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On Asia Art Archive: Ipek Ulusoy talks with Hammad Nasar, Part 2

Installation view of Free Parking: Art Libraries from Elsewhere, 2–28 November 2015. Photography: © Kitmin Lee. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.

By Ipek Ulusoy and Hammad Nasar
On Dec 4, 2015

Installation view of Free Parking: Art Libraries from Elsewhere, 2–28 November 2015. Photography: © Kitmin Lee. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.

Originally published December 3, 2015 on The Exhibitionist blog

Below, İpek Ulusoy talks with Hammad Nasar, head of research and programs at Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive (AAA). (Part 1 of this conversation can be found here.) They discuss the dynamic role of archives in art history, exhibition making, and knowledge production around art from Asia. The interview was conducted at Asia Art Archive on November 18, 2015. This post is part of an ongoing collaboration between Independent Curators International and The Exhibitionist to feature writing by participants of ICI’s Curatorial Intensives. (Part 2 of 2. Read part 1 of the conversation here.)

İU: How does Asia Art Archive (AAA) interact or collaborate with analogous archival structures elsewhere in the world? I am thinking of Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation, or SALT in Istanbul.

HN: We don’t have a fixed mode of working. We don’t aim to have one in terms of collaboration. I would describe us as the most promiscuous person on the dance floor. AAA’s mission is to address the lack of knowledge infrastructure in Asia. And so it is important to work with established, research-focused institutions like museums, academies, libraries, and other archives. There are also equally important independent initiatives, such as the Indonesia Visual Art Archive (IVAA) and newer, state-funded, gigantic initiatives such as the National Gallery of Singapore or Asia Cultural Complex in Gwangju, Korea, that also have archival ambitions. SALT and the Arab Image Foundation are part of this galaxy.

İU: Or ecology.

HN: Exactly. An ecology of possibilities, let’s say. Another example is the IVAA in Jakarta, Indonesia, that has been doing great work longer than we have. They’ve focused on Indonesia and had a lot of materials online, but all in Bahasa Indonesian. For people who don’t speak that language, but who are interested in Indonesian histories and the important exhibitions held there, access is an issue. So in consultation with IVAA’s team and advisors we targeted five key exhibitions that changed the discourse around contemporary art in Indonesia. We then piloted a little translation project for the material around those exhibitions and transcripts of talks, conferences, and discussions. We are now interested in how to make this live on both our websites so that they talk to each other. Then you have more to look at than Magiciens de la terre and the other exhibitions that are so often brought up as the only ones. It opens up other points of reference.

Similarly, we’re embarking on a new project—not yet finalized, so I won’t give you a name—with a major U.S. university. Together we are looking at a digitization project, from which the resulting material will be used for teaching.

İU: In what context?

HN: The university faculty has an interest in the material we propose for digitizing. It is not like we bring things together and at some point somebody might use it. As we build the collection, we’re simultaneously building community and engagement around it.

İU: It sounds like a very active engagement with knowledge production around contemporary artistic and cultural work from the region, and its dissemination in various ways. This also reminds me of another recently announced research fellowship where you are collaborating with the Lahore Biennale Foundation. Can you talk more about the digitization project that Saira Ansari will soon embark on, based on the modernist artist Zubeida Agha?

HN: That’s another great example of partnership. The credit for this digitization project should go to the Lahore Biennale Foundation, which started this initiative supporting research. Pakistan, is a very poorly researched area, so they wanted to have an annual program with funding for a research fellowship. I serve on the jury. Ansari’s winning proposal was to construct a digital archive of this very important figure, Zubeida Agha, who was an artist, a gallery owner, and also a patron for the National Collection in the 1960s.

One of the other jury members, Iftikhar Dadi, is also an advisor to the AAA. He asked why Saira wanted to build something from the ground up—why not work with AAA? That’s how the conversation got started. Saira will come here in December, spend a week with the digital materials, and explore. We have the infrastructure to host. And we’ll support this project remotely as the material will then come into the collection. This feeds into the point that it’s not just about inventing things here, but building conversations with communities elsewhere.

We’ve also done something similar with the independent curator Biljana Ciric, who has conducted interviews and collected material on a series of exhibitions in Shanghai in the 1990s, which is being processed and will then be hosted on our platform. It’s one thing doing research and collecting the material, and it’s another to say we’ll now host this as infrastructure for the field. Independent researchers often don’t have the resources to be able to do this, even if they wanted to.

One other point, going back to Slavs and Tatars: the Free Parking program, of which their exhibition is a part, extends this idea of going to and coming from elsewhere, or circulation. There’s also the Mobile Library program, where we take books elsewhere.

