropriate to solve the problem in the streets.48 The discussion was held on the Sai Yeung Choi Street
and lasted for almost 5 hours, with different people joining and leaving the discussion throughout the
afternoon and evening. Yeung recalls that during the first three hours, he endured profanities and
criticisms that the public yelled at him. At one point, he was criticized for situating his table in the middle
of the road, thereby giving himself the position of power as people surrounded him. Yeung proceeded to
move his table to the sidewalk, but much to the critics’ dismay, everyone discovered that its presence
impeded foot traffic and blocked businesses. After this experiment, the table was moved back to the
center of the street. Throughout this time, people came and went and profanities continued to be yelled.
Because of the constant flow of people moving in and out of the discussion, there were some who
were not present at the time of the table moving and criticized Yeung again for his position in the road.
This time, however, the participants who had been there earlier defended his position and criticized the
newcomers for their naiveté and for rehashing a topic that had already been discussed. It was at this point,
during the final hour or so of the open symposium, that real discussion began to happen. People began to
think about what their real concerns were, why they were angry at the theatre troupe, and what they
wanted. The particular issue of public space instigated by those people who had always thought that FM
Theatre Power’s performance art on the street was a nuisance, soon broadened and moved away from the
problem of one specific theatre group to an issue affecting the entire Hong Kong community.
The willingness of FM Theatre Power to place itself in a vulnerable position allowed the public to
engage with it directly. Such attempts at exchanging ideas are also ways to forge new relationships
between people in the community, and this is one way by which the public space can be reclaimed. As
Frozen Times: Square Reborn demonstrated, even though a place may be labeled "public space," it does
not automatically function as public space; it is only when people use it as such that it becomes a public
space. From Zheng Bo’s idea of publicness, it must be remembered that these public spaces are not
“things” that one walks through, but a set of values, and it is only through interactions between people
that public space can come into being.
State Change
Originally conceived as a collaboration between Hector Rodriguez and Vasco Paiva, State Change
also created public spaces in places where people often pass through, but do not occupy. The purpose of
the performance piece was to “show something that we don’t normally see and to show how public space
is controlled.”49 State Change breaks the disciplined behavior of the everyday culture by introducing a
new order of action in the transit places of escalators. By stripping down the everyday functions of the
body into its basic components, with an emphasis on sound, the disciplined body is revealed.
Hector Rodriguez is an associate professor at the School of Creative Media at the City University of
Hong Kong. He is also a digital artist whose works have been featured in India, China, Germany, and
Spain.50 His scholarly and artistic work is inspired by his interest in media and programming. Rodriguez’s
influence for State Change stemmed from a variety of sources including: the Situationists / Guy Debord
and Society of the Spectacle; Harold Garfinkel and ethnomethodology; Maya Deren’s documentary work
on voodoo and ritual in the Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985); Ross Ashby and the
cybernetics of the 1940s; and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). All of these ideas played a role
supporting his political idea behind computation and exploring the assembly line behavior in everyday
life.51
48
Banky Yeung, Interview, 2010. Unless otherwise noted, the following recollection of events comes from Banky Yeung’s
account.
49
Hector Rodriguez, Interview, 2010.
50
Full biography can be found at http://www.cityu.edu.hk/scm/people/HectorRodriguez.htm
51
Rodriguez, Interview, 2010.
45
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
Vasco Paiva (Joao Paiva) was a graduate student at the School of Creative Media, and it was during
his time there that he collaborated with Rodriguez for the project. Paiva’s sound and new media inspired
works have been exhibited in cities including Moscow, Beijing, Shenzhen, London, Porto, Hangzhou, Sao
Paulo, and Vienna.52 His influence for State Change came from his interests with sound performance and
the Hong Kong based group Soundpocket that promotes, educates and supports interdisciplinary arts
relating to sound.53
Rodriguez and Paiva came together to work on a project that would integrate both of their interests,
creating a collective performance piece that incorporated political action and experimentations with
sound. It was particularly important for the two organizers to construct a performance that would, “not tell
Hong Kong people what their subjectivity was,” but rather function as a gesture towards revealing these
everyday tendencies.54 Rodriguez and Paiva agreed that the idea of the escalator would be an effective
way to develop this gesture as it was a significant part of their own everyday lives in Hong Kong.
