Tsui Kuang-Yu
簡歷年表 Biography
個展自述 Statement
相關評論 Other Criticism
相關專文 Essays

Negotiations: An Impractical Guide to Survival in the Invisible City
text by Manray Hsu

Since 2001,Tsui Kuang-yu has made three series of videoed actions, or action videos. Like his actions from the mid-1990s, these new works typically involve the artist himself performing apparently absurd and often laughable acts in his living environment, particularly in the cities which he inhabits. Unlike the earlier works, in which the actions take place in more confined and neutralized scenarios such as playing seesaw with a friend in a stream ( "The Measurement of Friendship," 1997), or sitting on a wheeled office chair rolling down slanted streets ("The Vehicle," 1997) and focus more on the action itself rather than the relationship between the action and its environment, the new ones deal with scenarios more situated in urban and social backdrops which are familiar and mundane, and enact confrontations with the environment which tend to alter the everyday perceptions and definitions of the habitat, along with its underlying rules of game. Despite some overlapping, the earlier works are linked to "performances" on various neutral stages (even if the acts take place outdoors), whereas the new ones can be categorized as "actions" in specific,real, situational urban backdrops, or as the artist terms it, "like participating in a guerrilla war." [1]

This urban warfare consists of an array of negotiations in which the artist manages to cope with the issues of living in contemporary cities. Yet, these issues are non-practical, and somewhat existential and psychological, related to alienation, anxiety, repression, as well as fantasy and desire of urban life. And the negotiations offered by the artist are serious and at the same time comical, and in the viewer's laughter, help to strip off layers which hide the infinitely invisible city. This unveiling process, this positing, comes close to what Richard Sennett calls the "self-dramatization," [2] which contributes to the revival and enrichment of the urban public realm.

Formally speaking, Tsui's videos in general show the resemblance to short slapstick films, for example, in the usage of exaggerated acting which often implies mild cruelty and pain with no real physical injury, or, the everyday situation turned somewhat unrealistic and impossible. Medium shots are employed to focus on the acting in the staged situation and on its relationship to the immediate environment. To enlarge the dramatic effects, Tsui adds some documentary flavour to his slapsticks, for instance, by himself acting in amateuristic ways, with awkwardness and clumsiness, and in everyday costume. Each scene is made by a stationed camera, in single take and single frame. No continuity editing is used to construct a narrative. The stationed camera distances the viewer from the events and the performer, thus increasing the comic effect. By threading these single, short shots which share a thematized action, the video work shows repetitive and ridiculous actions, and creates an obsessive character whose aims are to confront with the environment.

The reference to cinema and pop culture can be also seen in the choice of titles and the scenes of action. The most notable examples are the series "Eighteen Copper Guardians in Shao-lin Temple and Penetration "(2001) and "The Welcome Rain Falling from the Sky"(1997).The Eighteen Copper Guardians comes from martial art fiction, cinema and comic books. They are said to so equipped with invincible internal power and fighting techniques that no weapons (including sword and fire-gun even) can physically harm them. They have no fear in front of any threat or barrier. Particularly in modern Chinese culture, the image of these warriors (as well as other figures, like those portrayed by Bruce Lee) serve to construct a strong (and male) Chinese identity in the face of external enemies such as colonial forces. The Welcome Rain refers to the coming of long-expected rain, usually after the sophisticated rain-praying ceremonies performed by the priests and the emperors, which will save the living things, especially agricultural plantation, from the destruction of a drought. In Tsui's case, these references are turned up-side down by the acting out of a parody, and draw up a fantasy world which deepens the absurdity of his actions.

The three series discussed in the following were made in specific association with cities. With the exception of "Invisible City: Liverpool Top 9" (2006) which was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial as a public realm project, the rest were produced in the context of the cities where the artist resided, and usually as a "result" of his residency. By "result," I mean something coming out not only of the artist's intentions to make art works or to intervene into the city, or simply as demanded by the art institutions. In fact, Tsui links his actions, his experiments in the public space, to some kind of biological drives that motivate them, that is, as if beyond all the rationales which he gives to explain those artistic actions, it is himself as a biological being that creates them. A certain natural driving force motivates him to make these works. I will come back to this issue later in the discussion of the idea of "negotiation".

