This article was a transcript of a presentation delivered as part of a panel titled “The Spectral Terrain) at the 2021 Asian Art Biennial in Taichung, Taiwan. October 30, 2021.
Thank you to Thanavi Chotpradit (and Tessa Maria Guazon) for the invitation to join this event. Unlike others on this panel, I am neither a curator nor a participating artist. But, as a design and planning scholar, I do have a record of dappling as an artist from time and time. Today, I want to talk about a few instances in which these different paths intersect in response to the theme of the Spectral Terrain (or Ghostly Cities).
First, the “Spectral Terrain” suggests to me a kind of futurism that is other-worldly — something that goes beyond the human world, which was the focus of our project in 2018 for the Taipei Biennial, titled “Plants’ Eye Views of Taipei.” For this project, we imagined a future scenario in which plants develop eyesight. We were interested in how plants would view the city — views that could enable us to interpret the relationships between ecosystems and human systems.
The project started with a workshop for which we recruited fifteen students from the region. Each student adopted and impersonated a plant, and produced a video that represent the plant’s view of Taipei. Here is a consolidated clip of the videos.
Futurism from the Past
The notion of Spectral Terrain also reminds us that the future and futurism can travel in time, that is — they also exist in the past (and the past can come back to haunt us). In Taiwanese cities, it’s not hard to come across these futurisms from the past, which exist today often as forgotten corners in society, occupied by some of the vulnerable and marginalized populations in society.
There are many such instances right here in Taichung. Take this building as an example — Chung Ying Mansions（中英大樓） — buildings like this once represented the future of Taiwanese urbanism — a mixed-use building with a swimming pool, a rotating restaurant, and dance clubs. The building was considered the most fashionable and advanced form of urbanism till fires took away lives and led to the closure of the upper floors of the building. Futurism became a haunted house. The design of this building features a spiraling ramp so that one can drive or ride their motorbike all the way into the building — one of the tropes of the early Modern Architecture Here you still see the slope — as if streets have entered the building — putting futurism at your doorsteps.
Unfortunately, given the state of the building today, it is considered as an eyesore in the neighborhood, barely even a reminder of the glory of the Central District in Taichung — a once vibrant commercial center in the city whose role has been replaced by other districts in Taichung. Chung Ying Mansions was far from the only building in Taichung that experienced a similar fate. Another case, the Chikoshi Building（千越大樓）, is perhaps even better known. Similar to other mixed-use buildings in that era, the building once housed a department store, the first ice skating rink in Taichung, a rotating restaurant on top, and a modern supermarket — everything a developer can wish for in an all-in-one package. But similar to the fate of too many other buildings, fires and complicated ownership eventually led to the current state of the building — a ghostly remain of a more glorious past.
The ghostly remain became a canvas for graffiti artists drawn to the space’s ghostly and otherworldly ambiance. The building now seems like a portal to a sort of futurism from the past — layered with artwork that seems to amplify the ghostly presence. Some units are still occupied — but only by tenants who are there because it’s the only place they can afford to live. Dilapidated buildings like these have become a center of attention and debate following the fire at one such building in Kaohsiung that took away 46 lives. But as we debate the fate of these buildings, we need to recognize that many of these places have given life to a new form of urbanism.
Back in Taichung again, you are looking at a building that replaced what was once the city’s first public market during the Japanese colonial era. Unfortunately, like all the other examples above, the building has long fallen into disrepair. In recent years, however, this dilapidated building complex has been revived by an influx of migrant workers and new immigrants primarily from Southeast Asia. Particularly, small businesses that cater to these customers have given a new life to the aging complex, with customers who don’t just come here to shop but also use it as a social space during their time off from work.
Futurism of the Cosmopolitan Present
The City of Taichung has since renamed the building ASEAN Square, recognizing the economic importance of the migrant workers in the city and making the city a more welcoming place. The revival of these declining places is a phenomenon not just in Taichung but in many Taiwanese cities. In Taipei, for instance, the decline of the King Wan Wan Shopping Mall, once popular for buying imported goods. Its fortune was also reversed by an influx of new businesses that cater to migrant workers who frequent the area. What we are also seeing here, I argue, is a form of Asian Futurism — the futurism of a cosmopolitan present.
Migrant workers and new immigrants are not the only ones who are reviving the so-called ”ghost building.” In Taipei, the South Airport Apartment II（南機場二期公寓）has become a center of activities by young people for commoning and social activism. The apartment complex is located in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. But the building was actually one of the most modern apartment complexes in the city when it was completed in the 1960s. (Again, futurism from the past.)
Starting in 2016, a growing number of social innovation initiatives started to take place in the basement space of the building facing a central courtyard. The space, then called Nanji Rice, could be best described as a space of “Open Sourced Urbanism” — a different kind of futurism of the present — with programs such as a temporary market run by local nonprofits, a monthly repair clinic run by volunteers who came up with the initiative, a weekly recycling program, in partnership with a clothing company who upcycles the plastic bottles to make fabric, an exercise program for neighbors, also run by volunteers, free of charge, and also as an informal social space where staff, volunteers, and residents can share a meal or stories in the company of each other.
Recently, part of the original group has moved to a much larger, nearby location in the same basement — a 1,300 square-meter basement space that can function as a larger event space. It also hosts a second-hand store that collects and sells donated goods, space for classes on repairs, reuse, and recycling, and a regular craft and second-hand market. The space has taken on an unexpected role as well — When the neighborhood Wanhua became the epicenter of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan in 2021, IMMA became a temporary logistics center for accepting, sorting, and distributing donated food and supplies in the neighborhood, while providing job opportunities for people who were out of work.
Through these initiatives, what was once a declining space — again, futurism from the past — became a place of care and mutual aid. This form of care and mutual aid is the focus of a public art project that I am currently involved in Linkou, the site of the largest social housing complex in Taiwan. These are the fourteen groups of participating artists in this project. The main agenda for this multi-year project is to use public art practice as a medium of listening and learning from the local communities, and as a vehicle for building social relationships, creating mutual aid networks, and facilitating a culture of living together.
To conclude — In Taiwanese cosmology, particularly Taoism, ghosts are spirits of a marginalized status. They wander and are trapped in the underworld — much like the many living people in society. But the margins (or futurism from the past) can also be a place of care, a place of mutual aid, and a space of hope. If futurism represents a space of hope, this is the kind of Asian futurism that I look forward to joining.
Special Thanks to Zhi-Lun Huang for the guided tour of Taichung that introduced me to the sites mentioned in this article and to Fanhui Huang for the permission to the photo from IMMA.