Although I haven’t been to Taiwan before, many things appear familiar from Singapore, where I live. There are similarities in the stuff of the places – food, materials, visual environment, humidity – as well as how people move around and interact in them. No doubt I’m missing some significant differences – what historical reason, for instance, lies behind the greater prevalence of mopeds here? – but the similarities also serve to highlight minor variations. Single-trip travelers on Taipei’s MRT use tokens; in Singapore, they buy a $2 stored-value card, and are refunded the difference on arrival at their destination.
And ‘minor’ does not mean insignificant. No token, no trip. It’s the difference between staying put, or projecting yourself out into the city. In my own case, the first journey took me miles into and around central Taipei in search of a connector that would link the Ethernet cable to my computer: a round-trip spanning several hours and half the city that would have failed to reach its destination had the final 10cm not been measured out in the precise configurations of an Apple Mac Ethernet to USB adaptor.
It is these precise configurations that ease the flow of bodies, ideas and information to, from and around our location. Without them, situations can become massively more effortful or frustrated. And it’s the precision that is important. Your key can be the right size and shape for the lock, but if it’s the wrong key or even a poorly cut copy of the original, you’re not getting in. If your Mandarin tones are slightly off, you may be disappointed, or surprised. So we make efforts to ensure our precise needs will be met. I drew an Ethernet to USB adaptor so I could ask someone where I could get one, so I could show it to the person in the shop if I needed to. A colleague added the name of the place in Chinese so I could show it to someone if I required directions, and I tried to transcribe it into hanyu pinyin so I could read it on a map – before being reminded that it may be spelt differently here. In the Chinese restaurant, I drew a comically bad eggplant for the waitress. It looked like a sausage. Martin drew a better one, but in any case they didn’t have it. After much pantomime, we had a great meal – and half way through, the waitress sweetly brought out a translation of what we were eating.
These proliferating scraps – creased and rain-spattered passports granting free passage between minor realms of place or meaning – document the pronounced multi-modality of novel interactions. Gesture, expression, tone of voice, writing, drawing, the back-and-forth of repetition and emendation: such is the repertoire of the newly arrived and their gracious hosts. With the correct combination of tenacity from the former and patience from the latter, most needs can be met eventually.
But while the resulting actions and behaviour may tend towards the fuss-free, even habitual, this is not to say that complication and confusion are transcended. ‘[Botany)’ is the word given in our restaurant order translation for ‘broccoli’ (I think). Somehow, it doesn’t feel entirely wrong. The sounds are similar enough, and given how closely we were scrutinising the water spinach (and how assiduously we sought to approximate an aubergine), the term is a salutary reminder of how one tends to treat even (perhaps especially) the food on one’s plate as an object of structured, if speculative, curiosity.
Walter Benjamin described his ambulant investigations into Parisian consumer culture as “botanizing on the asphalt.” As a metaphor, the phrase reminds us of our own peculiar peering into the closed and otherwise mundane rooms where dance is daily made. Taken more literally, it reiterates the organic dimensions of our enquiries. On the day I flew here from Japan, I woke up with a cold, which the constant movement between heat, humidity and air-con has entrenched. It’s not debilitating, but I just can’t shake the sniffs, the chesty cough. They are nuggets of phlegmy difference between my body and its environment that pills and potions won’t smooth away. Like the ‘g’ in ‘phlegm’, which is never said, but which I always voice silently when I read or write the word – a mental cough.
Yesterday, in Lai Tsui-Shang’s rehearsal, a glorious moment of just such botanized obstinacy. Almost at the end, and two exhausted dancers are trying to get a phrase right. He’s on the floor on his back. She cartwheels over him, her head on his stomach, then as she goes into a crouch, he grasps her waist, and she twists, hauling him into a sitting position. Over and over; they never quite get it right. Previous sequences have been repeated, but this is a real sticking point. 10 minutes, 15 minutes…they are soaked through, but transfigured by the effort. There is no resolution. Eventually, Lai moves on, though it is unclear if she was at any specific point sufficiently satisfied. Rather, it’s the labour of it all that is the effect. Other points of contact in this dance are glancing, or fizz with an electric charge: here, momentarily, the dancers are soldered together by experience; knitted into each other like broken bones re-fusing, before snapping apart again. This is one way in which dance sustains an attention to the knots of experience, intimacy and encounter we otherwise sediment over until they are just like peas at the bottom of a pile of Yao Shu-Fen’s mattresses. Or maybe some [botany).