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Instigated, curated and hosted by the internationally renowned media artist Shu Lea Cheang, Taiwan’s first official Feral Lab was held at the Taiwan contemporary cultural lab (C-Lab) in Taipei from December 14 to 20, 2020: “Lab Kill Lab”.
As Shu Lea Cheang sits down for a video-chat in the kitchen of C-Lab in central Taipei, two separate groups of Phytopia participants are already hiking in the mountains, communing with the forest. Mushrooms are growing in a corner, cultivated to be eaten during the final Kitchen Social Act. The Wateria team is out gathering water samples for pollution analysis in the lab. In another room, the Rice Academy is experimenting with different microphones and sensors to capture the sound of rice bugs eating their way out of grains of rice. Each morning, afternoon and evening, C-Lab buzzes with practical workshops, presentations and performances, all of them open to the public and livestreamed online.
It wasn’t easy to organize Lab Kill Lab during the ongoing global pandemic. Shu Lea herself had only recently emerged from two weeks of quarantine. But the biggest challenge was working around timezones and livestreams so that the node-leading artists in Europe could still maintain an active presence (only three of the nine international artists invited could come to Taipei). This was partially resolved through regular streaming sessions with collaborators in Taiwan on Jitsi and Youtube.
At the same time, Lab Kill Lab is firmly rooted in Taiwan. “When conceiving this lab,” says Shu Lea, “I always knew that if I invited someone international, then I should have a local counterpart to pair with them, so there would always be a more local perspective.”
In fact, it was Hsiang Ling Lai, the director of C-Lab in central Taipei, who initially approached Shu Lea about setting up a biolab on site. But for the veteran network artist, simply buying more equipment would have been redundant. She suggested creating multifaceted, temporary labs that would foster more exchanges and theoretical “cross-contamination” of ideas and practices among people in real space.
Finally, she proposed Lab Kill Lab as a feral lab concept for diverse voices in environmental (h)activism, including non-human and post-gender representation, practically implemented both on site at C-Lab and in the forests and coastal waters around Taipei… and sonified by all means possible. This weeklong “temporarily activated feral lab”, produced by Escher Tsai together with Monique Chiang and a dedicated production crew, was structured around five work stations, each with its own specific approach to interacting with the natural environment, and each with its own story.
Phytopia: giving voice to trees
“The whole project started with Phytopia,” Shu Lea begins. The theme of the first work station was derived from Slovenian artist Špela Petrič’s “phytocracy” manifesto, featuring speculative fictions and radical role-playing from the perspective of plants. Stuck in Europe, Špela ended up streaming a talk about her Deep Phytocracy: Feral Songs, but the phytopolitics were already resonating with two forest-oriented individuals on the ground in Taiwan.
Chen Keting, an outspoken advocate for plant empowerment from the rural mountains of Pinglin in the southeast of New Taipei, led a group of six participants who responded to an open call—phytochemist, bioartist, florist, technologists, tree-huggers—into the forest to “bring back the soul of the trees” for self-governance and sovereignty. His outing was inspired by an incident in Pinglin where 13 Alexandra palms were cut down due to lack of information and communication, leaving fresh logs and debris on the scene. Keting posits: “If trees that died in bizarre accidents could come back to life, how would they narrate the endless words they want to express before they died?”
Another excursion was led by the shaman and s/he artist Dondon Houmwm from the Tomong tribe in Hualien on the mountainous east coast of Taiwan. For their final presentation, Dondon’s collaborators were an aboriginal singer, an aboriginal writer about legends, an experimental filmmaker, and a light artist. Together they trekked through the woods, listened to stories told by tribal elders and explored the legend of Hagay, naked androgynous beings who taught human hunters to understand the forest.
Wateria: giving voice to water
The Wateria work station came about from a similar desire to sonify the living soul of polluted water. “Two years ago, I was introduced to the coral reef crisis through a demonstration about endangered water in Taiwan, and it stayed with me,” Shu Lea recalls. For centuries, the Datan algal reef along the coast of Taoyuan, just west of Taipei, has been home to rare, endemic marine and coral species, but in recent years is seriously threatened by industrial pollution.
