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Almost There! Positively Charged at Taipei Arts Festival

Fault Lines artist Kasia Molga on presenting Positively Charged at Taipei Arts Festival

Author: Kasia Molga

The long room adjacent to the exhibition space, where we worked, had a glass wall. Outside, 37 degrees and it had just started to rain from the heavy graphite concrete clouds. Violent buckets of waters pouring on each single square centimeters of Taipei. That happened on my way back from one of many regular trips to the local Carrefour store. (The Taiwanese version of this French chain is something else, let me tell you that!) I couldn’t differentiate raindrops from my own sweat any longer. My espadrilles were soaking wet and all my clothes stuck tightly to my body. I entered the DAC building carefully, so I would not spill any water on any of the electronic components scattered everywhere. Upon entering our working area I heard an optimistic and reassuring “Almost There!” That was Semi, buzzing around from one task of making Positively Charged to another. “OK! OK!” I answered, thinking about my next task and whether we would ever arrive to the end point.

I was very lucky to find this most amazing collaborator to make my artwork happen on the other side of the globe. Semi was carefully selected from the few CVs and interviews – the recruitment process took place back in April – when we were looking for someone “to be me” on the ground, to liaise with Taipei Arts Festival (TAF), the CNC (computer numerical controlled) factory and PCB (printed circuit board) manufacturers.

“Almost there!” became our catchphrase. The amount of work that had to be done to make Positively Charged happen, and the way it was scheduled due to time constraints, meant that the last few days before the opening were 12 to 14 intense hours long. “Almost there!” always sounded reassuring. I do not know if Semi knew how good an effect these words had on me. With these words he created time and space for himself to get on with his tasks while letting me getting on with mine. It was also encouraging – to go this one extra mile in order to finally get there.

While making technology art – whether probing new applications of existing technologies, using technology as a media to create narrative, or connecting technology in new ways (therefore, in some way, creating new devices) – one must never forget Virilio’s Accident theory. The technology used in the artwork is there to tell a story. However one must not forget that this technology can have other effect, and instead of telling the intended story, it gets out of control and does entirely new things (read: near disasters). This law applies to the finished product or device (i.e. as per Virilio’s example train and train crash), but in the case of making a tech art piece – this law rules the process of installation. And so the 100 tiny PCB boards from China, responsible for fading in and out almost 1 km of EL wire, didn’t work as expected (as on our prototype in Europe). For one horrible evening the whole exhibition was hanging on by a hair, until Zhang Jiawei found a problem, and then a solution. Then there was an unexpected discovery that Raspberry Pi, the computers we used to make parts of the exhibition work, couldn’t show the data visualisation and play the sound at the same time… discovering this ten minutes before the opening also didn’t help. The lack of a fast reliable internet connection occasionally set the whole install back for hours. I do not want to start explaining why some things were left so late to test – there were very good reasons for that (a story for another time). However, it didn’t end up in a disaster at all. Each obstacle was eliminated thanks to the dedication of everyone working: Natalie, our ever so versatile curator soldered 100 capacitors; Semi for endlessly going to shops to purchase new electronics, downloading disc images, connecting all components and in general overlooking a whole construction knowing each detail; Rosie for keeping us all sane by just doing whatever she was asked to do and looking after volunteers; Julia for making sure we ate and liaising with other parties so we were not disturbed; Erik for staying up all night in a timezone halfway across the world to work in Taiwan with me on million of software parts, testing and redeveloping on the fly; Chen Chen for patiently going through cables, housing the units for the installation while fixing them all, and then filming us all; Zhang Jiawei for debugging vital organs; volunteers doing all mindless but crucial and time consuming stuff; Scanner for responding to my sound emergency request during the middle of the night in Europe and granting a permission to play one of his tunes from our other artwork; and Lulu, the Taipei Art Festival development officer, for listening to endless list of requests with patience, calm and delivering it all to us with a smile. The “almost there” disasters was prevented and thanks to this amazing positive energy of people, Positively Charged was a success – its title suddenly taking an entirely new meaning.

When all of the installation went up – a bit wonky but sturdy enough – and everyone involved on the site for last ten days started to crank, for the first time in my life I cried out of happiness seeing my work – well – working so beautifully, powered by my loving collaborators. I wept like a baby on Semi’s shoulder and in Rosie’s arms. Sleep deprived, exhausted, relieved and clearly pathetic.

Positively Charged is about how we, residents, can be positive particles – powering up the gigantic and hungry organism/machine which is a city. Expanding urban developments drain a lot of resources from the outside environment, often leaving it depleted and wasted for years after. On one hand these resources – energy and power, whether it is food for residents, electricity for houses or fuel for transport – are needed to keep people sustained and comfortable. On the other hand due to shortcomings of available energy harvesting technologies, a lot of it is wasted – escaping as heat and contributing to environmental imbalance. There are of course inventions and research on how to capture that waste and turn it into usable energy, but this type of technology, albeit almost there – is not there just yet. While pondering on the subject of energy harvesting (inspired by Drew’s, Julia’s and mine research visit back in February) one cannot escape imagining how city such as Taipei will tackle this issue in the future, and how new ways of energy harvesting will affect its citizens. Coincidently The City and its Future was a curatorial theme of TAF, and Positively Charged was a direct response to it.

