Chen Chieh-jen, 2008-2009
35mm transferred to DVD, color & b/w, sound, 26 minutes 50 seconds, single-channel, continuous loop, documentation
The inspiration for Empire’s Borders I came from Chen Chieh-jen‘s experience applying for a U.S. non-immigrant visa after being invited to attend an art exhibition in New Orleans.1 During a visa interview at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT),2 Chen was accused of intending to remain in the United States illegally and his application was denied.3 U.S. citizens on the other hand, can enter Taiwan at any time without a visa. When Taiwanese citizens (as well as those of many other non-western countries) wish to travel to the United States, they must present many documents including proof of sufficient financial resources to guarantee that they will not remain in the U.S. illegally. They must also submit to fingerprinting, which forms part of a dossier used by the U.S. government to monitor visitors, and also a discriminatory interrogation at the hands of a consular officer.
Chen started his blog entitled The Illegal Immigrant to protest the long-standing, unfair U.S. colonial-style visa system. The blog welcomed others who had also faced discrimination and abusive language at AIT visa interviews to share their experiences, and served as a forum for discussing the structural basis for this discriminatory system and how it might be changed.
Chen then used the blog postings to develop his video Empire’s Borders I, which is composed of two parts. The first part narrates eight typical cases of Taiwanese citizens who applied for non-immigrant visas at AIT, were abused by consular officers and then denied for unknown reasons.4 The second presents the plight of eight Mainland Chinese who came to Taiwan to live with their Taiwanese spouses, and starts from airport immigration interviews and continues with various forms of scrutiny and discrimination they suffered at the hands of the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency.5
The contrasting examples presented in the video reflect today‘s global stratification of power among sovereign nations, as well as the border control policies of stronger nations and their governance and discipline of citizens of weaker nations. The video also criticizes the Taiwanese government for entrenched Cold War ideologies and strategies used to administer less empowered individuals residing in other regions.
For this video Chen constructed sets of the interview rooms at AIT and those at the airport offices of the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency, thus making visible and audible these sovereign spaces closed to the public by national authority. For the video‘s first section, which was filmed on the AIT set, Chen invited performers involved in Taiwan’s little theater movement to narrate the accounts posted to his blog in a reportage-style format. The second section filmed on the set of the airport interview rooms features the actual Mainland spouses, who give firsthand accounts of the inhumane treatment they received from the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency.6 The various monologues composing the video allow voices once hushed by national authority to create dialogs with the video‘s audience. The video also exposes the transnational movement of capital, and the control, manipulation and plunder of accumulated capital and labor‘s surplus value in various regions by the global ruling class through frameworks such as the World Trade Organization in the laissez-faire environment of neoliberalism. Chen hopes to raise consciousness regarding the governance, discipline and monitoring of citizens of weak regions in the name of the new world order, anti-terrorism framework and various nations‘ border control policies.
Chen created The Illegal Immigrant and Empire’s Borders I to re-visualize countless instances of discrimination and layers of popular history that have been concealed or left unrecorded by mechanisms of national sovereignty. These people’s memories are seen, heard and offered for reconsideration in this series, which as a form of activism serves as a starting point for rooting out imperialist ideologies.
Since 1950 Taiwan has been a subordinate region under U.S. domination.7 For 30 years following the end of the Taiwanese government‘s travel ban in 1979, sentiment in Taiwan had been quietly brewing against AIT, and it was only with Chen‘s 2008-9 release of his activist works The Illegal Immigrant and Empire’s Borders I that the unfair, colonial-style U.S. visa policy was first discussed publicly. Detailing AIT consular officials‘ discriminatory language and mysterious denial of visas, Chen’s series documents the memories of Taiwanese people.
AIT established an official Facebook page in February of 2010, which was quickly filled with waves of complaints protesting the U.S. visa policy. Later, AIT deleted all negative comments from its Facebook account.8
It was only after the Taiwanese government agreed to buy an expensive U.S. arms package and bone-in beef products and offal suspected of carrying mad cow disease (both conditions benefiting the U.S.), and to meet seven requirements of the U.S. anti-terrorism framework, which included the issuance of biometric passports, exchange of intelligence data requiring the installation of an information transmission system, and implementation of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, that AIT announced Taiwan was eligible for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) on December 22, 2011. On October 2, 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that Taiwanese citizens would be eligible to travel to the U.S. under the VWP starting on November 1, 2012.
Chen believes that »even though Taiwan will become a VWP country, every individual in the world still must live under the U.S. led neoliberalism, new world order and anti-terrorism framework, which means increased monitoring through networked technology such as biometric passports, terrorist intelligence data exchange, the travel authorization system, and the collection of biometrics such as fingerprints. Having been dominated and subordinated for so long, the people of Taiwan should more than ever, deeply and broadly join with others around the world who are being regulated and eliminated, and based on their individual experiences of discrimination, develop new liberating policies through networked actions.«
The Text has written and translated by Chen Chieh-jen & his team.
