CHAOS, COMPUTERS, AND CYBORGS. Developing the Art & Technology practices in Taiwan

Yu-Chuan Tseng (Taiwan)

Antoanetta Ivanova (Australia/Taiwan)

Background

The history of Art & Technology practice in Taiwan can be traced back to the late 1970s when the first ‘Laser Promotion Association’ meeting was held in 1977. The aim of the event was to introduce laser art to Taiwan. It was a small, specialized field limited to research and development projects with no public outcome. At that time there were no cultural institutions, which would support the exhibition of such art. In 1988 the Taiwan Museum of Art (now National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts) was inaugurated. One of its early exhibitions was ‘High Technology Art’ featuring Kinetic Art, Video Art, Laser Art, Computer Graphics and Cyber Art.

In 1990, upon returning from her studies in Japan, one of the most influential Taiwanese cyber artists, Peisuei Lee, staged the exhibition “Computer Art”. In 1992 she published a book also titled Computer Art; a compendium of Peisuei Lee and Yoichiro Kawaguchi’s computer artwork “Fractal”. Through these seminal projects “computer art” was asserted as a legitimate term marking the emergence of the new media art form in Taiwan. Today, the broadly accepted term (in Chinese translation), which describes art and technology practices is: digital art, although Art & Technology and new media art are also used.

Academia

In the 1980s and 1990s there were no Art & Technology or computer art courses offered within the Fine Arts programs of universities. Around 1990 subjects such as Video Art, Installation Art and Multimedia Art were introduced but mainly focusing on video production and object installation. The early 1990s marks the emergence of the first wave of Taiwanese digital artists who, after having had opportunities to study abroad, returned to Taiwan with new ideas and methodologies that brought together art and digital technology. Many of these artists became university professors introducing new media art theory and practice at a tertiary level. The early courses in Computer Art were introduced within the various Schools of Design and Multimedia, with primary focus being on animation and computer games design, with some academics making individual efforts to broaden the curricular into digital art.

Since, three key Art & Technology programs that have been established at Taiwanese universities. In 1992 the Center for Art and Technology was founded at the Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA). It is the first university research center solely dedicated to exploring the potential and innovative aspects of digital art. The center has three laboratories: Tangible Interface Lab; Trans-Sonic Lab, and Trans-disciplinary Media Lab.

In 2001, TNUA founded its Graduate School of Art and Technology, which was transformed in 2010into a Department of New Media Art offering undergraduate courses in new media art theory and practice. Some of the most renowned established and emerging Taiwanese artists are graduates of this program.

The National Taiwan University of Art (NTUA) hosts the Digital Art Lab, established in 2001 as part of its Department of Multimedia and Animation Arts. The program comprises of research courses, exhibitions, seminars and international exchanges through which students are encouraged to push the boundaries of Art & Technology research. Through the application of digital moving image production and postproduction technoques, interactive installations and digital performances, new experimental and cross-disciplinary works are developed. The Graduate School offers digital art courses both in theory and practice. The students of both of TNUA and NTUA have become the backbone of the activities of Taiwan’s digital art society.

In 2001 Chun-Tung University established a PhD program with its research focusing on digital art theory and practice. In 2006 the interdisciplinary group ‘TransArt’ was founded by senior academics from the Institute of Applied Arts, Institute of Music and Institute of Architectures. The group run a ‘New Media Experimental Practice’ course offering students the opportunity to work on tarns-disciplinary performance projects. The idea was to not only encourage the creation of such works, but also to allow students to take part in a process of particiantion, and in doing so learn through observation and exprimentation.

