Notes from the Field: Tiffany Sia
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this edition, Matt speaks with Tiffany Sia, an artist, filmmaker, writer, and the founder of Speculative Place, an experimental, independent project space that hosting residents working in film, writing and art (formerly) in Hong Kong.
Sia’s first institutional solo show was exhibited recently at Artists Space (New York). She is the author of 咸濕 Salty Wet (2019) and Too Salty Too Wet 更咸更濕 (2021), a series of anti-travelogues on distance and desire within and without Hong Kong. Sia directed Never Rest/Unrest (2020), a short experimental film that takes the form of a hand-held cinema about the relentless timeline in Hong Kong from early summer to the end of 2019, and Do Not Circulate (2021), which follows the image trail of a single event in Hong Kong from the 2019 protests. As an independent film producer, Sia executive produced Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s Empty Metal (2018), and is also the executive producer of Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil’s forthcoming documentary Ancestors in the Archives. She is also part of Home Cooking, a geographically-dispersed collective of artists and open-source digital platform founded by Asad Raza.
Sia is also one of the inaugural Line of Sight fellows, though this interview was arranged prior to, and unrelated to, her application and selection.
Sentient Art Film: When did you begin making work and why did you want to do that? What were you thinking about when you first started to make things?
Tiffany Sia: I feel like I've been making work secretly in private for a long time. I guess I'm one of those artists. My work didn't really start being distributed until 2019, when my zine Salty Wet was published, though before that my work existed in private. I had always been more comfortable assisting other people's projects, or being behind the scenes. I was an executive producer on Adam Khalil and Bailey Sweitzer’s Empty Metal, released in 2018, which was also when I started Speculative Place as a residency for artists and filmmakers. Speculative Place was started with a belief in trying to create the structures and conditions needed for making meaningful work exist in the world, and I didn’t necessarily need to have my voice at the centre of that.
It really wasn't until Salty Wet came out that I realised I wanted to have visible work out there, whilst also discovering that I had an audience. Salty Wet is a weird niche thing which was specifically written from a Hong Kong diaspora voice, but as well as reaching people within the Hong Kong community, it also hit people who are not from Hong Kong. I think this is because of the relations that are drawn between geography and affect. That zine was the weird premiere of my work, a leak in some sense. It happened through the encouragement of Mitch, who runs Inpatient Press. He was supposed to do a residency at Speculative Place, but he ended up publishing Salty Wet instead. He printed it in the US and then distributed it through newspaper boxes in New York, one notably in front of the Whitney museum, and through a kind of DIY network in Hong Kong on my end.
Were you sitting on a large archive then of completed pieces and sections of things that you are now still in the process of sharing or putting into publishable forms?
That's exactly right. I have a big archive of various ephemera, like fragments of screenshots, audio, and texts, because I'm just constantly reading. I don't read a lot of fiction but I do read a lot of history and affect theory. Right now I'm trying to read through some texts on the sublime. My research process is very much about trying to feel and think through things that I'm living through, and this archive also appears in different forms. I have around 20 Tumblrs that I started around 10 years ago that only very close friends know about. One of them is also called Salty Wet, which was made before they banned pornography on the platform, and that was a smutty porn page made from random GIFs I found. Each Tumblr is themed. For example, there is one which is all pictures of water, and with that I was exploring the ways in which water looks when photographed or animated, as well as the many different drawing styles of watery imagery that depict wetness.
Tumblr feels like an easy way to publish constantly without ever feeling like you are publishing?
I have a research practice first and foremost, which then, often but not always, gets iterated into producing work. Sometimes things just sit in my archive for a long time. Speculative Place existed first as an Instagram of pictures of Hong Kong. I was trying to think about Hong Kong as this imagined place, because as much as it exists in the real, Hong Kong also exists very much in the imagination and within mediated ideas of place, whether through flight simulations or video games, or often in cinema. I started that mostly as a way to archive images and to think about Hong Kong in 2017, and then it became a residency somehow.