For Wateria, Shu Lea invited an ecologist from the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute to methodically sample and analyze the chemical toxicity and acidification of the seawater, as well as three sound artists to convert the distress of marine micro-macro-organisms into audible, transmittable S.O.S. signals: “Around Taiwan the water is quite polluted. I really wanted to make it into an issue, to say that water is a medium that can transmit waves—radio waves, sound waves, water waves…”
The work station kicked off with a streaming workshop by Xosé Quiroga of IMVEC (El Instituto para la Monitorización Vecinal de Espacios Contaminados) in Barcelona to build your own Coqui conductivity sensor and circuit that emits a sound whose pitch varies depending on the pollution level of a given liquid.
Rice Academy: giving voice to bugs
“Rice bugs come from within the rice,” Shu Lea explains. “Apparently the rice grains already have rice bug eggs in them, so if you store the rice at the right temperature the bugs will come out.” So all the rice that we eat already has these bugs in it? “Yes,” she replies, “but according to scientists it’s ok, you’re not going to die from it. The fact is that you cannot avoid it.”
The Rice Academy is a collective which includes members of the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute, an old rice factory in Taitung in southeast Taiwan, mechanical engineers from Taipei, and artists Shu Lea, Taro, Hsien Yu Cheng, Martin Howse (streaming from Berlin) and Franz Xaver (streaming from Linz). Together the artists worked to capture the sound of two types of lab-raised rice bugs (more than ten thousand of each) living in jars, using custom-made sensor boards, ultrasonic microphones, ultraviolet lights, radio transmitters, and other ad hoc devices. So far, we can hear the ominous crackling of their hungry stirring.
“Japanese artist Ryu Oyama studies mutant rice plants, so he went to Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and collected rice from there,” says Shu Lea. “This morning he also showed me his bags of rice with bugs in it… So this is the rice bug revolt! We hope to develop it into an opera. The theory is that if there is a revolution in any society, it actually comes from within. The rice bugs symbolize that.”
Technoia: giving voice to technofeminists
“I always wanted to bring the techno-trans-feminist concept to Taiwan,” Shu Lea continues. “Here there is a huge IT force of women coders and programmers, but they end up becoming digital slaves for big companies… I want to demystify technology from a transfeminist point of view, with the idea of using technology for pleasure.”
The Technoia work station was animated in person by Constanza Piña (Chile/Mexico), who has been organizing Cyborgrrrls Encuentro Tecnofeminista in South America since 2017. Along with Yen-Tzu Chang and Hai-Ting Liao, two Taiwanese sound artists who also make their own electronic music instruments, Constanza led two workshops: one around the sensuality of technology, the other—titled “Fuck the soundcheck: Against sexist violence in the sound test”—more practically focused on accessing knowledge in a male-dominated field and gaining the confidence to “convince the sound guy to work with you”.
Shu Lea elaborates: “As a female sound artist, you can go from being an amateur, playing around, to wanting to be serious, then going to a big venue and not being taken seriously. Quite often it happens. As women, we always have to prove ourselves twice as hard as men—that is for sure, I can easily confirm this theory! […] For this workshop we got 36 applicants: 35 women and 1 queer boy. We took them all!”
Forking PiraGene: giving voice to genes
Among the five work stations, Forking Piragene is special. The theme is revived from the once-censored 2001 project Kingdom of Piracy (curated by Shu Lea Cheang, Yukiko Shikata and Armin Medosch), which explored digital commons and online piracy as the Internet’s ultimate art form. Taiwanese artists Ilya Eric Lee and Autrijus Tang proposed the PiraGene Discovery Campaign, whereby “everyone can join the action of discovering a gene inside everyone, which determines the ability for creation and cultural survival acts”, and PiraPort: “an alternative ‘identity platform’ for pirates, via Gene discrimination, Port multiplexing, and Cross-signed trust chains”. Alternatively, PiraGene and PiraPort imagined a world where anyone could harness the history and potential of their own genome, or where genes could be used to craft a new form of securely distributed identity.
