Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ah, but is it art?

It's difficult to understate the influence of video games on the day-to-day culture in East Asia, where a dude might feasibly bring his date out for a romantic night at the arcade, and where one may spend the majority of one's waking (or even non-waking) life in a reclining plush seat at the local internet cafe. In Korea, Starcraft is a fixture in the cultural firmament, with all of the televisual and commercial trappings of professional sport. Word has it that after spending 12 stultifying hours in World of Warcraft earning XP and gold for lazy Western gamers, workers at Chinese gold-farming firms will routinely stagger home to fire up WoW with their own avatars. Some poor bastard even died of exhaustion in a Taiwanese internet cafe, after god knows how many hours and weeks and months of prioritizing games over his health.

So it was probably only a matter of time before games got some kind of nod from the high-brow establishment, such as Taipei MOCA's exhibit of concept artwork from the archives of Blizzard, indeed the very Blizzard of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo fame. Mind you, these aren't exactly the art games or experimental stuff coming out of the indie developer scene, or even the type of semi-pretentious middle-brow fare, the Bioshocks or Red Dead Redemptions or Icos, that mainstream game criticism loves to allude to every five or so paragraphs. They are just really well-made pop confections, not so much Mozart or jazz as they are the Beatles, and even then they're not so much the Beatles as they are basically high-grade digital cocaine.

At the start of the MOCA exhibit, there was a large cardboard poster-type thing that described in rough terms the ongoing debate over whether video games ought to be considered art. Quite predictably, it took a beeline straight toward the old saw about how the semantics of the word "art" are historically and/or culturally bound and thus subject to reinterpretation, blah blah blah. This was all horseshit. I've long been annoyed by how quickly how critics and commentators from all quarters are willing to throw down the Floating Signifier card, as if art was merely whatever we wanted it to be. This line of argument leaves us without any criteria to distinguish between games that have artistic merit, and games that do not, and as such it basically torpedoes any meaningful theorizing about games as a creative medium.

At any rate, the MOCA exhibit was an attempt to answer the "Are games art?" question in what's probably the stupidest possible manner, which was to throw a frame around some concept drawings and call it a day. Admittedly, Blizzard hires extremely talented craftspersons who know how to draw a badass-looking robot with guns and tits, but the fact that games contain cool static images is pretty far removed from what actually makes games interesting qua art, which is to say the interactivity or narrative or metaphorical gameplay or even if you will a vague kind of multimedia mis-en-scene.

It was thus that I strolled through the MOCA hallways with a smugly-raised eyebrow, taking pictures of people taking pictures of the art.

In its own weird way, though, the Blizzard exhibit served pretty nicely as a satire of modern museum culture. Consider the familiar curatorial tricks in play:
  • Expensive frames around the artwork
  • Moody lighting
  • Darkened rooms with rotating projectors displaying the idle animations of life-sized game characters
  • Galleries with piped-in video, background music, and audio taken from the actual games
  • Wall-mounted essays filled with bullshit artspeak exposition
You could say the whole thing was a well-executed, high-concept trailer for Starcraft II and Diablo III. The advertising aspect of it was hard to ignore. And yet I found myself constantly reminded of a question straight out of Postmodernism 101: is a building regarded as a "museum" because it houses works of art, or are certain objects regarded as works of "art" because they are housed in a museum? I'm talking Duchamps's urinal here.

The question becomes especially compelling when you consider that the other exhibit on display at the MOCA, a collection of works involving thermometers by a Japanese fellow with decidedly more traditional aesthetic bonafides, was presented in much the same way as the Blizzard concept art, with all the trick lighting etc. etc., and was arguably just as bullshitty, albeit without the obvious profit motive.

The one aspect of the Blizzard exhibit that struck me as truly artistic was the gallery of fan-created art, which besides being far less stylistically monotone than Blizzard's own archival stuff, actually seemed to be about something human. In those drawings were interpretation and parody and humor and, indeed, love; to observe the fan art was to learn something about someone, even if that something was the fact that some dude out there really, really loved Warcraft.

Out with Zhaoqin at the Wall, the one identifiably hipsterish hangout that I have encountered in Taipei. I've never seen anything quite like it: there's a long hallway with a coffee bar, record store, tattoo parlor, and sofas, and then at the end, there's a big door that leads to a stage and a dance floor. Now, if only the tickets for shows weren't so overpriced, they'd really have something special going on.

I dragged a handful of my cousins out to see a show featuring a few Japanese bands, including Shonen Knife as the headliner. It was a pricey ticket, around NT$1300, and none of my cousins had much of an idea of what a rock show was like. Regardless of how much of a music dweeb you are, your impression of the first few shows you attend are going to be dominated by physical sensations, not all particularly pleasant, e.g., how tired you were from all that standing, how you were afraid of getting sucked into the mosh pit, and how unbelievably fucking loud a band sounds over a PA. But after years of dragging cautious neophytes to rock shows, I realize that I've become inured to the sense of guilt and concern over whether the people I've brought along are actually having a good time.

