Establishment of IT Park – Meeting at the “Bar”
Text by Chen Hui-Chiao 2001
E. Benveniste comments: “One special feature of human language is the way it is a substitute for the creation of experience, a substitute that can be passed on indefinitely through time and space. This is the essence of symbols and semiotics, the very basis of our language tradition.” In other words, “wine” or “coffee” bars can also be installations that facilitate interaction and communication between people.
Any discussion of the IT Park Gallery “Bar” must go back to 1987. In that year Spring Gallery closed and the SOCA Modern Art Workshop closed temporarily. As a result, a group of artists, including me, Tsong Pu, Huang Wen-hao and Liu Ching-tang often found ourselves wandering Chunghsiao East Road. Sometimes we visited “Designers”, other times “IR”. Other hangouts were pubs, teahouses or coffee shops in the Tong Lin Department store area or popular Disco pubs at the time (Kiss, Soho in the renovated Hua Sheng Theater, the Li Yuan where bands played). We also took it in turn to play host at our own homes and occasionally visited the workshops of other artists and designers. At this time we really got around, mainly because we were searching for a fixed place for the discussion and study of art and creativity. With the exception of Tsong Pu we were all beginners, full of fascination and passion for art, in contrast to the fully-fledged artists we are today. Consequently, we spent our time searching and reading, looking for the perfect place, until IT Park Gallery opened. It would not be wrong to say that this period marked the beginning of IT Park.
However, memory does not relate exclusively to the past. Searching for future possibilities often also involves tracing the past. We were unwilling to compromise in the face of the realities of the time and attempted to develop art using our own methods. It would be fair to say that at that time we did not realize we were just creatures trapped in a bottle. Whether we could leave the bottle or were even conscious of being so restricted are questions that could be debated endlessly, never mind any self-indulgent talk about changing the world beyond the bottle. But, we still believed we were on the right path and were making progress. A journey in time has no guide and we were like travelers lost in a desert, firm in the belief we were heading straight for the oasis of our Utopia. How were we to know (what only an imaginary figure looking down from on high could see) that we were going round in circles? The modern world is ever-changing constantly deriving complex and ambiguous interactive relationships that inter-mix, intertwine and overlap, replete with creative energy and a dizzy sense of speed. “IT Park Gallery” exists because of the spontaneity and co-operation of various artists and came to form a natural creative space in the structure of our everyday lives, initiating and revealing all perfectly beautiful things, transcending the narrow scope of systems and localities. One of the reasons IT Park has been able to survive has been its unwillingness to compromise in the face of reality or, perhaps even more, because the “Bar” brought people together and allowed us to interact and communicate freely, exchanging ideas and opinions in the process. Whether visitors were artists or not, and regardless of their motivation for coming, IT Park Gallery was enriched by their presence.
The “Bar”, was built because of the “open air coffee” that preceded it and our experience of wandering the city. If it had not been for the balcony, IT Park Gallery would probably not be in its present location. In 1988, Liu Ching-tang was looking for a place to set up a photography workshop and we looked at dozens of vacant properties, none of which were ideal. One day in August, we came to the entrance of No 41-1 I-Tong Street near by the park. A stench of rotting wood wafted out from the run-down front door. I said “Forget about it, don't even look.” But as we were already there, we went up and had a look anyway. On the second floor, we found a dark unwelcoming space that immediately reinforced my initial opinion that we should just leave. “Let's look at the next floor” Liu said as he climbed the stairs. “Hey, there’s a balcony, the third floor’s not bad,” we both shouted. Finally, we decided to use the second floor as a photographic studio and the third floor as a meeting place for artists. The rebuilding began, brick by brick, tile by tile, with the small balcony space used as rest area. Inside, people began to use the small raised area to display and discuss their works. Word spread and IT Park gradually attracted a small community of artists, led by Tsong Pu. We slowly felt our way forward until in 1990 we managed to rent the property next door. In March of that year, IT Park Gallery formally declared itself open for exhibitions. After several displays however, we noticed that our visitors lacked space to move about in, and while they were curious and surprised by the works they also seemed a little uncomfortable. Perhaps they felt as though they had intruded into a