failures at a time of crisis;
hopes to keep us going


NIKKI LAM
NOVEMEBER 2021



1.

It was the week before Hyphenated Biennial’s install. Melbourne has just found its ‘freedom’ again from its sixth lockdown. Anxiety filled every public space. Fortress Australia announced it was partially re-opening its borders, the world would once again be ‘normal’ and connected. The arts was eager to ‘get back to it’, my inbox was constantly full. Hustle, hustle, hustle. Re-opening announcements flooded my feed. I was exhausted.

Two blood moons bookended the lockdowns for 2021, together with all our failed plans. Blame it on astrological transitions, my hopes were waning faster than vaccine effectiveness.

The irony of rushing towards re-opening with a mammoth-sized project was wrecking my brain. The responsibility to keep each other safe had taken priority for almost two years, and here we were, with over a thousand new COVID-19 cases reported each day, working towards a restriction-free, mask-free biennial. This new reality was jarring.

It was the week before Hyphenated Biennial’s install when I read Cher Tan’s By Signalling Nothing I Remain Opaque:
   

‘I’m Disrupting the status quo! I’m Dismantling all that came before! Then start-up culture took everything and ran…. Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. Meanwhile, ‘takeovers’ of institutions — via the language of ‘collaboration’ wherein those considered on the ‘margins’ are ‘invited’ to express themselves via the cultural capital of said institutions — reign supreme. Contracts are signed, hands shaken, profiles elevated.’


In the last two years we have spent more time innovating pandemic pivots, maintaining relationships and adjusting budgets, than anything else. Residencies and exhibitions were rescheduled and cancelled, rescheduled and cancelled. Admin has taken over. We are still largely unwaged in doing this work. And yet we are getting more attention than ever. The capitalist wheel is turning and we are under-prepared.

Our profiles are elevated. We have become ‘collaborators’. We have been ‘invited’ to express ourselves, under the ephemeral illusion that we are disrupting something, creating alternatives, or dismantling structures, or something.

But visibility is a double-edged sword.

I would argue that all we have managed to do is to fill those old roles dominated by people who did not look like us. While I do not undervalue the power of representation, I’m not sure if exhibition making is saving the world either. In decentralising we might have cemented the hegemony that persists in the art world, assimilating just enough to not fall into the sinkholes of institutionalised practices. In an attempt to break away from the system we have cleared way for institutions to enter our working-from-home ‘studios’ via zoom calls, sometimes with opportunities, other times the same old extractions.

Maddee Clark wrote recently, ‘knowing better and not being racist is a form of capital you can buy and sell in the hyper-intellectualised and globally conscious art world—something one achieves through the consumption of diverse arts, culture, and education.’

This platform is now built but not without a grain of salt. At a time when activism is reduced to share-graphics on Instagram, any platform can end up only servicing the algorithm. Like Clark’s characterisation of capital in the arts, Hyphenated Biennial might have in fact become a Diversity™ ‘consumable’. Reduce all our work to a brand, a cute GIF and a .jpeg and you will get an NFT that can be circulated through the network of institutions. Seductively ‘alternative’, but not enough a threat to the system. A token to be traded with, when its value is high. Objectified, co-opted, signalled. But what if we are really good at this? Do we take the money and run? Leverage on top of leverage until we have replaced the old gatekeepers? We remain hamsters on the wheel of capitalism until… until !  



2.

Until it was the week before Hyphenated Biennial’s install.

I should separate self-criticism from my criticism of the art industrial complex. Maybe it’s okay that we are not dismantling anything

However in this failure, I witnessed connections in shapes that we have never imagined. Shapes that foreground the relativity of our practices without the need to perform our stories or cultures, the relativity between our lives and work, porously enrich each other through histories, knowledge and friendship. Threads we hold together at Footscray Community Arts in particular has been a reflection of how this space can be held by the processes, conversations and reflections. Within the white walls we are often expected to deliver a type of institutional aesthetic—as is this ‘biennial’—and we hope to break that expectation and bring forward the realities of working as artists during the pandemic as we converse with peers and families, have reflections in our homes, finding ways to thrive.





Nikki Lam and Hannah Morphy-WalsH, Some lockdown friends, 2021

THIS VIDEO IS currently showing as part of the threads we hold together at footscray community arts.


The refusal to perform is a privilege, no doubt. But we are proud of the ways we have, to an extent, resisted institutional forces to conform and in turn, we have held this space for each other. We have learnt and ‘unlearnt’ industrial practices, questioned the ethics of budget and management, navigated expectations and drew new lines of refusal. We have kept most of our work offline and off the algorithm. Most importantly, we took care of / gave space to each other when it mattered the most.

Hyphenated Biennial has been a long but clarifying journey. Six lockdowns later I have reflected on every major decision we have made. Most of them were far from perfect or ‘good’, but together they formed a path that headed towards a vague, complicated but hopeful direction(s).

On this journey I have been most touched and encouraged by the communities who, through countless pandemic pivots, generously supported us every step of the way with the greatest of trust. Acknowledging that art practice is first and foremost a process and that we never ever do anything alone, this generosity has been keeping our (my) hopes alive when things seem most challenging. Admitting failures while still being held doesn’t just feel good, it allows us to keep learning from each other as peers, as friends and as communities.

The closest thing to success, to us—and I hope I can speak on behalf of the Hyphenated Projects team—is when we have made new and meaningful connections. The intangible connections that we make hold us together without contracts and handshakes. No disruptions. If hope indeed was a discipline^ then we are still practicing it. If tomorrow our funding is discontinued we would still be doing this work. We would adapt, evolve, find other ways to support each other and keep holding these threads for hopes to follow.

Future discourse will continue to morph and our practice will shift with it. We treat this work as practice because practice isn’t a token that can be circulated and traded as capital—it lives as long as we nurture it, where it will bloom like a wild orchid when the conditions are right. 

And that is a beautiful thing to keep feeling hopeful for, even in the dark.




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Thank you to Phuong Ngo for his absolute friendship and trust, for always holding me up within and outside of this project, keeping me going during the most challenging three years;
Thank you to all the artists for their patience, trust, and incredible contribution to this project through the many pivots;
Thank you to our partners and funders who have supported us this whole time;
Thank you to the install teams—Bern, Ash and Ben at Footscray Community Arts; Rob, Shae and James at The Substation; Jake and team at Incinerator Gallery; Lisa and Michael at Sunshine Art Spaces—for making production a breeze for us;
Thank you to the Hyphenated Biennial team Leela, Varsha and Ari, without whom, this project would not exist (!);
Thank you to the design brains Annie and Scott for turning our silly ideas into hot-looking brand;
Thank you to our curatorial committee for their ongoing guidance;
Thank you to Al, Hannah, Yas and Jessie who I have shared many conversations along the Maribyrnong River during lockdowns, in activewear, PJs and online, whose insights and friendship have encouraged me to re-think processes and challenge the status-quo;

Last but not least, thank you so much to the hyphens, our fam, including those who I have yet to meet, for being an unstoppable collective force, you inspire me everyday.


(~also thank you to cibi, my cat, whose indifference to contemporary discourse continues to ground me.)



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referenceS:

^Mariame Kaba on ‘hope is a discipline’
cher tan, ‘By signalling nothing i remain opague’, 2021
MADDEE CLARK, ‘THE Crisis of “de-colonising” the arts’, 2021
NIKKI LAM AND PHUONG NGO, ‘the threads we hold together’, 2020








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