921 Aftershock – a Taiwan Travelogue

Post-earthquack strategies of Independent Media

IT-stocks at Wall Street spasmed on the morning of September 21, 1999 after an earthquake hit central Taiwan. International rescue teams rushed to the side. 25 million Taiwanese in shock. Chip production in the ‘science parks’ had remained largely undamaged. Hard disk factories had anyway already moved before, to the other side of the Strait, to mainland China. Over 2000 people died under the rubble. After a short whole hardware manufacturing continued to soar again, wiping away last signs of the 97 Asian financial crisis in Taiwan. Presidential elections are due to happen in a few months. Two and a half months after ‘921’, the quake zone was no longer on the front pages, and will disappear for sure after March. So far the bits and pieces of the global Asian news as I perceived it, as I got in at Chang Kaichek airport, late November 1999.

It was two years before that I met Ilya Lee (ilya@gptaiwan.org.tw), a lively and gifted student in the humanities, and one of Taiwan’s Internet activists. Tokyo scholar/raver Toshiya Ueno had a weekend trip arranged, in collaboration with cultural studies professor Kuan-Hsing Chen (see interview in the nettime archive). In a backroom of a cafe, during a small meeting it was Ilya who showed most interest in critical issue in new media. The others participants were more into gay and lesbian gender bending, using multi-user environments such as MUDs and MOOs. At that time Ilya was involved in a rural area Internet project, training NGOs setting up websites. We maintained contact ever since and managed to get him to attend the tactical media conference Next Five Minutes, in March 1999. There Ilya heard of the Belgrade radio B92. Immediately after returning to Taiwan, in the first weeks of the NATO bombings, he opened the Chinese version of the Help B92 campaign. What at first seemed an exotic, let’s say futuristic gesture, turned out to be one of few independent, non-commercial, non-governmental web sources in Chinese, when the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade fueled another propaganda war, between Beijing and the West. Though critical of NATO bombing, B92 had collaborated with Albanian independent news organizations until the very end, when channels on both sides were shut down. The fatal, (auto) destructive policies of the Milosevic regime was the cause of all this mystery. The mysterious bombing of the Chinese ambush was distracting the audience, both in China and in the West, from this very fact. The anti-Americanism, demonstrated by the Beijing students in front of the American Embassy did not address the actual causes of this ethnic conflict in Europe. B92 and other independent media in Serbia did so, and were in great need of international support, voiced through the Internet.

Next to Ilya, awaiting me at the airport, was art critic and curator Manray Hsue, a fellow pragmatist and collaborator of ‘Cities on the Move’, an exhibition series dealing with the Asian metropolitan condition. Together with a few others, they had hastily set up the ‘Aftershock’ group, and were about to establish the www.restoration.org.tw server, meant to coordinate the communication between the numerous NGOs in the widespread zone of destruction. The aim of Restoration is to build both a social and technical network. A xerox reader in 250 copies with translations of texts on tactical media, starting from the B92 case, had been produced (mail manray@tpts1.seed.net.tw for copies). My coming to Taiwan, planned before the catastrophe stroke the island, spontaneously turned into a promotion tour for the ‘Restoration’ server. I found myself in the middle of a dense 8 days tour, with seven public lectures, each time with different topics and audiences, and meetings with activists on the structure of Restoration.

First stop after driving south of Taipei was Shihgang, a village in an agricultural area which suffered substantial damage. Abandoned, crashed high-rises along the road were first sign of what had happened. A two stories school had survived and was now used as office and meeting place, and storage for shrines and personal belongings. For the first time some 15 NGOs from the quake region came together here and presented their work and structure. The meeting was hosted by the New Homeland Foundation. Some of the groups dealt with social issues such as the sudden rise of unemployment, community work, while others worked on long term environmental problems, for example a broken dam. An oral history group had started recording personal witnesses in order to create a collective memory, whether a website or monument. Although the Taiwanese army had now withdrawn, civic support was still there, from Kobe (Japan) for example, the city which got seriously hit in 1995 (the group is called response: www.1.meshnet.or.jp/~response/index.htm ).