I can't imagine how that happens, but I'd be interested to hear about how something journeys from an Instagram to a space. I wanted to ask first about how you choose what medium you're going to use for a specific project, because, from my limited understanding of your work, one thing that seems apparent is a desire to invert or reinvent the form of something. The films are essay films of a sort,, but they don't necessarily take the regular essay film format, and then it seems that your texts move between the web and print, maybe challenging what print is or should be. How do you choose what material to use and what do you think about when approaching a medium, whether that's a book or a film or a stream, and all the baggage that comes with each?
I guess I look at these various mediums, and then genres within mediums, if you will, as kind of distribution channels of information, and then think about how to misuse these distribution channels. Too Salty Too Wet is an artist book, but within it there's a centrefold which is actually a map of the Pearl River Delta in which I call it the cunt of globalism. It is a funny way to use an existing idea of what a format is and then invert that format to deliver something weird and unexpected. I think I constantly kind of teeter on that particular axis when I approach forms, mediums, and genres as delivery systems. I use the term delivery systems because print and film serve as mass mediums, and I’m interested in subverting these forms.
That's what I'm interested in these forms for, but I think my work has a lot to do with the format of the essay too. Do Not Circulate is kind of an essay film, but, as you said, it doesn't necessarily adhere to these certain notions of what an essay film should do, like how the voiceover should work in conjunction with the images, I think it's roiling over constantly, and playing with that kind of affectual space of being absolutely overwhelmed. I’m trying to create the affect of what I'm trying to describe: the feeling of that particular time period, and what watching that footage feels like, while also trying to distil a sense of what it feels like being in Hong Kong. Trying to keep up pace with that feeling and capturing an elusive sense of time is what I'm in service of with my practice.
This is true with text too. The way that I paced the writing in Too Salty Too Wet, two thirds through the text, there is a sense that it’s boiling over. There are lots of short, impactful, but also really dense sentences and it is paced so it's supposed to feel like you're relentlessly swimming, then gasping for air after every period. This is in service of the primaryness of living, because it also acknowledges that these mediums are incomplete in their own way. This is why I use multiple mediums, because no single medium is enough to describe the totality of these times, or the histories and the ideas in which I'm speaking from. These things need to kind of weave together and be asymptotically reaching, almost but never quite getting there, always acknowledging that each medium can be just partial rather than ever complete.
That's really interesting. People often talk about selecting the right medium for what they want to say, but the way you're talking about it is more like filling one medium and then it flooding over, spilling organically into a different medium. What do you think connects all the work you do? Is there an umbrella concept that contains everything you do?
I think that is sort of what I'm actively trying to figure out right now. A lot of my work has to do with history, and with colonial history. If we can think about history as this collection of primary and secondary accounts, my research practice is driven by assembling primary information. I'm fascinated by the Internet as a medium because it is a container for the tonnes of primary accounts that people are putting out there, each and every second. There is this interesting liveness of the accumulation of primary accounts that exist right now. They are so abundant, but they are also constantly disappearing and so archiving them becomes critical especially in circumstances of crisis. Ultimately, my practice is an archival practice across images and text and film and media, and then how it all translates is sort of what drives the central part of my work: how to put these elements and questions together into form.
Who or what inspires you as an artist, or as an organiser, or as a convener of things?
So many people inspire me. I'm really inspired by the history of alternative spaces in New York, in particular, and I'm also inspired by various people who run independent art spaces around the world, like Green Papaya Art Projects. I'm really inspired by the ways in which artists create alternatives to institutions. I think that's really important. How can we create alternative models to institutions, and to states?
I think a lot of my organising and ideas around mutual aid and care also stems from this. I am deeply inspired by Carolyn Lazard’s work on care and disability. Speculative Place is actually inspired by Lazard’s practice, thinking about life and art as being this one thing, but also about the ways in which art appears in places that are unexpected and banal, and the critical apparatuses of care and community that arise from that. I'm definitely also very influenced by queer, feminist thinking. When I moved to New York when I was eight years old, my parents were so busy with work and my dad was mostly based in Hong Kong. In that absence and navigating through assimilating to a new country, over timeI learned to make a sort of family of my own: non-blood kin. I think this idea of non-blood kin is very critical to my being, but also to my practice and what motivates me about mutual aid and committed and radical care for your community.
