Hong Kong - Ackbar Abbas

Hong Kong and the Culture of Disappearance
An Interview with Ackbar Abbas
By Geert Lovink

In a place like Hong Kong, different moments of history now seem to be out of step with each other.

What interests me is how to describe the little movements, certain happenings in the everyday life -- the unacknowledged historical processes.

In your lecture you spoke of the newly erected monument to the victims of Tiananmen Square in Victory Park, made by a Danish artist, as an ugly piece of kitsch which fitted into a series of spectacular events taking place during the Handover. This was within the realm of the simulacra of politics. On the other side, you said that there is indeed the possibility of a true form of modernity in local Hong Kong politics and aesthetics. You have found this in Hong Kong cinema. Do you see films from, for example, Wong Kar-wai, as an alternative to the political kitsch?

In the line of options that can be opened up, we could look at another dominant cultural form in Hong Kong which is architecture. Building infrastructure is one of the biggest projects going on, worldwide. However, there is very little reflection on building.

AA: When I came across the Koolhaas' article, 'The Generic City' I liked it because it was both against architectural snobbery and anti-identity. It discussed questions like repetition and seriality -- a whole new discourse on the city which might allow us to rethink the ways we produce it. Naming what is going on and by doing so, intervening in the process of creating a new urban space, bringing architecture in line with the artworld. However I was disappointed by the argument in the end. On the one hand, you have the anti-identity, which becomes the ruling one. It is a little bit like the Baudrillard argument of the silent masses where silence now becomes a form of imploded resistance. It can only be taken so far. In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, the 'generic' just means capital, low production costs and placing architecture outside the realm of other social values. Architecture becomes a purely practical process. One of the ways of avoiding the social question for the architect is by saying 'I am a builder.' However I think that Koolhaas is onto something that needs further development. I would like to see this urbanism as a genre, like in cinema. We should not celebrate it, but instead, within the genre of the generic city, make a twist, if architecture is going to make any claim to social responsibility. This is what we tried to do at the conference in Hong Kong about architecture and cultural studies -- to open up the dialogue with the architects. What kind of building would you like to see? How can architects work within the economic restraints? Once you asked these questions, you are already doing something. We all have a responsibility. It is also a question of specialisation. Architecture is not just engineering, it is not just construction, it is also social construction.

Opening up a dialogue is certainly what we want, but there are certain ground rules. It should not be a dialogue between East and West, simply because as soon as you say that, the positions are defined beforehand. By the same token, it should not be a dialogue between the Architect and the Theorist. It is the same issue: both are facing a common problem, which is how to deal with social processes. My model here would be Walter Benjamin's essay on translation. The translation, not just as a true copy of the original, but as the incomplete, full of faults. It would be an interesting model for what a dialogue would be. It is a question of cultural translation.

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