Art & Science research

The Graduate School of Art and Technology at TNUA is the first academic program dedicated to technology art. With an engineering background, its inaugural director Xiaoniu Suchu Hsu (also director, Center of Art and Technology 2005-2009) became the first engineer-academic to cross into the humanities through the introduction of technology-driven art research and practice. This enabled the school to bid for funding from the National Science Council, with most of the projects in the program being in the field of Future/Digital Museum, Digital Archive, Innovation Technology Development in Digital Life, and Creative Space. The pioneering program comprised of studies in engineering, technology art, and animation, according students the opportunity to gain conceptual and practical skills in both engineering and art. Students completing the course had to learn mechanical engineering, software programming and interaction design as part of their arts curricular. Even so, there was no science or technology research facility involved.

Taiwan’s Chun-Tung University focuses on the development of science and engineering. One of the digital art pioneers at the university has been Tien-Chun Cheng, who consistently has tried to encourage collaborations between the Arts and the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering but never succeeded.

In Taiwan, it is a popularly held view that significant qualifications are those leading to better business opportunities or entry into civil service. To prepare for university entrance exams high school students need to focus on subjects such as Math, Physics and English. The pressure to do well at such subjects—in order to be accepted into competitive university degrees—has had a negative effect on students’ general interest in the arts.

Because the value of an engineering or science degrees is held in a higher regard than the arts, Art and Science remain in two separate domains with no tangible crossovers, be it at an academic or art practice level. The practice of Art & Science collaboration is not understood in Taiwan. Generally artists and engineers follow traditional lines of delineation between the two disciplines. Any team attempting to develop Art & Science projects will have no guidance as to how to harness the knowledge practitioners from each discipline bring into the mix, and true collaboration will not be realized. The outcome of such collaborations remains to be art-driven, which means that the engineers’ skills are regarded as being subservient to the artistic process, and science or technology collaborators are not credited as legitimate co-creators of art projects.

Museums and Galleries

Some of the milestones in the development of the Art & Technology field of contemporary art practice in Taiwan include the 2004 exhibition ‘NAVIGATOR: Digital Art in the Making’, realized under the auspice of the Cultural and Creative Industries Development Plan’s, Digital Art Promotion Program of the Council for Cultural Affairs, Executive Yuan of Taiwan (now Ministry of Culture). The exhibition introduced trends in Western digital art, showcasing the integration of digital technology and art. International artist included Art+Com (Germany), Blast Theory (UK), Ross Cooper (UK), Jussi Ängeslevä (Finland), Jodi (Netherlands+ Belgium/Spain), Josh On (Netherlands/USA), Golan Levin (USA), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (Mexico/Canada), Christian Möller (Germany/USA), Christa Sommerer; Laurent Mignonneau (Austria), amongst others. The artists also participated in public forums in order to share their professional experiences and insights.

In 2006 the ‘Digital Art Festival Taipei’ was established. It is an annual event featuring international and Taiwanese digital artists; comprising of an international exhibition, awards in Digital Art, Digital Art Performance, Digital Art Criticism and K.T. Creativity (student competition), digital art workshop, artist-in-residence exhibition, and an animation program. The focus of the program is on trans-disciplinary Art & Technology practices. The Digital Art Festival is managed by the Digital Art Foundation, which since 2006 also oversees the activities of the Digital Art Center. The Centre’s mission is to nurture the development of emerging Taiwanese artists, and harness cross-platform and cross-regional cooperation.

In 2011 TNUA hosted ‘Transjourney, Future Media Festival’, which is envisioned to become an annual, large-scale event showcasing local achievements in integrating art and technology. It is sponsor by the Ministry of Education under its ‘University Teaching Excellence Program’. More than 40 digital artists and groups, from Taiwan and abroad, participated in the first iteration. Its three themes are: present exemplary Taiwanese art projects in interactive art, cybrog sculpture, digital performance, sound art and video art; showcase pioneering international artists such as Nam June Paik and Herman Kolgen, and also display the research achievements of the Center of Art and Technology.