The escalator – like other forms of transportation such as the elevator, train, bus, and taxi—is another
common way that people travel throughout the city of Hong Kong. Escalators and elevators are
particularly present in Hong Kong lifestyles as the frequency and time spent on these devices grow; they
are a necessary part of urban travel. It is no surprise that the longest set of escalators in the world is
located in Hong Kong’s Central district. These twenty escalators are about 800 meters long, and run up
and down a hill from Des Voeux road to Conduit Road; it takes about 25 minutes to travel the whole
distance.55 Stairs remain an option, but in a city that is vertically friendly, walking up several flights of
stairs is not only time consuming, but can be physically difficult.56
The name State Change came from a basic idea of computation. State Change involved performers
vocalizing an “ah” sound as the participants rode up and down escalators at malls. These sounds were
coordinated on a simple mathematical matrix with 0 = sound off and 1 = sound on: 010, 100, 001, and
111. Depending on what the people directly across from the performers were doing, the performers would
“speak” according to this matrix. This required only the use of escalators that had both up and down rides
that were parallel to one another.
The City of Malls
There were two sites at which the performances took place; the first was at Times Square and the
second was at the City University of Hong Kong/Festival Walk Mall. The escalators at the City
University of Hong Kong hold a significant symbolic value for this institution, since it is the only school
in Hong Kong, and perhaps in the world, whose main entrance is through a mall, the Festival Walk Mall.
Festival Walk is the largest mall in Hong Kong and is located near Kowloon Tong. To get to the campus
from the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station, students and teachers must travel among the display
windows of the latest fashions and technological luxuries that give life to Hong Kong consumer culture.
The irony of this school, known as one of the best creative schools for new media forms, is that it is itself
situated inside a mall--a comment on how Hong Kong is a “city of malls.”It is not enough that the malls
are pathways to the (privately owned) MTR system that a majority of Hong Kongers take, but they now
also function as hyper-reality in their command of educational institutions. There is no question that Hong
52
53
54
Full biography can be found at http://joaovascopaiva.com/bio.html
Rodriguez, Interview, 2010., also see www.souundpocket.org.hk
Ibid.
55
“The Guinness Book of World Records Experience an Open-Air Stairwell to the Skies in Hong Kong’s One and Only CentralMid-Levels Escalators,” March 31, 12011, Accessed April 15, 2011, http://www.guinnessbookofworldrecords.net/the-guinnessbook-of-world-records/the-guinness-book-of-world-records-experience-an-open-air-stairwell-to-the-skies-in-hong-kongs-oneand-only-central-mid-levels-escalators.html
56
Although the escalator is an efficient way to climb up a hilly part of the city, there are other options as well. In a city such as
San Francisco (known for its seventeen famous hills), the most popular method of travel on hills is the cable cars that run in the
northeastern part of the city. While many tourists take these cables cars as a historic reminder of the city, there are still some
locals who use them for everyday transportation. However, on many other steep hills in San Francisco, particularly where there
are no buses available, people must walk up the hills on foot. For some, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, this may
be difficult (or impossible, without the assistance of modern technology), but walking is still a viable option for many citizens.
46
Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
Kong is heavily influenced by the market and consumer culture, but to directly combine the educational
and consumer architecture completes the merger of Hong Kong lifestyle with mall culture. Like it or not,
every person who attends City University is forced to be a consumer of the retail shops in Festival Walk.
