Postcards from inside #24. White Terror

Reposted from Limit Experience.

Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, Taipei, December 2015

Co-written with John Hutnyk

Although this will no doubt change in years to come, Jing-Mei currently seems to occupy a tricky position as both memorial site, prison museum and cultural park. It is missing from the current edition of the Taiwan Lonely Planet whose maps of Taipei narrowly crop it off. Both the 2-28 Memorial Park and Museum and the Chiayi Prison museum are given decent attention.

Visiting Jing-Mai on New Year’s Eve (31 December 2015), it was almost completely deserted bar a woman exercising her border collie. Although it was a damp, grey afternoon which over-emphasized the new brutalism of some of the sites architecture, it was still difficult to imagine the appeal of the space as a cultural park in better weather given the proliferation of creative and cultural parks throughout Taipei and Taiwan. The logic of defining the space in relation to other restoration and repurposing also seems problematic given many of these parks such as Huashan 1914 Creative Park (a former winery turned into a series of design-concept stores, cafes, galleries and an arthouse cinema) celebrate culture as consumerism first and foremost.

So who exactly is Jing-Mei aimed at?

The history of the site is documented in the park brochure. Its military education, military prison and military court uses are the stuff of the exhibitions, but especially the ongoing court functions (until 2007) also fold into the emerging story the museum. As with the first displays at Abashiri prison museum in Hokkaido, a portion of the work of the brochure is to document the efforts made to preserve artefacts and buildings for the prison museum – a narrative about itself, which is revealing in its frankly told tale of political manoeuvres. In 2001 the vice president of Taiwan, Annette Lu Hsui-Lin visited and learning that the Ministry of Defence proposed to reconstruct the site, she recommended preservation, and in July 2002 the Human Rights Advisory Panel under the Office of the President tasked the Council of Cultural Affairs to preserve the site as a park. Relocating the Ministry of Defence court functions was largely completed by 2007, and this very valuable and large urban area was renamed, from the ‘Memorial Park of Court Martial During the Communist rebellion’ to, on Human Rights Day, 10th December 2007, as ‘Taiwan Human Rights Jing-mei Park’. Change of Government in Taiwan in 2008 meant another change of name ‘after much deliberation’, with ‘opposition from various human rights groups’ and a public hearing in April 2009 so that in 2010 the park and the facility at Green Island in the south were made a part of the newly announced ‘Taiwan Human Rights Museum’. The brochure ends with a flourish: ‘The objectives of the museum were to preserve the two historic sites and to promote human rights education by fully utilizing the four major functions of museum: to preform studies and research, to handle collections and preservation work, to organise exhibitions and publications, and to educate the public and promote knowledge’ (Brochure of preparatory Office of the National Human Rights Museum, middle pages).

Having visited Jing-Mei a few days after Chiayi prison museum, it was difficult not to draw direct comparisons between the two sites and to reflect on the ways in which different forms of prison museum underpinned by apparently very different ideologies and political objectives re: audience and narrative might nevertheless be complicit in reproducing dominant discourses on incarceration. The Chiayi inmates were absent but in Jing-Mei they are very much present as dissidents, readers, mistaken identities, unjustly jailed or otherwise put upon victims. They are referred to throughout as ‘victims’ by the English language audio-guide. The narrative of their everyday experience structures the layout of the displays in the buildings, from courtroom and lawyer consultation room (though lawyers are de-emphasized as court appointed) through health and shopping, living quarters (bugs), eating, reading, washing and relaxing. Guards are absent in this case.

There is a strange tension at work where the careful reconstruction of the various living spaces of the prison facilities ‘humanizes’ the experience of those detained there and, as such, does more perhaps to affirm a well-regulated carceral state which includes a prison library, provisions store and visitor room than spaces (such as Chiayi prison museum) now devoid of such markers or in which such referents have been repositioned within glass cabinets.

There is an attempt to ‘reconstruct’ objects within the space in which they were used, arrangements on a doctor’s desk, packets and tins on shelves which despite being ‘under glass’ are focused less on the authenticity of the objects (many are replicas or ‘imagined’ as representative of the time and space) and more on creating scenes of snapshots of how life was for those incarcerated under the White Terror than a celebration of relics and fragments taken out of context.

