AAA’s Larry Shao spoke with Taiwanese artist Kao Chung-li about his perspective on the power structure between imageries from leading pop culture nations and its dominating effect on non-western cultures, his passion for film, and how history is dealt with in his works.
Larry Shao (AAA): I understand you have a special love for the 8mm format. Could you tell me how that came about?
Kao Chung-li (KCL): I started taking art classes in high school and by 1977, I was a print major at the National Taiwan Academy of Art (國立台灣藝術專科學校). My peers in the department were very conservative in their thinking and we naturally had a bias against photography; the sentiment was that only those without skills in painting or sculpture played with photography. We felt it wasn't a technical medium, that there was no craftsmanship required, and that it was for those with bad grades, wealthy backgrounds, without talents, or for those who were a little weird. Yet it was a prerequisite. I was mischievous and thought, 'instead of taking pictures, why not make films?’ It was all the same to me.
The school had a film department, and I often visited a friend who owned an 8mm. It was a Canon 1014, a machine that was becoming obsolete and he didn't want it anymore; I liked that model a lot, a silent film camera. I had a high school friend who developed 8mm film. At that moment I had a machine that fulfilled my vanity. Instead of still images, I was making moving images, plus having my own developer, we did everything ourselves. Although I was only half compelled, I had the whole thing lined up.
Many passionate film majors organised small film festivals. Back before the Internet era we had to go to screening rooms to watch things and that was when I began liking films. The Germans and the French came to Taiwan to set up culture centres. These two countries are funny; they came and promoted films, and so I went to a lot of German and French film festivals around 1978. I met German director Werner Herzog Fassbinder. At that time Taiwan established a film archive and collaborated with the French culture centre often. The German culture centre was located behind the Taipei train station; these centres are still around but are not focused on films so much anymore.
AAA: You have 14 years of experience working for China Times 《中國時報》. You published Taiwanese comic magazines, quit abruptly in 1998, and then entered the fine art scene. Have you always thought of yourself as an artist or was it an identity that made sense to pick up over time?
KCL: No, I never aimed to become an artist. I came from a poor family and during that era there was no such thing as an art profession, i.e. making one's living by art making, to say nothing about supporting a family. Art making was not considered a vocation. Art and artists were abstract ideas for people.
AAA: Was there opposition from your family?
KCL: Oh of course. They were dead against it. I started making art in high school and they started their disapproval at the same time. My mother even hid my school acceptance letter under the seat of the family couch. Art school was where the rejects went; they could not recruit good students. Very few people would voluntarily go to an art academy, and there was only one, Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School (復興商工). If you visited, they would automatically send you an acceptance notice; the entrance exam was for formality’s sake only. My mother received the acceptance letter, probably said ‘what art and design?’ to herself and hid it. Luckily I sat on the couch and found the letter. This was a side of the society at the time.
AAA: Your work often wrestles with the power structure between imagery from leading pop culture nations and its dominating effect on non-western cultures. You have once stated ‘my motive is to liberate those who are media disadvantaged.’ Could you elaborate on what you mean by the 'media disadvantaged?'
KCL: The popular term today is globalism, but I think we ought to develop our own culture. We need to come up with our own way of storytelling. I teach experimental film in school, and frankly I don't understand why they have this course, but I just think there should be an alternative to the Hollywood narrative movies. In globalism, we can think of Hollywood as an image superpower. Just the other day I turned on my television. Everything on it was Hollywood; movie rentals too.
Although these movies feel very everyday and mundane, they are all of part of an image power institution. This institution is tied together with our daily lives and consumption. It's like they brainwash us, inject us with their lifestyles, and we have to pay them for doing exactly that, and by paying we nurture it to grow larger. What we need is our own way of telling a story, and a viewpoint of our own lives.
AAA: Do you teach this to your students?
KCL: You have seen my show ‘Watch Time Watching.’ Those sculpture pieces are my teaching materials and tools. It's actually difficult to spell out these ideas concretely, I have thoughts about images and tools and I turn those into my teaching materials. I am not didactic with it, and if I was it would depend on the context. I don't jump into it. That would weird out my students.
AAA: As a film enthusiast and an imagery cultural critic, what do you think of the recent successes in the Taiwanese film industry?
KCL: I don't watch those movies. Impossible, how could I possibly watch those movies?
AAA: But didn't you just say that we lack a way of telling our own stories? Aren't these good examples?
KCL: Those movies are lost costs and of no help to the situation I am talking about. I call them ‘cannon fodder films’, including those that won awards... none of them can really be considered our own stuff. For example, Taiwan attempted to organise a photo museum few years back. I felt we had no capacity to do such a thing. We don't have the need, and even if we did, we just expose the lack of images that can be called our own. We don't have Canon, we don't have Nikon, we don't have Fuji, or Olympus; we have nothing. We have no hardware and we lack software. Taiwan is known for having been an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) but has no original brands. We help Apple, existing in a triangular trade ecology; we open factories in China as Taiwanese where we might get some benefits, and manufacture for big brands, opening job opportunities for Chinese workers. These workers use their wages to purchase the iPhones and iPads they produce, yet ironically, we still have no brands of our own. Back to these award-winning movies, we are still using other people’s products to join other people’s film fests. That's why I say these movies are nothing more than expendable ‘cannon fodder.’ We produce other people’s stuff but not our own. Then we enter into their institutions and feel proud for winning. After that, then what? It's hard to paint a picture of an ideal state, when you are trying to make a fine film but realise we don't have our own film industry. But it really is hard to criticise; filmmakers can always respond ‘but we have won awards; we have a film culture.’ I can't really say, it's a difficult topic to comment on.
