The Asia-Pacific Century: In conversation with Emma Ng & Ioana Gordon-Smith

The Asia-Pacific Century: Part One is an open research space at Enjoy Public Art Gallery from 6-20 August, 2016. Ahead of its opening, co-curators Emma Ng and Ioana Gordon-Smith sat down to share with us their thinking on the project, the role of art in the Asia-Pacific political terrain, and the potential of ‘track III’ diplomacy.

What is the Asia-Pacific Century project?

Emma Ng: Right now, we’ve got the beginnings of what we hope will be an ongoing project. The project pinches the phrase “Asia-Pacific” from its common usage as something that points outwards with expansionist intentions – instead applying it to domestic identity politics here in Aotearoa New Zealand. In particular we’re interested in it as a prompt for thinking about how identities (particularly those of indigenous and immigrant minorities) could be reconstructed in ways that dismantle or shift entrenched and historic dynamics of power here. For Part One we are hosting a research space at Enjoy with contributions from a small group of invited participants. Some of them will be joining us for a weekend noho to discuss a series of opening questions, and this will hopefully be the formation of a small network of interrelated practices, and a foundation for future actions, exhibitions, and publications.

How did the idea come about?

Ioana Gordon-Smith: Emma and I were at last year’s Asia Pacific Triennial (APT8), which we both thought had a lot of problems in terms of how “Asia Pacific” was being used as a frame that supported an ethnographic treatment of other cultures and a centralising of Australia within this regional scope. I was curious about what I saw as a rise of “Asia-Pacific” as a strategic tool being used by art institutions to position themselves as international players. Emma, I think, had been interested for a lot longer in the status of Asian and Pacific immigrants in New Zealand and the dynamics of biculturalism. This project is something that she really initiated, and then asked me to be part of. Perhaps the catalyst for putting the project into action though was the the growth of New Zealand’s Asian, Māori, and Pacific populations (Statistics NZ projects that they’re set to collectively make up 52% of the total population by 2038).

EN: Yeah, I had been mulling over some thoughts for awhile, but it’s such a big topic that it really wasn’t something I felt I could really tackle on my own. No matter how big the topic, one voice is still just one voice and one perspective. The interrelationship of immigrant minorities within New Zealand is something that has constantly been on my mind in the past few years, as a curator (of Chinese descent) working with many Pacific artists. Ioana and I have known each other since before I even started working as a curator, and I think we’ve always had parallel interests and over time found it really natural to discuss these ideas together. I think that’s key – we both have things we’ve done as individuals that feed into our work together – I’m thinking here of the piece Ioana recently wrote on the terminology used for Pacific art for un magazine, Terms of Convenience, and the Pantograph Punch piece I wrote last year in the wake of the ‘Chinese-sounding surnames’ kerfuffle, Old Asian, New Asian. It’s very exciting working with someone else, and I think we consider our partnership just to be the start of a wider network of people that we are inviting to join us in this project.

That Statistics NZ projection has been a pretty important catalyst too – I like the way it propositions a rethink of who has the potential to enact power through shifting alliances. Combined with a shift to thinking of New Zealand as part of ‘Asia Pacific’ rather than tracing it through its conventional lineage as a British colony, we really could become The Maui Dynasty (shared genealogy of Māori, Pacific, and Asian peoples) that Anna-Marie White proposed in a 2008 exhibition at The Suter Art Gallery.

What role do you see art having in conversations about this?

IGS: I think that’s actually one of the things we want to discuss in this first phase of our project. Not to deflect the issue! But I do think one of the things about art is that it’s relatively free of pragmatic outcomes, which means we can continue to drill down into and keep circling troubling principles and assumptions without having to neatly package them up. Asia-Pacific is one of those terms that I think needs more thorough interrogating.

EN: The Asia New Zealand Foundation speaks of some of its work as ‘track II’ diplomacy (where track I diplomacy occurs between governments with the aim of negotiation, track II involves a wider group of people in dialogue). I’ve recently been turning over this idea of whether art could operate as a sort of ‘track III’ – where the work we do has the potential to be aspirational and philosophical. In developing the nascent stage of this process, we’ve also looked at art projects by Charles Esche and Annie Fletcher: Cork Caucus and Be[com]ing Dutch. Both very much tested the potential for art to be a catalyst for collective social and political thought – in relation to ideas of identity at a local and national level. Following on from what Ioana’s said – I think one thing we’re interested in seeing play out – is how we might negotiate these ideas which can be both very abstract, but also have very specific dimensions and ways that they manifest in everyday life.

Who’s involved? How did you go about selecting contributors?

IGS: We wanted to work with people, working across disciplines, who were already interested in identity, migration and biculturalism. We’re conscious that we don’t know everything and can’t speak from all perspectives, so to declare a lack of authority and the complexity of these issues, we wanted to involve a lot of people. We also thought it was important to make sure we were inviting people who have ‘skin in the game’, who could speak to the issue as something that is urgent, personal and with very real lived repercussions, rather than as an abstract, intellectually-stimulating or trendy idea.

There are a number of artistic practices that we, as curators, already follow: Local Time, Anna Marie-White, Bepen Bhana, Lana Lopesi and Ahilapalapa Rands, Kerry Ann Lee, Peter Brunt, Balamohan Shingade, and Melinda Webber (from the University of Auckland).

EN: I think we were also aware that there are a number of projects in the works that relate to these ideas, and so we didn’t want to override those – or try to claim those artists’/curators’ work as part of “our” project – rather just situate them within a wider network. This approach encourages that wider network to feed into the development of those individual projects and connects them – so that all the work we do acknowledges and builds on what has come before. It seemed silly to try and construct an arbitrary ‘square one’ to begin from, when many have tackled similar ideas before. These include The Maui Dynasty, These stories began before we arrived (curated by Charlotte Huddleston, Bruce E. Phillips and Jamie Hanton), and The Nervous System: Twelve artists explore images and identities in crisis (a 1995 exhibition at City Gallery, curated by Allan Smith). In considering these previous activities as part of our project’s lineage, we hope to build into our work an implicit assessment of what has changed and what has not, and how our generation or moment might be unique in its challenges and opportunities.

Do you have any intended outcomes that you’d like to see from the project?

EN: While phase one is not completely unstructured, we intend for it to be scene-setting, open-ended, and generative. We’re hoping to have a conversation about possibilities for collective future actions, exhibitions and publications. We hope that from our expansive provocation, there will emerge areas of focus that seem more urgent or interesting, that will provide direction for future activities. Specifically, I think I’m hoping that we end up with some documentation and publishing from part one that we can share publicly, and that (because we are curators, artists and writers) there might be an exhibition project in the works for the near future.

The Asia-Pacific Century: Part One is an open research space at Enjoy Public Art Gallery from 6-20 August, 2016. The Asia-Pacific Century is co-curated by Emma Ng and Ioana Gordon-Smith and led by Bepen Bhana, Peter Brunt, Kerry Ann Lee, Local Time, Lana Lopesi, Ahilapalapa Rands, Balamohan Shingade, Melinda Webber and Anna-Marie White.