West Kowloon Cultural District: International Co-Lab

Curator Low Kee Hong introduces West Kowloon Cultural District International Co-Lab programme

Advertorial by Jamie Dunn | 14 Sep 2017
West Kowloon Cultural District
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For the 70th consecutive year, the cobbled streets of Edinburgh have groaned under the strain of the largest and most exciting arts festival in the world. As the month long Edinburgh Fringe Festival nears its close, the seeds of another very different arts initiative for a yet to be completed arts institution are being sewn in the Scottish capital.  

The institution in question is the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a currently under construction project in Hong Kong being built on a piece of land reclaimed from the sea. Its aim is to cultivate art and culture in the city, and once completed, it will be one of the largest art hubs in the world, featuring venue space for exhibitions, performances and festivals spread over 40 hectares of the city’s Kowloon Harbourfront. The arts initiative quietly taking place within the Fringe, meanwhile, is WKCD’s International Co-Lab, an ambitious tri-city residency for nine theatre-makers and performing artists. The aim of the project is that these artists, who range in their disciplines, will share artistic skills, cultural knowledge, and creative practice over the three year programme.

One of the co-curators of the Co-Lab is Low Kee Hong, Head of Theatre, Performing Arts at WKCDA (West Kowloon Cultural District Authority). In lieu of any venues, much of Low’s tenure at WKCD so far has been concerned with development. “We’ve been going back to look at how artists make work,” he says when we meet at a New Town hotel during the bustle of the Fringe. “We’ve been doing a lot of programmes that involve dialogue and exchange of artists from Hong Kong and elsewhere, and we’ve been looking at what could be the possible conditions that we introduce in Hong Kong that’s a bit more ideal than the current scenario.”

At one point, Low Kee Hong was considering giving WKCD a presence at the Fringe via a Hong Kong showcase. “We toyed with doing some pop-up theatre at the Meadows, but very quickly I decided that’s probably not the best way go, more because we need to find another way to respond to what is possible at Edinburgh.” His solution, in collaboration with Forest Fringe in the UK and The Basement Theatre in New Zealand, was to create a programme centred on performing artists and their process. “We wanted to find a way that a group of artists could come together and remain together for an extended period of time, in this case three years.”

Low Kee Hong

The result is the International Co-Lab. Three artists from each territory are selected from a range of artistic disciplines (Abby Chan, Ata Wong and Dick Wong from Hong Kong; Julia Croft, Nisha Midhan and Jason Wright from New Zealand; and Glasgow-based artists Sharron Devine, Nic Green and Eilidh MacAskill). They’ve come together at this year’s Fringe to share their artistic skills and cultural knowledge through various conversations, seminars and workshops. They’ll build on this experience at the Auckland Arts Festival next March before finally landing in Hong Kong in 2019, when the residency outcomes will be presented as part of the opening programme for WKCD’s new theatre venue Freespace.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the initiative is that those invited to participate are all mid-career artists. “Usually a lot of the support and resources go to either emerging or established artists,” notes Low. “The mid-career folks are almost always left on their own, so we identified artists within the three regions that we feel are kind of on the brink of their next phase, and for whom a laboratory of residency would be useful.”

Another reason for bypassing emerging artists is that they’re, by their nature, still figuring things out; those with several years of practice under their belt have more to share. “The artists we’ve chosen already have a significant breadth of work that gives them a particular perspective and lens towards making work,” Low explains. He also notes that as well as inspiring one another, he hopes there is some provocation as well. “It can be useful to encounter someone whose practice is very different from yours. Maybe that person can bring something to the table that you’d never think of.” Another criterion was that the theatre-makers taking part must also be performers. “We wanted artists who could perform their own work, as opposed to say a writer or a director who would need other bodies to help them create.”

This lab is quite luxurious: nine artists sharing ideas and skills over three years. During this time they'll be encouraged to use the opportunity to dive into the innovative projects that they’ve always wanted to explore but never really had the time or resources to do so. It’s hoped that some interesting collaborations might emerge organically from bringing these artists together, although Low says it’s not a prerequisite. “How they choose to collaborate or what form that might take is really up to the artists. I think we want to, first and foremost, allow them to address where they are as artists and where they want to go in the next phase of their career.”

