by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

On August 18th, New Bloom editor Brian Hioe interviewed artist and writer Ho Rui An during his visit to Taipei to perform in the Taipei Arts Festival. The following is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.  

Brian Hioe:  First, could you briefly introduce yourself for those who might not know you?

Ho Rui An:   I’m Ho Rui An. I’m an artist and writer, who presented a work at the Taipei Arts Festival.

BH:  You work across a number of mediums. How do you conceive of the forms your works take?

HRA:  My work is concerned with the politics of images, both in terms of the turning of politics into image and the politics that shape the production and circulation of images.

One of the forms in which I’ve been presenting my work is in the lecture. You can also call it a cinematic lecture, in that it involves me constructing a narrative and critique around a series of images I’ve gathered. I also have a background in Anthropology, so it’s also with that perspective that I approach my subjects.

BH:  It’s interesting that you use images that you’ve gathered yourself and also images drawn from pop culture, like movies, in Asia the Unmiraculous. The image has quite a central place in your work, tying together various threads.

What does the research process for your work usually look like? It seems as though it is very research-intensive, whether mining out images, looking into the topic matter, and so forth.

HRA:  It depends on each project. But it’s usually a one or two-year process at least, from the initial research to the first presentation of the work.

For this particular project, Asia the Unmiraculous, the process involved both archival and field research. Compared to my past projects, much more time was spent gathering material on-site at the various cities of interest, in particular Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Yamaguchi. Of course, each context comes with its local specificities that I have to be sensitive to. At the same time, I am always trying to situate any supposedly “local” phenomenon within a broader global narrative, which in this case, is the debate over the developmental state that took place between the sixties and the nineties, focusing largely on East Asia.

I’m fortunate to have received support from several institutions that were kind enough to support my research, usually through a residency, which allowed me to spend extended times within particular locales to gather enough material.

BH:  It often seems as though you have both the micro and the macro in your works. It often is from your perspective, you often refer to “I”. How do you think you got interested in the various concerns running through your work? Such as with regards to the economy and politics and the concept of Asia? To draw connections with other works in the Taipei Arts Festival, many works have to do with labor, the economy, commodification, and the figure of Asia floats up quite strikingly, in both your work and others.

HRA:  One point of departure for the current project is an earlier body of research that I undertook that was looking at the subject of crisis, specifically focusing on various crisis anticipation programmes run by the Singapore government.

One of the crises that came up as an example as I was reviewing the literature was the Asian Financial Crisis, which in many ways was the first large-scale crisis of globalization. Incidentally, last year was the 20th anniversary of the Asian Financial Crisis.

So I started a new body of research around the crisis itself. But as I was doing so, I was struck by the resonances with the contemporary return of the so-called “rise of Asia” discourse of the eighties to nineties, this time centered around mainland China. That is when I started to think more about the supposed “miracle” that preceded the crisis and examine the dialectical relationship between the two moments. Of course, I don’t think that what we are seeing today is merely a repetition of the nineties turn from miracle to crisis, just with different actors, because the shift in protagonist to China here demands its own historical framework for us to fully grasp what exactly has changed, or not changed.

BH:  Where it was Japan in the past or the Four East Asian Tigers.

HRA:  The presence of China is very strong in Southeast Asia, both historically and today. China’s activities in the region as part of the One Belt, One Road Initiative is certainly a concern for me in the lecture, though it is not the main subject. I’m more interested in situating it within a broader historical narrative that considers the construction of Asia as a subject of knowledge through the ideological contestations between neoliberalism and the developmental state in the late twentieth century.

The “question of China” is also a subject that demands to be addressed in itself. Too often what we see these days are hasty conclusions based on outmoded frameworks that cannot fully account for China’s present-day relationship with Asia, or Eurasia or Afro-Eurasia, for that matter. The only thing that I can say for sure is that this is a political moment of uncertainty, rather than unfettered optimism or extreme pessimism, and the conclusion of the lecture reflects that uncertainty.

BH:  It’s interesting, too, because your work previously has engaged with Singapore and you have the whole Asian values thesis from Lee Kuan Yew. Then you see someone who starts off touting Singapore as this embodiment of Confucian values and has now run to China and touting China as the embodiment of Confucian values.

With this kind of notion of Asia the Unmiraculous, do you see yourself as deconstructing this sort of growth-centered ideology?

HRA:  One of the things I’m hoping to do by working with the figure of the “unmiraculous” is to see if we can escape from this dialectical relationship between miracle and crisis. Otherwise, the only thing we can expect to follow from this present “return” of the Asian miracle is crisis.

What does it mean to think about development as unmiraculous? Is there a way to achieve development without playing into the fantastical imaginaries of “miraculous” economic growth? One of the main problems with the “miracle” discourse is that the logic of financialization is completely baked into it, demanding that the accumulation of capital happen through an increasing indebtedness to a future that may or may not arrive. And when it does not arrive, crisis happens.

BH:  What about the concept of Asia, then? You have these differing notions of Asia that appear throughout the course of the 20th century. You have Asia as method or something like that or versions of pan-Asianism under Japanese auspices or Chinese auspices or the non-alignment movement or something like that.

But then—Asia—what is it? There’s this tension between, for example, East Asia and Southeast Asia, and I think that Taiwan is somewhere where that’s particularly strong, because sometimes it wants to claim that it is not part of East Asia as China is, but it’s closer to Southeast Asia. Do you see that concern running through your works? You mentioned a lot of different countries in your performance, some of which are slotted more as Southeast Asia and others moreso as East Asia.

