Lee Weng Choy at UQ Art Museum in November

31 Oct 2019
Lee Weng Choy
Lee Weng Choy

Ahead of KL-based art critic Lee Weng Choy’s arrival in Brisbane to deliver two sold-out writing workshops for our Unlearning program, we asked him about why he encourages writers to listen deeply and the value of participating in reflective and creative conversations about art.

Q: It can be challenging and somewhat intimidating for people who haven’t studied art or who aren’t artists themselves to confidently write or comment about art publicly, like on social media. You’ll be addressing these and other issues in the workshop you deliver at UQ Art Museum this month, but could you also share with our broader community your philosophy on putting fears aside and getting involved in these kinds of conversations? 
A: You know how there are many things you want to do, and, for instance, you say to yourself, when I’m forty, I’ll take saxophone lessons. Well, forty passed a long time ago for me. One of the things I’ve wanted to do, and I’m still holding out hope that I’ll finally do it, is to organise a conference. Its theme would be “Shyness”. Wouldn’t it be funny if you organised that conference, and, every speaker submitted their contribution, but didn’t show up? Anyhow, all this to say, I appreciate the hesitation, the shyness, reluctance, fear, whatever. What I aim, as a workshop facilitator, is to connect at a personal level with participants, and hopefully that makes things easier. I try to do this with a lot of my writing as well. I try to make my writing sound like someone is speaking to you — so the reader feels personally addressed. Also, I often speak personally in my writing — not to go on about myself — but to establish a sense of emotional connection. So when you — as a shy workshop participant — feel that connection, then, hopefully, you also feel more emboldened to take the risk and speak your mind. And even though the workshop facilitator may disagree with what you’ve said, you know that you’ll be heard in the first place.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to reflect and express themselves creatively in relation to art? 
A: If I may assume that I don’t need to go into why I think art is important. Let me just make a quick distinction, though: I’m talking about “art” and not the “art world”, the latter being the professionalised socio-political-economic system. I can appreciate that many persons who care a lot about art, whether as makers, organisers or audiences, may want to avoid the art world, and there, I would say, you have my sympathies. But, even then, if you can’t stand the pretensions of the art world, I would advocate that art is still important and can be very rewarding, not just for someone personally, but for society at large. So what we’re talking here is about reflecting deeply about art, and engaging it creatively. I could elaborate further and say how good it is for one’s personal development to be reflective and creative, and one of the best ways of developing one’s creativity is to engage creatively with other creations. But let me also flip this around. There’s a great book by WJT Mitchell, called What do Pictures Want? I think it’s important also for the artworks themselves. It’s important for art that people reflect deeply and engage creatively with it. So don’t just do it for yourself, do it for the art.

Q: I understand you have a research interest in better understanding the mechanisms behind and benefits of taking part in group-based workshops. Can you tell us a little more about that? 
A: Over the course of two decades and change, I’ve facilitated many a writing workshop, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been doing them with a high level of consistency and intensity. In 2018, for instance, I convened or co-convened seven — and each of these things is pretty much sui generis (of its own kind). There isn’t a template where I press play and repeat myself. Because often what makes all the difference is the specific participants. So recently, I’ve wanted to think more about the pedagogy and methodology of workshopping. I don’t have fully developed ideas yet. But if I do arrive at a theory about workshopping, it would also have to be a theory about listening. For the blurb advertising the upcoming workshops in Brisbane, I included these lines: Participants can expect to develop their capabilities to talk about their writing, to engage with feedback, and to listen to discussions about other participants’ writing — this last point is important. If writing is a kind of conversation, then listening, not speaking, is perhaps the most important part of the process. And you learn to listen when you learn to step outside your self.

Q: In the second workshop you’re running looking at writing as creative practice, you’ll be considering how if writing is a kind of conversation, then listening, not speaking, is perhaps the most important part of the process. What kinds of things can writers do to become better listeners?
A: So I just mentioned that one way to become a better listener is to step outside of yourself. To focus on listening to others speak about their writing, rather than to listen to others commenting on your own. I’ve often found that to be the most engaging part of the workshops that I myself have participated in (rather than just facilitated). I’ve also learned a lot about listening when moderating public talks, which I do regularly. The role of moderator demands that one think about the larger conversation, and not just the particular point that you want to make. Having said all this, I don’t think I have some special talent for listening. All I know is that I prioritise it, and work at it. Occasionally I fail at it. Hopefully, when that happens, I get called out, maybe not then and there, but at least later, and then I can correct. It’s important to have honest and deep conversations, conversations which also reflect on past conversations. The people with whom we have these with are what we call friends. Good friendships help us to listen. I think it’s important for writers to have friendships that support their writing practices. A specific workshop may not lead to a new friendship, but that workshop might help to model the kinds of conversations writers should be having with their friends about their writing.

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