The performances took place in five different instances. It was executed once in Hong Kong Times
Square and the rest were performed at Festival Walk. These performances involved roughly 10-25
participants in each instance and lasted for a duration of 30 minutes. Although the performance was based
on a simple matrix, the performers discovered that it was difficult to maintain the body according to this
formula and it took some practice before they were accustomed to the new pattern of behavior. The
retraining of the body to a new set of rules required much work and the body to behave in ways that was
not necessarily natural or easy. During the last performance, the group attempted to use a more complex
method by adding different matrixes, but found that it was unsuccessful because it confused the
performers.57
The Curious Spectator
The performers of State Change were intermingled among the everyday people who were also using
the escalator. Rodriguez recalls that many of the spectators did not seem to mind or act disturbed by their
performance and the only real complaint they received were from the security guards at the malls. People
were generally curious and some Mandarin speaking spectators asked what they were doing and why. A
few enthusiastic escalator riders even joined in the performance making arbitrary “ah” sounds oblivious to
the rules of the game.58 In response to this, “We would just react to that person according to the rules [of
the matrix]. We loved the idea of interference and played along with it.”59 The escalator riders that reacted
negatively only expressed this by making faces at the performers and were not disturbed enough to
change their routing.
While there were many spectators on the escalator who chose to ignore the performers, there was
greater reception by onlookers in the malls who were not riding on the escalators. This disparity could be
explained in several ways. The performers riding on the escalators with the passengers could have
prevented other passengers to respond in an overt way, since it would require more risk to do so at such
close proximity. The awkwardness of a disruptive passenger might have been difficult to confront when
one was standing right next to him or her. Instead, many of travelers chose to respond by not reacting to
what was going on and pretend that there was nothing out of the ordinary. This type of response required
much discipline and restraint to maintain one’s composure despite a disturbance in the external
environment. For the other onlookers not located on the escalator, they could watch this performance
from a safe distance.
The spectators in other parts of the mall were alerted to the performance from the chorus of voices
echoing throughout the building. It was the visceral experience that attracted the onlookers from the other
floors to see what was happening around them. State Change utilized ambiguous noises that were meant
to be un-specific and do not signify meaning through language. The performance stripped away language
to its most basic component, a sound, and left spectators to interpret what these performers were saying.
This transformation of the escalator from a mode of transport to one of communication draws attention to
the endless possibilities of how sound space can be used and occupied. Here, sound becomes the most
powerful tool that the performers had to gather large audiences for their shows. Sound is part of the public
domain and can be manipulated to be used as a space for dialogue and communication.
The effectiveness of this particular sound comes from its origins, the human voice. R. Murray Schafer
argues that the erasure of the natural soundscape is a result of the development of a new soundscape
produced by technology from the Industrial and Electric revolutions.60 In the scenario of State Change,
57
Rodriguez, Interview, 2010.
Ibid.
59
Ibid.
60
R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: The Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester: Destiny Books, 1997).
58
47
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
the use of the human voice in an urban soundscape proves that the natural soundscape can be
commanding and can overcome even technology.
The Assembly Line
Aside from the occasional conversation that can be overheard between passengers speaking to one
another (or on a cell phone), the sound on escalators can often be a deafening silence. Even on a busy day
when there are masses queuing up to ride the escalator, sometimes the only sound that can be heard is the
soft grind of the machine working. These networks of escalators are an impersonal way to travel and the
assembly line function of the escalator offers little room for individuality and choice for its passengers.
In his study on industrialism and consumer culture, Zygmunt Bauman traces the historical
development of discipline through Michel Foucault and shows the relationship of disciplinary power in
consumer culture. He argues that the body is, “made fit to absorb an ever growing number of sensations
the commodities offer or promise,” and is drilled into routines.61 Siu Kin Wai offers a similar argument
for the escalator where, “we are expected and treated as standardized components rather than as different
individuals with different characteristics and needs.”62 The process of transforming the natural body into
an unnatural one to fit the needs of technology show how inefficient these technologies are in reality.
Alongside the depersonalization of the escalator in controlling the discipline of the body, this
mechanical mover also removes the individuals’ ability of choice. Siu Kin Wai states:
Even the speed and direction of a rocket can be controlled by users. Time and flat-numbers for
stopping an elevator can be controlled by users. How about the escalator? The only thing for us to
select is either using it or not. The freedom of choice is minimized and controlled.63
Siu sees the escalator as the most impersonal form of transportation compared to other technologies.
