Action Art by Chen Chieh-Jen, Performed October 30, 1983, 8mm Film Transferred to DVD, Colour, approximately 20 minutes0In 1983, Chen Chieh-Jen, acting at a politically sensitive moment when elections for Taiwan's Legislative Yuan were being held,(1) organized some of his friends and carried out a guerrilla-style art action on Wuchang Street, a regularly monitored public space in Taipei's entertainment district Ximending. Chen's motivation was to disrupt the elections, as they were held in the context of the Kuomintang Government's martial law period and therefore neither free nor democratic.
Excerpts from an Interview: (2)
It's been 30 years since I staged Dysfunction No. 3, so I can't return to the exact conditions under which it began—actually, I don't think I've seen the video footage in 20 years. This being the case, I can only talk about my possible motivations based on memories, what I think about the piece now and the influence it's had on my later works.
As a child of the martial law period, born, raised and educated in that era, I merely intuited when I performed this work in Ximending that if I didn't directly address the limitations placed on freedom by martial law, if I didn't put myself in public space controlled by martial law's decree against public assembly and demonstrations, if I didn't position myself in such a way as to be on the verge of violating the law and thereby run the risk of colliding head on with the martial law apparatus—if I didn't do these things, then later I wouldn't be able to really see, to recognize, a body or behavior that had been disciplined by this same apparatus. Also, if I had continued to live under martial law without questioning, I would have never been able to sort out deeply internalized ideologies or imagine that life could have a different meaning, or society another structure.
I started thinking about possible ways of putting this plan into practice in 1982 when I was still in the military (3). After completing my service, I asked my brother and some friends in mid-1983 if they were willing to participate. I was 23 and my friends were between 19 and 25. They had either started working or were waiting to start compulsory military service. Perhaps it was our youth, but we all despised how suffocating life was under martial law. Surprisingly, none of us really cared about breaking the law or what unimaginable price we might pay, but instead eagerly participated in this plan to disrupt the elections.(4)
I chose Ximending's Wuchang Street (with its high concentration of movie theaters) because I was arrested there when I was still a soldier by seven or eight plainclothes police officers on suspicion of desertion, and therefore knew of this area’s extensive police presence. I thought carrying out my plan under this kind of surveillance was the only way to position myself at a critical juncture with regard to the law.
On October 30th we set out for Ximending wearing clothes resembling prison uniforms. After arriving by city bus at Wuchang Street, we ran into some friends of friends who wanted to join us after learning of our plan, so we gave them some video and still cameras that we brought. We then donned what are typically called execution hoods, walked in single file for about ten minutes and then started shouting. We were quickly surrounded by a throng of curious bystanders, some of whom wondered aloud if we were captured communist spies. The police had actually been watching us right from the beginning but didn't know what to do. Perhaps it was due to the politically sensitivity surrounding the elections, or the ever-growing crowd, but the police allowed us to proceed with our action.
Secret police from the Garrison Command rushed to the scene, but didn't arrive until we had completely finished,(5) and their presence had the unexpected effect of roiling observers. Surrounded by the crowd, the police and secret police proceeded to interrogate us about the purpose of our demonstration. After we casually stated that we were filming for the Government Information Office’s Golden Harvest Awards, the authorities only asked us for identification, took fake business cards that we made for the occasion, and then let us go. They then told everyone to quickly disperse, and we left, surprisingly, without further incident.
Thinking back on the event, it's surprising the secret police, who had such sweeping authority under martial law, let us go after hearing our far-fetched reason for the action. While the elections may have been a factor, it seems the crowd that spontaneously assembled is a more plausible explanation for our release, as it may have given the police some reservations about inciting an even bigger disturbance.
Several years later I realized the crowd wasn't just inadvertently protecting us, but rather their spontaneous assembly made possible something similar to a demonstration, moreover turning our action not only into a demonstration but also a public assembly. Their presence also rendered a closely monitored street temporary dysfunctional, in essence re-purposing it as a kind of public square or theater. Considering the public had surrounded and were looking at the secret police and police, this event could even be interpreted as an observing action against national surveillance. My point is, during that moment when the secret police and police were being observed, they were made to temporarily relinquish their position of authority as observers of the public.
It would have been impossible to publicly announce Dysfunction No. 3 beforehand and even more impossible to publicly present the film immediately afterwards. So no one knew this little event took place besides those who were there, and it had absolutely zero impact on the martial law apparatus controlling our lives. But the experience made me realize, if only a little, that no matter how closely the state apparatus watches, space can always be permeated to effect some kind of qualitative change from inside these systems or spaces. In other words, once we initiated a new way of imagining values and social constructions, the surveillance and control mechanisms of the state apparatus no longer seemed effective, and altering our desire and imagination produced a gap in the martial law system.