private space, perhaps it was that we were interested in the reorganization of space and therefore more open about space utilization that creating art. Whatever it was, we found it difficult to differentiate between the creation of space and art. This led directly to a large-scale reconstruction begun in September 1990, turning the balcony into the sort of place we envisaged. The results were as good as we expected and visiting artists were now able to chat to their heart’s content in a relaxing, bright environment, as we discussed a range of exhibition-related topics around the big wooden table. In addition, many artists were invited to participate in exhibitions and slide shows shown on the wall of the exhibition area, and visitors listened to artists discuss their own creative experiences. It may have been the Mediterranean style (some say Spanish) of the balcony, but gradually artists returning from overseas seemed to naturally gather there. People began to say that “Artists who studied in the US frequent “Space II” but artists who studied in Europe go to “IT Park”. Because of the location it was also said: “There is the Up Gallery in the south and IT Park in the north”. Rather than say that this separation was a result of study environment factors, I prefer to think of it as the result of the alignment of the planets. The rebellion of Uranus, the fantasy of Neptune, the recreation of Pluto, the conveyance of Mercury, the expansion of Jupiter, the peace of Venus, the warmth of the Sun, the restlessness of the Moon, the Worldly-wisdom of Saturn and the recklessness of Mars. These artists were brought together by just such a mystical arrangement and the magnetic pull of the planets. Of course, this is my own opinion and I have always tended to simplify my links to the external world. In point of fact, artists, philosophers and scientists are indivisible, all working in the realm of ideas. Politics, current affairs, the status quo, the spirit, life and myths etc. do not exist independently, but are in fact the separate amalgams of interactive changes and restructuring. There is no single core or center, as these relationships merely represent the confluence of different roads and consciousness networks or the dissemination of roots.
If not for curiosity, “open air coffee” might have proved sufficient, but we grew tired of this hypocritical refinement and lost patience. It was felt certain things were being repeated and could be ended, so we decided to introduce a change of face. Always attracted by the “new” we felt that a “Bar” would offer new life and intuition. Unfortunately, we once again became prisoners of our own sensory and spiritual illusions. Understanding was simply not enough for us to risk our souls we ultimately did so because of the thought-inspiring life pulse that ran through it. Our intention was to infuse living space with poetic quality, allowing artists to construct a situational work as part of subjective creation, one that did not copy or follow local history. However, it is open to question whether consciousness ever retain its smooth vitality to drive spiritual freedom when daily life and social structures are in constant flux ? Regular release and flow come with their own special understanding and necessity. At the same time, the way in which we “probe the meaning of the unknown” and seek to “overcome real difficulties” informs the material artists choose from daily life and this forms the foundation of calling and tracing in subjective memory and is the source of poetry and wisdom of living space. In May 1994, we toiled with both mentally and physically. Some people painted the walls, others made pictures still others tidied up or worked on interior decoration. In the end we made the stairwell and the rooftop available for exhibitions (this space was finally finished seven years later, in September of this year, on the 13th anniversary of the establishment of IT Park and is now used as a meeting space). Most of the artists active here have studied overseas study and so many looked back nostalgically on their time working as bar staff when students. The blue walls of the “Bar”, the signs of the Zodiac on the floor, loud music, alcohol and the smoke filled air stimulated the imaginations of many. Over the last few years, IT Park has been frequented by a group of out-there aliens, people from art and culture, design, entertainment, fashion, foreigners and ABCs. They look at us and we read them, neither wanting to misunderstand the other. On the one hand we are disassociated and cold, on the other there is a yearning to cause a commotion, a mixture of interdependence and independence. Although each exhibition opening draws a contrasting crowd, even in this atmosphere the promotion of and reliance on interpersonal relations is still evident. However, artists are artists and their focus, concerns and interactions are related to the development of art. It was then that another sense of crisis manifested itself. Some artists were unable to adjust, trapped in a passive quiet state of resistance, nostalgically recalling the days of “open air coffee”.
