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Wasteland Utopia

The Liberation of Sound in Post–Martial Law Taiwan
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Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).
Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).
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The history of noise as an artistic medium can be traced back to Futurism 
of the early 20th Century. But in Taiwan, it is a more recent phenomenon. 
The rise of noise and experimental sound on the island began during the chaos 
of the early post–martial law era. In 1987, Taiwan (officially referred to as the Republic of China, ROC/中華民國) ceased to be under military rule, ending what was at that time the longest period of martial law in world history; it has since been surpassed by Syria. What followed was a tumultuous period in which the 
old order collapsed, and a new order was formed. It was a time of explosive countercultural activity, as artists drew on the era’s furious energy to experiment and launch what became known as the Taiwanese noise movement.

 

The “Wild Lily Movement” (野百合學運) of 1990 was a catalytic event of symbolic importance for the development of noise in Taiwan. This demonstration for direct democracy took place at Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square [since re-dedicated as Liberty Square], occurring at a time when the reverberations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (六四天安門事件) were still in the air. From March 16th to the 22nd, thousands of Taiwanese students and professors gathered in the square, in front of the National Concert Hall, where events continued as usual. On one afternoon, a string quartet was preparing to perform in the hall. To boost morale and show support for the protestors, the group came out to play a piece of classical music between speeches. But before the music had ended, a student rushed onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and shouted that this kind of bourgeois music had no place within the movement. The four musicians took their instruments in a panic and fled.

 

Wild Lily Movement (野百合學運) protestors occupying Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square,Taipei, 1990. Photos Tsai Ming-Te (蔡明德).
Wild Lily Movement (野百合學運) protestors occupying Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square,Taipei, 1990. Photos Tsai Ming-Te (蔡明德).

 

So what was the music of the movement? The protesters sang songs that were banned under martial law; they preferred music that had been forbidden or was not easy to hear. Classical music, with its lofty status, was rejected. If the sounds rejected by mainstream society are ‘noise’, and the sounds accepted, ‘music’, then we can see how, in the course of this movement, the status of noise and music was inverted.

During the Wild Lily Movement, two members 
of the group Blacklist Studio (黑名單工作室) led the crowd in writing lyrics to a song. They then recorded it at their home studio, in a single day, before returning to the plaza to distribute hundreds of cassettes of the recording to the crowd. Blacklist Studio’s disjunctive music style — incorporating Taiwanese folk, rap and rock, with vocals in Taiwanese, Mandarin, Japanese and English — was pointedly different to the kitsch pop music dominant in Taiwan, produced through the star system of the major record labels. Prior to this movement, the group had played a key role in forming the popular genre known as “New Taiwanese Song”(新台語歌運動), which dealt critically and frankly with Taiwan’s political and social reality.

 

Wild Lily Movement (野百合學運) protestors occupying Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square,Taipei, 1990. Photos Tsai Ming-Te (蔡明德).
Wild Lily Movement (野百合學運) protestors occupying Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square,Taipei, 1990. Photos Tsai Ming-Te (蔡明德).

 

In 1995, thousands of people attended a three-day outdoor festival in the ruins of a Banqiao distillery. The Taipei International Post-Industrial Arts Festival (臺北國際後工業藝術祭) featured some of the most notorious Taiwanese and international noise groups of that time. Today, when people think back on this festival, they remember the scorching hot weather, the hissing, the flames, the violence, the stench, the abrasive noise and bodily senses: Moslar Theater (摩斯拉劇場) rolling naked in mucus; Schimpfluch- Gruppe, from Switzerland, roaring with microphones in their mouths and provocatively confronting journalists; Con-Dom, from the UK, walking off stage and sexually assaulting members of the audience until met with violent resistance; Loh Tsui Kweh Commune (LTK Commune/濁水溪公社) acting out rape on a mannequin and performing arson; Zero and Sound Liberation Organization (Z.S.L.O./零與聲音解放組織) tossing around a bucket of filthy kitchen waste, with the fetid odor of rotting food causing Japanese group C.C.C.C. to refuse to perform. There was almost no occasion in which the word ‘beautiful’ could have been used to describe these performances. 

 

A booklet from the Taipei International Post-Industrial Arts Festival (臺北國際後工業藝術祭), 1995. Image courtesy of Lin Chi-Wei (林其蔚).
A booklet from the Taipei International Post-Industrial Arts Festival (臺北國際後工業藝術祭), 1995. Image courtesy of Lin Chi-Wei (林其蔚).

