Cultural production through rigorous collaboration-making and interpretation with Wong Binghao

Interview by Jenson Gabriel Tan
14 December 2020

This conversation accompanies the discussion, Building Networks Through Shared Spaces & Ethics: Mediation, Publications, Cultural Work.

(left) Profile of Wong Binghao; (right) still from ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ manga, submitted by Wong

How would you describe your practice and modes of working with artists?

Firstly, thank you for reaching out about five months ago, and for being in conversation since! I really appreciate the opportunity to articulate what I hope to enable through my practice. I like to mediate or, if you’ll allow me to unpack my understanding of this layered term, communicate ideas about and with art through long-term collaborations and conversations with a wide variety of cultural practitioners (not least artists), to diverse audiences, between unexpected contexts, and through adaptable forms and channels. To put it simply, I enjoy bringing together ideas, art, and people to encourage sustained, processual, and open-ended dialogues. I have come to think of my practice as a “situational constellation,” to borrow Dr. Beatrice von Bismarck’s description of what the curatorial does, more than any empirical definition of what it is, which she generously shared with me while I was attending the TransCuratorial Academy in Phnom Penh in 2018, co-organized by KfW Stiftung and Sa Sa Art Projects. I take this to mean that my practice gathers a variety of participants, discourses, audiences, and aesthetics. I see it therefore as a reflexive, expansive, and nimble practice. I strive to bring a new perspective and be original and rigorous in everything I present.

Writing is also very close to my practice. I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing. To me, writing isn’t a perfunctory, documentary, or standalone tool, but rather a way that I can think about and approach art and social life. It is, in my mind, a generative and world-making gesture. Communities and relationships inform, and are, hopefully, produced by my writing practice. From Patrick Flores’ elegant articulation of what curators do, I can only hope to clumsily borrow one facet: “curators mediate, translate, articulate, explain, interpret art, and link the art and the public.” I find particularly insightful Flores’ dynamic association of mediation with different demographics and modes of engagement, and the primacy of text in facilitating these connections.

I have been a cultural worker, independently and in institutions, for the past eight years or so. I have also been fortunate to participate in residencies and travel for independent work. It is rewarding to continue learning how to negotiate between local, regional, and international registers in my practice. I believe in the importance of paying my dues. I have learned a tremendous amount from these different types of work and I will continue to learn something from every experience. That's my motto! 

Indifferent Idols (2018) includes artist’s texts and scholarly writing. As an editor, what is your approach in bringing together various ideas in publications? 

While editing is key to the work, I don’t really see myself as an ‘editor’ or ‘curator’, but more as a facilitator of ideas and conversations. Each publication puts contemporary artists of non-binary and trans experience in conversation with thinkers, cultural practitioners, and designers to generate unexpected understandings of their practice and introduce new ideas and perspectives into their orbits. Before any knowledge or pre-requisite of a deadline, I am most invested and interested in getting to know artists over a period of time, on and/or offline. Similarly, most of the contributors' work I've followed for a long time, and we develop the texts together over time. I think conversations with people provide necessary context for any undertaking. One text took almost two years of collaborative work, improvisational translations, and editing! The editorial associations, while speculative in nature, are informed by this open-ended and long-term research process. The publications were also enabled by residencies and the generosity of Taipei Contemporary Art Center and Peninsular, two incredibly supportive and open spaces. Design plays a critical role in the editorial process and I have been so fortunate to work with Vanessa Ban and her studio on this series. Vanessa really understands and translates the ideas meaningfully, and has helped me think through the potential of design as mediation. So far, I’ve had the immense pleasure of working together with Victoria Sin, Ashkan Sepahvand, Madhavi Menon, Bermet Borubaeva, Ferdi Thajib, and nor, on their commissioned texts. It takes a village, and I continue to be invested in these different relationships. I’ve been at work on the third publication for a while now. It should be out sometime in mid 2021.  

Indifferent Idols (2018), edited and curated by Wong Binghao

My goal with these publications is to create new ways of thinking, seeing, and feeling. Each is a creative proposition informed by long-term dialogues that exists on its own terms and produces its own communities, rather than just function as a ‘thematic’ (and hence short-circuited, temporary, isolated) product, or a belated document of some other more spectacular form of artistic production. I think it's always important to ask why something needs to be made, and how it should be made. I chose to put the publications online for practical reasons – to make the work more freely accessible, and, more importantly, to act proactively on work that I felt was interesting and urgent and that might not fit into pre-existing templates of cultural production. Given more extensive resources and opportunities for collaboration, there are more complex online formats and designs or, on the other hand, print runs, that I’d very much like to explore.

You mentioned new ways of thinking, seeing, feeling. Can you provide an example of what this means to you? What is your research process and how do you begin?

I believe in consistently putting in the work required to define your practice. This means making every attempt to ensure that my work acknowledges the debates and people who have come before me. In a recent essay on the terminologies of art in Southeast Asian vernacular, art historian and curator Roger Nelson quotes art historian T.K. Sabapathy's comment that writers approach "every exegesis [as], seemingly, a new beginning!" It is absolutely imperative—not to mention a matter of ethics—to consult and cite projects and scholarship, especially those by your peers. One of my literature teachers in junior college said something that has stuck with me: A good writer is a good reader. I always prioritise the rudimentary and continuous work of reading and learning in order to finesse my work.

