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16 May 2018 / by Winnie Lai

M+ Rover: Experimenting With Participatory Art

A group of secondary school students sit around a round table together with illustrator Rainbow Leung in the warm wooden interior of the M+ Rover. They are holding up cups and clinking them together in the middle while smiling and laughing.

Students inside the M+ Rover during the 2017 M+ Rover tour. Photo from M+, Hong Kong

M+ Rover, a traveling creative studio at M+, is currently finishing up its 2018 tour. Below, Winnie Lai from the M+ Learning and Interpretation team writes about why participation has been such an important part of the M+ Rover. The below text is based on a talk she gave at the Museum Ideas Conference in London in October 2017.


What can a museum learning team do before the museum has a building?

At M+, the Learning and Interpretation team sees the period before the museum building opens as an opportunity to explore and experiment. We have tried to gain an understanding of our potential audiences and their knowledge about M+ with our pre-opening exhibitions and programmes, and have realised that without a physical building, it can be hard for audiences to have a clear understanding of the future museum. We realised that we needed to build connections and outreach through a more specific and regular approach.

It is within this context that M+ Rover was launched in 2015. M+ Rover is a school and community outreach project: a trailer converted into a moving creative travelling studio. From February to June, it travels to schools and communities with an artist’s commission that takes the form of a workshop and an exhibition. We envision it as a space for non-formal learning, where people can simply rest and create; a flexible space where workshops, exhibitions, and other activities can take place. The M+ Rover experience is all about participatory practice; that is, art that revolves around participation with the audience.

Groups of people sit around small folding tables set up outside a grey metal trailer with the words ‘M+ Rover!’ on the side. A large statue of a snake is also set up on the ground in between the tables.

The M+ Rover during a 2017 community tour. Photo from M+, Hong Kong

M+ Rover enters each school for one to two days, where our team of artist assistants set up the work. A group of about twenty-five students are invited to take part in a two-and-a-half-hour workshop led by the artist. The results of the workshop contribute to the overall display inside M+ Rover, which is open during the day for other students and teachers to visit. Over the weekend, M+ Rover travels to different community locations, where the public can visit the pop-up exhibition. At the same time, to build on and summarise their first encounter in school, the group of students and the artist will meet again at the as a second part of the workshop.

Every year we invite a creative practitioner who works with a variety of mediums and concepts to create this participatory work. In M+ Rover’s first year, Tang Kwok Hin created a performative piece exploring the nature of truth and fiction, as the students actively shaped the course of the plot with clues and prompts. Siu Wai Hang looked at memory and disappearance in relation to history and identity through a photography workshop that centred its theme around the handover of Hong Kong. In the next year, comic writer and illustrator Rainbow Leung portrayed drawing as an act of listening and relationship-building through a chessboard game where participants had to interview and share stories as they draw portraits of each other. This year, Ng Ka Chun invites participants to think about functionality, creativity and alternative ways of living through redesigning objects in our daily life.

A group of secondary school students sit around a table with  a big game of snakes and ladders on it. They are smiling and laughing while holding sketch-boards.

Artist-led activities during 2017 M+ Rover tour. Photo from M+, Hong Kong

Why Participatory Art?

Participation is a way for us to ensure that we can provide alternatives to the existing formal learning experiences. It also gives us the opportunity to change a number of preconceptions about artistic practice in general.

Firstly, it helps change students’ preconceptions about artists. Participation allows students to get immediate access to artists by creating a space that brings them together, where they can simply talk and chat. This encounter is the most direct way to dispel any myths about artists, and give students a chance to ask practical questions that their parents or teachers might not be able to answer: What do you actually do? How do you survive and make a living as a full-time artist? How do people enter the field? To be able to give people this time and space to connect proves to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the project.

Participatory practice also changes preconceptions about creative mediums. To help students understand that we’re not just teaching a class on practical skills or theory, we place emphasis on the process as a creative medium. M+ Rover only allows for a short encounter—between two to three days—between the team and the students at each school. We are not there to compete with the existing curriculum, but instead to complement and expand it. We make sure we are there to stimulate, to be provocative, to show alternatives, and to prompt students to rethink the possibilities in their schoolwork as well as life.