However, not all modes of transportation through technology are depersonalized like the escalator. A
counter example of this is the cable car, a technology that was developed in the 1800s, and is now
preserved primarily as a tourist attraction in San Francisco. When taking a cable car, the mode of
traveling involves interaction, dialog, and a sense of community. The tourists share the excitement and
experience of going up and down the hills on the hundred-year-old device. At times, when the cable car
mechanics fail and a car needs to be pushed up a hill, the passengers onboard are often enlisted to help get
the car moving again. The cable car ride is a social activity that defies the normal conventions of modern
modes of transportation.
In addition to minimizing the social activity, Siu Kin Wai also suggests that escalators function to
isolate individuals. He describes one situation as follows:
Today, the physical shortening of walking distance is not the main area which we should be
concerned with. The most important thing is how escalators shorten our experience, feeling, and
instinct, particularly interpersonal relationships, all which are essential for us to realize that we
are not just identical and isolated components.64
According to Siu, the escalator was created as a means for faster mobilization of people from one point to
another, and not as a social space. In the process of producing a more efficient way of travelling, these
shortcuts permeate into our social beings, changing the way we act and experience the world.
Because of congestion that can happen throughout the day (particularly intense during rush hour),
travelers have devised an escalator etiquette, similar to the rules observed when driving on a highway.
61
Bauman, “Industrialism, Consumerism and Power,” 40-41.
Siu, “The Escalator,” 679.
63
Siu, “The Escalator,” 677.
64
Ibid., 678.
62
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Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
The slower traffic should remain on the right side and leave space on the left side for the faster traffic, or
for those who wish to walk up the stairs.
At the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) stations, riders are advised on proper behavior on escalators.
They are constantly directed to hold on to the railing (in Cantonese, Mandarin and English) from the
loudspeakers that surround the stations. These codes of behavior are symptomatic of how people have
become mechanized and unsocial by the installation of these devices. During rush hour traffic at the MTR
stations, all one can hear is the marching of feet moving along the platform from one escalator to the next.
The army-like sound of the passengers marching is similar to what Siu describes in his invocation of
troops from Foucault’s detailed images of the short step, ordinary step, and double step in marching.65
Foucault describes this relationship of the human body and discipline as a coercive force:
The historical moment of the disciplines was the moment when an art of the human body was
born, which was directed not only at the growth of its skills, nor at the intensification of its
subjection, but at the formation of a relation that in the mechanism itself makes it more obedient
as it becomes more useful, and conversely. What was then being formed was a policy of
coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its
behavior. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down
and rearranges it. 66
The walking bodies at the MTR stations are trained to be obedient in the way that Foucault outlines.
There is no strolling or lingering; only walking and waiting for the next mode of transport. Very little
social interaction occurs and there are many missed opportunities for community engagement. The MTR
station at Hong Kong Times Square is particularly tedious, since it takes from ten to twenty minutes to
exit the station, passing through long hallways and multiple escalators, fully lined with advertisements
along its passageways. Janet Ng cites Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life in describing the
effects of such everyday practices
In Hong Kong, the immense physical compression in the dense city and the channeled individual
itinerary a shopping routes endows, and billboard images, create urgency in the individuals’
relationship to consumer goods. These daily conduits-the walkways and arcades that crisscross
through the entire city-provide a venue in which the people of Hong Kong take in their daily
lessons – “learning to consume.”67
Learning how to walk is part of the consumer culture, as everyday citizens are exposed to images of
consumer products and desires. The visibility of consumer culture is everywhere and dense in the MTR
stations, making these images impossible to avoid.
State Change challenges these norms and conventions, and converts the very impersonal ride of the
escalator into one that is engaging and social. By imposing a system of habits determined by its own
rules, State Change makes the current disciplining practice of the escalators transparent to its performers
and to other travelers. This break in pattern with an introduction of a new aural experience changes their
affective experience in everyday life.
