Forced Offline Viewership
After the Taiwan Biennial was launched by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), it was transformed into an international biennial in 1998 when Fumio Nanjo was invited as the curator. From 1998 to 2020, the Taipei Biennial moved away from the cultural attributes of Asian contemporary art and life towards the critique and presentation of body politics, borders, everyday heterogeneous landscapes, and globalization. The number of local artists decreased, while local teams were relegated to the fringes. Since 2010, technological life has become a key component of the globally shared process of modernization, while the geographical concept of the Anthropocene began to serve as a common platform for cultural examination. Despite the ongoing intervention of interdisciplinary collaborations and panel discussions, due to institutional, personnel, human, and opportunistic considerations, criticism within the Taiwanese art world has largely remained under the table.
For the Taipei Biennial, which puts particular emphasis on achieving ecological transitional justice, this unspoken mechanism has itself created a situation that inhibits resistance. The reason the Taipei Biennial of this year has forced people to speak out is due to the fact that its mode of presentation has become, as discussed by international scholars, ” transmissive,” and the intervention of interdisciplinary activists mere constellations within a visual landscape. The collective silence of Taiwanese artists who support transitional justice is accepted as political negotiation and diplomatic patience, while dissident voices are dismissed as partisan campaigns inspired by ulterior motives. This is the irresolvable dilemma of Taiwan’s art scene. In the case of “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet,” these “political and diplomatic tactics” and “new diplomatic encounters” of the dwarf planet of the art world has reached the level of self-monitoring, “a fear of seeing” as well as “a fear of being seen that you could see.”
Continuing the exploration of the Anthropocene, while also forming a subset with its predecessor “Post-Nature” in 2018, the Taipei Biennial 2020 invited Bruno Latour as curator, who proposed the theme: “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet.” The team adopted the curatorial concept of “political and diplomatic tactics,” in the hope of creating “new diplomatic encounters.” According to its official website, “diplomacy” is defined as a series of skills, procedures, and cognitive patterns adopted by stakeholders either before or after a conflict occurs. The key feature of a diplomatic encounter is that there exists no supreme arbitrator that can determine who is right or wrong in a conflict situation.(1) This is a form of flat thinking that is paradoxically post-modern and pluralistic. The difference between it and the 1980s is the emergence of technological media as a tool of representation.
Expecting the Transit of a Comet
In 2020, the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts in Taipei organized “an artist’s biennial,” shrouded in secrecy; the Taipei Biennial 2020 in turn orchestrated “a scholar’s biennial” with plenty of publicity. “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet” is essentially Latour’s solo exhibition, turning the Taipei Biennial into his mouthpiece.
Ever since he co-authored the book Laboratory Life with sociologist Steve Woolgar, Latour has been associated with the field of “science and technology studies.”(2) Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes, his work on public health, and We Have Never Been Modern, an anthropological approach to the African cultural situation, were translated into Chinese in 2012 and 2016 respectively in Taiwan. In addition, Latour gave a lecture in 2017 on “The New Climatic Regime: Science, Politics and Denial” at Academia Sinica. In response to his speech, Hung Kuang-Chi, professor at the Department of Geography and Environmental Resources of National Taiwan University, wrote an article entitled “What is the World According to Latour?” criticizing Latour’s notion of a flat world.(3) After the TFAM invited Latour to be curator of the Taipei Biennial 2020, another one of his books – Face Á Gaïa: Huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique – was promptly published in Chinese translation in July 2019. Generally speaking, Taiwan has been very receptive to Latour and his work, which explains the heightened expectation for his potential influence.
The theme of “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet” came from a lecture Latour delivered in 2018 at Harvard University: “We Don’t Seem to Live on the Same Planet: A Fictional Planetarium.” These concepts from earth ecology, which are not unfamiliar to Taiwanese educated readers, became the structural basis of the Taipei Biennale. (4) Besides the production of knowledge, the use of electronic technology as a medium to represent the ecology of human life is a performative approach Latour has adopted in recent years when organizing forum-style exhibitions in Europe and the United States. In terms of the characteristics of the exhibitions, it is in the vein of the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, i.e. exhibition as a mode of production within the context of Western civilization. However, when this performative model is displaced and reproduced in an Asian urban art museum as “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet,” the representation of this discourse encounters a setback in terms of art diplomacy.