However, we at IT Park try to change space, the ideas of artists are always at the forefront of our minds and remain the main consideration of our operations. For us, there has never been enough space, the hardware in our exhibition area is insufficient and we lack a quiet meeting place, a storage room and an office. We have even been known to make use of the space in IT Park's only source of income, the second floor commercial photography studio. In recent years, I have lost count how many times we reorganized the gallery, but with such meager financing, we have been forced to use the limited capital we have to carry out large-scale rearrangements. Personnel have been another big problem. IT Park is very short of money, but normal operations require a staff of at least three, a bartender, an art administrator for the gallery and an assistant. In addition to these costs, there is also rent, miscellaneous expenditure, utilities, printing, postage, and bar equipment. Even measured conservatively, IT Park has operating costs of about NT$170,000 per month. Where does this money come from? Everyone knows that the works we display are difficult to sell, because they are often experimental, installations and non-commercial in nature. Rather than blame this on our failure to employ a professional marketing expert, I think it would be fairer to say the structure of art in Taiwan remains incomplete. At present there is no reliable set of ethics between museums, galleries, collectors and artists. Perhaps this is the fate of “substitute” and “alternative space”. How can we boost out spirits? What strategy should we adopt faced with reality so that our efforts are not wasted? We more or less hoped that the “Bar” would make money, but it wasn't a specialized bar and many regarded in fact this as the defining characteristic of the IT Park “Bar”. You can imagine the slow, difficult and continually unclear process, with numerous spaces and newcomers, each selfishly creating their own stage, own script and scenery without praise or comment. Amongst these, very few were able to accept reality. Although they sought the spotlight, to be noticed, to pursue their own objectives and privileges, they paid little attention to content. In the event of sudden disaster, they drink their fill and have a good time while they can; expansion and decomposition teaches us that in life when someone gains someone else loses.
Although the “Bar” was one of the defining characteristics of IT Park, the problem was that it exhausted us mentally. The operating time of the whole space has to be extended to after 2:00AM to accommodate the “Bar” (the person who suffered most being Liu Ching-tang, who worked from 9:00AM when the photography studio opens to when the gallery closed in the early hours, all year round without a break). When the number of visitors increased at weekends, the gallery staff had to help out in the bar, but the economic benefits were only enough to cover the costs of the bar itself. In addition, noise from the bar disturbed the normal operation of the gallery because there was only a single entrance. The “Bar” was established not as a business, but to fill the need for a place for discussion. We firmly believe that in-depth discussions expand the possibilities for artistic development, but we started to be asked whether the “Bar” really was fostering dialogue? or whether such dialogue constituted the sort of dialogue we wanted? “Perhaps ultimately, the value of the “Bar” was that it was never forgotten when art was absent or silent, that it reminded us life is not just about art, though art nevertheless enriches our lives. The problem was really one of mutual understanding, though it may be true no one can understand anyone else. Everyone tends to believe the words they speak are important, but that only they understand. When another person replies, the response invariably has nothing to do with what the first person was talking about. This amounts to a conversation between deaf people, with no beginning and no end.” It may ultimately be the case that we can only be understood by like-minded people. I have often watched visitors just walk past the works on display, not even noticing them. Over the last decade I was asked “Where are the art works?” or told “This is really fun.” My God ! Has all the time and effort we have put in and the debts incurred, emotional and financial, been just for fun or to make people think we are playing some game? This is not intended as a provocation, it’s a fact that many of these people came to IT Park simply because it had a bar.