Finally, it changes preconceptions about art exhibitions. In the process of developing the work, we actively think about the role of the participants. What is their level of autonomy and democracy? It is important that M+ Rover is about collaboration and co-authorship. The result is that the work is accumulative, taking shape as a pop-up exhibition that evolves as it travels from school to school. The idea that an exhibition or a work is not complete when it opens but only until its last day changes how students might usually think of exhibitions.

Did Learning Ever Happen?

A group of secondary school students sit inside the warm wooden interior of the M+ Rover. They are all posing for the camera and holding up papers with sketched faces on them.

Students inside the M+ Rover during the 2017 M+ Rover tour. Photo from M+, Hong Kong

M+ Rover has been an experiment for our team to see what we can do in terms of museum learning before the museum actually opens. When we evaluate the process, we sometimes ask, did learning ever happen? This question, while provocative, perfectly summarises the constant reflection and evaluation process we go through.

There is never a straight answer—learning is, after all, a personal and internal process. As we actively think about co-creation and shared authorship, we are learning with the participants. When we think about the participants’ roles, it becomes a constant reminder that learning cannot be forced. Everyone’s needs differs, so attempting to cater for everyone is impossible and might result in unnecessary compromises. It is about creating the best conditions for the encounter to happen, where participants can decide what they take from the scenario. When participants realise they have a part and a role in the process, they feel empowered and start to take initiative in shaping the work. As a result, the learning becomes specific to the individuals.

We also learn with teachers and schools. Along with the programme, we create teaching materials and hold teachers’ briefings. We make sure that we maintain continuous communication with them throughout the process and through post-activity evaluation sessions. These dialogues help us better understand their expectations and overall experience, and as a result, contribute to the shaping of our programme. Most importantly, we intend to continue these invaluable relationships after the museum opening.

At the same time, we are learning with the frontline team. Our frontline team of artist assistants are responsible for setting up the exhibition every day, maintaining the condition of the works, assisting and documenting during the workshops, and leading tours about the project. They are often the first to experience the work and the only witnesses to the work as it evolves from beginning to end. We also provide training and meet-the-artist sessions for artist assistants, so that they can shape the work with the artists and the school participants. With the project, we also create time and space for them to gain more knowledge about working in the arts field.

View from above of a grey trailer with its sides folded out to create a wide roof. The words ‘M+ Rover!’ is printed on both sides of the roof. A large sculpture of a snake has been set up beside the trailer, curling around a few tables and chairs.

M+ Rover seen from above in 2017. Photo from M+, Hong Kong.

Lastly, the team learns together with the artist. The unique nature of M+ Rover defies definition—sitting between a workshop, exhibition, and an artwork. Throughout the process, we delve into the artist’s practice and philosophies. The intensity and duration of the project is also demanding for artists, especially if participatory work is not their usual medium. As the project pushes them to examine their practice, it also pushes us to similarly rethink our practice as curators. In the process, we have to manage different, at times conflicting, priorities, and expectations. As a result, the work has to be rehearsed and rethought, scrapped and redeveloped. The process requires honesty and trust between the team and the artists, giving us a valuable chance to build understanding and trusting relationships.

Finally, we learn to remind ourselves that this process is about understanding those who we learn and grow with, rather than seeking a measure or indicator of success. Ultimately, the process of learning is ongoing and invisible; sometimes, it requires a level of faith and trust as much as careful planning and organisation. We learn to embrace a level of uncertainty. Transformative experiences cannot be staged. What we do is creating the setting and space for unexpected encounters to happen. That is when the magic of learning happens—much like planting a seed in anticipation of its growth—and with an equal measure of care and hope, we continue to imagine the many forms it can take shape.

M+ Rover 2017 has recently been awarded the Hong Kong Arts Development Awards 2017: Award for Arts Education (Non-school Division) from Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Winnie Lai
Winnie Lai
Winnie Lai

Winnie Lai is Associate Curator, Learning and Interpretation at M+.

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