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Wong Siu-yin Phoebe

A researcher and writer with a special interest in contemporary art, design, and visual media. More than anything else, she is a culture junkie.

Translator: Lee Hoi-yin Joanna

The Shapes of Interviews


Conducting interviews is an indispensable tool for contemporary art research and writing. Verbal accounts as raw materials transform into drafts of historical writing once transcribed or published. Various interview practices bring forth to disparate shape of historical writing. As this is going to be a short article, rendering it impossible for me to elucidate interview practices in details, let me give snapshots of a few examples conjured up in my mind.


1. Interviews with Francis Bacon

Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester, British art critic, has been regarded as the paragon of in-depth interviews. The ten-plus conversations, charged with exchange between Sylvester and the painter Bacon, took place both in the public and in private and spanned an extensive period of over two decades from 1962 to 1986.


In the preface of Interviews, Sylvester made it clear that ‘Like the camera, the tape recorder, roughly speaking, cannot lie, and cannot discriminate. Faithfully, it registers every false start, every crossing of purposes, every malformation of syntax and thought, every digression, every unthinking answer or question, every unwitting distortion of fact that results from not having time to remember clearly. None of this matters: the blots and the messes can be edited out. What does matter is the crushing authority of a tape or its transcripts.’[1] Sylvester’s forthright self-reflection is telling of the truth he discovered from his practice. 


Interviews is presented as dialogues. While Sylvester seemingly carried on the verbal exchange following the rationale of Bacon’s replies, the dialogues have been edited and ‘montaged’, extracted from a few interviews based on the subject matter, ‘many of the questions have been recast or simply fabricated.’ Sylvester is ‘slavish to Bacon’s turns of phrase’ in order to preserve ‘the very particular rhythms and gestures of his speech’. The altering of a word is but for the purpose of avoiding repetition and ambiguity.[2]


2. ‘Conversation-Exhibition’ Series 

‘Conversation-Exhibition’ is a series of annual flagship exhibitions presented by Lumenvisum. Originally conceived as a ten-year programme, it enters its 11th iteration in 2021. In each of the series, two artists — the core one being a photographer who partners with one from other art disciplines — spend eight months talking over the course of a year. The conversations, free-flow exchange concerning the subject of artmaking, premise the exhibitions and are transcribed and published. They came across in the publication content as ‘non-edited’. The editor indicates off-subject exchange as ‘digressions’ while the transcripts faithfully record unexpected change of subjects, spontaneous interruptions, indiscreet murmurs, free-flow chats… One must be patient for meaning to be unearthed from fragments of utterances.


3. John Clark Archive  

John Clark, Australian art historian and a specialist in Asian contemporary art, has conducted hundreds of interviews between 1981-2010. In 2014, he donated those primary research materials (250 voice records of interviews, transcripts, and research notes) to Asia Art Archive which collated them into the ‘John Clark Archive’. After going through the Archive, Samson Young, sound artist, astutely observed that ‘John Clark has an interesting interview technique: he does not fish for information. He waits for a confession.’[3] Look, I have translated ‘wait’ into Chinese as ‘waiting quietly’ and added ‘without haste’. Isn’t that Freudian slip? One is wary of ‘dead-air’ in interviews: tied hands and cold sweat. Professor Clark showed us how to navigate the rhythm of interviews: be patient with the narrators. Time will show the path to the buried stories.


4. Hi! Hill

Recently, I read an article written for the Hi! Hill public art project by Dr. Chu Yiu-kwong, a researcher specialised in local oral history.[4] I was inspired. What Chu did was crisply simple: in two columns on the same page, he juxtaposed the verbal accounts of the villager in Cantonese with the edited and arranged records in written Chinese. Authenticity in this respect is to transcribe verbal accounts given in Cantonese as are. To make space for two languages in one article is a sound demonstration of, in Donald Ritchie terms, ‘an oral history is a joint product, shaped by both parties’.[5]



[1] David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon (UK: Thames & Hudson, 1975), 6.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Samson Young, ‘On Interview, Broadcast, and the Archive’ (leaflet), 2016.

[4] Chu Yiu-kwong, ‘Leaving Home, Coming Back: Oral History Recounted by Mr. Tsang To-sang’, in Hi! Hill (Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Services Department, 2018), 102-111. 

[5] Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 30.

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