Transtopia - Ana Teresa Vicente




Ana Teresa Vicente obteve uma bolsa de estudo para uma residência artística em Hong-Kong, numa instituição denominada In-situ em Kowloon.  Na incerteza da partida em Janeiro de 2020 com os protestos a grassarem por Hong-Kong, acresceu o início da Pandemia e o stress de ter de voltar em Março mais cedo do que o planeado. Apesar das circunstâncias apresenta-nos um trabalho aprofundado na reflexão de alguns problemas que afetam a humanidade e como resultado um trabalho artístico  muito interessante e curioso.

The research I developed during my artist residency in Hong Kong was based on three propositions: What if the archivist’s worst nightmare came true and all our paper-based archives were suddenly lost forever, the body of each document mercilessly eaten away by a strange virus or bug plague? What if all the layers that map and separate the real and the imagined city suddenly collapsed onto themselves? Our ecological odds are just as flimsy, what’s the use in trying to encapsulate fauna and flora behind glass?

“I have been searching for the entrance to the land of nonbeing in old maps endowed with ancient charm and wisdom. If maps can harbor secrets, I’d imagined that they would have to be excavated from fragmented, moth-eaten documents rather than from so-called scientifically rendered modern charts.”

— Dung Kai Cheung, Atlas:The Archaeology of an Imaginary City

This research was possible through the support of Fundação Oriente and a partnership established between In-situ - Hong Kong Artist in Residency (Kowloon, Hong Kong) and V54 - Young Artist in Residency (Happy Valley, Hong Kong).

Transtopia:Travel Document for Alliens. Paper document, glass box and silverfish. Credits:John Lui

For this residency, my initial project revolved around issues related to corrosion, decay, latency, uselessness, and the impact we, as humans, are putting on our environment. In a broader sense, I would be interested in producing a set of artworks that revolve around the concept of waiting. The times of uncertainty we are currently living in emphasise the notion that we are waiting for a cataclysmic event, except we do not know when, where, or how it will happen. As Coupland puts it, we are currently “Zwischendinge”, we are now living in a moment “between two things, two events that demarcate turning points. We all pretty much know that 9-11 was the first thing but we don’t know yet what that second thing is” (Douglas Coupland, 2013). The way humans have used and abused natural resources has changed the pace of the earth’s processes and the rupture will, at some point, be inevitable, unless changes are set in place.

Based on the ideas of cyclical redundancy and feedback loop, I propose to investigate our connection with “dead time” and the physical and emotional costs of waiting and keeping our brains constantly occupied. When there’s hardly any time for boredom as throughout our days we are constantly overwhelmed with solicitations and information, how do we perceive these waiting times – on a personal and a collective perspective? Is it possible for waiting times to be a fertile ground for ideas, emotions and thoughts to surface? What about the new wonderful technologies that would solve our climate crisis? Is there a long wait ahead of us before we can finally join forces as a collective and address our ecosystem problems? Are we going to wait until the point of no return and keep the same repetitive, destructive patterns until there’s no way out?”


 In situ residency studio in Kowloon, Kong-Kong


On a more practical level, I was very interested in exploring the connection between insects and paper-based documents. My initial idea was to work with old family photos but after my walks through the city and understanding how layered it is, with the tall skyscrapers and passageways in between, I decided to work with maps. Having had the opportunity to visit three islands (Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan) during my residency, the concepts of displacement, of a mass of land surrounded by water, and of being in transit became my focal points.

In a way, the cataclysmic event Coupland alludes to happened in late 2019 and started spreading fast, first in Asia, then to the rest of the world. Covid-19 became the invisible bug that changed our lives and will, inevitably, shape a new reality for us. It changed the course of my project and even anticipated my return back to Portugal. Despite all the restrictions imposed by the physical isolation, it was still possible to accomplish both my goals: to collaborate with bugs, leaving part of the artistic process and outcome to another species’ agency, as well as to collaborate with local artists, researchers, and curators.

The book Atlas: An Archeology of an Imagined City by Dung Kai Cheung was a turning point to me, for the connection the author establishes between maps and photographs, as both are time frozen but “unlike photography, the making of maps cannot be a matter of an instant but has to pass through a period of time pervaded by external change.” (Cheung, p. 58)

The author describes several different concepts: supertopias, subtopias, multitopias, transtopias, unitopias, and omnitopias. The suffix -topia derives from the Ancient Greek, τόπος, meaning "place, region" (English: topos‎). For example, all places on maps are Supertopias, places that replace other places, given that the point of views on maps is from above (with some exception on old maps with sideways scenery depictions). Maps are more organised than what they represent on earth but are also more easily exposed to “manipulation, modification, erasure, and embellishment.” (Idem, p. 55). Chung exemplifies this with Borges’ story about a map that becomes one with the empire and with Eco’s essay On the impossibility of Drawing a map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1.


