Art as Environment—A Cultural Action at Plum Tree Creek involved a series of collaborations between local residents of the Plum Tree Valley/Zhuwei area of New Taipei City (Danshui district). Wu Mali (Artist and Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Institute of Interdisciplinary Art at National Kaohsiung University) curated this multifaceted project that brought together communities struggling with the effects of rapid urbanisation and population growth in a low-income, semi-agricultural region.
Wu brought the Bamboo Curtain Studio and a number of artists together to collaborate with Zhuwei locals in exploring and addressing the effects of the recent extension of New Taipei City’s urban sprawl in the Zhuwei area. Outcomes include ongoing, regular community events that promote creative reflection and discourse regarding campaigns for better state management and public infrastructure; various exhibitions featuring works by resident artists and collaborations between students, teachers and artists; and ongoing exploration of better land care practices.
The Zhuwei region encompasses a fluvial system located between Datuen Mountain and the Danshui River. The project focuses on a 10km section of the system that passes through various villages and new developments. The system is heavily polluted in some parts, and non-existent in others where the waterway has been diverted, had its banks cemented, or has occasionally simply been built over. A Cultural Action on the Plum Tree Creek seeks to engender a sense of care for and ownership of the river, by connecting communities along its banks that rely or have relied on it as a resource at varying degrees of dependency.
Audience Engagement: Wu describes the effort as land art, and as having a somewhat utopian goal while still being directed at changing the material lives of Zhuwei locals. The project aimed to picture “the blueprint of a future landscaping plan.” The work was always motivated by the idea of public engagement and thus aimed to consist of facilitated activity rather than the actions of an artist upon environment or community. Material and artistic outcomes of the project were to be collaborative rather than figure as observations. Ultimately, Wu’s community art seeks to activate the practical potential of art in order to “initiate a paradigm shift” that will “allow us to imagine and reshape an ideal living system.”
Social Activation/Debate; Health and Well-Being; Community Development: The communities in the Zhuwei region have been decidedly delineated. Different generations of locals have divided the area into migration zones, and a variety of urban and rural lifestyles operate close to but separate from one another. A microcosm of the effects of rapid urbanisation and population growth, the Zhuwei region encompasses agricultural fields, factory districts, and dense residential areas. These different quarters are located in a relatively compact region that displays mountain, coastal and fluvial morphology. As such, Zhuwei has a distinctively dynamic and impactful relationship with the weather and water cycle.
Responding to the need for citizens to unite in order to effectively improve the health of their shared resource, Wu aimed to instigate conversation between residents so that they might come to think about their natural environment in different ways. The goal was to use art as a methodology for environmentalism and community activism. Due to new constructions and increased housing and population density in the Zhuwei area having dramatically altered the original waterway—burying it in parts—A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek aspired to encourage diverse people using or changing the creek to consider their impact on people downstream. Through this collective engagement, communities affected by the health of the creek were to be empowered through their association with one another, and become capable of evoking a response from state authorities.
Water Quality and Management; Climate Change Adaptation: The project was conceived as an action incited by climate change. At a time of heightened focus on environmentalism and ‘eco’ or ‘green’ art in Taiwan and the Asian region at large, A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek was intended to “transform Zhuwei into an eco-friendly city model by reflecting on the life of the water.” The project sought to give locals the tools and knowledge necessary to address some of the consequences of rapidly appearing additions to the built environment that challenge stability on the banks.
This project and a series of Wu’s other works examined the dangers that Taiwan faces as a result of the increased environmental impact and risk to populated areas posed by rising sea levels. In terms of both environmental and social aims for these community art actions, Wu’s goal is to make art that can have a lasting engagement with important issues in conservation.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Audience Engagement: Participation in the project remained enthusiastic throughout, and positive outcomes for residents have been recorded on a series of Plum Tree Creek online blogs. In fulfillment of the major interventionist goal of the project, locals continue to engage with one another and cultivate relationships forged during the 17 months of curated activity. Other projects focusing on learning about the diverse and delicate ecology of the system have emerged since the original action, and are sponsored by various arts organisations.
Artistic Merit: Several exhibitions were held over the course of 2011 and 2012 that documented the actions in the area and presented visual narratives of connection between residents. Spanning visual mediums, dance, and theatre, the displays were diverse and creators ranged from school students and non-art-trained locals to visiting performers and artists. A book was published by the National Culture and Arts Foundation that catalogued the activities and interventions. The book, presenting A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek as a curated action, is itself a carefully illustrated artwork.
At completion of the project in 2012, A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek won the 11th Taishin Visual Arts Award sponsored by the Taishin Bank Foundation for Arts and Culture.
