Warm Up, the latest programme organised by non-profit art organisation Mill6 Foundation, had some ambitious objectives: revitalising handicrafts, passing on Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, fostering neighbourhood connections, bridging the gap between generations, and reviving knowledge of textiles and garments. Caroline Ha Thuc speaks to the foundation’s director Angelika Li and curator Him Lo.
What was your vision for the event, and how do you deal with so many topics and communities at the same time?
Angelika Li: Mill6 is a unique establishment. It was once a factory space for textiles, and we are rejuvenating it to become, by 2018, a space for textile arts and culture, heritage and innovation.
We are developing six different programmes and approaches: exhibitions, community engagement, learning, heritage, artist-in-residency and public art. We also have several different target audiences, as well as different partners and collaborators. With each project we must therefore consistently ask the questions: What are the purpose and the meaning? What cause does it serve? How can we be sustainable? What are the inherent values? Our focus is clearly textiles – a practice, medium and subject not widely researched in this region. Hong Kong has become what it is now partly due to one of its cornerstones, the textile industry, which fed more than half of the city’s workforce in the 1960s and 70s. Our foundations are built on the experience and knowledge of our heritage. It’s essential to learn about our roots: where we come from, and what past generations valued most.
What is Mill6’s biggest priority at the moment?
AL: When people ask me what our strategies are, the first thing I think about above all is building trust with different groups and communities, especially our neighbours in Tsuen Wan. Communication is paramount. Before we move into our new home, it is incredibly important to introduce who we are, what we do and what we stand for. After all, this is a project for the public good – for the people of Hong Kong.
You are working with partners such as i-dArt, focusing on people with disabilities, and the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs Association. How do you build partnerships like these?
AL: The relationship is more like one of collaborative learning. We are in different professions and we understand what we can give in our own fields to improve the projects and create the best experience for our participants. For example, with the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs Association, they understand how to deal with young people and we know how to work with and understand a community within an arts context, so together we came up with the theme of “street” for our forthcoming fashion show.
Which activities were most successful, and why?
AL: The most beautiful thing I saw was how retired sewing workers communicated with designers and people in the neighbourhood. It was not only about the activities, but also about a platform where people could share their thoughts and exchange their skills, stories and memories.
What challenges did you encounter?
AL: When we talk about communities or groups, it is very important for us to be clear which communities and groups we are talking about. I have been working in this field for years and I know that if the idea is not clear, people who live in the community will be very upset, so I spent two months doing research to solidify our ideas and make sure we were going in the right direction.
Beyond sewing, you seem to have in mind a larger vision of a society in which people recycle more and share more. How do you aim to achieve that?
AL: For us, sewing is a starting point for people to discover new possibilities in their everyday life. Today, when we want something, we always forget that we have the ability to make it ourselves instead of buying it. So if we think about why we need it, we can also think about how we might already have it or how we could use waste materials to create it ourselves. Then we can take back our human right to choose our own lifestyle, not just follow consumer trends and spend money on things we do not need.
Sewing provides us with an alternative way of appreciating life and living together with others, of discovering a wider spectrum of society and new ways of living, and of increasing our possibilities.
Do you think art has a social role to play?
AL: Art for us is an opportunity to think and look back at ourselves by creating objects. We ask ourselves who we are, what we like and dislike, and why. Through this process we understand ourselves and the world we are living in. The end product is therefore not the most important part; rather it’s the conversations and experiences during the process.
One of the objectives of the event was to link people from older and younger generations. Did it work?
AL: In Hong Kong, we always feel that it is hard to communicate with people from different backgrounds and understand each other. We try to form a platform for people with the same interests to work together and communicate with each other. The co-learning experience is not a one-way street, and we focus on the ways we comment on and receive opinions from other people. This encourages us not just to criticise but also to respond with actions, experimenting with the process together. The experience of working together is very important, and brings us a sense of belonging.
Him, I think this is particularly meaningful for you.
Him Lo: For me it is quite simple: I’ve experienced how art changed my life. When I was young I was a football player. When my leg was seriously hurt and I could no longer play professional football, I began to draw and paint. Through this experience I found another facet of my identity.
This is why I run so many social-engagement projects with different communities and groups. I hope that more people can have this experience. It is a gift for someone to be able to understand and read themselves.
Angelika, you come from a more commercial background: why did you decide to become director of Mill6 Foundation in June 2015?
AL: I was approached by Vanessa Cheung, the founder of The Mills [a group of cotton mills in Tsuen Wan built by property company Nan Fung Group in the early 1960s and converted into a heritage-preservation project in 2015], and was totally overwhelmed by this industrial space of 270,000 square feet and the fact that this private initiative is being undertaken by the younger generation and philanthropists in Hong Kong to preserve part of Hong Kong’s heritage. It would have been cheaper, faster and more profitable if the factories of The Mills were demolished and redeveloped into skyscrapers. It’s really admirable what the third-generation owners of Nan Fung are doing by giving back to the community.
I personally have a strong sense of purpose to make a small contribution to the development of the artistic and cultural landscape in Hong Kong. This is why I decided to dedicate myself to help found the Mill6 Foundation.
How would you link exhibitions you’ve organised, such as Leung Chi Wo’s solo show and Social Fabric, to this community platform?
AL: We have different faces and run our programming with a sense of continuity and consistency. We weave our programmes together around a central point – textiles. Weaving is a textile technique, and I consider the role of the curator, in weaving ideas, concepts, thoughts and discourses together, to likewise be a textile-related concept.