In the series "Eighteen Copper Guardians in Shao-lin Temple and Penetration, "the metaphor of the invincible subject is taken quite literally. He acts out three essential qualities of the warriors: he can penetrate any barrier ( "The Penetrative" ), resist any unknown attacking object, even when the assault comes from behind ( "The Perceptive" ), and has inner strengths which burst out automatically in any dangerous situation ( "The Spontaneous" ). He confronts fearlessly with the object-world, as demonstrated by his calculated, calm and emotionless appearances in the performance. The parody on the legendary hero is here, of course, hard to miss. For none of these scenes can be considered as containing dangers or threats in an ordinary sense. None of the actions bring any real success in what they are meant to achieve. "The Penetrative" shows the subject hitting face-to-face against a tree, a wall, an electric pole, a cow in the field, a glass wall of a convenient store, the McDonald clown, the stock market television wall, a mail box, the door of a subway train, a fire engine, etc., and bouncing back without any damage on either side, the subject or the object. Similarly, in "The Perceptive," the subject stands still while various objects flying on the back of his head, and he misses most of the guess about what these objects are, even though they exist as part of his daily life, be it hair dryer, chair, bucket, book, comb, wires, teddy bear, wine bottle, garbage bin, vacuum machine, etc. In "The Spontaneous" the inner strengths come out involuntarily as vomit wherever he is, in the rice field, on the street, or over on the skywalk. In the repetitive vomiting, there seems to be some constant nausea over which the subject has no control.

However, what if the dangers and threats, or the barriers, are "real" ? What if the efforts of these actions are not so much about bringing impact on the object world–but as I argue below, certain significant "impact" can be still achieved--as expressing some deep anxieties or senses of alienation about the object world? What if we read these parodies as existential allegories, such as "The Spontaneous" would spontaneously suggest a link to Sartre's novel "Nausea" [3]? Or, if one sensibly resists such a direct existentialist reading of the work, might we not be tempted to see some associations with Tsui's fellow artists/filmmakers, such as Edward Yang ("The Terrorizers", "A Brighter Summer Day" ) and Tsai Ming-liang ( "Rebels of the Neon God", "Vive L'Amour," "The River," "The Hole," "The Wayward Cloud" ), whose fiction films are set against similarly alienated urban environments of the late 20th century Taiwan and prompt the characters to act with as much absurdity and futility? Or, in its non-fictional way of portraying the actions in the city, are we not allowed to say that the actions of the work are also meant to redefine our relationships with the urban environment, or at least, to cast doubt on how these relationships are normally defined?

In the next series, "The Shortcut to the Systemic Life," these urban aspects are further articulated, and even made explicit. The three pieces were produced with three years apart, the first two in 2002, Taipei, and the last in 2005 in London when he took a residency there, and back in Taipei. The series also marks a break in his approach to the urban environment, which continues into the present. The first two ("Superficial Life" and "I am fine, I don't get wet") show the artist changing self-made costumes - tailored to allow for instantaneous change in-situ–to role-play and thus fit into specific urban scenarios such as taxi driving, jogging, office, shopping, school, etc., or to respond to the adversarial weather, i.e. rain shower. The last one shows the artist making twists on the usage of the urban environment; in London, this includes golfing on greeneries, bowling over groups of pigeons in the park, or waving banners to transform traffic into car race; and in Taiwan, the artist took garbage dumps as sites for mountain climbing, and jumped over parked motorcycles as sports.

The difference between them should be noted: the first two actually further develop the earlier idea, that is, to assert a kind of subjectivity through artistic action in the face of an otherwise alienating environment, even though this assertion is cynically made and somehow caricatures the smallness of modern citizens in their everyday dealings with the urban uncanny. The last one accentuates how small citizens may creatively use the urban space, even though these creativities may not affect the structural changes in the long run, let alone the way in which urban planners and developers modify our living space. If the former focuses on the artist's subjectivity, and the latter draws attention to the subjectivity of miniature urban inhabitants, even if in everyday life, this latter subjectivity is related to practical creativity, whereas the artist's actions are creative practices which can function as guerrilla interventions.

