What does it take… Notes on Ars Electronica 2014

What does it take to change? Creativity, catalysts, craving, community, control? The letter "c" seems to incorporate many or most parameters for technical, social, and artistic development, no other letter could have provided a better thematic structure for the festival's multiple ways of finding answers or asking new questions about change.

From: Regina Dürig

What does it take to change? Creativity, catalysts, craving, community, control? The letter “c” seems to incorporate many or most parameters for technical, social, and artistic development, no other letter could have provided a better thematic structure for the festival’s multiple ways of finding answers or asking new questions about change.

Roy Ascott writes in his first article ”The Construction of Change”, published in 1964: ”Art shapes life. (…) Through his work, the artist learns to understand his existence. Through the culture it informs, art becomes a force for change in society.”

Ascott doesn’t use softer words like impulse or idea, he uses force, including a certain aggression, leaving no doubt that art can really make the difference. There was one work among the many pieces that were to be discovered in Linz, which for me had the same emphasis, a similar strength. Even though on the surface it seemed quiet, nearly peaceful. It was the four channel video installation called Realm of Reverberations by the Taiwanese video artist Chieh-Jen Chen.

 realm-of-reverberations-1Chieh-Jen Chen, Realm of Reverberations


What is left when all is gone

Realm of Reverberations grasps change in all its agony, showing the complex and desperate emptiness caused by it over time.

The black and white videos show interviews and silent shots of different people who live and lived in Taipei in the Losheng Sanatorium, a nursery home for people with Hansen’s disease. Built in the 30s to isolate those suffering and keep them away from society against their will, it became over the decades a home, a world for its inhabitants – having lost their connections to their former environment where they weren’t allowed to be anymore. In 1994 the Taipei Department of Rapid Transit Systems decided to move their train depot to the Xinzhuang District, to the property occupied by the Losheng Sanatorium. The construction work started in 2004, the remaining residents were supposed to be relocated. Having been arrested their whole life, the patients were now supposed to leave the buildings, making way for the construction site. But where should they go?

Twice in their life an existential change was forced onto them – first they had to leave their families and live encapsulated in the nursery home. Now their former prison is being taken from them, a prison that has become their home.

The installation shows the sanatorium’s buildings already abandoned, the inhabitants, a former nurse, a woman who visits the patients and a fictional political prisoner. It is a poetic documentary about the history and fate of the Losheng Sanatorium, but also a general portrait of those who are not in power and thus can’t chose the change, but have to suffer from its consequences. C for condemned.

 realm-of-reverberations-3Chieh-Jen Chen, Realm of Reverberations


From this I will built myself up again

From a transdisciplinary point of view I’d argue that change is not only the ideal consequence of art, but always an inner motor to produce a piece of art in the first place: c for construction of self.

One example for this dimension of change can be found in Franz Kafka’s entry in his notebook from October 1922: ”Writing denies itself to me. Thus the plan for autobiographical investigations. Not biography, but investigation and retrieving of potential small elements. From these I will built myself up again, just like someone whose house is insecure wants to built right next to it a safe one, maybe from the material of the old house.”

Kafka doesn’t want, as he notes, to write about himself, but he wants to investigate himself through writing, like a doctor investigates a patent, like a substance is examined in a laboratory. In German ”untersuchen” consists of ”unter” (under) and ”suchen” (search), it implies to look for something under the surface. What Kafka expects to find are elements or parts (”Bestandteile”) he doesn’t describe any further, maybe we can call them truths, memories, impressions. Elements that can be connected to other elements, merging into a new substance or matter.



In the end these elements construct the one who is investigating.
”From this I will built myself up again”, noted Kafka, he strives for a stabilization through re-narration. In German “aufbauen” has, besides the constructional aspect, also the notion of encouraging someone emotionally. Kafka wants to stand on safe ground, regarding his personality and history, he wants to create a functioning environment. The newly built narration becomes a shelter, becomes the actual home of the person it is told about.


From self to collective, from finding to imagining

For me the vibrant energy of this quotation is the aspect of re-narration, of re-construction the own or collective history through art. In my reading the ”aufbauen”, the building/encouraging through artistic investigation, is full of hope. No irrational, naïve hope, but a very reflected, constructivist hope. It includes the belief that we have a sovereignty of and responsibility for our own (personal and collective) story.

realm-of-reverberations-2Chieh-Jen Chen, Realm of Reverberations

A belief that the author of Realm of Reverberations seems to share, following his biographical note: Chen Chieh-Jen, born in 1960 in Taiwan, ”re-examined his family history and his childhood experiences through the lense of Taiwan’s modern history, after the regime had ended in 1987. Returning to art in 1996, his video productions aimed at re-imagining, re-narrating, re-writing and re-connecting.”

Maybe we can say, what it takes to change in an artistic point of view is the re- : the belief in re-construction and re-narrating as a precondition for the c.


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