Could you tell me a bit about Speculative Place? How did the project come to be? What were you trying to do with it? I’m interested in hearing what makes it different from other galleries, residencies, or spaces, or, in relation to what you just said, maybe what makes it similar to the spaces that you admire as opposed to what makes it different from the spaces you admire less?
I wanted to create a space that de-incentivized the people who run the space—which was myself and my partner, both of whom live in the residence with the artists—from profiting from the artists or relying on some kind of production that needs to happen, wherein something needs to be made within the context of a residency. Why can't living itself be enough? And why can't durations of rest be enough for creating and helping sustain a creative practice? In essence, that's what Speculative Place comes down to, which is why we're weird and mysterious in the way we self-described. There is not much documentation around what happens in Speculative Place, because elsewhere there is this like kind of incessant desire to see social media postings about every little thing that happens in a particular space, so as to justify its existence, when in fact, though lots of different things may happen in a space, the actual recording of the action doesn't necessarily validate them more. We only ask for a PDF at the end of the residency—about anything—which can be submitted to us even years later. I joke that the document can even just be a scan of receipts during a resident’s stay, just some kind of record that they were there for a period of time.
When we built the website, many people asked why we didn’t have pictures of the residents, and that was because it was not really about trying to create like this rolodex of people. The most important thing for Speculative Place was the ideas that were created. People finished films there, made work for exhibitions, or wrote books, articles and dissertations, but the most critical ideas emerged often during conversations together in the house, or when cooking, or going on hikes together. As it existed in Hong Kong, it was a house with extra bedrooms, one of which could be turned into a studio space should the artist have a studio practice. Creating a space for both rest and also production was really important. I wanted to hold onto the spectrum of what needs to be held for artists, without committing someone to constantly producing and the potential burnout that comes with that.
When someone enters, you discuss with them what they might want to do in this space or how they will want to exist there, as it fits their practice?
Yeah, there is a Google Doc that I usually send to every resident which basically goes through everything from allergies to daily habits and rhythms of life, as well as what an artist wants to accomplish and who they might want to meet. A lot of the time it was about introductions, so we hosted a lot of lunches and dinners that connected people. We hosted some parties, and we hosted screenings and collaborated with some other organisations for events, but it was very much dependent on what the artist wanted to do. Some artists wanted to hold events, or meet programmers and curators, but others did not want to meet anyone during their time.
You said before that the description for Speculative Place is deliberately imprecise, but I wanted to ask about a line from the website which says that Speculative Place is “a place to document and make new narratives and images that capture contemporary paradoxes.” What do you mean by contemporary paradoxes? Secondly, you said that the project is on hiatus, and that it might be changing, so I wanted to ask whether you think that it being in Hong Kong was important to what it was? Or was it just some rooms in a place that people could go to, and therefore, could it exist somewhere else?
It's funny because the same questions that are central to Speculative Place are kind of the same questions that are critical to my artistic practice too, and thinking about how it moves out of Hong Kong. I think that this idea of contemporary paradoxes is about trying to figure out the questions that are live now—which can exist in many different mediums. While it's sort of intentionally vague, it also signals the kinds of questions I'm interested in. If you look at the lineup of past residents, you’ll see that they span a lot of different fields, but what they have in common is their ability to ask live and critical questions around the sort of relations and axes of power that exist now on various levels. The contemporary paradox thing was trying to capture so many different things in one vague statement, whilst acting as a kind of prompt.
