Whilst writing this paper, I am on the train from Manchester to the Lake District. Staring out into hectares of green fields and forests (I know no one else on the train will call a few dozen trees a forest, but it does feel that way to me), I cannot help but query: what do you do with all this space? Born and bred a Hong Kong person, I have shared this 2,754 km² land with 7.35 million others (as a comparison, Greater Manchester is 1,276 km² big and has around 2.78 million people living in it). We are used to being squeezed, squished and stacked, we rarely visit friends’ houses because we cannot fit more than 4 people in the shoeboxes that we live in on the 48th floor of a building. Did you know that we do not even have space for you to die in Hong Kong? 90% of our deceased are cremated, but there is an average waiting time of four years before you can get an urn space. According to the Hong Kong columbarium industry, we will have a shortage of 400,000 niches within the next five years. In five years’ time, the West Kowloon Cultural District, which is a 40-hectare cultural district on prime waterfront land (reclaimed, of course), should have opened at least another handful of theatres, museums and a 23-hectare park. In a place where you cannot even afford the space to die and being a contortionist seems to be the only way to go, what role do art and culture play? Maybe we can follow suit and offer an Eternity Membership as the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart does – where you get invitations to parties, receive annoying leaflets and, when you die, get cremated and put in a fancy urn in the museum. But what can we offer to artists and audiences whilst they are alive?
Ever since returning to Hong Kong in 2012, I have been working on the West Kowloon Cultural District’s annual outdoor arts festival, Freespace Fest. We activated the better part of the construction site and turned concrete grounds and untamed lawns into stages for music, dance and theatre, and platforms for artists, audiences and partners to co-create programmes meaningful to them. We have hosted more than 100,000 audience members over three years with a two-day free event each year. Staff, artists, partners, audiences (and their pets) all loved it, but alas, the land needs to be built on – so we need to downsize and move. We reduced the footprint of the event space to about a quarter of what we used to work on, but increased the event to 10 days over seven months per year. Between 2015 and 2018, we reached more than 170,000 audience members. In mid-2017, we learnt to anticipate another move, because more buildings were to be constructed. To be fair, it is a good thing because a variety in the provision of space gives more flexibility to the type of art and activities that can happen – after all, we avoid programming outdoors during the summer months due to the unbearable heat and destructive typhoons; having a roof over our head means we can programme regardless of weather conditions. Another good thing is that this move should be the final major move for us. For the first time in Freespace Fest and Freespace Happening’s evolution, we can move into a permanent home – the Art Park. Unlike the rest of Hong Kong, we will no longer be in a ‘borrowed place on borrowed time’. For years, we have been using temporary spaces during the construction period to tell stories that moved us. Settling into the Art Park signifies the first step in the many to come in West Kowloon’s development – we are steadily moving into permanent homes. Inspired by our new space and my recent travels to the vast land that is the United Kingdom through Clore, I set off to ask myself and the team, what is our relationship with “space”? Hong Kong has always struggled with the idea of space – from land supply and priorities for land use, to space for freedom of choice and organic growth, to space for collective experience and for personal reflections. What kind of space do we want to occupy at this moment in time? What kind of space do we want to pass on to our future selves and those to come? Through how Freespace Happening is programmed and what programmes we offer to the audiences, I hope to widen our perspectives of space, both mental and physical, and evaluate what space we are inhabiting and creating, and what sort of relationships and impact we have with these spaces.