While the International Co-Lab is ongoing, the construction of West Kowloon Cultural District’s brick and mortar institutions is heating up. The project has been talked about since the mid 90s, but the first set of buildings are at last in sight. The Xiqu Centre, which will showcase Chinese opera, will be ready some time next year; Freespace, the open-air stage and indoor black box theatre where the results of the Co-Lab will be revealed, will be completed in 2019; and the Lyric Theatre Complex is due to open in 2021. For Low and the rest of the WKCD programming team, it’s an exciting but daunting prospect.

“Our challenge is very clear: we have all these new venues, what’s going to go in them and who’s going to come?” says Low. By 2022, these mint fresh venues of West Kowloon will represent several thousand additional seats per day in Hong Kong. To make sure they are vibrant and bustling, the WKCD team have been gradually building awareness and tempting the people of Hong Kong to their waterfront space. “Right from the start we began to do these outdoor festivals of varying scales,” says Low, “just to get people used to coming to West Kowloon.”

A major selling point to the people of Hong Kong is that the WKCD complex offers that rarest of commodities in their tightly-packed urban sprawl: open space. The few public parks in the city have many strict rules applied – there’s no dog-walking, cycling, frisbees, ball games or music allowed, for example. Last November, however, WKCD’s aptly named Freespace Festival allowed thousands of Hong Kong residents to throng the city’s waterfront free of these restrictions. “Suddenly people could bring their kids to come and see strange art in this wide open space,” says Low. “They could have a picnic, bring pets along, so it was kind of like a floodgate opened.”

This year, instead of a huge annual festival, WKCD have switched to smaller events and monthly pop-ups. “What this approach does is that it creates regular programming so that you don’t have to think about what’s on, you just turn up," says Low. "So it helps us to segue quite nicely into the opening of the different venues.” 

Samson Young MIF; One of Two Stories, or Both (Field Bagatelles); courtesy of Dennis Man Wing Leung

For WKCD to be sustainable, however, they will have to look beyond Hong Kong. Attracting cultural tourists and making WKCD a destination for international artists is also key. You can see this branching out in WKCD’s collaborations with international institutions and festivals, such as their recent showcase of new work by Hong Kong artist Samson Young at this year’s Manchester International Festival.

When we mention MIF, it’s obvious that Low feels an affinity. “I’ve known John [McGrath, MIF’s artistic director] for quite a while. What’s great is that we think quite similarly. In terms of Manchester, John feels he needs to cut deeply into the community again and help the festival connect with the city in a much more intimate way; I feel the same in Hong Kong.” Another connection between McGrath’s festival and WKCD is that MIF are also in the midst of building their own huge venue complex: the Factory. “Oh yes, we all have similar anxieties in terms of what we will be up against.”

For Low Kee Hong, he hopes Young's work has become a window by which the two festivals can begin a working relationship. “We’re very happy to have artists given very direct access to these important festivals and institutions around the world. So we hope to continue our conversations right up to the Factory opening, and I think it’s also a good opportunity to continue the possibilities of doing more residencies between the UK and Hong Kong.”

Heading up theatre at WKCD has clearly been a learning curve; for Low, it’s also incredibly exciting. “For those of us working in West Kowloon, this is an unprecedented opportunity. There is no other example like this around the world,” he says proudly. It’s also been daunting, however. “When the project was emerging, there were a lot of concerns about it being a white elephant – what's the point of building all these venues et cetera? So we’re all used to these type of comments from publications.”

As the venue inches forward to its official opening, both audiences and artists seem to be beginning to get to grips with what WKCD can be in the near future. “It’s not an easy project to communicate very clearly,” Low says, “but I think in terms of what we’ve been doing, it’s becoming clear the potential that West Kowloon can offer.” We ask what his dream outcome over the next few years will be. “For me, I want to create this attitude that going to see theatre, art or dance is part and parcel of everyday life in Hong Kong, rather than treating it like a special thing.” So you’re rewiring a whole city? “That’s it! In a sense, in the last few years we been trying to do just that, and I hope that we’ll continue to gather people all the time.”

West Kowloon Cultural District's International Co-Lab took place in Edinburgh 21 Aug-2 Sep 2017, and will continue at Auckland Arts Festival in 2018 and West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong, in 2019.

For more information on West Kowloon Cultural District, head to www.westkowloon.hk/en/performing-arts