Where is the money, people started wondering. Who is accountable for decisions now being made over the architecture of schools and other public buildings? Will small farmers survive, what could be their take on modernization, or even selling through the Internet, as has already happened in some cases? It seemed that these NGOs, with some having webpages, all using e-mail, were now in the process of building up their own social and technical network. A lose decentralized civic net which would allow a variety of opinions, proposals and forms of expression, unlike the model of a hierarchical National Organization. Perhaps Ilya’s presentation of Restoration here in Shihkang was going to make a difference. The new social movements in Taiwan, originating in the late eighties, were now at a cross road. Will the earth quake with the help of computer networks, generate new forms, or fall back into top-down forms of organization.

Next stop Puli, the town in the mountainous center of Taiwan most seriously hit, with 50% of housing now to be taken down, a number which could grow to 80%. At the offices of the New Homeland Foundation, where Ilya had been busy in previous weeks, installing a linux network, we discussed possible telecommunication (and media) infrastructure. Some webspace on the popular Taiwanese Yahoo server seemed a nice offer, but the problems here, concerning education, urban planning, work, care for the elderly, were so big that seemed more appropriate to think a whole different scale. A fiber-optic network for Puli, together with community media, did not seem to contradict first need for housing. The tent villages in the parks were now about to be closed, and with it was coming a growing fear of isolation in remote metal barracks, away from the neighborhood. You cannot live in a cable, but then, what could be a debate about the future of Puli without a digital public domain?

Full Shot Studio (fullshot@tpts5.seed.net.tw) is one of late eighties video activist collectives, producing documentary films about social topics, memory and pain, ecology, Taiwan’s culture of aboriginals and other minorities. Full Shot has specialized itself in regional video training programs. Their work was presented at the 1999 Yamagata Festival of Documentary Film, which produced a brochure in both English, Japanese and Chinese (yidff@bekkoame.net.jp). One week before our arrival, the entire Full Shot crew had moved to a temporary house/studio in Taichung, the biggest city near the quake zone. From there 11 videoworkers, in 4 teams, have started to document the process of reconstruction – for a least one, perhaps two years. Looking at their promo, Full Shot has a straight forward, old school approach. This became even more apparent after the presentation of an ambitious project of four women designers and a photographer, called ‘So Studio’ who are bringing out a well designed, four color magazine, produced for a mountain village (so@www.abbeyroad.com.tw). Their particular interest was in recording people’s stories, printing their pictures, and recording landslide sites, to find out what the possible impact of the coming rainy season on the ‘shaven’ mountain sites will be. A discussion broke out over the question of representation and the need of locals for such a glossy magazine. The So Studio group emphasized that solidarity does not imply you are becoming a ‘mister total solution’. Full Shot insisted on speaking for the people, where as So Studio were more interested in developing their own esthetics, with the aim to hand over the production to the villagers as soon as possible. So’s website: http://voice.abbeyroad.com.tw

Next day we left the quake zone and drove further south, into the mountains, to Meinung, a town of 50.000 inhabitants, mainly members of the Hakka minority, in an area of tobacco plantations, mango, banana, and bin-lang, the stimulus chewing gum, sold along the highways by so-called ‘spice girls’. In 1993 a campaign started here to rescue the Yellow Butterfly Valley, just outside of the town. The government is intending to build a dam, which will destroy one of the last pockets of nature, now symbolically preserved in a park, run by environmental groups. The dam is meant to provide water to chemical plants and steel works on the industrialized West coast. Throughout the years the Meinung Peoples Association has proven to be a successful social movement, with substantial support within the local population. The topic of the meeting that Thursday night was Internet activism. The campaign has a website for some years (www.nsysu.edu.tw/sccid/mpa), and is associated with various groups and networks, worldwide, which fight against dams as well. How can new media be used, starting from this advanced level, with such a motivated and experienced group of activists? The crucial, perhaps final media campaign starts any time soon. RTmark, etoy, mcspotlight, any suggestions? Please mail to Chang Cheng-Yang (mpa@listserv.nsysu.edu.tw).