At Lab Kill Lab 2020, Forking PiraGene was dedicated to Ilya, who passed away suddenly in 2019, and is still best represented by Audrey (formerly Autrijus) Tang, who has since transitioned from male to female and from hacktivist to becoming Taiwan’s first appointed digital minister, promoting transparent governance and democracy through digital media.
In a livestreamed talk moderated by Japanese curator Yukiko Shikata, Audrey Tang explained how PiraPort highlighted the importance of pseudonymity, as in the freedom to explore new identities and new possibilities. And at a time when Taiwan is considering adopting e-ID cards, Audrey wholeheartedly invites White Hats to hack the prototype test electronic-identity cards. She also pointed out the potential role of art and speculative design to magnify the dark side of digital ecologies, to maximize the harm of dystopia and explore its negative effects on society. By the same token, she said, art can imagine more beautiful alternatives.
Describing herself as “hopelessly optimistic”, the 39-year-old minister proposes idealist alternatives to existing protocols, such as assistive rather than authoritarian intelligence, and assistive rather than corporate technology, which are aligned in the best interest of the collective or the human using them. And in a digital age where pandemic lockdowns have underscored our basic right to learn, work, communicate and play, Audrey affirms that broadband Internet connection is a human right.
While she is well aware that nature, if not climate change (typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.), will have the final say, she also believes that the United Nations’ sustainable goals will be successfully met by 2030, and that humanity will reconvene to reset them. Seven generations down the rhizome, the generations will converge, says Audrey, and it is our duty to leave the world a better place logging out from when we logged in. For Taiwan’s digital minister, the notion of good or bad is more effectively expressed by sustainable or unsustainable; we are united by our common destiny, while transculturalism brings us together. She concludes with a poem that ends with her words: “Whenever we hear that a singularity may be near, let us always remember that the plurality is now.”
Forking PiraGene invites artists to propose their own interpretations of PiraGene and PiraPort in today’s world. Among the proposals submitted so far are genetic experiments with rice seedlings by Ryu Oyama (last seen in March 2020 as the co-organizer and local host of Hackteria’s Oki Wonder Lab in Okinawa), Adriana Knouf’s Exomio Fragmissions, Ultra Immune Taipei City by Theresa Tsun-Hui Tsao+Paul Gong+Po-Min WU, IDystopia 2035 by Ipa Chiu+Chia-Liang Kao+g0v Community, Forkonomy() by Tzu-Tung Lee+Winnie Soon, and five Michael Connor curated projects on Rhizome.
Kitchen Social Act: giving voice to food
Shu Lea’s Kitchen Social Act actually started off since 2015 as a 48-hour cooking-as-survival-tactic at Stadtwerkstatt (stwst48.stwst.at) during the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria. “In the idea of lab,” says Shu Lea, “for me it’s important that people have time to talk together, eat together. This is one of the traditions I learned at almost all the labs in Europe, where participating artists are cooking themselves. This may be the very first time it happens in Taiwan on such a large scale.”
At Lab Kill Lab, each night’s Kitchen Social Act was hosted by a different team. The bioartists proposed an experimental appetizer, ranging from quarantine hotel-bathroom-raised mushrooms to various fermentations to a veggie rice burger, all complemented by homemade stews and, of course, abundant rice.
Every night at C-Lab, people came in to cook, eat and share together after a hard day’s work. Some people even contributed their own homemade concoctions. “Yesterday Keting’s grandma brought in a large jar of chili sauce. It was beautiful,” Shu Lea adds. “And with Rice Academy we got to know a lot of rice farmers, so we make sure that all the food we use comes from those small farmers.”
On site, in the fields and online, livestreaming from Europe, trekking through the forests and hatching out of rice, Taiwan’s first feral lab will certainly not be its last.
More information on Lab Kill Lab