Map of the "Channels to Hong-kong and Macao Source: http//


On the other hand, subtopias are maps that represent what is now hidden, parts of a territory that has been layered and is now underground, as “places buried under time”. Maps are made of fictional time that never existed, and the places depicted by maps are by necessity subtopias. Moreover, “a map is in reality already in the past, because no map can be synchronous with time. A map is time frozen, but it is not the frozen time of any particular moment, for unlike photography, the making of maps cannot be a matter of  an instant but has to pass through a period of time pervaded by external change. Therefore, the time immobilized in maps is fictional time that never existed. It follows then that the places depicted by maps are by necessity subtopias.” (Idem, p. 58)

One of the concepts that became prominent during the development of my work was Transtopia. For Cheung, Transtopias imply the idea of transit: “Places that exist in the form of maps are inevitably fated to suffer transformation and transference, and as such they are like comets that travel unceasingly, circling over and over again, forever in the act of transit, never arriving at their destinations. Transtopia is a place with transit itself as its destination” (Idem, p. 61). 

My first few weeks in Hong Kong were spent mostly walking through the city, taking in all the city’s details. Navigating through the city while using GPS proved to be quite interesting: because of all the tall skyscrapers the little dot that represents us on the digital map of the city keeps jumping from one point to the next, rendering it impossible to assert with precision our exact location. Additionally, Hong Kong has a multitude of passageways that allow us to cross from one building to the next or over streets and highways. GPS is unable to tell you you have to go up or down one of such passageways, making the suggested path difficult to follow. 

Hong Kong skyscrapers and passageways

The towering skyscrapers, with their impenetrable reflective surfaces and viciously overlit environments, had a huge impact on me. The solid, sharp-edged building's surfaces would also be filled with flickering lights, profoundly changing the city during the night. As Juhani Pallasmaa states:
“The increasing use of reflective glass in architecture reinforces the dreamlike sense of unreality and alienation. The contradictory opaque transparency of these buildings reflects the gaze back unaffected and unmoved; we are unable to see or imagine life behind these walls. The architectural mirror, that returns our gaze and doubles the world, is an enigmatic and frightening device” (Pallasmaa, p.34).

As such, glass as a material and the shape of secluded boxes became two directions I instantly knew I’d use during the development of the work. On a different but complementary direction to my initial plan, the idea of a topological view of a scar or of a cavity was suggested to me by seeing the pavement bricks being ripped off from the ground during the protests in Hong Kong or the erased graffiti on the billboards at the city centre. 


Billboards with erased graffiti

Paired with that, knowing that mealworms actually eat styrofoam after my meeting with Reynald de Guzman, I decided to use this material for one of the artworks I was creating.  Single-use plastic is still widely used in Hong Kong, and not that long ago this problem was openly exposed when a typhoon hit Hong Kong in September 19th 2019, and brought styrofoam and plastic waste back into the city, attesting to the idea that our garbage is not “thrown out”:

“Hong Kong’s trash problem was once again brought to the fore after Typhoon Mangkhut ripped through the city on Sunday, scattering styrofoam and other synthetic material far and wide. The tropical cyclone brought a storm surge of up to 3.9 metres that flooded low-lying areas with marine refuse. [. . .] A recycling company, Chun Sing, said that they picked up around 0.3 tonnes of waste on Monday, among which were plastic bottles from 1998 and documents from 1995. [. . .] Cheap styrofoam boxes are commonly used in fish markets as containers and are often carried into the sea by the wind. The material is also widely used for disposable food containers. When disposed of at sea, the non-biodegradable polystyrene gradually breaks down into smaller pieces, or microplastics, that can be ingested by marine wildlife. [. . .] After Typhoon Hato last year, environmentalists decried the spread of waste swept up by gale force winds. They said that 95 per cent of the plastic waste was styrofoam and plastic bottles, adding: ‘It all came from us, though, not the typhoon. Hato just sent it’” (Jennifer Creery, HKFP).

The use of styrofoam as a material for my project is, thus, not innocent. As Joanna Zylinska states in her book Non-Human Photography, the “image of the Styrofoam cup serves as a time machine for us humans, one that not only helps us to imagine ourselves gone but also to see the limitations of our own, “this-worldly” horizon and perspective” (Zylinska, p. 100). As such, styrofoam functions as a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton puts it, it outlast and outscale us, as it is massively distributed in time and space (Morton, 2015). Here, this material was used as a representation of strata, a concept borrowed from geology and related fields that concerns the layers that were formed at the earth's surface. Will styrofoam and other plastics the prevalent materials in the layers that us humans will leave behind, still there hundreds of years from now?