The yard outside the cellblocks which it is possible to walk around was where the inmates were allowed to exercise for 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Although the yard is compact in line with the small size of the prison itself, it is difficult not to draw comparison with the cages where those kept in solitary confinement in today’s U.S. supermaxes (but elsewhere too) get their exercise. In this respect, the role of memorials such as Jing-Mei but also places like Robben Island and Camp des Milles should not simply be about collective memory of human rights violations associated with now defunct political regimes. Calling to mind the notion of ‘human rights’ in this way seems to echo Slavoj Žižek’s now dated but no less relevant ‘Against Human Rights’ paper in New Left Review. In it he claims that human rights are evoked to designate those who have lost all possibility of their ‘humanity’, stripped of personal, national, religious and cultural identity. Human rights only come into play when there is nothing left of what makes us more than biologically human. Might not the same be true of human rights memorials if they only work to ‘remember’. If once again ‘human rights’ only come into play after a moment is past? Instead, we might look at how such spaces permit a questioning of the ongoing techniques of exclusion, punishment (torture) and surveillance which rely on extra-judicial acts regardless of whether those subject to such techniques have been sentences via judicial or non-judicial procedures and, in turn, consider the ways in which the domestic criminal ‘other’ is constructed and framed within contemporary sites of detention according to the same or comparable discourses of fear associated with notions of global terror.

Coming out into the yard from the cells was itself something like a role-play. It was, I think, inevitable to look up and imagine what life within the courtyard, with only a rectangle of sky, despite being in the middle of a large city, would be like. Immediately sound became more important, and the sight was of either walls and security towers, or the distant but small sky. Isolation cell – an experience often depicted in cinema and literature, but here for the first time in my experience enacted thought the sequence of leaving the oppressive close cells and moving into the yard. And these cells were nowhere near as small or as claustrophobia inducing as the ones at Chiayi.

This too was perhaps set up through the earlier role-play with the telephone. We have long been aware that the issue of prisoner or detainee presence in the narrative is an important marker, perhaps something taught by the critique of older histories by the subalterns school and other modes of counter-privilege discourse, that of course then fetishise and celebrate resistance narratives in a kind of mirror exoticism way, but in this case the prisoner experience foregrounding the narrative is seductive. It sets up experiences of albeit remote but empathetic connection. The phone connects the ‘victims’ to the visitors. But the central place for victim narratives just also be considered with its filters. No prisoner, convict or detainee narrative is not recorded under duress. Even where such records are admitted as interrogation transcripts, the intervening screen of perspex and perspective sits between the visitor and the inmates. Role-play with the telephone does not invoke this dilemma, but rather pretends towards accessing unmediated experience – what is it like to talk with my son on an old black telephone through a mediating glass, with security camera by the ceiling corner looking down at us recording? The screen does not convey the duress that was always, to some degree is always, the undertone of prisoner testimony.

Do such sites via both role-playing and their status as ‘exceptional’ sites allow a persistent ‘bracketing’ out which encourages complicity and passivity on the part of those who visit and attempt to engage at whatever level, from whatever background? Or do they demonstrate the difficulty of calling into question the carceral within contemporary society?

SF/JH

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Afterword.

As an aside, I also wanted to include a reference within this post to a slightly bizarre  collection of laminated posters stuck to the toilet doors in the female restrooms. The stock images of famous, primarily European monuments with short maxims printed below in English and Mandarin seem both at odds with the site’s curated narratives and exhibits but also lacking in an obvious objective as either affirmation or critique of the official curation. I have no idea who posted these here, why or how long they had been there for. Nevertheless, there was clearly some intentionality behind them even if this was simply to provide some amusement to those based at the site.

Without trying to read anything into their existence or the choice of images (celebrated monuments from elsewhere), they did make me think about the potential to disrupt or subvert curated historical narratives evoking in some sense (despite the intentionality) Barthes’ idea of the punctum. Although the punctum is, precisely, not something we can actively seek out, it does strike me that there will always be something, an object, a reaction, an act, occurring within the space of the prison museum that doesn’t fit the intended narrative, curation or guided visit. In future I’m going to pay more attention to these. SF