Encoding Memories: Tainan
Mixed Media, Artist's Book, 300 Limited Edition , 2012
Encoding Memories: Tainan is made up of 23 stories I collected in the summer of 2012.
Although these stories took place in Tainan, they are in fact not just stories about Tainan; although these stories are about food, they are not merely just talking about food. They are stories that take place every day in this city that tells of the emotional connections of the people to it, their interpretation and imagination of their memories as well as their observations and annotations of the city’s development.
The psychology of the local residents was topmost on my mind as I embarked on this project. Through the application of the concept of psychogeography, experimental text and strategic photography and by adopting a game-like mode of interaction with the locals, I explored the metaphors and urban imaginary that could exist beyond the public imagery of the city.
The Soul of a City
When my friends learnt of my plans to spend the summer in Tainan, their first reactions were: “So what did you eat?”, “You’ve got to try the xx along xx street and xx street – it’s incredibly good”, “That xx is not good. The xx on xx street is better”, “You should check with Tainan folks on what’s good. The stuff talked about online are not nice”, “I know this shop - xx – it’s delicious. But the owner doesn’t entertain reporters because he’s afraid the quality of his food would suffer”, “You can’t find information online about what’s really good in Tainan”, “Tainan! You’ll put on weight.”
I came to know Tainan through its “food”. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this but in my two-week stay in Tainan, I have yet to step into Tainan landmarks like the Confucius Temple, Chihkan Tower or Anping Fort. However, I have eaten, on quite a few occasions, the cold-cuts at the stall along Bao’an Road that is run by a handsome guy; the hugely popular mango shaved ice that is made up of a few types of mangoes not far from there; Taiwanese congee at a stall where the waitress would tease me as I eat while I keep a lookout for my car parked outside; beef soup where the kind proprietress would allow me to park haphazardly; of course, there is also the sesame paste noodles at a stall along an arcade with a dog that bites and three chickens.
I am most certain that my “conquest” in those two weeks are inconsequential to many native Tainan residents and people who know Tainan intimately, because they would always say: “Oh, you should have tried xx. That’s really good.”
Just how shall one define what is “delicious”? The word in Greek is “nostimo” (νόστιμο), which originates from “nostos” which embodies the love one has for one’s “home/hometown/ancestral home”. When we ponder over what’s “delicious”, the answers we often get may be subjective or involve inexplicable emotions which are in fact implications of our interpretations of life and sense of identity. The characteristics of the city of Tainan are shaped by its “food”. What are the elements that congregate to produce this distinctive public imagery? And what insights of the city’s soul could we make out from such physical appearances?
Decoding a City’s Imagery
Travel guides and maps are filled with details which offer “encoded” imagery of cities, serving as an authoritarian voice on “the right way” to go about establishing a relationship with the city: when in Paris, go visit the Eiffel Tower and eat macaroons; in Barcelona, see the architecture of Gaudi and eat tapas; in Tokyo, shop at the cosmetic shops and eat sushi; when in Hong Kong, shop and eat; in London, go see the changing of the guards but the food’s not any good…these are markers that provide a standardized order that has become the hallmark of the travel experience of contemporary times.
However, these “travel experiences” do not equate “experiences”. Experiences are what you get as you embark on the journey and you are physically awakened and sensitized by the strange environment. It is an adventure for the soul, the mind and the emotions. I roamed the city of Tainan to immerse myself in the space of the city armed with phenomenology as my attitude, and the desire to construct my physical experiences through my creative process.
The rules of the game are as follows:
Interview native Tainan residents on: (1) the particular food of Tainan that is most closely associated with his/her “memory” (2) please describe the look of a “Tainan native”
Ask the participant to draw a map
Roam with the map as a guide. The space of the city is delineated into various planes of time and space by the stories shared by the participants while I looked into their memories of “Tainan” through my camera lens
Based on the description of “Tainan native” provided by the participant, the next “native” is randomly picked on the streets and I continued roaming the city in this manner
Photography: Encoding Urban Imaginary
This project took place over about two months, whereby I collated memories about food related by different natives in accordance with the above rules. The “pinhole camera” and “expired film” was deliberately chosen. Each route was covered with “a roll of 120 film”. In other words, I chatted with random strangers on the road every day. We talked about his/her memories about the food in Tainan. Then I went about in search of clues to these stories by strolling along the routes as indicated on the maps. Finally, I “experienced” these memories through my photography…
My travels for the day would come to an end when the roll of film is spent.
The choice of photographic equipment determined the manner of interaction with my subjects. It is like putting on headphones to listen to music. Different music genres would taint the air about one with different colours and flavours. Compared with the instant results of a digital camera which allows one to just “aim and shoot”, the “pinhole camera” and “expired film” acted like a form of “internal” projection in the whole creative process. As there was no way of predicting the final outcome, the strategic elements of “chance” and “by chance” actually threw the door wide open for imagination to work its magic. I was thus forced to abandon familiar elements of imagery and order in my work. I had to open up physically to the strange environment. The final hazy images showed a world that was as muddled as the stream of consciousness. Since no clear messages or answers were transmitted, the images are open for interpretation, the blanks and crevices filled in by one’s own imagination.
The point is not in the content but rather in the process of observing the city’s imagery. Similarly for the “food” – it’s not about the ingredients or the cooking method. Rather, it is about the memories that each person associate with it. Similarly for the “memories” – it’s not about whether they are real or complete, rather it’s about the indescribable warmth and familiarity brought on by them. Chance and coincidence abound in these 23 stories and the maps drawn by the natives whom I have just met. They are concepts of psychogeography borne out of spontaneity. It is precisely these little details that carry enough weight to construct the unique public imagery of that city, revealing its soul and authenticity.
“As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
-Invisible Cities. Italo Calvino
© 2014 YinHua Chu