The subject of future of the city – and therefore the future of us – along with its citizens and societies is obviously as old as humanity itself. With ever evolving technology, it seems to me that we all are after this sci-fi utopian vision of the city – living in the harmony with each other and environment in the never ending, clean, perfect, over-designed happiness. When listening to talks from architects, sociologists, technologists or designers, we seem to always be almost there.  Each new technological concept and advance gets us closer and closer, but for some reason we never seem to just arrive. We are always Almost There. As Elan Mastai in his book All Our Wrong Todays summarised it: “We imagine all these post apocalyptic, class-stratified, newtopia. We imagine all these post apocalyptic, class-stratified, new world-order techno-futures. But actually the real world, the world we live in, this is the dystopia. It’s not a totally garbage idea. It’s funny -ish. It’s just fundamentally your so-called utopia is more of the same crap. This idea that we’re in control of the world. When, in fact, all of our attempts to take control of the world and make it do what we want it to do have been, like, abject failures. The world didn’t become a total shit hole because we do not have enough control of over it. It became a total shit hole because we tried to control it.” I do not think that the world is a bad place, quite the opposite. I am in the state of permanent awe of the beauty of this planet,  including a lot of human activities. But it must admit that Elan Mastai is not entirely wrong either, in our perpetual state of running after happier, better and fairer world, we have destroyed a lot on the way.

Taipei is unlike many other cities, partially situated in techno-futures and a new world order, but with the scent of stinky tofu connecting it to the basic, biological, dirty (in a good meaning of this word), fluid and very much analogue texture of its location. Environmentally, ecologically and with the big sense of collective responsibility citizens can seamlessly travel between high-tech metro system and the most amazing quirky tradition of night markets. There are no rubbish bins in order to eliminate pollution, instead there are trash vans deployed a few times per day, loudly playing beautiful classical music (such as Fur Elise by Beethoven), informing residents that it is time to take their rubbish out. People form orderly queue on MRT (helped by ever so well designed signage) in order to smoothly let passengers out and with no problems to get in. There is music played before trains arrive; apparently all metro lines have got their own tunes. Nothing seems to be ever late. Even out of the city – in tiny villages – there is no sign of rubbish, no plastic bags floating around, not even a cigarette butt. And stinky tofu is made still in the same traditional way as hundreds years ago – by fermenting for years a mix of soya beans and vegetables, sold in small stalls on corners of high-tech roads, in between glass buildings and at the crazy and wonderful night markets. I love this combination of old and new in Taiwan – the beautiful balance where everything has its own place, nothing is too  over the top – where one can go to one of the biggest electronic components shopping centre in the world and 2 minutes later enjoy a hand made dumpling from the tiny bar hidden in the narrow street next door (which might look poor and tiny, but still has a toilet with heated seat and music to make one relax). The stinky tofu makes Taipei almost there in its futuristic vision, but I really hope it will stay that way.

Continuing on the subject of balance, and coming back to Positively Charged, I must add that this installation was inspired as well by the power shortages in Taipei during the typhoon months. It is hot – so hot – that living without air conditioning must be almost impossible. However modern air-con technology, while cooling with one side, produce and release enormous amount of heat with the other side. It is very easy to sense it walking past industrial units with their back to streets, the sudden blow of hot air makes 37 degrees feel like a breeze. The extensive usage of air-con units also drains a lot of power, and so the power shortages and cuts are not uncommon. While we were there at the beginning of August, the news was that even in the government buildings people agreed to turn their air-con off to prevent outages and save energy for those who need it most. I was told by creative director of TAF, Yi Wei, and a few other representatives of various cultural institutions that the installation of Positively Charged couldn’t be more timely (especially because one of the elements of the installation is tactile feedback of heat and cold).

Yi Wei summarised Positively Charged in the context of the curatorial theme as experiencing new technologies – in this case the power generating technologies – in new way, by finding new connections in its application, which can only be demonstrated by this art installation. His enthusiasm towards technology and art, and the possibilities to feel, hear and perceive surroundings through combination of the two, has been truly infectious. That view was second by Christina Chou, from ITRI (Industrial Technology Research Institute), who stressed how important it was to see the future from the artists’ perspective. Through their research, and application of their technologies by people, the future of the city dwellers could be shaped.

One of the nicest comments was expressed by Taiwanese British Council Head of Art’s Shu-Chun Lei who said how relevant to the Taiwanese society the element of interaction was: visitors had to “work” together to find the right balance to keep the display “on”, if they worked too little it would turn itself off, if they were too eager, the display would got out of control and eventually turn itself off. The collective sense of balance is deeply rooted in Taiwanese collective consciousness. But at the same time, the profound respect for individuals with all the quirks and weirdness, such as in case of Positively Charged, was apparently conveying it well with individual pulse sensors.

And so coming back to the “Almost there!” While Taipei is the almost there futuristic city I hope it will stay that way. Positively Charged is also almost there, with plans for next iteration being better and stronger… and with a much less stressful setup. However, I feel that Positively Charged in Taipei is just there – I feel a sense of deep satisfaction after seeing it working and resonating so well with the public. Besides it seems that now is a good time for art and tech to combine – the new agenda of Taiwanese Cultural Foundation is focused on bringing these (still new for Taiwan) forms to public domain, with the help of amazing local artists and international collaborations.

I am grateful for this almost there situation, because it is most often when new friendships are formed. Where things do not go smoothly and there are a lot of loose ends, the support, understanding, personal connection, and close collaboration make it all worthwhile. And so here is to the team again: Natalie Kane, Semi Su, Erik Overmeire, Chen Chen Yu, Julia Turpin, Rosie Wan Ting, Zhang Jiawei – I bow before you all – thank you. Albeit in this case the permanent state of almost there would most likely kill us, while we are moving on – let’s never forget about the stinky tofu.

A commission from FutureEverything’s FAULT LINES talent development programme, Positively Charged premiered at Taipei Arts Festival at the Digital Art Centre, 7 August – 3 September 2017.