 

In the current environment, noise is still not recognized by the Taiwanese mainstream as an acceptable or cultured form of art. If the Post-Industrial Arts Festival were held today, we can easily imagine its reception in the gossip columns of the tabloid 
media, littered with sensational headlines. The 
people involved in the event would no doubt 
be attacked with a barrage of slander by outraged netizens and television presenters. The civil servants associated with the event would likely be punished. In fact, the festival at that time was reported on 
by a number of major arts publications, and the event was even sponsored by the Taipei County Cultural Center (臺北縣立文化中心). 

 

A giant balloon puppet featured in the Taipei Breaking Sky Festival (台北空中破裂節), 1994. Image courtesy of Yao Jui-Chung (姚瑞中).
A giant balloon puppet featured in the Taipei Breaking Sky Festival (台北空中破裂節), 1994. Image courtesy of Yao Jui-Chung (姚瑞中).

 

This is not to say that Taiwan’s acceptance of avant-garde art has regressed, nor to infer that things aren’t as good as they used to be. The point is that, in 1995, these musical offerings that challenged the system and aggressively violated the social order were able to avoid moral accusations, and the festival was only criticized on aesthetic grounds [despite the acts of sexual assault by Con-Dom]. A principal reason for this was the rupture in governance and complete overhaul of Taiwanese society that occured as the state transitioned from protective authoritarianism to democracy and embraced global capitalism. People were able to tolerate the festival, even if they didn’t accept it. If a house has caught on fire, why bother about a few scattered bottles and cans left 
in the room as it burns? 

To give a fuller picture of the charged atmosphere 
in the first years following martial law, I’ll refer to 
a few incidents: 

 

Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).
Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).

 

On May 20th, 1988, thousands of farmers from across the country amass in Taipei to protest the government’s authoritarian grip on the agricultural industry. Known as the “520 Farmers Protest” (520農民運動), 
it is the first major clash between civilians and police in the post–martial law era, and one of Taiwan’s bloodiest days since the “228 Massacre” (二二八八事件) 
of 1947. Violent skirmishes continue unabated for nearly 20 hours, with protestors throwing sticks and stones at police, and lighting fires in the streets.

Then, in May 1990, the President nominates 
former soldier and defense minister Hau Pei-Tsun 
(郝柏村) as Premier of the ROC, igniting people’s fears of a return to military rule. In the midst of one of the ensuing street protests, a molotov cocktail 
is launched in the direction of riot police — the 
first instance of such an occurrence in the history 
of Taiwan’s protest movements.

 

Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).
Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).

 

In the month leading up to the Post-Industrial Arts Festival, a traffic accident sparks a civilian conflict known as the “Taxi Riot Incident” (計程車暴動事件). Dozens of drivers from two of Taipei’s taxi companies clash in what might be described as all-out street warfare. Wooden clubs and molotov cocktails are wielded by both sides; cars are smashed and burned. As Taiwan emerges from the silence of its martial law period, it’s clear that the country’s governmental mechanisms are unable to deal with the eruption of agitated voices. 

 

 

It’s easy, now, to forget the social atmosphere of the martial law period. It was a time laden with all kinds of restrictions. Civilians’ daily lives were subject to numerous checks and prohibitions — right down to bans on certain hairstyles. Men with long hair were forced by the police to shave their heads. A girl’s hair could be no longer than her earlobes. There were also bans on public performances of Taiwanese music and theatre; dance halls were made illegal. Songs, publications and even ideas were censored. This system of surveillance and inspection had a deep, lasting impact on all aspects of people’s lives.

A poster from the Grass Field Charity Concert (青草地歌謠慈善演唱會), Taipei, 1978.
A poster from the Grass Field Charity Concert (青草地歌謠慈善演唱會), Taipei, 1978.

 

In the late 1970s, amidst the island’s thriving folk song movement, singer and television host Yang Tzu-Chun’s (楊祖珺) self-titled album was banned, due to the ‘left-wing’ social consciousness in her lyrics. In 1978, Yang organized the Grass Field Charity Concert (青草地歌謠慈善演唱會), which attracted upwards of four thousand people — at that time the largest outdoor festival held in post-war Taiwan. Whilst Yang’s goal for this event was to raise funds for a charity with no expressed political agenda, due to her massive appeal, the festival was still monitored by the intelligence agencies of the KMT (“Chinese Nationalist Party”/國民黨). Her later concerts were all subject to bans and harassment. Eventually, she gave up music altogether and focused instead on the political opposition movement.