Wong’s collaborative works with visual & performance artist, nor, including their piece in nominal bliss (2019)

This doesn't mean that there is no room for creativity or innovation. By applying personal predilections and cultural immersions to my readings of art, I always try to think outside the box and unfurl different perspectives on art, especially those that are not commonly witnessed. A unique perspective isn't something that can be taught, I think. It comes down to personal tendency: criticality, emotion, neurosis, social milieu, desires, tribulations, etc. The writers and cultural workers whom I most deeply respect have a cause - something they stand for - and are aware of their unique qualities. They are not rushed by the faux urgency of productivity, performative staging, or mediocre and myopic frameworks.

How is your work involved in building communities and networks?

I was so happy to learn that the publication contributors have serendipitously realised that they share obscure research references, and have started following each other’s work more closely. Some have even gone on to work together on other projects, which is very exciting. Every contributor has their own particular network and set of social coordinates, which makes it fun to see how the work finds unexpected tributaries. In a way we are the only publicity for the publications. That's a rewarding and unexpected side effect of this process - it shows that the publications have second (and third and fourth and so on!) lives. I hope this continues with the future publications. It's exciting to see how writing and research can bring people together.

Similarly, how does your work engage with more diverse social groups?

I am motivated by the naive belief that art can be diverse, sustainable, and ethically informed. It is always nice to hear from students or audience members who find my work meaningful. Conversely, it seems contrarian to measure, label, or predict the organic spread or remit of a cultural practice. Of course, certain communities should and will have a greater stake in certain projects. As a rule of thumb, I do my best to privilege artists and artworks, rather than hastily packaging them into some easily consumable genre or category. The agency and autonomy of the artist are most important to me. What do they want to say and how do they say it through their work? Sometimes this means working with and through ambiguities and fault-lines, and being pleasantly surprised by who engages (or not) with your work.

A selection of materials that inspire them, submitted by Wong

As I described earlier, I like to bring together different ideas, practices, and people who might not be commonly thought of in relation to each other or to art in general. A close friend and colleague Carlos Quijon, Jr. articulates this activity much more intently in a recent interview:

"the curatorial is an agency that convenes disparate elements and places them in relation with other elements. It definitely exceeds the form and materiality of the exhibition...I would like to think that this convening is inchoate and formative. It creates its own socialities—between subjects, objects, situations, contexts."
— Carlos Quijon, Jr.

Likewise, I am of the opinion that creative crossovers rejuvenate learning, interpretations, and circuits around art, and make room for more voices to coexist. Perhaps this can be traced back to my own proclivities and background. As a teenager, I avidly read novels, poetry, theory, and fashion magazines, and enjoyed listening to many different genres of music. At the same time, in school, I studied predominantly science and math subjects until I was 18. In the later years of my tertiary education, I took up, in succession, English literature, art history, and regional studies without having had any prior background in the disciplines. I guess I've always been drawn to a multitude of eclectic and new perspectives.

Earlier, you mentioned the ethics of practice. In a previous call, you also shared about aligning research and care when working with artists and cultural practitioners. We are interested in how this relates to your work with identity, representation, and queerness. How are ethics involved in this process?

My motivation comes from a kaleidoscope of lived experiences that I can't reduce to just one or two epiphanies. It is imperative to assert that my practice is not trying to advocate for categorical, prescriptive, topical, thematic, or foolproof definitions of 'queerness' or 'identity’. Indeed, this would be quite contrarian and opportunistic. While always accounting for the banalities and vicissitudes of the artist and the community’s realities, I simultaneously conceive of queerness rather as a methodology, practice, or mode of thinking with and across difference. I try to operate equally from context and with speculative inquiry.

For example, I was recently invited by artist Sandra Mujinga to contribute an essay and public lecture as part of her brilliant solo presentation SONW - Shadow of New Worlds at Bergen Kunsthall. While we may not be impassioned with precisely identical terminologies or socio-political concerns, I believe our practices converge in a shared investment in community formation around nuanced representations of identity. Sandra's generosity in inviting practitioners who work in parallel or tandem with her practice in turn generates more capacious understandings and networks of art. I am committed to this ethics of collaboration and dialogue.

The institutionalisation and commodification of identity and queerness have been debated. Have you ever had to unpack them in your work?

This is a really broad question and many stakes are involved. I can only speak to my personal experiences. Firstly, it is worthwhile to ask - what constitutes an institution? What are its characteristics and functions? Power, scale, canonicity, capital, accessibility, statistical popularity, physical assets, cultural currency? The list can go on… Can an artist collective, art fair, or a biennale be/become an institution? Are all institutional engagements with identity morally bankrupt? Equally, if I may continue to play devil's advocate, is an individual practitioner exempt from tokenism or an extractive mentality? 