HRA:  Definitely the return of the “region” as a subject of political discourse is something that I’ve been interested in looking at. In the lecture, I don’t go fully into it in terms of addressing the new kinds of overextended regionalisms like Eurasia that is being promoted by One Belt, One Road, but it appears that the way the “regional” is invoked today is really not so different from the “global”, especially when you hear of things like Afro-Eurasia, or how the One Belt, One Road Initiative is extending to Latin America.

Of course, thinking about Afro-Eurasia, or more specifically Afro-Asia, naturally returns us to Bandung in 1955. And in many ways, the Belt and Road project attempts to draw upon the nostalgia for that historical moment, connecting it further back in time to Cheng Ho’s expeditions around the world during the early Ming period in a bid to naturalize this new regionalism.

But the significant distinction between the Bandung moment and today’s regionalisms is that the Afro-Asia of today has almost been completely assimilated within the logic of global capital accumulation. Afro-Asia today is primarily a logistical project, as opposed to how Bandung situated itself as a moment for formerly colonized countries to fight for equality and justice amidst the Cold War environment of the time. 

BH:  Yeah, I think the Cold War framework has returned in some sense. First world, second world, third world, except it’s all subordinate to capitalist logic. These are competing globalist blocs, one might say. That these sort of blocs have reappeared.

I think Russia is a very interesting figure in this. It’s sort of aligned with China again, but in the past, Russia was on the border of the West and East, and Russians were thought of as Asian until a certain point in time. When the 1906 Russian Revolution happened Sun Yat-Sen was celebrating this as Asians rising up. This kind of recurring history.

Were there any responses in Taiwan to your work that you found interesting? I was surprised that someone asked you a question, is this supposed to be celebrating China?

HRA:  Maybe it’s because I often say things in a more ironic register, and the irony is sometimes very subtle. In any case, the lecture for me is not the medium in which I express whether I’m for or against something. It’s more a space for reflection, speculation and grappling with uncertainty. And in this case, there is indeed a lot of uncertainties around the present political moment. We are still at the stage of trying to reckon with what’s happening, and so, for me, my work is simply an attempt to gain an initial understanding of the present as it unravels.

What I like about the form of the lecture is that it allows me to shift registers. Sometimes I can be very serious and sometimes not as serious. I can also be speaking very, very literally, or not so literally.

I’m also interested in how seemingly abstract phenomena of a global scale manifest themselves in a very mundane, profane manner. This is why with this lecture, I ended with the Coin Test China High-Speed Train video. Increasingly, it is these forms of new “vernacular” cinemas that fascinate me. I did another work that is centred entirely around the dashcam. I don’t know if it’s popular here?

BH:  It’s very popular here, I don’t know why. All this news footage comes from the dashcam.

HRA:  In Singapore, almost every car has a dashboard camera. In a previous project that very much led to this project, I was looking at the dashcam as an optic for the contemporary crisis imaginary, because when you install a camera on your dashboard, you are already anticipating that some accident will happen.

But more often than not, the camera ends up capturing accidents that happen not to your own vehicle but others, or basically all kind of shit that happens on the road. And so, by accident, we now have an entire archive of such footage on the Internet. There are entire playlists and YouTube channels just for different compilations of dashcam footage. There are so many compilations showing cars running down deers.

Interestingly, both the Coin Test video and the dashcam video are cinematic phenomena that are tied to a moving vehicle, except that each takes on a different point of view. The dashcam looks forward into the horizon, while in the Coin Test video, the world passes by in a lateral glide as we keep our gaze on the standing coin.

BH:  Have you had any thoughts on the Taipei Arts Festival so far? With regards to the different works you’ve seen. I’ve been trying to develop conversations between the different people I’ve interviewed.

HRA:  I arrived after most of the Think Bar had ended, but I know Eisa’s work. And I saw the documentation of Jaha’s piece. I definitely appreciate the resonances between these works. How was it for you?

BH:  I think it was interesting that many artists were very concerned with their national conditions. It reminds me of Fredric Jameson’s concept of Third World literature. Jaha’s is about South Korea, Eisa’s is about the Philippines. But they all have to do with labor in some way, like affective labor, physical labor, or labor as a living commodity.

You have the talking rice cookers. The metaphor is like South Korea is in the pressure of a rice cooker, but then you have the commodity that is subordinate to you and part of everyday life talk, with a voice of its own. Those are the links I’ve drawn so far.

HRA:  There were a couple of talks, right?

BH:  Yeah, on political theater. I missed two of the talks, but I saw the talk by Tadashi Uchino, and Florian Malzacher. Uchino used Azuma’s theory of the tourist to analyze theater from some more recent theater, such as irreverent takes on seminal figures of butoh dance, such as Hijikata.

I also saw Florian’s talk on getting out of the representational and he wanted to point towards this notion of artists engaged in activism, not just trying to engage in a cause. The examples were mostly drawn from Occupy Wall Street, which I was actually around for, so it was kind of interesting seeing that. Although I think these concerns re-occur throughout, my own take is that a lot of activist theater is not very open-ended, it’s very pedantic even sometimes. It wants to tell you something.

I guess that’s most of the questions I wanted to ask, but do you have any thoughts on what’s next for you as a project?

HRA:  The presentation in Taipei is a work in progress. The complete work will premiere at the Gwangju Biennale next month. The project is also co-commissioned by the Yamaguchi Center of Arts and Media, so there will also be a show there later this year. There’s one part of the narrative that I didn’t present in Taipei that is based on my research in Yamaguchi and relates more to the role of Japan as the original “miracle” economy of East Asia. So there will be a bit on the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s postwar economy.

BH:  Thank you for your time.

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