KEVIN GAFFNEY DESCRIBES HIS RESIDENCY AT THE TAIPEI ARTIST VILLAGE IN TAIWAN.
Each year, 25 international artists are chosen for the Taipei Artist Village (TAV) residency and 15 for the Treasure Hill Artist Village (THAV) residency. AV and THAV are sister artist villages, both managed by the Taipei Culture Foundation, with TAV located in the government office district in central Taipei. I was informed of my selection to the residency at TAV in mid July 2013. My residency period was from January to March 2014. As the residency does not cover flights or provide a stipend, this gave me six months to source funding. I had proposed to create a new film, Everything Disappears, which would revolve around four local people and reflect on the fluidity of identity, with their personas becoming re-imagined on screen. Taiwan’s history of a shifting national identity – with former occupations by the Japanese, Chinese and Dutch – was an interesting context in which to locate this project.
The residency provides a large open plan living / workspace, and it is possible to use the other facilities in the building: a piano room, dance studio and black and white darkroom. A gallery operates downstairs, showing residency projects and invited curated exhibitions. TAV’s media lab consists of just two Windows PCs, so funding was vital in order to access film equipment. In December I received funding from the Arts Council’s Film Project Award. Now that I could fully realise the film I had proposed, I asked TAV to put a call out on their Facebook page for people interested in participating in the film.
In January I received an email from a young Taiwanese gay man whose story resonated with the ideas I was exploring. He had escaped compulsory army conscription by revealing his existing mental illness to a doctor who, following a stay in a psychiatric hospital assessed him and decided that he was not fit to serve. He told me of the need to perform his illness in order for it to be observed and recorded, and the deterioration of his grasp on reality that followed. His wish not to undertake military service was not politically motivated but simply that he had many ambitions and none of them involved or benefited from the delay of his career for the sake of serving in the suffocating environment of the army. I wanted to tell his story, yet was unsure how to do so while retaining his need for anonymity. After making a metal and plastic tube that would distort his voice at the recording stage, rendering it unrecognisable, I ultimately decided to record an actor speaking his story to me.
I wanted to experiment with a longer form, as my films to date have been between 5 and 12 minutes, so I decided to work towards a 30-minute film. I had also optimistically decided to shoot both an English and Chinese language version of the film. Each resident artist is allocated a host from the office team working in the residency building. My host was Ching Ching Yang, who quickly became a vital lifeline in navigating the language barrier I faced during the production process. As well as translating over the telephone on many occasions, Ching Ching would also translate the script into Chinese for me, discussing the context and intention behind the words.
After meeting a number of people living in Taipei interested in participating in the film, I decided to proceed with four people. Despite the language barrier, I felt a rapport with them. The participants were: Revanshu (a performance artist from Taichung), William Hsu (an interaction design engineer), Issac Tsai (an office worker) and Lucie Chen (a university student, majoring in French and English). Everybody had told me how friendly Taiwanese people are, but I wasn’t expecting all four participants to open up their homes and lives to me, and to become so personally invested in the film.
I began filming with each participant by setting up a scene in their homes, and directing them through a series of spoken lines. The idea was to try to capture a sense of their personality in a spoken portrait as a starting point. As our work together progressed, I formulated staged scenarios for each participant, where we would experiment with different performances and manifestations of the dialogue on screen. Often the scenes were quite intimate, which was heightened by the quite personally revealing dialogue I had written. Sharing my thoughts with the participants in this way resulted in them ingesting and re-presenting the words on camera, filtering them through their own experiences and interpretations. The film acts as a reflection on our interpersonal relationships, following the participants’ transformation into characters, with their personas disintegrating and becoming re-imagined on screen.
As most visitors to Taiwan find, many everyday objects became a source of fascination. For me it was the huge white safety nets that hang beside staircases in many public buildings and apartment blocks. The logical reason for them is that if a child slips through the banisters, they can be caught without falling to their death. But, as I began to notice them everywhere – above hospital lobbies and below huge metro escalators – I started to think of them as nets to catch people who tried to commit suicide, like a fly landing in a spider’s web. One day, in Revanshu’s building, her neighbour got into the very small elevator beside me, with a trapped rat in a cage. He laughed at me as I tried to push past him and the rat tried to chew its way out of the cage, making horrible squealing sounds. I imagined that the rat felt the same as the person who wanted to jump to their death but instead ended up trapped in the safety net with people gawking at them. I decided I would stage a scene with Revanshu in a giant safety net, speaking a section of dialogue I had written: “Landing in my subconscious, I am not in your reality. There are no words. Time has stopped. The act of love belongs to some, it allows the figure to observe.” Working with Revanshu was a playful and productive collaboration, and I was constantly amazed at her ability to radically shift her approach to performance depending on what the scene required. With Ching Ching’s help, I found a factory at the bottom of a mountain that made these safety nets by hand.
When applying you for the residency, you specify whether you would like to stay in Taipei Artist Village or Treasure Hill Artist Village while carrying out your project. Although I stayed at TAV, I also spent a lot of time working and exhibiting in THAV. It is a former illegal settlement of resident-built homes and has countless outdoor spaces, buildings and galleries that can house installations and exhibitions. The nature of Treasure Hill – where each house is built in a different style by individual residents – allows tourists to wander until they get lost in countless winding alleys. I had my heart set on filming in a well-preserved traditional Taiwanese house on top of the hill and a basement that had extraordinary acoustics.
For the shoot in Treasure Hill (and another in an old gymnastics hall), I had the pleasure of working with a cinematographer and camera operator, Chen-Chih Chan, who had previously worked on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. As three of the four participants in the film weren’t trained or experienced performers, Chen-Chih’s sensitivity and attention was extremely helpful. Having him care about the scenes, the lighting, framing and performance as much as I did, created an amazing feeling on set and proved a truly rewarding collaboration.
Both TAV and THAV host a large number of exhibitions each month, and it is largely up to each artist how they wish to participate and to what extent. The events I participated in were: an artist talk held on 18 January (complete with microphones and translators); a group exhibition of resident artists which opened on 13 February in TAV’s gallery space; a small solo exhibition at The Attic, which opened on 14 February in THAV; and an open studio event held 22 – 23 March, where I screened a work-in-progress excerpt from Everything Disappears, turning my studio into a cinema space.
Having returned to Dublin, I will now edit and work on the sound design of the two language versions of the film on a Digital Media Residency at Fire Station Artists’ Studios.
Kevin Gaffney is a visual artist working in film and photography. In 2011, he graduated from the Royal College of Art’s MA Photography and Moving Image. In 2014, he was awarded the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary for a residency at the National Art Studio, run by the National Museum of Contemporary Art, in Seoul.
www.everythingdisappears.com / www.kevingaffney.co.uk