This practical creativity of miniature urban inhabitants is made into a blown-up version in "Liverpool Top 9," in which the artist invited amateur and professional actors and staged virtual interventions into nine sites in the city's centre. Mocking tourist video guide, the work features the famous Liverpudlian reporter Andy Bonner acting as an expert who takes to the street and demonstrates how users (actors) negotiate with urban blockages and dead corners to find their ways of using the city. For instance, while a highway cuts off the pedestrian passage, local pedestrians simply add a cushion on the fence to facilitate their jump-over. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, the video unveils the clash between the formal and informal systems: based on a top-down decision model, the formal system constructs and regulates the urban space and its ways of usage, while the endless dealings of its users negotiate and develop ways or "shortcuts" that make the urban space work for them informally, namely, beyond the constraints of what the city should be as defined by the top-down system.

The Liverpool piece, together with "Amstel 88Ⅲ" and "Sea-Level Leaker," is part of the ongoing series "Invisible City," which the artist has made since his residency (2005-) at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam. The two latter works are less urbanist, and more personal, in approach similar to that of "Superficial Life" and "I am fine, I don't get wet" and other earlier works. In one sense, they show the artist's attempts to adapt himself to the environment. His residency seems to provide the alien-ness with which he needed to cope in order to survive the foreign environment. The point of departure is obvious and familiar, that is, the fact that most of the Netherlands is under the sea-level. In "Sea-Level Leaking, " the artist wore a water jacket full of holes. While he walked up and down in Amsterdam, different levels of the holes would leak, reflecting the sea-level of where he was. "Amstell 88Ⅲ" shows the artist in his apartment nightmarishly tackling with all the pores and cavities that gush out water.

The "Invisible City" series somehow sums up his whole body of works since the late 1990s. We can roughly distinguish two approaches in his work, both of which are present in the "Invisible City" series. On the one hand, there is an urbanist way in which he takes cues or hidden codes of the city, and invents absurd uses of the scenario. This approach is exemplified by "Liverpool Top 9" and the last video of the "Shortcut" series, namely, "The Rat Race," "Bowling Alley in London, " "London Green," "City Bar" and "Inexplicable Mission." This approach involves exploiting the possibilities given by the city and developing these into new functionalities that are impractical (thus different from everyday users' practical inventions such as selling clothes or pirate DVDs on the sidewalk). The emphasis is on the openness and flexibility of the city for imagination and fantasy, which often stays dormant or suppressed in our everyday consciousness. While exercises of imagination and fantasy are crucial to city-dwelling and its health, urban life is often characterised by alienation and dull regulations. And where imagination and fantasy are engaged, the world of commodities has become more and more dominant as incentives and mediators.

On the other hand, there is also an urban approach in which the artist develops imaginary psychological tactics to cope with his living environment. It is less about the usage of the city, and more about the development and experiment of possible relationships with the environment. By way of actions which dramatize these possibilities, a somewhat surreal dream-world is projected into the city which allegedly helps construct and maintain a sense of subjectivity. If the urbanist approach is more recent, the urban approach definitely Tsui's trademark. It applies to most of his work since the mid-1990s. As mentioned in the beginning, we can also detect a development in the meaning of the "environment," i.e., from a more generic sense to an urban sense.

Thus, central to both urban and urbanist approaches is the concern of establishing a sense of subjectivity by testing imaginary affiliations with the city. However, this subjectivity is never conceived in terms of the classical existentialist autonomous subject who faces a cold, inhuman urban environment, nor is it a rational subject who plans experiments on relational development in the city. In Tsui's own term, it is rather out of some biological inclinations that the subject struggles to negotiate with the city, rather like adaptation and acclimation in evolutionary biology. It is an urban guerrilla war, not in the sense of making urban life meaningful by transforming courses of life that are determined by the self, but rather in the sense of imaginary dialogical relationships with the city which can render urban environment sensible and resourceful.

Here the "Shortcut" series provides an interesting key to all these endeavours. The shortcuts are conceived as cynical, farcical invasions to "the systemic life," where the system consists of a humongous and overwhelming set of rules and strategies that exercise its power across the entire urban environment. In his influential book, The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau analyses the widespread practice of individual users or "consumers" who shortcut the system produced by the strategic deployment of governments, institutions and corporate powers. Drawing on the military notions of strategy and tactics, Certeau first describes an authority (e.g. a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution, etc.) as a self-reproducing entity which has a dominant power over individual users of its products. The authority needs to be physically located in its operation sites such as offices and headquarters which defines its "proper". It manifests itself through the spatial and temporal settings (its buildings, properties, history and tradition), and through its products which include commodities, literature, art, laws, language, rituals, etc. The authority operates by developing strategies that aim to maximize its market and profit by creating uniformity and homogeneity in its products. A strategy is a "calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships... it postulates a place which can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed." [4] And because of its spatial and temporal investment, a strategy is relative inflexible, and cannot be remixed and altered easily.