We didn't end up staying for Shonen Knife; in fact it was me who suggested that we leave two songs into the fourth band's set. By that time I felt like I'd more or less gotten the point. The third band to play, Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, was an immensely bizarre combination of incredible stage presence (really, the best I've ever seen, and that's saying something), awesome riffs, somewhat dodgy song structure, and a horrible, awful, cheapening, regrettable, we-are-all-now-dumber-for-it band name. The latter served to renew my despair over Asian culture's infatuation with the English language, which is no more intense and despair-inducing than when it is applied to pop music.

The real gem of the evening ended up being the first band, a local shoegazey post-rock group called Boyz & Girl. They sounded like Sonic Youth, if Sonic Youth made songs with only three chords and had the singer from Deerhoof. The songwriting and the arrangements were impeccably tasteful. I really had no idea that Taipei could generate bands this good, because, I mean, in the first place, where do they play? It's hard for me to imagine how a city with only a couple of viable small-scale venues can sustain an indie rock scene, but it somehow manages.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In which the Taiwan believes I am too skinny, and then tries to kill me with culinary indulgence

A day before heading out of LA, I went to Monterey Park to have breakfast with my grandmother, who chided me, as she always does, about being too thin. Since quitting my job two weeks prior I'd been working out every day and eating semi-vegetarian, but I was 100% sure I hadn't lost any weight. So I kind of just shrugged. But when I met my Taiwanese aunt and uncle at the airport, they mentioned that they thought I looked a bit skinnier than I was when they visited over the holidays. The next day I met my cousin Zhaoqin on a subway platform and she said that my Chinese was still pretty good, but that I had gotten skinnier.

Later on that week she and I went to have lunch with the rest of my dad's side of the family, who spent an hour telling me that I was being silly for quitting a good job with an obscene-by-Taiwanese-standards paycheck. They were right--there was some silliness to it. But I had reasons that I didn't quite feel like they'd understand, so I kept quiet. They then went on to dwell on how I was just way too thin, and kept trying to get me to eat the last mouthfuls of every dish on the table.

Also, I forget when it was, but while taking the elevator on the way out of my aunt's apartment, I encountered a stranger in a yellow wifebeater who spent 10 floors shifting listlessly and clearing his throat. At around the 6th floor or so he said that he thought I'd gotten a lot skinnier than he'd remembered. I didn't even bother trying to explain that we'd never met before.

Adages about bad pizza and bad sex apply to beef noodles--even a middling serving such as the above is still a pretty decent experience. Here, as a kind of angry shot across the bow of the good ship Continence, I insisted on ordering a bowl of hot/spicy noodles. I have greeted the waning of my tolerance for spicy food with all the bitterness, hostility, and self-delusion of a man in complete denial. No, this does not bode well for a five-week stint in the Mainland with the street food stalls a block away.

The famous tomato beef noodles of Gongguan. Beneath the placid surface of the broth lay a massive pile of springy knife-cut noodles, which have been engineered by 5000 years of Chinese ingenuity to fly out of your plastic chopsticks and splash into the tomato-laden broth and generally make a huge mess of everything. As tasty as it was, this meal was more about the journey than the destination, having taken three attempts on three separate days before I could catch the proprietor while he was still serving food.

A view from the bus, riding down Roosevelt Road into Xindian.

Getting my fancypants tea on in 紫藤廬 (Zitenglu), where one may indulge such pretensions as the following:
  • Decanting tea into a beaker so it doesn't continue to soak the leaves in the pot
  • Pouring the tea from the decanting beaker into a cup designed for smelling (but not drinking) the tea, which cup is to be smelled both while it contains tea, and after the tea has been poured out into yet another cup which is designed for drinking (but not smelling)
  • Pre-rinsing all of the aforementioned water-bearing containers with hot water before use, lest they spoil the tea with physical contact at room temperature
  • Enjoying all of the above on tatami and pillows
Anyway, the mochi cubes in the snacks menu are to die for.

So in case you were wondering, for the semi-decent price of NT$250 per hour (~US$10), you can get a studio in central Taipei with a keyboard, PA, drum kit, some shitty Hughes & Kettner guitar amps, and blizzard-capacity A/C.

The incredibly bizarre postmodern yuppie pavilion outside of Page One Books in Taipei 101. Eat your heart out, Fred Jameson.

A cup of admittedly fine Kona coffee, which I purchased across the street from NTU for the astonishing sum of NT$220. Curiously, the cafe didn't have any fresh milk or cream in stock, which I had to assume was a slight to the philistines a la those French bistros that don't carry ketchup for your pommes frites.

You will find no city as coffee-mad as Taipei. The odd overpriced cup of Kona notwithstanding, the vast majority of the coffee served in this city is drinkably shitty, but it doesn't seem to bother the locals one iota. Furtively shoot the snot rocket that you've been holding back for the last 5 city blocks and you'll reliably hit the front glass of a Starbucks or Barista or Dante or Seattle's Best.