A Culture of Surveillance
One of the biggest challenges for this performance was the recruitment of performers. Rodriguez
recalls that many of the performers were students and friends. He did not want to advertise this
performance in an attempt to conceal the performance from the authorities at the malls. It was difficult for
the younger students to participate because for many of them, “they were breaking the rules in an overt
65
Foucault , Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 151.
Ibid., 138.
67
Ng, Paradigm City, 91.
66
49
Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
way for the first time.” 68 Consequently, some performers were discouraged to participate in subsequent
performances because of the presence of the security guards.
In one performance at Times Square, the security guard told the participants that they were
“obstructing the property,” even though they did not pose any hindrance to the other riders on the
escalators. The participants did not attempt to stop movement in any fashion. What the security guard was
protesting against was their behavior, the perceived fact that they were acting against the proper codes of
escalator etiquette. The forced anonymity of the individual to conduct oneself properly when taking the
escalator within the sea of Hong Kong's seven million souls is defended by a recent campaign launched
by MTR in the summer of 2010.
In addition to the loudspeaker voice that warns riders to "Hold on to the railing while riding the
escalator" (in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English), the MTR has one-upped itself by heavily advertising
the safety of escalator riding through posters, cardboard cut-outs, and workers.69 Bright yellow signs
accompanied by friendly cartoon penguins tell riders, “for your safety, hold on to the rails.” In the past,
there have been accidents involving the use of escalators, including the death of a 74-year-old man in
2003 and a 94-year-old woman in 2001.70 While these accidents have prompted the intervention of the
government by pouring money into campaigning, the problem could also be solved by slowing down the
speed of the escalators. Instead, they have hired “safety ambassadors” to police the entrance and exits of
escalators. Donning bright yellow t-shirts, these safety ambassadors hold cardboard signs to warn
travelers to use the escalator safely. This campaign becomes another way of policing the proper codes of
behavior. Although these ambassadors do not carry weapons and there have been no incidents of violence
resulting from their presence, their symbolic weight is a reminder of the power that the privately owned
MTR transportation system has over the everyday lives of Hong Kongers.
While the security guard attempted to enforce his control over the everyday citizen in the public
escalators during the State Change performance, he gave the performers an identity that was not afforded
to other bodies. At one point in his annoyance at the performers, the security guard looked at each
individual whom he believed to be violating the contract of good escalator behavior and pointed at them.
He made sure that these performers saw that he was pointing at them and even rode on the escalator
himself to do this.
The security guard’s action did two important things for the performers and performance. First, he
gave them recognition. These performers were no longer anonymous individuals shuffling through the
city, but afforded a distinct identity among the masses. This recognition gave the performers agency and
awareness of their own subjectivities. Secondly, the security guard directly participated in the State
Change performance. He responded to the performers’ behaviors and became a performer himself and, in
doing so, he changed the narrative of their performance art piece. His actions added “plot” to the
improvisational performance. The security guard’s performance easily lends itself to a replication of the
common narrative of “beginning,” “middle,” and “end.” His action gave the performance a plot where it
ultimately led to a climax (the confrontation of the guard with the performers) and to a resolution (the
performers ending the performance). The simultaneous performances of those making sounds with their
bodies and of the security guard gave the public authority to decide what was really happening.
In response to the security guard, the State Change group devised a plan to handle these authority
figures. When they were approached by them, they would turn off their sound. By doing so, they would
not force the security guards to participate in something that they did not want to.71 Despite these changes
in the performance, to remain an open system able to change and adapt to the different circumstances,
there were some students who were still not comfortable with the situation. Rodriguez recalls:
68
Rodriguez, Interview, 2010.
The loudspeaker at the MTR stations occasionally also warns people to not give money to panhandlers.
70
Daniel Pang, “Escalator warning as accidents on the rise,” June 16, 2007, accessed November 1, 2010,
http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?we_cat=4&art_id=46969&sid=14085726&con_type=1&d_str=20070616
71
Rodriguez, Interview, 2010.