Chen Chieh-jen was invited to attend the first New Orleans Biennial after Hurricane Katrina, whose theme was the rebuilding of New Orleans.
2 According to the Taiwan Relations Act (a U.S. domestic law), the American Institute in Taiwan was established on January 1, 1979 to preserve U.S. hegemony in the Pacific Region after the U.S. transferred official diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the P.R.C. government. As a non-profit, non-governmental organization, AIT provides services including the processing of visa application for Taiwanese citizens.
3 According to a press release published by the Taiwan Central News Agency on September 30, 2008, AIT indicated that Chen Chieh-jen‘s statements about this incident were nonfactual.
4 Posts left on the blog The Illegal Immigrant indicate that most visas were denied to single women who had received higher education, could speak English and did not have fixed assets.
5 After the filming of Empire’s Borders I, the Taiwan Legislative Yuan amended the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area on June 9, 2009, shortening the waiting period for identity cards from eight years to six for Mainland spouses. The act also stipulates that Mainland spouses who lawfully enter Taiwan no longer have to wait two years to apply for a permit, but obtain the right of employment upon arrival. Regarding fundamental human rights, however, Mainland spouses are still treated severely in comparison to those from other countries.
6 The second section of Empire’s Borders I was filmed with the assistance of The Marriage Association of the Two Sides of China, as well as mainland spouses who were under possible duress created by the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency, yet were still willing to relate their experiences in person.
7 Evidence of U.S. domination of Taiwan can be found in the collected accounts of labor activists entitled Taiwan Economic History for Workers, published by the Labor Affairs Bureau of Kaohsiung City Government. Regarding Taiwanese politicians’ subordination to the U.S., see reports on the Taiwan page of the WikiLeaks website (http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Category:Taiwan), or the book Wikileaks– Taiwan, published by the China Times Publishing Company.
8 Details regarding this can be found in a February 9, 2010 report by the TVBS Internet news website.
Chen Chieh-jen, 2010
35mm transferred to Blu-ray Disc, black and white, sound, three-channel video installation, continuous loop, (70 minutes 12 seconds single-channel video & 5 minutes 45 seconds of double-channel video) + documentation
In recent years a large amount of propaganda has been produced in Taiwan in the name of revisiting history. Generated by the American Institute in Taiwan, the Taiwan Government and research centres at major universities, this propaganda has focused on repackaging the United States‹ domination of political, economic and cultural structures in Taiwan from 1950 to 1979 as a central enabling factor in Taiwan‘s path to modernization and economic maturity. Using television, newspapers, books, documentaries and art exhibitions, these organizations have presented carefully selected historical data, nostalgic artefacts, stories and warmhearted testimonials told by Taiwanese agents of the U.S. during this period of domination to refashion it as a fondly remembered era
When imperial and state apparatuses administer projects re-coding or re-embedding historical memories, they not only secure the right of historical revision to construct the legitimacy of their ruling authority, but also remake the thoughts, desires and imagination of individuals. Reading the people’s history1, we discover that 1950 to 1979 in Taiwan was not necessarily a fondly remembered era. After the Korean War erupted in 1950, the United States, which had discontinued support for Kuomintang forces in the final stages of the Chinese Civil War, dispatched the Seventh Fleet to blockade the Taiwan Strait and maintain U.S. hegemony in the Pacific region. Also, to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from deploying PLA (People’s Liberation Army) forces to the Korean battlefield, the CIA re-established co-operation with the Kuomintang Government, which was now based in Taiwan following its retreat from the Mainland. One cooperative venture between the CIA and Kuomintang was a non-governmental trade organization designated as Western Enterprises2, which established the Anti-Communist National Salvation Army (NSA) to launch a surprise attack on China.3
Under the Sino-American Mutual Defence Treaty of 1954 to 1979, the United States supported the Kuomintang dictatorship, whose anti-communist, martial law mechanisms (1949 - 1987) completely suppressed leftist factions and political dissidents in Taiwan.4 Furthermore, through the U.S.-guided Treaty of San Francisco (1951), the sovereignty of Taiwan was left undecided, resulting in its status as a state of exception. Again, under the U.S. policies of military and economic aid from 1951 to 1965, Taiwan was reorganized into a logistics base for the U.S. military and a zone for low-cost, pollution- and labor-intensive industries in the international capitalist system of divided labour. Following the brainwashing by Kuomintang anti-communist education and U.S. Cold War cultural propaganda, Taiwan became a pro-U.S., anti-communist base, and a capitalist society.