The second part took place in Taipei, and started with a press conference, a meeting with representatives of twenty ‘new’ social movements, of which most of made active use of e-mail, mailinglists and websites. Taiwan, known for its computer hardware manufacture, is hardly visible on the Internet map, mainly because of a language problem on the Western side (namely, not understanding Mandarin). It is needless to say that Internet is growing at a speed rate, with e-commerce, in its US-American form, as the dominant rhetoric. In this climate, with a relative weak net.culture, media companies can easily dominate this new medium. Some examples. A list called ‘South’, run by two editors (yuchang@ms7.url.com.tw) has a readership of 35.000, with little or no back channels. A business newsletter even has over 300.000 e-mail subscribers. Like in Japan, the more intimate communication happens through (telnet) bulletin board systems. Websites are simply too public. After having changed identity, being able express one self anonymously, Taiwanese net.culture suddenly awakes.

The screening of a video, full of hardcore European realities (war, drugs, pop), ”Victims of Geography” , is causing a healthy dose of cultural confusion. What is this gay nihilism, fighting for independent media without any social or political agenda? Digital existentialism, made in Yugoland. Attention is now shifting from contemporary media activism to convergence, mergers of telcos and the media industry, IPOs and the e-goldrush – global trends also happening in Taiwan. The island seems to be more international, even compared to a few years ago. More and more speakers, curators and artists are coming over for a visit, and work. This weekend we attended a lecture by the French theorist of new social movements Alain Touraine, and a mass performance by the somewhat sad, melancholic, yet extremely successful Peter Eisenman, who is now building a museum in Hsinchu.

Our discovery of an unused new media arts lab at the National Arts Institute on a hill, overlooking Taipei, packed with high-tech, including video and audio studios, without any students, hidden away amidst traditional and classical modern arts, gives an indication of the problems and hopefully potentials of new media. In this view on technology, equipment is seen as mere tools to serve other disciplines, such as graphic design, theatre and performance, music and film. In an over-politicized climate, where the arts have been instrumentalized for ideological causes, the computer user is seen as an engineer, assisting and programming other people’s concepts. The artist him or herself is trained in a traditional manner, using old media, from calligraphy to sculpture. In some cases the artist can call in the help of the new forms of expression, for example to document or amplify the work. In this traditionalist view, the computer does not have to develop its own language. It is enough to learn the software manual. This instrumental approach of new media culture ignores the issue of esthetics because neither the computer operator nor the artists seriously engage with the possibilities and limits of the machines. Technology is used in the way manufacturers have configured them, which in this case for example results in boring realistic 3D computer graphics, or, at, best, fractal art.

Computers are good for making money, and shipping chunks of data from here to there, and everywhere, but do not automatically produce distributed, democratic structure, nor interesting art. The next years we will see a further, spectacular rise of Internet use, and Taiwan will play a very interesting role in this, obviously because of the overwhelming, yet not always explicit presence of mainland China. The staged state propaganda war between Taipei and Beijing will be fought via the Internet, yes. And there will be cyber terrorism, or let us say some form of ‘infowar’. But this is all predictable. What mainland China obviously can’t produce yet, is an open, lively and diverse civic net culture. The danger and paranoia are simply too high. A subtle system of self-censorship has been put in place. The fear of being jailed one day, under different, yet unknown circumstances is there. So why bother and express your opinion on a public forum, using your own name? An anonymous chat might do. This results in an apparently chaotic, and wild Internet development, which can be cracked down at any given time. American models of e-commerce are the ones to profit from this silenced net culture, as consumerism will be only one option left. Having only a few, controlled portal sites, the Chinese might be condemned to ‘watch’ the Internet, and not use it, let alone further develop its (open) standards. The production of new media art forms, still happens in a context of joyful cocooning. But there are serious limits to these private, informal uses. What is neglected here is the collaborative nature of technology, in which multi-disciplinary approaches are not just a good idea but an absolute necessity. A technological culture is as complex as all other forms of creative or industrial work. It therefor needs medialabs, schools, festivals, exhibitions, public debates on its substance and direction, funding bodies and above all a (hopefully critical) discourse which is trying to make sense why we all need these media.

Taiwan is about to develop a rich a diverse third sector, also on the Internet, and the 921 quake certainly is a catalyst. But networks are not build overnight. They grow, sometimes fast, at times in unpredictable directions. And their impact remain invisible, as this is their very nature. So do not wonder if networks in Taiwan are forgotten about for a while.

(An interview between Manray Hsue and Geert Lovink can be seen at one of first independent web TV sites of Taiwan, www.etat.com).