69
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Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
It was very painful for some of them. It was fun to do it, but not when you get someone pointing a
finger at them. We had to share afterwards and try to work through what it meant for them. [What
it meant] not to be compliant. There was a feeling of isolation in the performance. It was very
different to those who had a very clear political objective. Because even if you know you’re
going to fail, there is a sense that you are doing a grand political objective. This didn’t have that
kind of thing. So that was hard and it’s sad for us. 72
This painful experience for some of the students exposed the violence of the disciplining system. The
performers were not breaking any real laws, but their actions had real life consequences. The extent to
which the everyday citizen has become trained to behave in society makes unlearning these habits all the
more difficult and painful. This simple act of stepping out of line in such a minute way is enough to cause
worry for the authorities, and the security guards attentiveness to these actions show how much this
society is under surveillance.
Both Times Square and State Change used simple methods of reconceptualizing public space. Time
Square played with the idea of time and space and performed a simple act of not moving in space.
Participants in State Change utilized sound in the process of movement. The performances involved
untrained performers as well as trained ones, using basic forms of communication to challenge spectators
to stop and listen to what they were doing. These performances required no rehearsal and were stimulated
by community interaction and the desire to find new ways to speak and to listen in the surrounding
environment. Hector Rodriguez’s reflection on the performance events can be applicable to both Frozen
Times: Square Reborn and State Change:
The whole point was to do something that I don’t normally do. The Situationists have a thing
about inventing your own desires and playing with urban space. It’s like a counter
advertising…You invent what you desire. It’s part of a communal activity. In doing this, we
discover what we like, what our desires are.73
The performance methodologies in Frozen Times: Square Reborn and State Change created space by
which one could explore these desires. The consciousness of one’s own desires brought attention to one’s
subjectivity and individuality. By going back to the fundamental means of communication of hearing and
listening, Hijacking the Public Sphere was a movement that did not use new tools for speaking, but found
creative ways to interact using the same tools that people have always had at their disposal – but may
have forgotten.
Appropriations of Street Life
Beyond the thematic of public space, the significance of Frozen Times: Square Reborn and State
Change’s use of improvised performance art also brings to focus the relationship between the body and
consumer culture. These undisciplined bodies in real time and space reveal the extent to which
consumerism has trained the body to be something that it is not. In stark contrast to events organized by
performance artists in the Hijacking Public Sphere competition that seek to reclaim the space of the mall
and other public space, corporate investment in the arts works to appropriate street art in a civil, organized
way so that corporations can have full control over the creative expressions of artists.
This commodification of performance is a continuation of the process of transforming the body into
an image of itself. The power of the affective body becomes a machine for the interests of consumer
culture. Mike Featherstone draws this relationship between the body image and the affective body:
…the body without image, the affective body can be represented as an opposite to the body image
in the visual ‘mirror-image’ mode, the distant goal of the consumer culture transformative process
72
73
Ibid.
Ibid.
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Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal
is to bring together – the power to affect others, through the beautification process and
enhancement of ‘the look’ coupled with an appropriate body style of presentation.74
Here, Featherstone stresses the importance of two correlated components that make the body powerful
and effective in consumer society. The idealized images of the body must be accompanied by the
affective body to lead a “lifestyle transformation.”75 These desired images of the body are acted out in the
affective body and the relationships can be seen through the transformation of street performances in
Hong Kong in creation of media images to the performance of live body in constructed spaces.