Following China‘s 1978 turn toward neoliberal economic reforms, the United States formally acknowledged the PRC‘s sovereignty over China in 1979. At the same time, the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, breaking off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) thus again rendering it a state of exception, much like a territorial possession of the U.S. In 1984, Taiwan stepped up its neoliberal policies of liberalization, internationalization and systematization in response to the formidable pressure of U.S. trade reprisals. In 1987, following the end of the Cold War, pressure on Taiwan to fully liberalize and open its markets to the U.S., and continual protests calling for democracy in Taiwan, the Kuomintang put an end to thirty eight years of martial law. Following the U.S. led founding of the World Trade Organization in 1995, Taiwan, which had been subject to U.S. discipline, administration and domination for so long, joined the organization in 2002, becoming a subordinate region in the system of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Under the long-term re-coding and re-embedding of historical memories by imperial and state apparatuses, Taiwanese society has had its local history, social context, and popular memories and imagination eviscerated.
The inspiration for Empire‘s Borders II – Western Enterprises Inc. came from the experiences of Chen Chieh-jen‘s father, who was a member of the NSA. When he passed away in 2006, he left behind a partially fictionalized autobiography, a paper listing NSA soldiers lost at sea in a raid on the Mainland, an old military uniform and an empty photo album. This photo album had once contained pictures of Chen‘s father and NSA soldiers being trained by Western Enterprises, but at some point Chen’s father had burned them.
In this video Chen Chieh-jen uses a poetic dialectic to transform the building that housed Western Enterprises—a place full of imperialistic overtones—into a symbolic labyrinth embodying sixty years of post-war Taiwanese history, and a wasteland reflecting the amnesia of the Taiwanese people.
In the video, a son re-examines items like those Chen‘s father left behind: an empty photo album which cannot testify to history, a real but impossible to verify list of NSA soldiers lost at sea, a partially fictionalized autobiography written as self-examination, and an old military uniform. The son marks the anniversary of his father‘s death by burning spirit money and then putting on the uniform amidst the drifting and curling smoke—unifying his image with that of his father‘s—to make the journey back to Western Enterprises.
The son, now portraying the father, wanders through different areas of the abandoned Western Enterprises facility, which is permeated with traces of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG).5 On different floors of the building he meets an NSA soldier unsuccessfully searching for his own military dossier, two undocumented victims of white terror who cannot leave the building, and unemployed labourers and day workers trapped by abandoned industrial equipment.6 These people and ghosts excluded by the historical views of imperial and state apparatuses next help one another to the MAAG auditorium in the Western Enterprises building and assemble on the stage as if they are about to start a people’s memory and imagination demonstration to confront the oppression of historical views of imperial and state apparatuses.7
Although the existence of the Western Enterprises headquarters is historically factual, there is no photographic record of the building. The building used in the video is actually a chemical factory that was active in the 1950s during the period of U.S. aid. Scenes meant to symbolize various historical periods, were created by Chen Chieh-jen, actors and workers, using objects left in this abandoned building.
The Text has written and translated by Chen Chieh-jen & his team.
For examples of Taiwan‘s history from the perspective of the people’s memory, see the writings of labour activists collected in Taiwan Economic History for Workers published by the Labour Affairs Bureau of the Kaohsiung City Government.
2 Western Enterprises was under the jurisdiction of the Office of Policy Co-ordination, which was part of the CIA‘s global underground operations and established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in February of 1951. The headquarters of Western Enterprises was located on Zhongshan North Road in Taipei City, near the current location of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, while operations bases were located on the outlying islands of Matsu and Kinmen. In 1955, after Western Enterprises ceased this stage of its operations, the CIA continued to operate in Taiwan under another name.
3 The NSA was jointly established by Western Enterprises and the Kuomintang Government in 1951. The primary mission of the NSA was to launch military attacks and interference against Mainland China during the Korean War. The U.S. and KMT governments have never publicly acknowledged that the NSA was once a legitimate organization. Mid and lower level members of the NSA were mostly young men recruited from poor farming and fishing families that had originated in Mainland China. These soldiers did not receive a salary for the period they served, and as of 2011, nearly sixty years after the fact, Taiwan‘s Ministry of National Defence still has not settled this question of unpaid wages due to incomplete records.
4 All cases regarding victims of white terror during Taiwan‘s Martial Law era have yet to be resolved. According to official government estimates, approximately eight thousand victims were murdered, and another one hundred and forty to two hundred thousand victims were sentenced or imprisoned by military courts for political reasons.
5 The primary missions of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group were to establish a mechanism that supervised the political, military and financial affairs of Taiwan, and carry out military deployments advantageous to the U.S.
6 The actors in the video are factory and temporary workers who lost their jobs as a direct result of neoliberal policies enacted by the Taiwanese government, and members of the National Alliance Federation of Independent Trade Unions, a union which did not register with the government.
7 In addition to the main film of this three-channel video installation, two other short films are projected. The film on the right shows unnamed mid and lower-level NSA soldiers, the film on the left contains portraits of victims of white terror.