Speculative Place was also very much about trying to think about all of these alternative spaces as being in community together. How can you bring people like Merv and the others at Green Papaya, or Ed Halter and Thomas Beard at Light Industry, together? It's all about creating a dispersed community and acknowledging that dispersed communities do exist, but that there has to be some kind of form to them too. So, in a sense, even though the physical Hong Kong chapter of Speculative Place has ended, it's going to continue to bring together people around the world who are like minded, connecting artists for critical conversations that help their art practices and encourage further inquiry that critically engages with the in-between and gaps between cultures and place.
What is next for Speculative Place then, if you know?
We're gearing up to relaunch as an apparitional project space, creating mostly online screenings or talks and readings, or rehearsals or half-formed events. I'm interested in incompleteness, and specifically also creating a space for the potential for screenings that exist across time zones. With this phase of the pandemic when more people are vaccinated, there is all this talk about whether or not we even continue to have online screenings, but I think what is forgotten is that what was amazing about online screenings in 2020 was it granted greater awareness around accessibility as it relates to disability, and also gave access to communities outside of these art metropoles like New York and Berlin, extending to communities of the Global South. I think that cross-hemisphere and cross-cultural dialogue is really important, especially among alternative arts communities. We can be stuck in a framework of speaking in opposition to institutions, but there is critical value to speak across the periphery. This is something I would like to continue to foster. I am also specifically interested in working with Hong Kong filmmakers who are finding it harder and harder to show work in Hong Kong due to the development of film censorship laws.
What has your experience been showing your own work in different contexts, in film festivals, in gallery settings, but also on and offline? Do you find any of these contexts more or less suitable or fulfilling, or do they reach different audiences? I am really nervous about showing Do Not Circulate in a cinema, for many reasons. It will be the first time I’ve been in a cinema for a long time. For many people, going back to any indoor public space still feels vicessarly weird, and Do Not Circulate is also a really confrontational film, so seeing it in that kind of space is going to generate a certain level of immersion. My parents will be there also! There is something nice about online mediation as I get to be in my own space and I don’t have to see anyone’s reaction. Online, you have reactions but they are always mediated in a way, even when it is trolls or shitposters. I’ve shown the film in more closed settings, for obvious reasons, but not in a cinema.
In Hong Kong, I didn’t look to show either film at all because they crossed personal lines in terms of exposure. Never Rest/Unrest is such a personal film. It doxes me in as many ways as possible. You can identify a lot of personal facts from it, such as where I live, or where I work, so I felt too exposed to screen it there as I would constantly be having to think about levels of safety when disseminating work like that in already a politically sensitive context. In 2020, when it wasn't necessarily so clear that it was unsafe, I was just doing precautionary things, but of course, now with the ways in which they are actively targeting documentary works, it is necessary. There is a way in which I am constantly skating the line of what is visible, or what I believe to be the line between visibility and invisibility. My work is constantly skirting between what is obtuse and what is clear. With Too Salty Too Wet, there are many ways in which I signal obtusely and when I redact, and I think that when I do things like that, it is a way of playing with this line of visibility and invisibility that allows me to continue to work that I do.
I wanted to ask you about this idea of audience and who you might be speaking to, particularly through the films. The two films seem to me to differ in some ways in that regard. Never Rest/Unrest is very obtuse and coded in some ways, with imagery that will mean things to people with lived experience of the space and situation, whereas Do Not Circulate seems more direct and straight in what it is saying and who it is speaking to. How do you think about the various sorts of audiences—in a broad sense of that word—who will be encountering these objects, and how do you work out what to what to translate and what not to translate, what to leave only for those who are in the know and what to try and open up to those who aren't?
