Chen Chieh-jen, Happiness Building I, 2012, three-channel HD video, color and black-and-white, 82 minutes. Production still. Photo: Chen You-wei.

Chen Chieh-jen is a Taiwanese artist whose most recent film is titled Happiness Building I. Here he discusses the film’s collaborative framework and his “active social practice.” Happiness Building I is on view at the Shihlin Paper Mill until January 13 as part of the 2012 Taipei Biennial, and at the Guangzhou Triennial until December 26. The film’s set is open to the public at the Yi-Ping Construction Material Company in New Taipei City, Taiwan, until December 31.

I HAD ALREADY BEGUN WORK ON HAPPINESS BUILDING I when I was invited to participate in this Taipei Biennial. As with my previous “staged” video projects, which are sometimes shot on site, at the actual places that the film refers to—as with Factory, 2003, Bade Area, 2005, and The Route, 2006—I created the film in collaboration and cooperation with a diverse group of people. In my earlier films I worked with unemployed middle-aged laborers, but in this case, I worked with young people who do not have a steady form of employment—university graduates, masters degree students, and doctoral students. Most of them have already received a lot of education and they have a great ability to think independently. But the problem is that in a neoliberal society it becomes harder and harder for them to find jobs. They wrote short poetic and prosaic impressions of their fragmented lives for me, and these stories became the basis of this fictional narrative film. They also helped to build the set and some were also cast as characters in the work. Half of the film’s participants are amateur actors from a theater in Taiwan, and they portrayed participants who could not appear in the film.

Happiness Building I is about a rental apartment building that is slated for demolition, but it is not based on one particular site. “Happiness Building” is a common term for buildings in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In some way, the naming reflects our craving for an absent happiness. During my search for a location at which to shoot this new film, I kept seeing the Chinese character for “happiness” as the name of roads, buildings, and restaurants all across New Taipei City and Taoyuan County. Most of these industrial districts are residential areas for blue-collar laborers, migrant workers, and low-income families.

Today, we can see all sorts of interventionist works at biennials, museums, and galleries. But art audiences never really step into the real sites. For a long time, I have wanted to include the actual filming site as part of my project, making it possible for the audience to see the film at its filming location and what has been accomplished by the film’s participants. But for many reasons and limitations, it could not happen until now. Finally, I have had the opportunity to realize this project even though I know that most visitors to the biennial would not come to this place. It is about a fifty-minute drive from the center of Taipei, and as of the mid-1960s the area was filled with small-scale factories and recycling centers for discarded objects. Even now there is even a leprosy sanatorium that was established during the era of Japanese occupation. When viewers come to the set, they not only see the reconstructed old apartments and the sets built from the discarded and dismantled objects retrieved from the street and factory interiors, but also documentary pictures that the participants took of each other while working together. The machines at the surrounding factories emit what becomes part of the background sounds of the film and the set, and also serve as constant reminders of the true living conditions of many people. Viewers are also not just outsiders to the set, but become a part of it. As with my past films, Happiness Building I does not have paraphrastic and strong dramatic characters. The “vacancy” in the film, therefore, provides the possibility for discussion with the audience. On the average, every three days since the set’s opening I have had various discussions with visiting students, with some discussions lasting until 10 or 11 PM.

The stories and traumatic experiences we see in this film, such those from the young women who are employees at an electronics reclamation center, are not special stories, but ones that we hear and see around us all the time. I’m not interested in simply narrating these stories, or undertaking another critique of neoliberalism. I’m much more concerned with how to adopt an alternative method of art production within the capitalist system—a new method that makes use of the individual power of creation that is discarded or excluded from current economic systems. I’m interested in making works that signal a joint creation, but that can still maintain each individual character’s independence. Filming this piece for me was not just an aesthetic experiment within the discourse of film. It was much more about maintaining an active social practice and opening up a site for this kind of engagement.

Translated from Chinese by Angie Baecker, Amy Cheng, and Joyce Lai.

— As told to Leslie J. Ureña