We began to discuss whether the “Bar” should be closed and had numerous arguments over the issue, as we were hesitant and unable to make up our minds one way or another and this dragged on for two years, even though we nurtured a sensitivity towards the world of dreams, especially in terms of knowing our own wants and situation. If the wider environment had stimulated us artistically or we had understood the need to establish healthy relations with society, then perhaps we would never have faced such a contradiction. We look back on the “Bar” days with nostalgia, when various artists and philosophers visited and shared their opinions with us, even working as part time bartenders. Whenever the mood took us, we would sit together in the bar and laugh and joke. No matter who came, artists, curators, art critics, we always first had a drink. When the frequency was just right the debates on art would flow, bringing the evening to a fitting climax. Feeling went from one moment to the next, from one level to another, expanding the uncertainty of opportunity. Then we would take our questions home with us and start again the next day. Everyone has his or her own favorite story relating to that period. As word spread, the number of people visiting the bar increased, but most came specifically because of the “Bar”, perhaps because of its low prices, perhaps because of its openness and fun atmosphere. As a result, the “Bar” was no longer full of artists, but drinkers and playboys. The only way we could talk about art was to wait until the crowd dispersed or go elsewhere. In such a space, artists no longer felt comfortable and relaxed because art was no longer the main subject of discussion. For IT Park Gallery the original reason for establishing the “Bar” was art, not to serve people or to be contentious. Excessive noise caused problems with the neighbors, especially as IT Park is located in a residential area and the local police were regular visitors. Although they were aware this was an art space, they still threatened to report us. But even if we wanted to register as a business serving food and beverages, the spatial structure of the building simply did not meet the requirements. At the same time, the fact that IT Park was open to the public also made it difficult to exclude undesirables. All sorts of people came in and ultimately the negative effects outweighed the positive. Having said that, this negative experience still taught us something. As a result, we were always mentally prepared for trouble, never knowing what might happen next…but we had difficulty coping, and were tired out by our efforts. This took us away from art and certain oversights in the way we dealt with situations, caused us mental upset and ultimately exhausted our patience. Only when our distant dreams were realized did we really understood that making it work would not be easy and all this was achieved at the expense of our not so indefatigable spirit. In such a situation, even stronger spirits would have withered. We knew in our hearts that nothing is perfect, but the more professional the “Bar” became, the further it moved from away our original intent. At the same time, we also came to recognize that we simply couldn’t focus our efforts in two directions at the same time. We decided it was important to focus on the direction we most cared about and in which we were most skilled – art.
Finally, at the end of 2000 a decision was taken to demolish the “Bar” and IT Park reopened in May 2001, completely restructured. There may be those who feel it was a pity because the most interesting thing about IT Park was its “Bar” and others certainly worried that the number of people visiting would fall. Sadly, this was tantamount to an admission that it wasn't the works on display that attracted people. We didn't know whether to feel happy or sad and perhaps ultimately this is one of the reasons the “Bar” had to be closed. If a dream is the achievement of a vision, then the “Bar” achieved its mission as a process of understanding. At the very least our curiosity had long since dissipated and this move allowed us to restore the original autonomy and integrity of IT Park’s exhibition space. We returned once again to the starting point having completed a cycle. However, we are at the same time duty bound to ask what disaster and chaos or a return to the starting point actually brought us in terms of spiritual longing? Put simply, revision, resistance to decay and falsehood, and a reaffirmation of purity, a restart from the point of origin. “New” things always bring with them hope and tension, a leap to a higher plane, unlimited development and more possibilities. Although some people have already begun to wax nostalgic about the “Bar”, for us it belongs firmly in the past. The purity of the new space has a beauty uniquely its own. We did not leave and now we are proceeding decisively and should be able to go beyond the role of passive minor players to become creators, though it is perhaps still too soon to be certain. Despite cultural conflict and hatreds, we stride proudly ahead demanding wisdom from ourselves, because mediocrity and the assumed spirit of the masses has seen disdain develop to worrying levels. Completely unrelated things appear one after another with no method to the madness, full of arrogant conceit, superficiality and people brazenly blowing their own trumpet. In such a world, even greater freedom of expression or more developed information is nothing more than meaningless computer-integrated data. But, any person's power of judgment needs time to develop. With everything this clear, serious and distant, the only way we can get closer to the world is self-awareness. In essence this does not mean closing oneself off from the world, it is an effort to unearth greater truths. The relationship between politics and culture is not just a matter of narrow ideology, different dispositions or deceiving people with fine sounding words. Perhaps real freedom is being able to make choices, not shelving things, going through the motions or confusing the argument. The alternative is that people will always keep their distance and look at nothing that fails to conform to standards of proprietary, and we always will respect only the people we respect or those who respect us.