AAA: Tape players, slide projectors, 8mm recorders, and modified readymade gadgetry are the consistent low-tech mediums you choose to work with. Besides the obvious nostalgic quality of these mechanical devices, what other meanings do you hope to convey through these instruments from the past?
KCL: First of all, I don't think they are nostalgic items. I use them because they are cheap, just as I used 8mm because it was the cheapest film. If I were someone from a younger generation, I would make films with my phone camera. I wouldn't use 35mm, wide-screen. No film fest for me. I would just put together a website and show them online and that would be enough. Unless we have our own Panasonic, tools like Kodak, a nation with our own cameras, we are only promoting those companies. For the most part my mediums are chosen for convenience and cost effectiveness reasons, not really for nostalgia’s sake. If you give me 100 million or one billion, I'll go HD, but I have no money and I want to produce images, so I just use what's available from my surroundings. Things also change with age. For example, 8mm is too small for me now. It's a bit straining for me to work with, so I switched to slide film.
AAA: You mentioned earlier that most of the works are teaching materials. How did you use them in a classroom setting?
KCL: I just bring those materials to school and let my students see them; they are good for demonstrating film principles. Palm-Sized Physical Mobile Imaging Device, 2005, mold version 〈掌中型物理性活動影像裝置〉 as patented. It was a piece demonstrating animation, showing how images become animated. The other one Rocking Rather Than Swinging 〈左右擺不如前後搖〉, 2010, flip lenticular, readymade) is optical grating. To make an image move does not necessary require the assistance of a camera or an actor. These image machines produce machine images, but many things do not require the same tools to be seen. If I paint a ten NTD coin with a marker, then erase to get only the contour lines for Chiang Kai-shek, then I draw vertical lines on the back, set the coin spinning, it would look like Chiang is behind bars and thus become a political message. Techniques like this are everywhere. You should try it.
Though I am not anti-technology and actually wish I was more tech-savvy, I am always thinking of the alternative ways to animate things. It doesn't always need to be the camera lens. I like to reassign the purpose of these tools to do something other than what they were meant to do.
AAA: How do you deal with history in your work?
KCL: My work from the Taipei and Venice Biennials is all hand drawn animation. With those, I don't think I purposely deal with history, at least not history as we know it in a mainstream way. I use my father's point of view, because he has lived a long life and has thus accumulated more experiences than most people. I like using my father’s perspective to examine official history.
Taiwan has a long past of rejecting socialism and communism; we all grew up with an anti-communism education. By the time the USSR disintegrated, Taiwan felt 'it's over for the communists', and started to release books and literature from that world into ours. After the 1989 Tiananmen incident, then the USSR, then Eastern Europe, we all thought China was next, but instead they just got stronger and stronger. Marxism, Chinese communists ideologies, we no longer considered them dangerous, and to use it was quite a novelty. I bought, read, joined book clubs, so you should find traces of that in the works; my reflections from reading are all in there. It did affect my views on social science and became my perspective on history. I was already working in the media industry, Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國) had just passed away, politics was at an all time high, an age of big changes. Through text we saw people from another world with another set of ideologies.
I actually encourage my students to read selected works from Marx and Engels. You don't have to read the whole thing; perhaps the first 200 pages of the first volume is plenty (that's actually how much I read). Much like how a Christian uses the Bible, I think there is good stuff in it. I read it as an aesthetic book. Treat Marx and Engels’ selected works in terms of aesthetics. I have definitely benefited from those books. People see Mao's ideology as a joke, but it was useful. When China first opened up, Western reporters left Hong Kong and Taiwan and went directly to Beijing, mostly Americans, expecting chaos to erupt. We were familiar with each other because of work. They knew Chinese, and I didn't know English. They visited during the lunar New Year; they got time off and came back to Taiwan. They brought me communist gifts as a joke. They thought communism was over, and asked why I was going backwards to study Marx. They brought back the book Quotations from Chairman Mao's to mock me. Although they mocked me with those books, I thought they were good stuff. I am not joking, Mao has some good stuff. Marx has even better. I don't treat those as social science books but aesthetics.
AAA: What is your relationship with the media industry nowadays? Any commentary you would care to make on the current state of things?
KCL: I haven't read a newspaper for past 20 something years and I don't watch TV much. My father got sick and I haven't sat in front of the TV for the past two months. I didn't keep up with the recent election. I am a bit out of it. I don't really know what's going on out there. You might find my thoughts a bit messy.