Latour’s glaring lack of anthropological experience with Asian modernity, with its process of modernization, ways of negotiation, habitual thinking, and the dilemma of Taiwan’s inability to participate in the World Health Organization results in an ineffective localist discussion trapped in intra-regional self-circulation. In the end, the exhibition settles on transplanting knowledge systems, providing taxonomical supplements, presenting local project results, and reinterpreting existing works. “Down to earth” is thus replaced by the offline scenario of “up to the sky.”
Latour’s Down to Earth has been translated into Chinese as “Where to Land?” (著陸何處), while the idiom “down to earth” also means “to be earthly” (接地氣). In the course of this biennial, Latour’s theoretical vision and his intent on local dialogue have locked horns with each other. Magnified cell phones, magnified tablets, and magnified screens introduce Earth ecology, not unlike a geoscience magazine. The TFAM is thus turned into a large natural science lecture hall. A handful of local artists sandwiched between a massive amount of information on natural science, becoming de-contextualized visual patterns, shallowly and ineffectively proclaiming the uncommunicative technological life and the return to nature. His world is flat, but the TFAM has placed it on a pedestal.
Land Connection at High Altitude
From “down to earth” to “up to sky.” Why isn’t it possible to replicate this well-tried methodology of the mainstream Western world on a southern island in Asia?
If “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet” were an art exhibition, it should be considered in the context of ecological or environmental art. Because technological development began early in the West, the interdisciplinary, artistic, social, professional, and public qualities of Western ecological art have gone through many eras with different focuses and configurations.(5) The term “ecology” itself is derived from the Greek word “oikos,” which means house. Symbolically, it represents the concept of “home.”(6) From the small “homes” to the “home” of a global village, ecological art has both a regional and a global dimension. The locality is unavoidable and can never be flattened.
Concerning the representation of ecological concepts, mainstream ecological research in Europe and the United States has already entered the stage of propagative informatization and systematization. In particular, “system theory” was derived from the “general systems theory” of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s and Ross Ashby’s Introduction to Cybernetics in 1956. Both argued that systems of reality were related to ecological interactions and that new material revolutions could be generated through migration, penetration, exchange, and interaction. This concept was adopted by sociology, which believed that the cause and effect of ecological formation could be observed from physiological, physical, technological, and social patterns. Based on this initiative, relevant artists also adopted the concepts of boundaries, injection, output, process, definition, interiority, index, and message from systemic ecology as methods of presentation.
In the art world, the Venice Biennale chose “From Nature to Art, from Art to Nature” as its theme in 1978. The Israeli pavilion exhibited a group of living Northern Italian cotton sheep that were confined in the exhibition space. The German pavilion cut boulders. The French pavilion showed a collection of plant specimens. The Dutch pavilion demonstrated fish-eating methods. The Brazilian pavilion displayed plant specimens and folk crafts. The Indian pavilion exhibited pictures of people farming and dancing. The Australian pavilion pebble installation landscapes. The Spanish pavilion felled timber. And the British pavilion partial reproductions of stratigraphic structures and landscapes. These visual, geo-magazine-like, and science fair-style representations were criticized within the art world and stimulated the emergence of a new set of vocabulary for artistic expression in the 1980s.
On the other hand, during the Cold War, developing countries became backyard factories to the Western capitalist societies. Concerning ecological awareness, as economic considerations and survival needs took priority, it was not until around 2010 that bottom-up physical resistance began to take shape in order to protect the Earth, indicating a cognitive disconnect in terms of modernity from the wealthy and self-satisfied countries. This kind of cross-disciplinary cooperation demanded governmental or private funding and eventually evolved into street protest movements and cross-disciplinary speeches, using language and the body to transform the laws of life. Even the field method of anthropology made a comeback. As a result, to engage in dialogue with the Earth, different methodological approaches were developed across different regions.
The Evolutionism of Information Carriers
Concerning transmission, the concept of simulation offered a practical path for eco-artists. In the 1980s, discourses on simulation were combined with situationist activism. These artists produced large-print posters as public manifestos or used bus advertisements to spread slogans around the city, viewing public space as an advertising ground to spread new social ideas. Nowadays, spreading words through simulation has been replaced by the far-reaching communicative force of virtual electronic space.
Negotiation as method has also given rise to the reasonable notion of “forum as performance.” In 1989, the California College of Arts and Crafts coordinated ” City Sites: Artists and Urban Strategies,” inviting Oakland artists to discuss the relationship between their work and the structure of their communities. Later, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized a large-scale symposium, inviting a large number of critics, museum administrators, and artists for a three-day discussion on “Mapping the Terrain.” The forum has since become an important event in contemporary international exhibitions. Over the past 20 years, the Documenta forum has not only become a trendsetter, but also a circle of power formed by a chosen group of invitees.
Entering the 21st century, an invisible and borderless domain has become the more advanced ecological field and method of representation – the cloud space. “Information ecology” became a shared resource across different domains. Replacing the concept of locality, this ecological space could be a library, a hospital, a self-service movie store, an internet cafe, a business interpreter, a school, or other institutional venues. However, the reason why well-tried methods developed in certain regions cannot be replicated in other places is that this performative model creates the illusion that Western “modernity” is a one-way street and that cellphones and the internet are a global phenomenon. It thus ignores the fact that these globalized 3C products do not necessarily serve as communication platforms for “local modernities.”
Many modern concepts based on the premise of “Earth is our home” have to be accomplished in Asia through physical resistance or negotiation, rather than through technological carriers and alliances among educated intellectuals. Latour’s practice, however, makes ample use of technology and digital data to create flat, aerial, unearthly representations of environmental space. This discursive mode of his representation and vision relies on the latest carriers of technology and digitization, which are related to the mode of communication of ecopolitics under digital technology. The inherent dynamics and pluralistic practices of the so-called “local” ecologies thus become exceedingly hollow, and since this discourse depends on dialogic performative methods that only serve the minority, such as “theater of negotiations” or “parliament of things,” its communicative power is severely limited.
The Latour phenomenon in Taiwan is only a primer. The “Artist’s Biennial” that took place at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts in Taipei and its parallel governmental and commercial venues in the same year of 2020 shows that the social aspect of the art scene in Taiwan has become far more prominent than the artistic one. In this artistic environment, the so-called political, natural, and social reforms or transformations are, in fact, only the production and design of issues. Nevertheless, an exhibition that is discussed has a higher positive and negative residual value than an exhibition that is merely ignored or glorified.
- See the TFAM official website (2020/12/21).
- Bruno Latour, trans. NG Kai-Hong, Chen, Rong-Tai, “Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes”, Taipei: Socio Publishing Co., 2016.
- Hung Kuang-Chi, “What is the World According to Latour? Active galactic nuclei_96”.
- In the article “We Don’t Seem to Live on the Same Planet: a Fictional Planetarium,” Latour proposed a list of seven planets: “security,” “globalization,” “Anthropocene,” “terrestrial,” “contemporary,” “modernity,” “escape,” and “modernity.” See link.
- There are many contemporary native, natural, ecological, biotechnological, and technological “artists,” both international and local. Environmental art in the Anthropocene has a history of over 150 years. The relations between its artistic, social, professional, and public aspects have already gone through many eras with varying focus and configurations. Many of these artistic actions that examine the Anthropocene are able to reflect the common ground where regionalism and globalization overlap and contradict each other. By connecting with the discourse of mechanism, the discourse of environmental protection, the discourse of material history, the discourse of heritage preservation, the discourse of recycling, the discourse of communication, and with professional research, the audience is able to see the “past” and the “future” in these collected, itemized, and represented materials, rather than just the descriptions of documents and information. See Chapter 10, “The Artistic Concept of Green Fingers,” in the author’s “Catching Rebellious Shadows: New Myths of Contemporary Artists”, Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Co., 2005.
- In Weber’s dictionary, ecology is related to the living environment. See the etymology of “ecology”: a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments. Dictionary: In Webster’s Dictionary:”1.habitat or environment, 2.eco-logical or environmental”. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, p. 365.