Metaphorically speaking, martial law built high walls, blocking the creation of art and culture and separating people from all kinds of possibilities. It turned regulated zones into areas of wasteland: media, spatial, corporeal and ideological. After martial law was lifted, did these walls collapse like the Berlin Wall? We can’t truly say that they have all fallen. The guards may have left, but the walls remain. Taiwan was under martial law for more than 38 years. Over such a long stretch of time, it became engrained in the consciousness of most people. So in toppling these high walls and breaking into the ruins, even without the threat of imprisonment, people still needed to be courageous. They had to overcome the secret police in their own and others’ heads. 

 

Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).
Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).

 

But nearly four decades of repression under military rule actually generated ample energy within Taiwanese society to escape this oppressive consciousness. This powerful and intense energy was encapsulated in a saying popular among intellectuals of that time: “Subvert the System” (顛覆體制). In facing this kind of hidden atmosphere, the government didn’t know whether to attack or retreat, leading to the rise of the aforementioned movements and struggles.

I will draw from my personal experience to shed more light on this phenomenon. In 1994, I attended the Broken Life Festival (破爛生活節), which was the precursor to the Post-Industrial Arts Festival and Taiwan’s first music festival to be held over consecutive days. The main organizer of both events was Wu Chung-Wei (吳中煒). Without approval from the authorities, Wu occupied wasteland by the river in Gongguan, Taipei, where he used stolen and collected materials and equipment to erect tents and a stage, constructing the festival site out of salvaged junk. The performances staged there were raw and reckless; the atmosphere was anarchic, like a collective trampling over taboos. On the second night I remember seeing a police car patrolling the site of this illegal gathering. After stepping out 
of his vehicle, the officer was surrounded by the crowd and ridiculed. From my position, about ten meters back into the crowd, it looked as though 
he was being pushed around. The officer didn’t know how to handle the situation. All he could do was resentfully get back into his car and leave, driven away by the crowd.

 

 

The most important facet of the noise movement’s spirit was that it not only enabled a handful of artists, but, moreover, it helped unleash the power 
of congregation. But even with enough gunpowder, an explosion still demands a fuse and a spark. That was the role of artists. Here are some of the most well-known figures of that time. They’re considered key figures of the first generation of Taiwanese noise:

LTK Commune

LTK Commune began in 1989, led by students from National Taiwan University. The group’s style was reminiscent of punk and industrial music, but the music itself played a secondary role. The main thrust of their performances was vulgar and absurd theatrics, punctuated by their shows’ chaotic endings.

Z.S.L.O.

Formed in 1992 by students from Fu Jen Catholic University, Z.S.L.O. was the first Taiwanese group 
to consciously use noise as a creative practice. For them, noise was not only sound, but a guerrilla-style tactic to disrupt the social order. In their performances, they created foul stenches and used harsh images and noise to provoke audience discomfort. They also self-produced underground publications, tapes and CDs.

 

 

Wang Fujui

While now a key artist in Taiwan’s sound art sphere, in the 1990s, Wang Fujui (王福瑞) had yet to begin his own practice, but he was instrumental in building the scene. Establishing the NOISE record label and publication, he introduced international artists to audiences in Taiwan and promoted Z.S.L.O.’s work abroad. If the world’s noise artists formed 
an underground network, Wang was Taiwan’s node.

Wu Chung-Wei

One of the most fascinating figures of that time 
was the aforementioned Wu Chung-Wei. As a self-taught artist who only completed elementary school, 
he worked in construction, as a Buddha-sculptor, street vendor and waste-picker — all the while 
writing, painting and creating art with the intuition of a poet. Wu was born with an innate talent for wandering the system. He excelled at using trash and found objects to construct anarchic utopias 
in abandoned spaces, open for anyone to come 
and go, live as they please and pursue their art.

 

Wu Chung-Wei (吳中煒) igniting fires at the Taipei Post-Industrial Arts Festival, 1995. Taipei Etat Archive. Photo Hung Tzu-Yi (洪子儀).
Wu Chung-Wei (吳中煒) igniting fires at the Taipei Post-Industrial Arts Festival, 1995. Taipei Etat Archive. Photo Hung Tzu-Yi (洪子儀).