It's so contextual to the material. Because I have this very archive-centric practice, it really just comes down to being in service of the material. A lot of my work also begins from a writing practice which helps me figure out the questions that are driving me. Never Rest/Unrest was made from this desire to create a vernacular of the anti-spectacular that exists in opposition to the crisis news: this genre film that was constantly unfolding and being made on the front lines, then also being received on phones and teleported around the world in these mediated ways. It was trying to show the in-between moments of what the everyday actually looks during the unrest. That title is basically the idea of coin-flipping rest. You see this vision of unrest on the news, but then, when you are living inside of it, you see that actually it's a time of never resting: everything becomes about protest, everything is about dissent. Even when you are resting, you are resting in order to later go out again. The relentlessness of having to participate in that direct action is athletic; it's a marathon. Even watching the live streams everyday is an athletic practice, a kind of hyper-vigilance. That film was basically made to try to hold light to that space that you don't normally see but that was so incredibly potent and critical to what it meant to live during that time. Embedded in the film are things that signal to an audience in Hong Kong that may recognise or remember things or have heard about them, but it also served to show an outside audience the sounds that you hear in the streets and the feeling of being there, without explanation of what was happening. The idea was to hold that latter audience a little bit further away in order to push them harder to feel the affect of this atmosphere and space.
Do Not Circulate is also made from a personal archive of videos which are then stitched together to show all the media surrounding one particular event from various sources, some of which has since been deleted. A lot of the material was posted online anonymously or using pseudonyms, whilst other parts came from news outlets who have since deleted the footage, because that event (‘831’) was so controversial. In a time of erasure and redaction, and with the National Security Law deeming even documentary an act of sedition (and programming such works as potentially complicit in the circulation of seditious material), the materiality of the film itself becomes an act of trying to summon something that has already been disappeared. Formally, the film goes through all of that using a voiceover, but then makes people confront that news event in a particular way that tries to also capture what it means more broadly to be dealing with media trails of any particular event. The film is specific to ‘831’ but I think it is relevant to any media event seen via multiple cameras. You can apply that methodology of thinking about what is occluded and what is documentable in these crisis situations. It shows a lot, but also doesn't show a lot, so what does it mean to hold space for what is absent from those media trails? 2019 was full of these spectacles of crisis, the flaming barricades, the tear gas launches, but 2020 and beyond is all about everything receding away from public space. When the National Security Law can be read as an anti-protest law, it is also one that is innovating censorship. Things are being occluded and forced out of the public, from the removal of films to books, to the bookstores that are closing, to the people who are no longer protesting on the streets, everything recedes into the private. I think that's why I felt a particular kind of drive to enter the spectacle and analyse and take apart the media trail.
It's crazy to think about how, as you said earlier, even though the internet has all this primary material, it is still disappearing constantly. If you are to make a film like this about an event, you need to be capturing the primary material at the time and saving it locally, because if you go back to it later, you’ll find it will have already been removed?
Yeah, that happened during the making of this film. There was some material that I had to go into YouTube to download for the film, but then later when I went back to cite it for something I was writing, the link was already dead. Totalitarian states and authoritarian states have the power to disappear people, but they also have the power to disappear media, to disappear books, to disappear information. So, I think that isn't just a question about Hong Kong, it is also a question about censorship and the corporate sovereignty of tech companies who have the power to disappear information as well. That's not just about Hong Kong, but a question that implicates the UK and the USA as well, states that work in concert with tech companies to create forensics around a protest that uses people’s social media to dox them. I think there are also questions to be raised about how people create archives as memories, where remembering is a kind of resistance during some of these events against government suppression. I see that in relation to the videos of George Floyd that were circulated, which became a galvanising media trail that became such a unifying collective experience of mourning, grief, defiance, and anger that summoned remembrance as direct action. I think these relations have to be talked about, because of the times that we live in that really bind us in precarity.
It's funny because some people seem to have a very adverse reaction to the film because I don't think that they like the aspect ratio and they can't get over it.
That’s a strange thing to be worried about, all considered.
Yeah, it is indicative of what we think to be this idea of Cinema with a capital C, or what is cinematic and what is not cinematic. Moving image culture has changed so much because of our phones and our computer screens, but there needs to be ways for it to be better critically engaged with. We are living in this time where some of the most critical moving image works are made by people who are not artists or filmmakers but who are just filming things on their phones. We're able to gain visibility into spaces and geographies that we wouldn't otherwise see. You could drop a pin on Snapchat and look at Gaza. In Hong Kong, you could drop your pin on Instagram Stories during the protests and see so many different realities. Some people were going to brunch while others were being tear gassed, all on the same timeline.
