Ashley Lee Wong ‘Re-imagine the world for the future’

As the Frieze Art Fair opens in London it’s time to welcome the special contribution of Ashley Lee Wong, a curator, an artist and the Head of Programmes and Operations at Sedition, an online platform where artists distribute art in digital format. Ashley has been actively promoting women involved in digital arts and creativity through the Women In Digital group exhibition and many other initiatives.

Throughout her story, Ashley invites us to discover the cultural and digital landscape of Canada, Hong Kong and London, from early experimental concerts in Toronto’s suburb to developing Sedition at the international level, always keeping the DIY ethics at the baseline of her practice.

You can read Sedition tips for the Frieze here

If you would like to nominate women and supportive men who are active movers and shakers in the field of digital creativity to share their stories and thoughts with our readers in the coming months please do get in touch

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‘Suburbia + Boredom = Creativity’

I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada, born to first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong. My Dad worked as an IT executive and I was always around PC computers or portable phones when they first came out. I was amongst the first to submit my school reports on printed-paper. My Mom was the driving force of the house and also the social glue between us. She is surprisingly proficient with smart phones and computers despite claiming to be a Luddite.

‘It was unconventional at that time to have two Asian girls organising shows in a white, male-dominated music scene’
In the suburbs of Toronto, I quickly became bored with the pervasive shopping mall culture. I found an outlet through music, which eventually led me to art. I was heavily inspired by Canadian independent music and DIY culture, and would spend my time researching music online from post-punk, math rock, indie to low-fi electronic music. When I was 16, I began organising shows for indie bands at a local Masonic Lodge with my older sister when we were too young to attend shows at 19+ venues downtown. I learned a lot through organising events and it was a good way to meet like-minded people, which I lacked in my typical North American high school with football and blonde cheerleaders. It was certainly unconventional at that time to have two Asian girls organising shows in a white, male-dominated music scene. I was always a bit of a “tomboy” and was often the only girl playing amongst the boys.

‘DIY ethics still underpin a lot of what I do today’

Through promoting events, I became interested in graphic design by creating flyers using Photoshop, photocopying them and pasting them around town even in the harsh Canadian winters. I also promoted these events on online message boards where I actively participated, and on mailing lists (before social media). I created my own website for the shows and developed an interest in digital production.

To this day, DIY ethics still underpin a lot of what I do today, though I feel the movement has largely disappeared or has transformed into maker culture.

‘Montreal: Experimentation & Play’

After graduating high school I fled suburbia and moved to Montreal to study at Concordia University in Digital Image / Sound and the Fine Arts (now Computation Arts) which was a new course at the time. There were a few new professors coming from Stanford and MIT including Christopher Salter who introduced me to many people and ideas I still encounter today. In general, I had few female role models or mentors, as the digital art and music sectors are largely male-dominated.

I continued to produce events in Montreal, which has a very vibrant arts and music community. From studying digital art and creating works, I began bringing video and performance art into the events. At the same time, my musical interests also became more and more obscure – wandering into noise, improvisation, electroacoustic, experimental electronic music and sound art. My events became more like one-off art happenings.

‘It may have been harder to gain respect and recognition as a girl and a visible minority, but I was always fiercely independent’

It may have been harder to gain respect and recognition as a girl and a visible minority, but I was always fiercely independent – sourcing venues, sponsorship, technical equipment, promoting the event, and carrying weight far beyond my size.

At the time, I was interested in experimenting with formats or platforms by seeking unusual venues and challenging traditional contexts for art and music. At the heart, it was about the shared experience, community, collaboration, experimentation and play. My role in the events did not matter; it was about the people and experience.

After graduating I started an independent arts platform called LOUDSPKR to put some of these ideas into practice. I was less an artist than a ‘facilitator’. I resisted the term ‘curator’ and still do. I considered the events as art in themselves that are collectively experienced and produced.

‘Hong Kong: A ’Cultural Desert’?’

I moved to Hong Kong to explore my ‘cultural roots’ because my parents emigrated to Canada as university students before I was born. There, I continued to host events independently and I started working at a media art space called Videotage founded by Ellen Pau. I managed their programmes and events, which included many artists working with media art, sound art and performance. At this time I was inspired by Ou Ning, a Chinese curator and activist who was involved in bringing sound/music into art in China; and also the writings of academic and curator Yang Yeung, who has long been involved in the Hong Kong art scene, and who later founded the sound art organisation, Sound Pocket.

Hong Kong as a global financial centre was the polar opposite of Montreal and very much lacked space for free-creativity and spontaneity. In a sense Hong Kong felt like a vacuum and has been often called a ‘cultural desert’, which made it challenging for independent arts (at the time). In response to the peculiar sense of space in Hong Kong, I made a documentary film in collaboration with a filmmaker called Nønspace (2009), which features interviews with artists, architects and academics on the notion of space in the city.