There is a common misconception that independence guarantees total freedom or immunity from questionable or complicit practices. This is, at best, a naive belief. We are all imbricated in an ecology. In any case, I think the binary of 'independent' and 'institution' is quite reductive. As someone who has juggled both modes of working, I think it all goes back to the artist or cultural worker's agency and voice - have they been able to articulate what they want to say? Why/why not? What is the most suitable platform for their project? While there are certainly ethical breaches that are inadmissible, I think it is generally important to be open to negotiations and dialogue.

You’ve managed to navigate academic vernacular in an elegant and approachable manner in your writing. How do you relay complex ideas to a wider audience?

Thank you for your very kind and generous comments! I think contextualisation is key: who are you writing for, how do you write, and what are you writing about? The first question is important because writing changes with different platforms. I wouldn’t write the same way for my publication series as I would for, say, an art magazine or an academic journal.

That's not to assume, however, that writing for a wider or mass audience dilutes flair, criticality, or depth. The same can be said for other types of cultural production. That's why I think of writing as a practice rather than just an atomised type of cultural work. This also kind of answers the second question (how?). The best writers, in my opinion, have a confident and unique voice that translates effectively across different platforms, readers, and contexts. Again, this isn't something that can be taught or copied.

The third query (what?) lends itself to the second. The people and practices that I write about are just as important as how I write. I am invested in the urgency of engaging with particular artistic practices, research, and audiences. Research is conscientiously prepared and applied in my interpretations of art. It  is not for vainglorious accumulation. It is how I demonstrate my investment in art and artists.

You mentioned earlier about making knowledge freely accessible. What does it mean for people who don’t have access? When making publications, do you have a target audience in mind?

This is a great question and one that I have thought about and been asked quite a few times. The idea of access refers obviously to the practical platform of the Internet, which is of course relative. Not everyone has Internet access and not everyone can or prefers to read in English. These are issues that no single person can solve, but again, I am excited to work with and through these 'troubles'. What I've tried to do is to make the research as widely available as possible, given our limited resources. Vanessa has done a fantastic job of keeping tabs on our readership statistics, and we speak often about how we can better reach out to diverse audiences.

To that end, my next goal is to work on a series of internationally-minded public programs that extend each publication's line of inquiry. This, and making the publications, is again a question of time and resources (or the lack thereof), and requires collaboration (so hmu!). This series of public programs will also afford opportunities to engage with people IRL and get their opinions on the publications which will then inform how I might rethink them. Let me be clear: I do not claim omnipresence or universality when I speak about access. I'm aware that the publications speak to specific audiences. I am not under the misguided impression that any one project can claim to speak to every and any one. That would be a patronising promise. What is more interesting to me is learning about who the readers are, why they're reading the publications, and what they get from the experience of reading. That being said, I do hope that young queer and trans people in particular find the publications meaningful.

It's really interesting to speak to you, a writer, about your work while writing and reflecting upon your role. I personally consider myself a creative and cultural worker who writes in the process, rather than a writer. It’s interesting to observe and learn about your laborious research process before completing a piece of work. Would you say that the writing is your outcome?

I think it's great that you are clear about what you do and don't do. I strive for that kind of clarity and contextualisation when I'm asked to describe my practice. I've learned so much from mentors and peers who have engaged with my work, put up with my whining, given me opportunities and advice, pushed me to do better, and most importantly encouraged me to endure and persevere. For them I am eternally grateful and eager to continue learning and hopefully contribute to their lifeworlds.

The most important interlocutors are the artists whom I have the immense pleasure of working with. It is through chance encounters and being in conversation with them that I've continued to grow as a person. Besides the public-facing gestures, which are really only the tip of the iceberg, many other casual conversations, Skype and Zoom calls, meals, parties, and ideas don't get to see the light of day. I think it is important to enjoy the process of getting to know people!

A large portion of cultural work doesn’t conform to 'acceptable',‘professional’, or categorical modes of working. In a similar way, through my practice, I try to be attentive to ideas, methods, and people who have not been granted ‘serious’ attention. For example, the design of hyperbolic pink excess for nominal bliss, which was emphatically about the lived realities of trans politics, was absolutely intentional. I strive for a kind of critical reverie or an excellent insouciance: a state of Barbie bliss.

Wong Binghao enjoys communicating between contexts and mediating art to diverse publics. Through research-forward collaborations with artists and cultural practitioners, their practice attempts to develop original vocabularies, moments, and dialogues that gesture toward representational accountability and ethical, expansive cultural work. They write for artist books, exhibition catalogues, and a variety of publications including Artforum, Frieze, Leap, TextWork Fondation d'entreprise Pernod Ricard, Philippine Contemporary Art Network, and Southeast of Now.

Recently, they served as Evaluator for the 2020 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and presented their research at Bergen Kunsthall and the Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories: Art, Digitality, Canon-making? Symposium. Their series of publications (Indifferent Idols 2018, nominal bliss 2019, forthcoming 2021) attempts to generate contextually specific, conceptually capacious, and emotionally available readings of art. Currently, they are the C-MAP Asia Fellow for the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

© 2020 sand magazine and the author