In contrast to and in face of strategies, tactics are developed by separate users who do not own a proper locus. Their space is the space of the other. A tactic "must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power." It does not own dedicated resources with which to make general strategy and view the adversary as a whole within a district, visible and objectifiable space."It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of 'opportunities' and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep... it must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the propriety powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.... In short, a tactic is an art of the weak." [5] Certeau notes that tactics can not only be found in living in a building, moving around in the city, speaking a language, reading a text, shopping and cooking, but is actually widespread in the whole domain of the living things, with the farthest reach in fishes and plants who play "simulations, tricks and disguises... with extraordinary virtuosity."

Tsui's shortcuts can be seen as such tactics he has been developing to negotiate with his environment in order to make it habitable for him. An essential part of these tactics is mimicry, which is congruent to his emphasis on the biological analogy. The early work,"An Imitation:Mimicry"(1996), is a direct play of imitating the postures of the plants. So is "Superficial Life" in the "Shortcut" series. The "Eighteen Coppoer Guardians" series is a figurative role-play of the martial art master. Some other works make use of twisted simulation of well-known situations, for instance, "The Welcome Rain Falling from the Sky" (as described by the Chinese idiom), or, "The City Spirits" (as common sports). The two pieces from Amsterdam demonstrate the tactic of mimicry with virtuosity: the artist played the role of the ocean ( "Sea-level Leaker" ), and that of the city ( "Amstel 88Ⅲ" ). Another notable tactic is repetition. This not simply leads to a sense of absurdity and farce, but suggests a persistent process of negotiations which helps dramatizing the role-play, the copying and the re-authoring of the appropriated situations.

In the chapter "Walking in the City," Certeau describes the experience of the walker whose tactics subvert and ambiguate the image or the "legible" order of the city produced by the strategic operation of authorities and public and private institutions. In contrast to the official order of the city as exemplified in maps and guides which suggest an experience of the city as if looking down from a high-rise building, walkers on the street level individuate the routes, taking shortcuts or meandering around, negotiate their ways to do what they are up do, making tours and detours in spite of the official layout of the map. Certeau calls this spatial practice "walking rhetorics." "Linking acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions, these words operate in the name of an emptying-out and wearing-away of their primary role. They become liberated spaces that can be occupied. A rich indetermination gives them, by means of a semantic rarefaction, the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning." [6]

Cities are spaces of endless and open possibilities and constantly transmute themselves. We shape cities in our images, by our uses, but they in turn influence our behaviours and ourselves. Contemporary cities, as described by Nigel Thrift, "have become repositories of 'objectivity;' they are–increasingly–crowded with objects which – increasingly –'speak back.' Objects become more 'person'-like, just as persons have become more 'object'-like." So to speak, contemporary cities are "transhuman." The negotiations Tsui's work presents can be considered as processes of coping with these "transhuman" [7] cities which he inhabited. In the quest for subjectivity, these processes are not intended to over-turn the relationship between the city and the self, the object and the person. Rather, the negotiations can produce and articulate what Certeau calls a "second, poetic geography" characterized by a "rich indetermination" which makes the city infinitely invisible and resourceful.

[1] You So Crazy: Kuang-Yu Tsui,s Video Works, ed. Shin-Yi Yang, Chelsea Art Museum, 2005, p. 11.
[2] Richard Sennett, “Reflections on the public realms,” in G. Bridge & S. Watson ed., A Companion to the City, 2003, Blackwell Publishers, p. 386.
[3] This essential novel in the 20th century existentialism depicts the experience of a young intellectual, who believes that his environment is alienating him from his ability to define himself, and develops a constant, uncontrollable sense of nausea.
[4] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.36-37.
[5] Ibid., p. 38.
[6] Ibid., p.106.
[7] Nigel Thrift, “With Child to See Any Strange Thing – Everyday Life in the City,” in G. Bridge & S. Watson ed., A Companion to the City, 2003, Blackwell Publishers, p. 405.
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