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signals… at Para Site

In 1996, on the eve of Hong Kong handover to China, a bunch of Hong Kong artists founded one of the city’s longest-running independent art spaces in Kennedy Town. Some 27 years later, it has moved to North Point, with the city it is in also facing uncertain times, not least because it has just emerged after three years of pandemic restrictions. 

Executive director Billy Tang is looking back to Para Site’s artist-run beginnings, where it was, above all, a platform for artists and ideas to come together. The idea is to have longer exhibitions, where ideas are allowed to gestate over a period of time. This shift in curatorial thinking takes solid form in Para Site’s latest exhibition, signals…, which features three chapters and is curated by Tang and Para Site curator Celia Ho. 

While the first chapter, signals…storms and patterns, was about hums beneath the calm, signals…folds and splits, which opened on June 9, explores liminal spaces. The third exhibition, signals…here and there, centres on the idea of dispersal. 

Installation view of ‘signals…folds and splits’, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2023. Photo: South Ho.

As the exhibition shifts from one chapter to the next, the works shift, as does the spatial design. Tang says to think of it as “an ensemble of characters that come and go”. Aside from works in the space, signals… also includes newsletters, podcasts and other public engagement programmes. 

There is a tendency to see the exhibition opening as the highlight of the event, where art is presented in its “perfect” or completed form, says Ho, but she adds she doesn’t think that’s how “art will have its impact on society”. 

For her, impact is only possible with constant engagement between artist, public and curator. What this could mean in practice is expanding the idea of exhibition-making to talks, printed matter, podcasts and other forms of engagement. 

signals… is loosely inspired by Signals gallery, an experimental art space in London that ran from 1964 to 1966. Despite its short existence, the gallery was known for its interdisciplinary and generative approach, and particularly its showing of kinetic art.

At signals…, works on display allude to Signals gallery in different ways, some more directly to kinetic art of the 20th century, others using the idea of hums and flows as filters to examine today’s turbulent world: what are the forces governing society, our systems and individuals? It examines the way that small movements can set off a series of effects, Tang says. 

In the first chapter, So Wing Po’s Sea Ear Hi-hat (2020) features abalone shells that open and shut, discharging sounds at once melodic and hypnotic, the movement activated by a mechanism. Meanwhile, Printhaus’s Everybody Chips in with their Bit (2019-20) depicts how tiny actions might lead to big impacts. The second chapter features Jaffa Lam’s The past from the ruins (work in progress) (2023), an old football that will move around the gallery during the course of exhibition, evoking the way refugees are often shuttled from one space to another. 

Tang is no stranger to disruptions. UK-born and raised, he earned his chops at Beijing’s Magician Art Space and Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum before taking up the mantle at Para Site last May. He joined the institution when the city was undergoing a challenging period,  negotiating some of the world’s toughest pandemic restrictions while still reeling from the 2019 social movement. The curator notes that every cultural institution is constantly negotiating between what can and cannot be done. 

Installation view of ‘signals…storms and patterns’, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2023. Photo: South Ho.

“It’s been difficult, physically, during Covid. [There are] the geopolitical questions as well, and how divided the world is: how do we negotiate and navigate that? These are questions that we cannot solve, but at least we provide a platform to ask them,” he says. 

The art space was founded at an ambiguous moment in Hong Kong history, a year before the handover. “There was a fear of the unknown. [The space] has been through many crises faced by the city,” says Tang, who is using this moment to reconnect with artists of different generations, drawing lessons from the past to think about the future. 

Ho adds that artists are ideally placed to help navigate what is happening in society. That spirit of finding the alternative is embedded in their DNA. “It could be about challenging the medium, the way of putting things together, our understanding of historical frameworks.” 

Despite being a 27-year-old outfit, Para Site, thinks Tang, still takes pride in its “grassroots” identity. “That’s why it is endearing; we aren’t so institutionalised that everything is so polished.”

One of these strategies is to rethink exhibition design. At signals…, wall modules made of wood and bricks can be easily assembled and dismantled, and can lead to different constellations. A collaboration between the Para Site team and architect Joel Austin, these modules are more economical and sustainable, and can easily be adapted for future exhibitions. 

Installation view of ‘signals…storms and patterns’, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2023. Photo: South Ho.

For Tang, the next chapter is to think about “creating a structure to embrace openness  and experimentalism”. Last month, Para Site launched a new space on the 10th floor of the same building. Half of it is a studio – a “testing ground” for the gestation of new ideas. It launched with Kong Chun Hei’s PS, featuring knocked-out walls, motion sensors and a giant aluminium snake that loops across the space. Some of these will become permanent fixtures of the space, again supporting the idea of letting exhibitions last beyond their official duration. 

Tang notes that the smaller space provides a “good parameter” for young curators and artists, as it forces them to be resourceful – “to think of the how, and the why, within a certain scale and budget”.

A shop selling books, catalogues and merchandise takes up the other half of the space. 

It’s a way to experiment with a more “diverse relationship to exhibition-making”, but also a way to make Para Site – which has thus far relied on donors and proceeds from its annual fundraising gala – more sustainable. 

“There is this image…[of Para site]’s influence, and you come here and realise how small it is,” says Tang. “It speaks a lot about the creativity. The idea of what you can do isn’t restricted to its physical space.”

Featured image: Installation view of ‘signals…storms and patterns’, Para Site, Hong Kong, 2023. Photo: South Ho.

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