‘London: Crisis in the Arts’

I soon moved to London to pursue an MA in Culture Industry in the Cultural Studies department at Goldsmiths’ University of London with media theorist, Matthew Fuller. At this point I considered myself a bit of a nomad living in different cities across three continents. It was also 2008 the beginning of the economic crisis which had a big impact on my work.

Following my studies I worked at Sound and Music in London producing a number of digital projects including Sound In Context (2010) a film exploring the distribution and presentation of sound in the contemporary art world. At this time, I also started an art/research collective called DOXA with my collaborator Yuk Hui who was completing a PhD at Goldsmiths’ at the time. We began organising discussion events and publishing on the critique of the British creative industry, the cuts to the arts and contrasting it to the rapid cultural developments in Hong Kong, which follows closely the UK model. Our work critiqued the precarious labour conditions in the arts and explored collaborative models for culture beyond purely economic terms. We published an edited book titled Creative Space: Art & Spatial Resistance In East Asia, which looks at the role of art and gentrification through texts by artists, theorists, and activists in the region.

‘Living in London as a solo woman is challenging’

Living in London as a solo woman was challenging as I had few previous ties to the city and it was my first experience of Europe (after a short stay in Paris). London was more challenging as a place with a strong class culture, which I felt more difficult to permeate as an outsider. I feel Britain has much less social mobility for ethnic minorities, even if they are born there. This is not just due to a smaller numbers of ethnic minorities in Britain, but a result of a rigid social hierarchy that remains impenetrable with the elite school system, old boys’ clubs and an outdated monarchy. I am an immigrant, though coming from a Commonwealth country, like Canada, certainly helped me stay in the country and find work despite tightening restrictions on visas.

‘I found my creative home at Sedition’

I found my creative home at Sedition about three years ago, which appealed to my interests in art and technology, as well as new models and platforms for the distribution of art. I started in marketing and community management and eventually grew to take on a role in artist management, programmes and operations. I produced a partnership with The Hospital Club and the Women In Digital group exhibition featuring works by leading female artists using technology in their work. Artists in the show included Jenny Holzer, Shu Lea Cheang , Claudia Hart, and more. At Sedition, I help promote and bring on board new artists, and develop programmes including partnerships with LG Electronics, Modern Media in China and Eyebeam in New York, and our new sales displays in museum gift shops, including at the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and soon the Royal Academy.

‘For young people today, the landscape has changed drastically’

For young people today, the landscape has changed drastically. We are in a moment of change and it is important to listen and respond to the changing environment. Sometimes you need to challenge your own beliefs and encourage yourself to think in new ways. Embed yourself in the local community and create new possibilities by constantly re-imagining the world for the future.

‘Resist unpaid internships, low pay and unfair contract’

Independent projects can help build your network and even get jobs, but they don’t often pay. Know your limit for how much unpaid work you can manage, which is often a privilege to be able to do. It’s great when you’re young and willing to live frugally, but at some point, traditional work experience becomes more valuable. The culture industry is competitive and can easily exploit people at the bottom who are sold to ideas of prestige and lifestyle. Don’t buy into it. Resist unpaid internships, low pay and unfair contracts. Separating work from your life may be necessary. London is an expensive city and regular work will give more stability to allow you to pursue your passions.

As a bit of career advice, my Dad once told me of this Chinese proverb: “Ride a cow to find a horse”. Meaning that sometimes you will not find your dream job on your first try. Don’t worry – gain some experience and when you come across a better opportunity: jump! It may seem like a slow and long process, but in the larger scheme of things, your difficult time starting out will be a blip.

‘Don’t be afraid of studying Math and Computer Science’

For women deciding what to study, don’t be afraid of studying Math and Computer Science. Take something practical in school first and then balance it with studies in Fine Art and Humanities. I chose to specialise in Fine Art, but have realised that technical skills are invaluable. While originally choosing to defy my parents’ wishes to study “something practical”, I now realise that they may have been right. But every young woman will eventually find her own way.


AshleyWong_ProfileAshley Wong is Head of Programmes and Operations at Sedition and Co-Founder of international research collective DOXA. She has lived and worked in Hong Kong where she was former Project Manager of Videotage, media art space. She has worked as a Digital Producer for Sound and Music, UK’s organisation for new music and sound. As an artist and researcher, her work has been presented in festivals, biennales and art institutions including Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, 2014; ArtHK12, Hong Kong, 2012; La Casa Encendida, Madrid, 2010; Moonji Cultural Institute Saii, Seoul, 2010; Sottovoce Festival, London, 2010; Clandestino Festival, Gothenburg; 104 CENTQUATRE, Paris, 2010; This is Not a Gateway Festival, London, 2010, Rencontre Internationale, Paris/Madrid/Berlin, 2009; HK/SZ Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, Hong Kong, 2009.