Transtopia:Unmonolith. Glass dome with oatmeal and layers of styrofoam being eaten away by mealworms


During the residency, I had the chance to visit Macau and Japan for the first time. My visit to Macau took place on the third week of January, and I had the privilege of staying at Fundação Oriente’s delegation. The Portuguese influence is still very present, for example in street names, gastronomy, cobblestone streets, and architecture. 


Fundação Oriente’s building A-má Temple and a street in Macau

Coming back to Hong Kong, and due to the pandemic, the Chinese New Year festivities were canceled and everything in the city was closed: businesses, shops, galleries and museums, art fairs and festivals, etc. We were asked to isolate ourselves and stay at home as much as possible. Unfortunately, the chlorophyll printing workshop I had planned for V54 was no longer possible either. It was a time of uncertainty, reduced mobility, and travel restrictions.

Taking all the necessary security measurements, several field trips took place with the founder and director of In-Situ, John Lui. The search for bugs to work with started at the Bird’s Market, where we were told that silverfish would be impossible to find, as they would only be hatching in spring and they are not sold as food for other animals. The Bird’s market itself is filled with intricate bird cages, with beautiful birds. Old men meet at the market to take their caged birds for walks, place them in the sun, and admire them. Mealworms, grasshoppers, and cockroaches are sold as bird food.


Bird Market in Kowloon (second photo’s credits: John Lui)


        Visit to Discovery Beetles store in Kowloon. Credits: John Lui


Another possibility was to produce paper out of leaves so that the bugs could easily be enthusiastic about collaborating by eating the paper with the maps imprinted onto them. When visiting the MFA exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre I met the artist Cordelia Tam, whose work is paper based. Generously, Cordelia tried to pursue this idea at her studio. She collected leaves, dried them and beat them to a pulp and, pairing the resulting paste with paper pulp, obtained a paste that could be set out to dry. Unfortunately, after drying up, the leaves’ fibers got separated from the paper, rendering the resulting paper fragile and flaky. 


Cordelia Tam's collaborative experiment: making paper out of dried leaves. Credits: Cordelia Tam

Another very important visit was to Makerbay, a maker group based in Kowloon. César Jung-Harada and Maria Li Lok Yee showed us the space and all the possibilities it provides for researchers, artists, and scientists. Maria told me about bioplastics, a mixture of cornstarch and glycerin that could be used as a substrate for the bugs to eat. I was very excited with Maria’s suggestions and ideas and swiftly began experimenting with bioplastics and leaves.


Visit to MakerBay with César Jung-Harada and Maria Lok Li. Credits: John Lui

Experiments with bioplastics and leaves collected throughout the city

The field trip to the second-hand shop and sham shui po (district with several fabric shops where I collected samples to make the maps of Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan) was another crucial moment in the research. At the second-hand shop, while looking for old maps to work with, I saw a “Travel Document for Aliens” that immediately caught my attention. Being in transit implies providing proof of identity, usually in the form of paper documents that allow us to cross the invisible borders created by man. Which borders we are allowed to cross, for how long, and in which conditions, depends mostly on pre-established treaties between countries, and is largely beyond each individual’s control. 



Transtopia:Hong-Kong and Kowloon. Glass box with fabric samples and dermestid beetles


Despite the travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, it was still possible to collaborate with other artists and researchers, while acquiring a sense of shared presence and access to a community, as well as developing interdisciplinary experimentation. What different types of “transit” can we experiment to relate to other people and places? How can the notions of identity and difference be questioned in order to dilute the human-made borders and increase human efforts to heal our natural environment?

My sincere gratitude to:

César Jung-Harada
Cordelia Tam -
John Lui
Maria Lok Li -
Martina Marie Manalo
Prof. António Sousa Dias  
Prof. Mónica Mendes
Reynald Ventura de Guzman
Tim Chan
Vincent Lee
Kurt Tong

Fundação Oriente, with a special thank you to Isabel Carvalho e Ana Paula Cleto
In-situ: Hong Kong Artist Residency - John Lui

V54 - Dennis Chung and Mandy Chiu


Creery, Jennifer (18/10/2018). ‘A human disaster’: Piles of styrofoam washed up by Typhoon Mangkhut highlight Hong Kong’s marine trash problem, Hong Kong Free Press. Available at

Coupland, Douglas (2013). L’ âge des séismes, guide de l'extrême présent. Paris: Jeu de Paume.

Donne, John (1624). Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Available at:

Ingham, Michel (2007). Hong Kong - A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kai-Cheung, Dung (2012). Atlas - An Archeology of an Imagined City. New York: Columbia University Press.

Morton, Timothy (Jan 19, 2015). Introducing the idea of ‘hyperobjects’. A new way of understanding climate change and other phenomena. Available at:

Pallasmaa, Juhani (2012). The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. Cornwall: Wiley & Sons.

Zylinska, Joanna (2017). Nonhuman Photography. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press.


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