One recent example occurred at the City Plaza Mall in Taikoo Shing. City Plaza Mall hosted a twoweek dance crew event, with many performers from Hong Kong and Korea. These groups mainly
consisted of young Asian men who practiced hip-hop-style dancing. The event was heavily marketed at
the local MTR station with an image of a male dancer wearing the appropriate hip-hop-inspired attire that
hid the identity of the performer. This image obscured the race of the individual and although it was
probably an Asian person in the advertisement, the concealed body of the performer gave an impression
that these entities could be the black bodies that popularized street culture. This constructed image of an
attempt at authentic hip-hop culture was further valorized with the set that the performers danced on:
organizers of the event created a “street” backdrop of a graffiti-painted wall with images of black bodies
in the background. Building this artificial street within the mall complex was supposed to bring the
“street” back into the lives of consumers without their having to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the
mall. Even if one disregards the heavily racially-insensitive messages of this event, the manufacturing and
appropriation of "the street life" is problematic to Hong Kong society in other ways.
Sometimes the appropriation of the street is also legitimized by the government: since 2008, the Hong
Kong Arts Centre has co-sponsored, with Kung Music Workshop, a monthly "Street Music Festival,"
bringing local street performers into the space outside of the Arts Centre to perform for an audience.
While the organizers keep the spirit of street performance alive by offering these performances free of
charge and operating the event in the open space in front of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the improvised
nature of street music is missing. Gone are the surprised reactions of the anonymous passerby and the
normal risks of performing in the public space of a street; gone, too, is the unpredictable cacophony of
live music with everyday street life. The support of such artists is important to legitimize many different
kinds of art forms, but the organized predictability of street performance loses its magic in this process.
The purpose of these events is to promote diversity in music and to encourage the development of work
by local artists, but its approach also does away with some of the qualities that make street music stand
out from other forms of musical performance. The spontaneity and the freedom of performing in public
places among the crowded streets of Hong Kong disappear and are replaced with a more ordered way of
speaking and listening.
Outside the context of this monthly festival, the presence of street musicians (found all over the
world, on the street, in the subway, in front of businesses, in train stations) is part of the urban landscape
and part of what defines Hong Kong. These local artists must rely on the public for survival, and they
must have the freedom to play wherever they wish and to occupy any street on which they want to stand.
The culture of the street musician offers an alternative to what would otherwise be a soundscape of
people, automobiles, buses, traffic lights, or prerecorded music blasting from the speakers of businesses.
In reaction to the debate over public space, the government mandated that artists could petition for the
use of these streets, but the process of applying for such permits delegitimizes their artistic freedom and
the space as truly public. In a recent article on CNN Hong Kong, journalist Zoe Lin describes the Hong
Kong government’s latest tactics against spontaneous street performances:
The government is drafting a plan to make open spaces, such as the plaza outside the Cultural
Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, designated areas for so-called "street performance." We say "so-called"
74
75
Mike Featherstone, “Body, Image and Affect in Consumer Culture,” Body & Society. Vol. 16. No. 1 (2010): 196.
Ibid.
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Hijacking the Public Sphere: Performance, Politics and the Everyday Citizen
because artists who wish to perform in those area[s] will have to audition for it. This pilot scheme
is tentatively called "Open Stage" and is aimed at cultivating public interest in the performing
arts. Artists will have to be vetted by a panel of arts experts and government officials, and the
performance area will be well away from residential areas. Rather than democratize the use of
public space for performance, this plan sounds like the authorities will impose control over the
who, what, where, and why of street performance in Hong Kong.76
This process of screening and filtering performers before giving them approval imposes a set of rules that
can only serve to discourage creative development in these communities. This change in regulation of
public art in Hong Kong is important since the government will have its hands on all aspects of the arts in
the city. The Hong Kong government has already contributed significantly to developing its city into a
cultural hub in Asia and this has included funding many artists through the Hong Kong Arts Council and
Leisure and Cultural Services Department. This includes performance art as well, and if they regulate
street performance, there will be very little left of an independent art scene in Hong Kong which is not in
direct influence of the government. Lisa Law also points out, in “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan
Public Spaces in Hong Kong,” that “[w]hen public spaces are developed, maintained and surveyed by
developers, they lose their status of ‘public’ spaces."77 Public space only remains public when it is not
regulated by any set of laws or controlled by any party, and the intervention of any third party to attempt
to control this space will only result in the demise of true street performance.