 

At this point, we should remember the role of 
an invisible hand applying pressure from behind: the cultural propaganda strategies of the emerging opposition parties. For the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP/民進黨), which first gained power in Taipei County in 1989 and was eager to extend its victory, all forces of resistance, including avant-garde art, were considered allies against the ruling KMT. As far as noise activists were concerned, however, it didn’t matter if it was the KMT or DPP. Both were the system. Both were to be resisted. Naturally, then, there was a tense relationship between local government and proponents of the noise movement, especially following the Post-Industrial Arts Festival, where some performers smashed journalists’ cameras and committed acts of arson. Their separation was 
a predictable outcome. 

We shouldn’t arbitrarily assume a direct relationship between the noise movement trending towards a particular aesthetic in sound and the implementation of a new social and governmental order. But we can say that, for a time, politically charged and destructive noise performances 
had — albeit with difficulty — managed to 
receive local government support. 

 

Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).
Street scenes in front of the Legislative Yuan and surrounding area during the 520 Farmers Protest (520農民運動),Taipei, 1988. Photos Leon Tsai (蔡文祥).

 

Between 1994 and 1996, the first open elections 
for city mayors and the president took place, during which the DPP gained ground. To some extent, social resistance was now being exercised through normal political outlets. The countercultures and subcultures that couldn’t be integrated into middle-class values would no longer be useful to the Party, which was now more likely to favor stable, middle-class voters in their overall cultural governance strategies. When the DPP politician Chen Shui-Bian (陳水扁), in 1994, became the first elected Mayor of Taipei, he promptly executed a sweeping campaign to crack down on sex workers and shut down the city’s brothels, which led to the closing 
of music venues as well — a near-fatal disaster for the many underground clubs and live houses that had only recently opened.

So where did the key figures from the Taiwanese noise movement end up? LTK Commune is still active in non-mainstream music circles, with nearly all members having changed and the performative and noise elements gradually disappearing. Z.S.L.O. has dissolved, but one member, Lin Chi-Wei (林其蔚), is still relentlessly active. He studied in France in 2000, and his research on the cultural context 
of Western sound art was published in his 2012 book Beyond Sound Art: The Avant Garde, Sound Machines, and the Modernity of Hearing (超越聲音藝術:前衛主義、聲音機器、聽覺現代性). After Wang 
Fujui returned from studying in San Francisco, 
not only did he begin to create and curate works 
of sound art, but he also started teaching at the Taipei National University of the Arts. Many of the artists in the recent wave of Taiwanese noise are his former students. And then there’s Wu Chung-Wei, who still lives as a recluse with no fixed address; few people know his whereabouts.

 

Wu Chung-Wei sitting next to a sign that reads “Revolutionary Skies” (革命的天空), at Huashan Arts District, Taipei, 2000. Photo Yao Jui-Chung.
Wu Chung-Wei sitting next to a sign that reads “Revolutionary Skies” (革命的天空), at Huashan Arts District, Taipei, 2000. Photo Yao Jui-Chung (姚瑞中).

 

Wu’s last known action was a series of happenings based on the concept of “the social movement 
as performance art” (社會運動即為行動藝術), 
which he initiated during the 2006 protests against the demolition and alteration of the Treasure Hill squatters village in Taipei. The struggle itself was 
a failure. More than 100 riot police forcefully drove away the artists and students who wielded primitive maces and stone-throwers in protest of the demolition. Seen from a different perspective, however, this absurd act of resistance was a successful act of art. 
It was symbolic; it announced the construction 
of a new post–martial law status quo at a time when the gaps between culture and governance were being closed. The era of squatting in abandoned spaces and self-made anarchic communities had officially ended.

After the Post-Industrial Arts Festival, the noise movement entered a new phase. Frantic body performances largely left the stage, to be replaced by more nuanced and deliberate explorations of sound and technology. Artists began integrating experimental sound with digital media and interactive installation, while finding renewed government support under the institutional category of sound art. Meanwhile, the anarchic spirit of noise lives on in a handful 
of artists committed to operating outside of the 
system. One could say that the noise movement 
ends here and starts again.

 

Wild Lily Movement protestors occupying Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square, Taipei, 1990. Photo Tsai Ming-Te.
Wild Lily Movement protestors occupying Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Square, Taipei, 1990. Photo Tsai Ming-Te.