Social Activation/Debate; Education; Community Development: Previously discrete river communities now share culture through participation in the project, which encouraged those previously unaware of each other to meet and talk about the creek. In this way the aim of building a communicative platform for discussion about the local environment was achieved. In addition, the actions garnered attention from local government authorities and arts institutions.
The project connected students and locals with professionals in town planning, ecology, biology and architecture in order to facilitate the development of practical solutions to local pollution and built environment problems.
While no large-scale building or broad regenerative work was done in the area, Wu and the Bamboo Curtain Studio foregrounded questions relating to management of long term beneficial relationships with the natural environment in the face of the changing climate conditions and un-checked urban development. While unable to preserve the landscape against the need for more housing projects and the extension of urban sprawl due to rising inner-city prices and overpopulation, localised, ongoing discussion and strategising has given a voice to those experiencing the impact of overdevelopment at the intersection between the rural and the urban.
Aspects of the project also extended beyond the goals of environmental health toward promoting more sustainable lifestyles and practices. By promotion of better, more sustainable planning and development methods, participants worked toward the wholesale transformation of their collective lifestyle.
Water Quality and Management: Via increased dialogue, participants gained a new understanding of their natural environment and were able to engage with advocates, educators and professionals in the areas of urban planning and ecology. The project helped to raise awareness that contributed to a focus on the environmental health of the area in subsequent government forums and plans. The nature of the responses recorded in coverage of the events suggested that locals, especially students, continued to care for their surroundings with a new sense of responsibility. The actions and events encouraged a new interest in environmentalism and in preparation for consequences of climate change in the Zhuwei.
In recent years, Wu has displayed an ongoing interest in the environment through works such as Taipei Tomorrow as Lake Again (2008), and Art as Environment—A Cultural Action on the Tropic of Cancer (2006–2008). These projects each asked citizens to reflect on their impact on the environment as well as to recognise, in different ways, the figuring of natural resources and the landscape in their daily lives. A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek built directly on the concept for A Cultural Action on the Tropic of Cancer, which involved artistic strategies aimed at linking separated communities and promoting collaboration, through the pursuit of the idea that “artists become residents and residents become artists.”
Responding to larger environmental management issues in Taiwan, Wu became interested in Plum Tree Creek during a trekking and mapping project with a local historian and Bamboo Curtain Studio. In questioning how the health of the creek might be improved to the benefit of the many living on and around its banks, Wu and members of the Bamboo Curtain Studio met with community workers, urban planners, resource management professionals, biologists, farmers and other experts. Early in the project attempts were made to literally map the landscape according to different perspectives from locals and professionals, so that the area was interpreted inter-experientially. Local schools quickly became involved in these visual responses to the life and history of the creek, and as further connections were made the scope of the project grew to include not only environmental impact evaluation and imagery, but community events, meetings, and forums. Having lived in the Danshui district for some time, Wu embarked on curating a public art project that would become a networking platform and remain as a lasting intervention.
Promoting a new genre of land art as the practice of “artistic ecological rehabilitation,” A Cultural Action on the Plum Tree Creek included, but was not confined to, the following sub-projects:
Breakfast at the Plum Tree Creek: Residents interacted with professionals providing advice and information for forwarding local development. Locals cultivated their connection to the environment via community-based dialogue—forging, in the process, practical and beneficial relationships with each other. The venue for the meeting changed each month, and sought to bridge experiences of life on Plum Tree Creek by encouraging hosts to present local produce.
Shaping of a Village: Nomadic Museum Project: Residents, students and the Architecture Department of Tamkang University set about visualising and planning the ideal Zhuwei, the design of which addressed the consequences of under-facilitated urban development in the region. The multifaceted nature of the Zhuwei area was pictured from the perspective of urban studies, focusing on the contrast between rural and urban sections of the city and on ways in which locals physically engaged with space. The ‘nomadic museum’ was developed as a mobile installation that could “interactively engage different social groups in open sites” by offering alternative modes of engagement for the execution of routine tasks. For example, the idea of the ‘urban village’ was brought to central urban spaces through the promotion of a “handmade lifestyle.” It is a public market-like event, to which participants not only bring home-grown and handmade products to sell or trade, but also offer skilled services such as electrical appliance and shoe repair, gardening advice, and balcony garden workshops.
Local Eco Life: This project sought to connect people through programs that educated locals about the resources in their neighbourhood, its vegetation and the broader ecology of the area. Local high school students collaborated with teachers to test the water at various points along the creek and to source different plants for dyes and other uses. Connections were emphasised between the health of the system and the health and quality of the life of the people on its banks.
Catalogue: At the end of the 17 month action a book was published documenting the different activities that took place and what was learned or gained as a result. It is viewable online as part of the network of websites produced during the work.
Impacts of artwork production
A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek would seem to have next to no environmental footprint, excepting some transport costs associated with the touring and mapping projects.
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