The current darling of the Taiwanese coffee franchise universe is 85度C, which specializes in affordable hypersweet iced coffee and cellophane-wrapped wedges of Asian-style cake (the sort which is mostly frosting and air and is eaten with those irritating two-prong plastic spears that defy all utility and common sense). I had not been in Taipei for two hours before being whisked away by luxury sedan to enjoy a 85度C iced Americano. Each day that I am here, I am hanging out with one cousin or another who will invariably get a hankering for iced coffee, and BAM! we will find another 85度C lurking right around the corner, practically hovering and licking its chops, like some kind of Mephisto of adult milkshakes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Shrimp fried rice, a suitable first meal for a stint in Taipei. I consumed more MSG in this one lunch than I have over the past 12 months living in LA.

Here is an exercise in the Ayn Rand school of Taiwanese night-market cuisine, which holds that the eater herself should make all important choices in the meal. This woman will throw anything you point at into a deep fryer and then chuck basil and garlic paste onto it. Then you eat it with a toothpick out of a wax paper sack. Down the way there are similar food stalls that will barbecue, steam, or boil the food items of your choice, depending on the temperament and personal idiosyncrasies of each proprietor.

Another important watchword of Taiwan's culinary Randianism is Fuck You, Let's Put Instant Ramen Into It. It is apparently SOP at all-you-can-eat hotpot restaurants to stock huge amounts of ramen packets, lest the rugged Taiwanese ubermensch be denied his nutritionless, salty due.

I don't think anyone minds if I interrupt this talk of food with a picture of my hot Taiwanese cousins, Zhaoqin and Fay.

Make no mistake, my boys Kevin and Simon need their Wii Rock Band something fierce.

A combination hot/sour hotpot at 鼎王 (Dingwang), a very snazzy family-style hotpot restaurant in a very snazzy corner of town. This restaurant provides all the free duck blood cubes and cured tofu that you could possibly consume within a 90-minute time limit. If you were never a fan of congealed blood, tendon, or intestine, it's because you weren't eating it spicy enough.

The real stars of the show are the fried-dough 油條 (youtiao), pictured left. These are usually eaten for breakfast and are something like unsweetened, chewy churros, only with double the grease content. The youtiao served here are over-fried, so that they remain crispy even when they absorb the spicy broth.

The menu at Dingwang. Incidentally, "Selected Rectum" is the name of my next band.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day 2

7AM: Going strong.
9:36AM: Ready for bed.


In the interest of keeping the updates semi-regular, I'm going to depart from my usual blogging habits and attempt to keep each entry under two thousand words.

Am I just crazy, or did LAX get rid of the departure immigration check entirely? Counting ticketing, security, immigration, and boarding, I waited a total of five minutes the whole time, which is some kind of record.

It wasn't a full flight. Since I would be arriving around 8PM local time, the goal was to stay awake for most of the 13-hour flight so I'd be ready to sleep when I arrived. You probably wouldn't believe how many times I listened to the same five or six Hall & Oates songs.

In-flight movie 1: Call me a square, but I couldn't really enjoy Kick-Ass. I kept getting weirded out by how, uh, fascist the whole premise seemed, what with all the frustrated young men taking matters into their own hands, the little blonde kids murdering people, and all the in-movie spectators watching the whole deal on TV and cheering it on.

In-flight movie 2: Au Revoir Taipei (一頁台北) was a nifty little love letter to the city, and would've made me incredibly nostalgic except that I was actually just about to arrive in Taipei. The feckless and chumpy male lead kind of irritated me, but I think it was because the portrayal might have hit a little close to home.

In-flight movie 3: The lady sitting across the isle was slogging through the entirety of Dr. Zhivago and I tried hard to avert my eyes. But I saw enough to get really depressed anyway; I even caught the end scene where Omar Sharif gets off the bus and keels over from grief and/or cardiac arrest. As a special bonus, I also ended up feeling really cold.

Outside of pissing away my time at cafes surfing Facebook and sipping weak Asian coffee, I do actually have minor ambitions to do something productive on this trip. While on the plane, I took my very first crack at throwing together some one-off game ideas that might be feasible on a short time frame. It was under just such a pretense that I convinced myself to acquire a new MacBook Pro a couple months ago; a key productivity motivator will thus be to avoid being just another hipster douche with a thousand bucks to blow on overpriced hardware.

Post-Employment Tour Goal #2 was to play shitloads of music. I made several pre-deparature jokes about how my suitcase would be half-filled with guitar gear. What was shitty was that my suitcase actually did turn out to be half-filled with guitar gear.

Pro tip: if you're pondering your meal choice on a China Airlines trans-Pacific flight, just stick to the following set of preference relations and you're golden:
  • Chicken Beef
  • Rice Noodles

At the airport waiting to greet me were Kevin, Yinghwa, Shuxian, and some random dude whom I don't know but who is evidently good at hiding behind orchids and fucking up my photos.

Yeah, being back in Taipei feels better than I thought it would. This used to be my town.