At the time, I was one of five performers blinded by a hood. As I walked I could still hear and otherwise sense the commotion of the crowd and worried that perhaps I had put my friends in harm's way by asking them to participate in this illegal action. Toward the end, however, I started to feel relieved and came to realize that martial law no longer had any effect on me, and this completely new experience arose from Dysfunction No. 3. Today I still cannot clearly say why my state of mind changed back then in 1983, but that experience has become a deeply seated memory for me.
Several days later, the 8mm film documenting the event came back from the photo-lab. Naturally when I watched it I could only see the external manifestations of our action and the crowd, but not my inner transformation. This loss encouraged me to start researching possible ways of recording and manifesting inner experiences. I would have to wait another nineteen years, though, before having a real opportunity to explore this possibility through filmmaking.
Because Taiwanese society was sealed off from the rest of the world during the martial law period, I never had a clear sense of what action art was. My friends and I were only trade or high school graduates who simply had hoped to find a job. Nonetheless, all people have experiences that they wish to share, and even without the precise language to do so, will still experiment and struggle with modes of expression. I also realized that our perceptions and imagination are the product of experiences and the complex reality in which we live, and cannot be framed with the existing aesthetic categories or problem consciousness of art history. Even if we had wanted to know the current reality, under martial law we were completely cut off from history and could only fumble about in a fog.
Generally speaking I found understanding history and identifying reality difficult after that time, and this contributed to my gradual abandonment of art after martial law was lifted in 1987.
After returning to my hometown in early 1996, I spent time looking at the military court and prison, processing zone, arsenal, anti-Communist martyr sanatorium,(6) squatter settlement and military dependent village which had been constructed to create the physical and psychological walls related to global and domestic political factors of different historical periods. I also spent time observing the people of this area and listening to their stories, people who came here from all over China and Taiwan for different political and economic reasons. It was these observations, along with all that transpired in the more than thirty years since I grew up in this area, which made me realize that an individual’s reality is composed of many different times, notions of time, memories, places, histories, realities, emotions and conflicts. Within every individual there exists this complex state composed of multiple fields, and so what we see at a given time and place is not the complete story. Perhaps this sounds like an oversimplification, but after spending a lot of time thinking I came to this realization, and then started to make art again.
(1). In 1947, during the last phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945 – 1949), the Nationalist Government in Nanjing drafted the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of Communist Rebellion, effectively freezing key parts of the constitution. After retreating to Taiwan in 1949, the Nationalist Constitutional Court reasoned that the first session of the National Assembly, including members of the Legislative and Control Yuans, would continue to exercise authority since it was impossible to hold elections. This arrangement remained in effect until 1972 when the first supplemental elections were held to compensate for attrition in the assembly. However, because the number of new members was so small in comparison to the size of the entire assembly, the elections were ineffective in the true sense of parliamentary systems of democratic governance. (Extracted from the article Elections for Supplementary Seats in the Legislative Yuan written by Li Hsiao-Feng for the Encyclopedia of Taiwan. View the entire article at: http://taiwanpedia.culture.tw/en/content?ID=3888.)
(2). This interview is excerpted from unpublished material collected by Chen Chia-chi.
(3). At the time, military service was compulsory for men in Taiwan upon reaching 20 years of age. Time of service varied from two to three years depending on the military branch in which time was served.
(4). In total, fourteen people participated: Chen Chieh-jen, Ni Chung-li, Lin Chung-chih, Mai Jen-jie, Wang Shang-li, Chen Geng-bin, Chen Chieh-li, Chen Chieh-yi, Shao Yi-de, and Chen Chun-dao.
(5). Responsible for enforcing martial law, the Taiwan Garrison Command forbade demonstrations and worker, student or business-owner strikes, as well as monitored, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned political dissidents. A detailed history of the Taiwan Garrison Command can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwan_Garrison_Command.
(6). Anti-Communist martyrs were originally members of Chinese People's Volunteer Army formed during the Korean War. Captured army members were confined to internment camps in Korea, where they became anti-Communist martyrs under either full or partial coercion, and tattooed with the words “反共抗俄” (anti-communist, anti-Soviet) to guard against defection. By 1954 more than 14,000 of these prisoners of war were sent to Taiwan, a portion of which were housed in the anti-communist sanatorium in my hometown.