İU: That’s brilliant. What are some of the locations?

HN: It was in Myanmar this year. And coinciding with Mobile Library being in Myanmar, we had organized for a set of books from Myanmar to be here as part of the Free Parking program. Mobile Library is an evolving program, and the Myanmar iteration was our most ambitious in scale and scope. Its impact is something we can only judge later. To plan it, we had a research visit where we talked to 60 different artist organizations in Yangon and Mandalay to understand what the needs are. Then we worked with colleagues there, led by Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA). They collectively curated what books they’d like to have. Then we reached out to international publishers and organizations to donate books; we bought the books we couldn’t get donated. We were able to raise money within Myanmar, and with core support from Foundation for Art Initiatives (FfAI). That library ended up in multiple places in Myanmar. One of the most important of these was the University of Arts and Culture, where we invited the artist T. Sanathanan, who led a lot of the work previously in the Sri Lanka edition. He then led our sessions with both teachers and students. That lateral exchange was extremely significant.

İU: Tell me more about the genealogy of this program.

HN: It started in 2011. The one in Myanmar was the third edition. We first started in Vietnam, small and modest. Then Sri Lanka, more ambitious. Myanmar was even more ambitious and happened over a longer duration, with multiple partners and programs.

İU: Let’s go back to the question of audience.

HN: There is the audience for our on-site programs, which are, for the most part, in Hong Kong. But as with Mobile Library and other partnerships, these can happen elsewhere. In fact, we have just recruited an associate curator to help develop programs in India that will bring our work into a wider conversation within India. And there is a set of programs that are run by AAA in America, out of New York.

And then there is the audience for research. We certainly have a research audience here in Hong Kong, but it’s a tiny fraction of our global audience. We’re trying to intervene in the geography and economics of doing research. If you are a young academic wanting to conduct research, you have to apply for funds for the research trip; if you’re teaching you need to buy yourself out of your teaching commitments and then travel. It sometimes takes years to get through this process, and then you travel for a month. By making as much of this material as possible available online, we are not saying you don’t have to travel anymore, but maybe you might travel much less. You can do a lot of work from wherever you are. There are people who are writing books and dissertations based on the material they can access thanks to our digitization projects. This is not Kim Kardashian, of course—we’re not going to break the Internet because we’ve uploaded some unpublished manuscript by Geeta Kapur [laughs]. But it’s not necessarily about sheer numbers. It’s actually the type of people. I’ll use a business analogy. Although we look like a B-to-C (business to consumer) organization, I think we’re more of a B-to-B (business to business). Our main users or “super-users” are people who are people doing research. Academics, curators or people in higher education.

İU: People from the field, so to say.

HN: Yes, we think of our main users as people who’ll consult our archive as the fuel for their practice—whether for research, or teaching, or art—and also for students. One of the last events we held here was for young people who are about to go to art schools. We organized an event where we brought people who are already going to art schools and started a conversation between them, sharing experiences. This room, believe it or not, can hold up to 80 people. But we had 120 attendees, so we had to arrange for streaming in a room upstairs. Teachers wanted to show it to other students, so we recorded it. How many more people will see it? I don’t know. But with the video accessible online the footage can be used by an ever-expanding set of users.

İU: Maybe best to end with potential or future plans?

HN: We are in conversations with several places. Most concretely, we have just started a partnership with the Paul Mellon Centre on a project called London, Asia that posits London as an Asian city for art history. As part of this, and in further collaboration with Tate Modern, we will host a symposium and panel discussion to coincide with Tate’s exhibition on Bhupen Khakhar that looks at how South Asia has been framed in exhibitions in Britain.

In the UAE, Michelle Wong, who is leading our research projects in Hong Kong, shared what we’re doing here with Campus Art Dubai.

İU: Of which I am an alumna!

HN: The idea here was to share approaches. We can learn a lot from each other. We also ran a digitization workshop in Kuwait as part of the last Global Art Forum. We developed this in conversation with Kristine Khouri, for example, who’s been doing research and archival projects in the region. And we are already working with Sharjah Art Foundation for a forthcoming exhibition and discursive project, led by Tarek Abou el Fatouh, that looks at exhibitions that talk to one another. We see all of these as little seeds for the future. How they grow should be organic, and should reflect the impetus and urgencies of Kuwait, Sharjah, Dubai, or Beirut. These are not areas where we have the resources to make major contributions ourselves – but we can be supportive interlocutors, and, like I said before, catalysts.

İU: Thank you so much, Hammad.

HM: You are very welcome, İpek.

Exhibition view of Excessive Enthusiasm: Ha Bik Chuen and the Archive as Practice, 11 March-4 July 2015. Courtesy of Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong.