On entering the no.4 warehouse in Songshan Cultural and Creative Park for the originally named Taipei Original Festival 2013 (原創基地2013), one is informed that they are about to be taken on a journey back to ‘La Belle Époque’. La Belle Époque was a time full of optimism and joie de vivre in late 19th and early 20th Century France, when there was relative peace between turmoil and war and the arts were brought into quotidian urban life. Technological advances were numerous: automobiles, motion pictures and neon lights were invented, vaccinations were developed and radioactivity was discovered, all leaving legacies which have shaped modern life. This year’s City, Play Stage (城市‧遊‧戲台), curated by Meta Hong (洪雅純), borrowed the idea of La Belle Époque to refer to the period since democratisation in Taiwan. The songs of local rock band Mayday (五月天), love tracks such as Love, Love-ing (戀愛ing) and Peter and Mary (志明與春嬌) were chosen to represent the era, alongside the legacy of the island’s rapid advancement to become a top global exporter and science & technology hub.
Passing through to the Sound Lab, visitors are immediately hit with a sonorous stun grenade by the huge, bold and booming techno robots, designed by Akibo (李明道). After recovering your blunted senses as the inebriating loud music pauses, the visual multi-luminosity of colours on the screen wall opposite come into view in which direction the Akibo bots appear to be blasting their lasers. The multi-coloured screen is psychedelic, trippy and visually pleasing, leaving shadows of nature hidden amongst the minimalist white warehouse setting. Occasionally small shards of lightning flitter across the screen, in this work which gently nudges rather than slaps your senses, subtle enough that many of the visitors will miss the sparkles completely and move on, numbed as their senses are by the robotic behemoths opposite and the smorgasbord of sound coming from works in all directions of the warehouse. (pics of robots and wall in one shot or two separate)
In his work, The Next Memory, the sound mélange is something French artist Alexis Mailles is trying to convey of his observations about sound culture in Taiwan. For Mailles, Taipei exists in a constant noise barrage, “Sound is coming out of all the shops, all the time, all mixed together and everyone is really used to it, it’s quite incredible, people work 12 hours a day in that sound, which would be unthinkable in Paris, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone.” As a sound installation artist, Mailles is used to having a space where the loops he produces play in unison with the visual installation on display, as with the previous year’s Taipei Original Festival where he was allocated a small Japanese room for his exhibition (pic of last year). Yet, for the first time he did not add any sound to his installation, deciding not to go into open battle with the dominant sonar forces of his surroundings, and instead adopting guerrilla warfare with the use of huge spotlights and colour glistening amongst the white noise.
“The war is to let something different exist”. Mailles attempts to find a space for art to survive in Taiwanese mainstream culture “Contemporary art is very distant from mainstream Taiwanese culture. There is Karaoke, there is culture but they seem to have no need for art.” At this sort of commercial event with one warehouse for exhibitions and performances and one warehouse full of shops, all creative culture is lumped together including student works, design pieces, technological displays, sound, installation and performances. Whether or not Mailles musings on Karaoke culture fairly represent the visibility of contemporary art in Taiwan, in this setting, he feels any piece of art is going to lose its context, the work that goes on behind is forgotten and it undergoes a ‘recuperation’ as just another piece of culture like all the rest. Mailles recognizes that this is an appropriation of culture by commerce from the people with whom culture belongs and a ‘recuperation’ of art from the artists.
To allow art to exist in this space, rather than confronting mainstream consumer culture directly, the installation chooses to focus on lighting instead of competing and adding to the sound inebriation. Even if people can take the time to breathe, to concentrate amongst the information overload just a little, that is enough to suggest that there are different ways of doing things; a little bit of terrorism, without direct confrontation. This is a minor detournément, a hacking of the wonderful age linguistics to provide the vocabulary for different opinions to exist and be expressed in mainstream culture.
“Can we hack culture?” asks Mailles. With a background in computer engineering, it is perhaps not surprising that he prefers to adopt the philosophy of the hacker to that of the artist. He feels that hackers are now freer than artists, with fewer rules, and find it easier to reuse one thing for another function. “In the hacker philosophy the beauty does not come from the composition, but from its efficiency.” And nothing is more efficient than growth in nature, with branches and foliage always finding a way over, under, around and through the proceeding obstacles. While putting the installation together with land artist Chris Lee (李蕢至) they also tried to follow this principle of efficiency. Mailles points out the example of the bamboo which holds up the spotlights: rather than fixing them at level points, he fixed the nodes at the strongest point of the bamboo, the joint, leaving a pattern reminiscent of musical notation.
The hacker philosophy also emphasises transparency and openness. The process behind open source software is not hidden, instead the full workings of their creations are there for the whole world to see. Indeed, those who stay a little longer to appreciate may continue on to see the workings of the installation, behind the screen wall on which they are reflected, though some curiosity is required to venture into the hidden away room. Mailles works always make sure to include this surface aesthetic or retinal layer and colour manipulation, creating a space in which some people not yet versed in the complexity of contemporary arts might yet stay longer and reach a deeper level of contemplation (see eRenlai’s 2010 interview about his works). Chris Lee’s trademark is the creation of natural settings in built spaces or the reconstruction of natural landscapes, always with an emphasis on the greater interconnectedness of nature (see blog for Lee’s impressive collection of works). With electricity cables laced amongst plants, lamps perched on branches, and spotlights affixed on bamboo, we feel nature’s reinvasion of the artificial city and here we feel the subversive charm of the work. With the booming robots visible through the cloth screen (pic), you are in a living imprint of humanity after the apocalypse, where only machines and plant-life remains.
Mailles felt it rather ironic that he was invited to make an installation based on Mayday and a vague optimistic notion of the wonderful years. He used The Noah’s Ark song which Mayday performed for a year leading up to the supposed Mayan apocalypse as a starting point for building a piece themed on “LABelle Époque”. In the lyrics of the apocalyptic No Where tour (末日版), Mayday asked:
"At last, all we can take away is the garden called memory [...] Which memories to be kept for commemoration?" (最後我們只能帶走 名為回憶的花園[...] 你会装进什么回忆纪念).
With the planet still standing, Mayday immediately began to perform the optimistic play on words Now Here (末日) version of the tour.
Mailles’ work is not so optimistic. The age of crises is not over. Noah’s Ark was based on disasters dispatched by God. The disasters of the day are now manmade. Since the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 and the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the world has lived in fear of a human caused destruction of the living planet. We are reminded of pictures of Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster, where nature now exists aesthetically crawling over the human ruins, trees climbing up walls, and all is silent. There is still a sense of impending nuclear disaster after Fukushima, and one legacy of Taiwan’s Belle Époque is to become the most densely nuclear producing area in the world as it continues to expand its nuclear capacities. In this context, this work poses us the question, what could be left over, what might be “The Next Memory”?
But how many people will go behind the screen, appreciate the layers of work behind it, let alone be affected by it? And perhaps there lies the true irony of this cultural hack, an exasperated self-mocking of sorts, destined as the deeper meaning is to remain hidden behind a façade of colourful allure.
The following quotation from Marcel Proust’s novel, Swann's Way, included in the work's introduction, gives a hint of the cultural hack Mailles is performing, making salient the absurdity of this memory-fest. After taking a bite into his madeleine cake, the protagonist proceeds to contemplate the memory that has been stimulated by the taste, questioning the essence of memories contained in objects:
"When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection." (Translation from French by Scott Moncrieff)
“After the bomb, after the people are dead,” Mailles explains, “the vast structure of recollection is far less credible…”
 A rerouting, hijacking or hacking of the expressions of media culture and the capitalist system, pushed by the Letterists, the Situationists from the 60s and later the culture jammers.