The role of the mall in the appropriation of public space as a site of consumer culture is a relatively
new phenomenon that has developed differently in Hong Kong than in western societies, where it was
encouraged as a way to attract tourists, rather than for the local population.78 In contrast to mall life, the
history of hawkers on public streets has had a more natural form of development that is independent of
corporate coercion. Hawkers have existed by their own rules:
The hawkers do not sell their goods in permitted areas, apply for hawker licenses, or fight for
legislation that will make unlicensed hawking a kind of legal activity. The hawkers, along with
other users of other public spaces, usually do not expect to “share authority” or to “use a
legitimate basis to substitute for the existing legitimate basis” (Habermas, 1973/1995, p. 33).
Rather, they insinuate themselves into the areas of control and authority of the Hawker Control
Teams in order to “survive” (Siu, 2003). These tactical practitioners do not have a space, or, it
could be said, their space “is the space of the other” (de Certeau, 1984, p. 37). Their tactics
depend totally on time. Hence, whatever advantage the hawkers might win they do not keep.
They constantly need to manipulate events in order to turn them into opportunities, and
continually resort to their own means. As Lefebvre (1984) and Wander (1984) say, this kind of
tactical act is “an art of everyday life” and “a radical reorganization of modern life.”79
This example of an alternative form of consumer culture and street life can serve to give hope that
appropriation of public space for the public can happen if city dwellers work together to defy government
or corporate control. There are lessons that street performers can learn from these street hawkers who
have been able to survive despite the takeover of the mall. Their use of guerrilla tactics, of not seeking
legitimacy within the realms of governmental authority, is a lesson that performance artists must learn if
they wish to be truly in control of their own creativity. This constant “manipulation of events” to create
opportunities may be the only way that arts in the public sphere can continue to exist in the future. Public
76
Zoe Li, “Hong Kong government to host street performances,” CNN International, March 29, 2010,
<http://www.cnngo.com/hong-kong/play/hong-kong-government-host-street-shows-450494> Accessed June 13, 2010
77
Lisa Law, “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong,” Urban Studies. 2002: Vol. 39, No. 9 (2002):
1628.
78
Liu, “The Malling,” 24.
79
Kin Wai Michael Siu, “Guerrilla Wars in Everyday Public Spaces: Reflections and Inspirations for Designers,” IJDesign. Vol.
1, No. 1 (2007): 42.
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art should not be determined by corporations and governmental institutions as has been attempted by
Times Square. Public art and the public sphere must enable multiple parties’ ways to voice their opinion
and display their performance.
From different appropriations of street life and the guerilla tactics of street hawkers, the Hijacking the
Public Sphere competition was a small contribution in the long war to reclaim public space. Frozen
Times: Square Reborn and State Change involved going back to the roots of communication and using
the fundamental elements of hearing, seeing, and movement to involve everyday citizens in taking a
moment to stop and listen to their environment.
In some ways, Frozen Times: Square Reborn and State Change did manipulate their surroundings and
made them into opportunities for self-expression and enjoyment. By engaging in fluid forms of
improvisation, the two performance pieces were able to invite everyday citizens to engage themselves in
performance. For many, this was their first experience. One participant in the Frozen Times: Square
Reborn admitted that, “I never thought I could do something like this in Hong Kong.” Another performer
declared with a sense of irony and accomplishment, “Yes, Mom. I’ve done it!” These methods of
speaking and challenging the audience to listen created an intimate connection between sound,
movement, hearing and space, heightening the ability for critical thinking and understanding. Despite the
seeming impossibility of their task, these efforts to challenge the consumer culture of Hong Kong and
public space were not in vain. Their ability to interrupt the flow of traffic, of people, and of everyday
living was no doubt remembered by their audiences and performers. The simplicity and ease with which
they have manipulated and reproduced space inspired others to do the same. By making public protest and
participation a fun and engaging activity, these non-threatening performances were able to draw
supporters to their cause and make a gesture towards unveiling everyday actions in public spaces.
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