Do you see these films as being in conversation with, or separate to, the documentary films being made about the Hong Kong protests? I guess you don’t see them as documentaries of the protests as such, but more like some kind of record of your feelings in relation to experiences you had?
I think they are a different type of documentary. It is still non-fiction, but how do we stretch the boundaries of what constitutes the idea of a documentary? I’m interested in how films signal to you that you are watching a film right now, and how to undo that and defy that or push against it. I'm constantly trying to make people confront the apparatus of what it means to fit a genre or not fit into it. There were certain documentaries that were made by outsiders that came in, using that style of helicopter documentary filmmaking where someone enters a crisis zone and starts making something. That’s how I feel about that film Do Not Split. It literally starts with a bank branch ablaze and that tells you immediately that the person making it is not really following the events that closely, superficially following the spectacle and clichés of crisis news, or was there only for a very specific period of time. My films are made in opposition to that in some ways, trying to create a different kind of politics that shows what it actually means to be living through something, rather than using a voyeuristic lens that only signals that the film being made is part of the genre of reportage of unrest.
I also feel very grateful though as I feel like we are living through a renaissance of Hong Kong filmmaking that people aren't really talking about enough. Inside the Red Brick Wall (2020) and Taking Back the Legislature (2020) are both absolutely incredible on a formal storytelling level, in the way in which each shows the specificities of the insurrections, and also the periods of waiting in protests that are so critical and also so dangerous. What is interesting about those two documentaries (made by anonymous Hong Kong documentary filmmakers) is that they're both about sieges, but those particular events defied the constant dispersal strategy protestors used to avoid being kettled or arrested, which was referred to as being “like water”. Dispersal was a critical resistance tactic, but these two documentaries actually show a time where none of those strategies were adhered to, and so they became incredibly dangerous situations. There is so much desperation in those moments, and I think in some ways, these films work as a metaphor for this particular time in Hong Kong, with the feelings of desperation and the guilt of leaving, with some people fleeing and some people staying, and the tension that can arise from that. People were afraid that they were going to be disappeared. In one scene, you see a cop kneeling on a person's back but they're still managing to engage with the filmmaker to tell them their name and their ID number, so that they have some kind of witness in case they are disappeared. There is at least documentation of their arrest.
I'm in awe of what those filmmakers did. It has become an increasingly dangerous time for documentary filmmakers as the film censorship laws explicitly go after documentaries now. The language there is really interesting because the film censorship ordinance guidelines won’t even call them documentaries. They say “films that purport to depict real events”. This is very much in line with the rhetoric of fake news and disinformation, gaslighting audiences to no longer be certain of the truth.
At a cursory glance, most of your work so far seems to be about Hong Kong in some way. Do you think it will always be?
Whether or not my work continues to be about Hong Kong, it is the place that I was born. I'll never be able to undo that fact. There is always going to be a relationship to that place, but I think that there is also a relationship to the idea of cities that I think about a lot—the mythos of cities and how one relates to the residue of colonial history, geography and distance—that is not specific to Hong Kong but to a broader experience of diaspora. And that spans the way that we live now, through telecommunication and the internet. These apparatuses create a sense of intimacy and then they also create a sense of distance, and how we see history unfolding live. When I left Hong Kong recently, I wasn't in any immediate danger––I had not been followed or physically attacked or doxxed like some have––but I feel that it's safer to do the work that I do, living here instead. So, while I may not be living in Hong Kong anymore, there is a lot more work to be done outside of the jurisdiction of Hong Kong for Hong Kongers, especially people who have gone into exile and are refugees, and specifically in my writing, to make sense of diasporic history. I’m in New York now, a city where I also grew up with its own sublimated colonial history. In a sense, themes inherent to my practice around weaving prose and moving image around specters of history, the relationship between capital and lawfare and how to document historical shift doesn’t begin and end in my place of birth. So, I think I'm trying to figure that out and what my place is within that right now.