Championed by a handful of private gallery owners, new media art was introduced at the 2009 and 2010 Art Taipei art fairs through a series of specially curated exhibitions; and at the Art Taipei Art Market Forum through presentations by international guest speakers discussing Asian New Media Art and trends considering the sector. Currently there is a small number of pioneering private galleries working hard to introduce video and digital media art to private collectors. Compared to trade in contemporary visual art, the private and corporate collecting of digital art, including video art, in Taiwan is in its early stages of development.

Public Funding

The 2004 ‘NAVIGATOR: Digital Art in the Making’ not only stimulated local discussions on digital art within academic and creative circles, but it also captured the attention of senior politicians and policy makers within the highest levels of government.Today the Ministry of Culture and the National Culture and Arts Foundation provide grants for the creation and dissemination of Taiwanese Art & Technology projects. The ‘Techno Art Creation Project’ funding scheme of The National Culture and Arts Foundation was available between 2005-2007. A grant of 500,000 NTD was awarded on a competitive basis. A total of 18 projects were produced, which subsequently were toured around Taiwan.

The ‘Techno Art Creation Project’ was the first of its kind grant in Taiwan that provided artists with substantial support to create ambitious, large scale digital media artworks. Most of the artists who participated in the scheme continue to be active practitioners in Taiwan. Since 2010 until now, The Ministry of Culture of Taiwan also provided new work development grants for digital art and digital performance art. Under the ‘Government Cultural Policy’ the main objective of this funding has been to promote the development and appreciation of digital art while supporting distinct Taiwanese digital art practices. A total of 34 trans-disciplinary performance projects have been produced as a result.

In a further attempt to stimulate the development of the sector, since 2010 the Digital Performing Arts Festival is staged as annual event organized by The Ministry of Culture of Taiwan. This year audiences had the opportunity to experience to a wide variety of digital work by local and international performing groups.

Future Directions and Suggested Action

There is now a third generation of Taiwan artists working with digital media. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated as well as diverse in their approach to Art & Technology practices. However, if the energy and innovation of Taiwan’s media art practitioners is to be sustained, a consolidated cultural policy at government level needs to be developed and implemented. The current policy ecology of the art industry in Taiwan is not sufficient to support the digital arts move into the mainstream of contemporary culture. It is a chaotic environment with occasional outbursts of energy and big project outcomes visible to the public at various museums and venues.

Even though there are grants from different government departments and private foundations digital art is not consistently supported and the digital arts sector is not seen to be operating as an industry that should attract greater investment for further development. As of 2009 the Taiwanese government is focusing on the Cultural and Creative Industries as an area of economic development, with most of the investment going into manufacturing and design, and cultural recreation and tourism.

In the preface of the ‘Transjourney, Future Media Festival’ exhibition catalogue, the ministers from the Ministry of Education, Council for Cultural Affairs and National Science Council jointly state that the development of the Taiwanese Culture and Creative Industry is of a primary policy agenda. The integration of Art and Technology is seen as one of the drivers that can elevate Taiwan’s economic development.

Museums do not proactively commission, exhibit, collect and provide public forums that encourage the appreciation and display of Taiwanese digital art. Most of the influential Taiwanese Fine Art curators overseeing museum programs maintain a skeptical view of digital art. Museums rarely engage expert curators who have the depth and breath of knowledge required to develop critical exhibitions and thematic discourse on a diverse range of new media art topics, and who can develop education programs for different sections of the public. There is also no sufficient curatorial understanding of the technological aspects concerning the installation and presentation of digital art. Media art exhibitions remain more as one-off showcase events than an on-going commitment on behalf of the Museum industry to introduce digital art to the public. At the tertiary level, increasingly digital art is becoming intertwined with design, which impoverishes the art industry as pure research and pure art-practice become subservient to commercial outcomes.

For the Taiwanese digital arts to become established as a legitimate contributor to contemporary culture the above, and other, issues are to be addressed through peer review, policy development, and the establishment of cohesive linkages between artists, academic institutions, research centres, private galleries, museums and civil services. These local challenges are not dissimilar to other parts of the world where this field of art practice is developing.

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