Chinatown Community Think Tank – Engaging Chinese Speaking Communities Part 1

This week we welcome Alvis Choi (aka Alvis Parsley), an artist with a social practice based in Toronto, to the Incluseum blog. Alvis is sharing about the recent project they initiated, Chinatown Community Think Tank, in a two part guest post. The Incluseum invited Alvis to blog because we consider their work to provide a model for thoughtful leadership in engaging populations that may feel disconnected from or experience barriers to participating in art gallery and museum type spaces.  Alvis not only created a project that engaged local communities but also impacted how a Toronto gallery connects with the local Chinese language speakers in order to make all programming more accessible.

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Chinatown Community Think Tank is a dialogue-based project that is a hybrid of a think tank and a community centre, in which I created an open and user-led space for Chinese-speaking communities to address social, political, and cultural issues that have an impact on their perception and definition of art. For two months in the summer of 2013, I turned Whippersnapper Gallery, which is located in Chinatown in downtown Toronto, into a social space for Chinese speakers in the neighborhood.

Chinatown Community Think Tank, Exterior of Whippersnapper Gallery, Toronto.  Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

Chinatown Community Think Tank, Exterior of Whippersnapper Gallery, Toronto. Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

I started the project with the goal to answer the following questions:

  • What does art mean to the Chinese-speaking community in Chinatown?
  • What could galleries located in Chinatown do to connect with the community?

I raised these questions as part of my reflection on the accessibility of the programming at Whippersnapper Gallery for the Chinese speaking communities, and at large on the accessibility of contemporary art in different ethnic neighborhoods in the city.

The project was executed partly as a residency.  I spent three to four days a week for two months in the ground floor storefront space of Whippersnapper having informal dialogues with Chinese speakers in the neighbourhood. The materials I created for the gallery’s large shop window to communicate with passers-by were all in Chinese, with a short English text explaining the project. Most people came into the space out of curiosity sparked by a sign that said “Free Tea Gathering. Come on in if you are Chinese.” in Chinese language. The window display evolved throughout the two months as more conversations were carried out.

Window, Chinatown Community Think Tank.  Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

Window, Chinatown Community Think Tank. Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

I refer to this as the “public chat room” element of the project. These conversations, while casual and accessible for people that had little familiarity with contemporary art, were facilitated with the intention to understand the mindset and values participants brought with them. The project can be seen as research through which we explored the way deep roots in Chinese culture affect how Chinese-speaking communities approach contemporary art as audiences and participants. These dialogues centered around the topics of home, migration, racism, family, language barrier, labour and survival. The process was not simply me as the artist interviewing people who came in, but involved giving and sharing from both parties. It honoured the horizontal structure and emphasized mutual understanding among the visitors and myself.

The project also consisted of a few outreach activities where I visited businesses and community centres in Chinatown. We also collaborated with Gendai Gallery to conduct a neighborhood survey towards the end of my residency. You  can read about a follow-up workshop where we invited community members, artists and scholars for a discussion here.

At the end of the residency, I created a visual map of some of the conversations that I had, enabling me to share stories, opinions, and concerns that were brought up. I used threads to physically connect recurring or related ideas, highlighting thought patterns among the participants. While some of these patterns validate my assumptions made simply from being Chinese and growing up in a Chinese culture in Hong Kong, others surprised me.

Interior, Chinatown Community Think Tank. Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

Interior, Chinatown Community Think Tank. Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

In looking back at the project, I think what makes Chinatown Community Think Tank unique is how it engaged a community with little knowledge of contemporary art in conversations about art. It is common for community art projects to involve participants in art making, but speaking about art seems to be a completely different level of engagement considering how art is often framed as something intellectual, academic, and “smart” by institutional systems. It is easy to understand how one can feel intimated or self conscious in speaking about subjects that are unfamiliar.

Informal dialogues (or “chit-chatting”) that are skillfully facilitated can bring about many positive outcomes in neighbourhood engagement. I approached the facilitation of informal dialogues as a form of art. When such skill is successfully applied, it can bring participants into the realm of creative thinking without them even knowing! Informal conversations about everyday life build relationships among individuals in a genuine, direct and effective way. It also develops a sense of familiarity between individuals and physical space. Many people I met at the gallery would check back at the space and walk past to see if I was there again, not to mention the warm moments I had running into people I met during the project and hearing them say “you weren’t there the other day!”

Detail.  Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

Detail. Photo Credit Jessica Baldanza.

Chinatown Community Think Tank set a good example of how art spaces, in this case Whippersnapper Gallery, can collaborate with artists who have a true connection with the community. My identity as a recent Chinese migrant who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin and is a former worker in Chinatown provided an anchor for participants to relate, giving me advantages on many levels to execute the project. While I believe my connection with the community was one of the key pieces in the success of the project, many efforts can be made within the art community to invite such engagement to happen…

Part II will be posted next week!

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Alvis Choi (aka Alvis Parsley) is an artist, curator, and researcher based in Toronto. Alvis served as Assistant Manager at Videotage (Hong Kong) from 2009 to 2011. They are currently on the Programming Committee of Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival and the Working Collective of Whippersnapper Gallery. Alvis’ work was presented internationally at festivals and art spaces, including SummerWorks Festival (Toronto), Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, HTMLLES10 Festival (Montreal), 12th Seoul International New Media Festival, Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff), and Studio10 (NYC). Alvis is a member of SYNAPSE – The International Curators’ Network at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), a finalist of the Toronto Arts Foundation’s TELUS Newcomer Artist Award, and a recipient of Neighbourhood Arts Network’s BMO Seeds Fund, Vtape’s Curatorial Incubator Program Fellowship and British Council’s Travel Grant.

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