“Small World,” the theme of the Taipei Biennial 2023, suggests both a promise and a threat: a promise of greater control over one’s own life, and a threat of isolation from a larger community. Our world can become smaller as we grow closer to one another, but also as we grow apart, and “Small World” takes place within such a suspended state.
During the pandemic lockdowns, many experienced their immediate surroundings as if for the first time—not only in the private space of the home, but also as a new experience of one’s own surroundings. In northern India, residents of Jalandhar were suddenly able to see the Himalayas after decades of traffic pollution dissipated from the air. The sight of nearby mountain peaks reflected what many were discovering in their private lives: in a shrinking world, the nearest things can appear unfamiliar. It was as if a spell had been broken, exposing a strange reality that had surrounded us the whole time.
Many relationships and livelihoods, friends and loved ones were lost in this difficult period. Mental health issues arose that continue until today. But the sense of fear and alarm was also accompanied by a strange calm as the industries and economies that moved the world suddenly paused. For a brief moment, it was just us, meeting each other through windows and screens, still moving and performing our private lives to each other through machines, trying to work and to stay alive, freed from some commitments and increasingly alone in facing others, asking how we can make time without losing time.
Like any capital city or imperial center, today’s platforms often appear to be the only gateway to the world outside and to relations with others. But such captivating allure also incites mistrust, especially when relations are based on attention—a specific mode of relation that favors volatile behavior and intense states of unrest and anxiety. When feelings of vulnerability and omnipotence are strangely interchangeable, it’s no wonder that attention gravitates toward tension: the two words share the Latin tendere—“to stretch.”
To stretch is to extend, to reach and grow to cover a distance between multiple points without letting go of others—to meet the cost of living, to care for the elderly relatives you pretend to respect, the children or grandchildren who treat you as a vending machine, the lovers who use you as a distraction, or even entire industries and economies that fall short of their promises. Overstretching can be overwhelming and confusing when it compensates for impossible contradictions and unbridgeable distances, for being unable to join together nor completely separate.
The pause of industry often felt like being transported to another era, where our relations were differently weighted and distributed, the supply pipelines differently routed. We may have encountered primordial versions of ourselves—the premodern creatures that still lie dormant within those of us who could still have a conversation with our own ancestors without sounding hopelessly lost. Or we may have encountered our most modern selves as vulnerable urbanites unsophisticated in the face of the wild, lost in a paradoxical world beyond services and conveniences, but also providing those missing services and conveniences for ourselves and others.
To some, a small world might promise a withdrawal from overperformance, an unplugging from doomscroll attention harvesting and growth economies that feed on themselves, turning us against each other in the process. In seeking refuge from an unsustainable situation, one might explore what emerges from a state of rest—a politics of relaxation and a contraction to a more natural bodily form unstretched by overextension or heroism. For some, the small world promises a lush interior garden free from industry and economy alike.
However, securing such an exceptional status can only be costly as a denial of real dependencies and interdependencies—rendering the garden on the inside as a fortress from the outside. This is where any politics of relaxation becomes militarized, because not everyone can be welcome in the garden. And the fortress exposes the secret of the garden: that its protective embrace also threatens a narrowing of possibilities, a simplifying of identity, a refusal of knowledge, a walled-off horizon.
Artists and musicians have inhabited this paradox for some time with a certain expertise. When scalar platforms of exchange or amplification carry the capacity to hijack works, whether by being sold or streamed, copied or locked away, chopped or screwed, celebrated or forgotten, fetishized or patronized, the power to grow and to extend makes it also necessary to cultivate specific intimate spaces—localized selves and timescales that resist duplication and dissemination.
So much art and music has arisen from a group of friends. Even companies, technologies, scientific discoveries, sometimes even revolutions and nations arise from small groups of friends. History would like us to think that these friendships were tactical and intentional, and probably many were, but in art and music it is often the case that friendships are more primary than the works that arose from them. On their own, friendships between people are rarely the subject of history because they testify to a certain simplicity in the act of creation heretical to the inflationary appetites of spectacle.
In fact, artists are often virtuosic, and they often overstretch, but not necessarily in ways that are visible or audible. The works they present are often shadows of something much larger that they create elsewhere, as thinkers or as social beings, or in an entirely other realm that resists immediate representation. While institutions and industrial interests try to elevate these shadows ever upward into historical inscription, many artists look downward to the ground, the underground, to the bedrock from which they receive strength and inspiration. The small world is also a paradoxical play at enlarging resistances to scale.
Musicians often cite their community as their inspiration, while simultaneously the medium of recording has wildly dominated music, sealing performances for perpetuity, often becoming musicians’ primary mode of transmission, thus expression. It’s not only electronic musicians who can never unplug. The recording is an instrument like a violin for a violinist: an amplifier and a point of tension between the sensing of music and its transmission. Such intimacy with machines and listeners separated by time and space might explain why artists and musicians inevitably need to be isolated and hidden at some points and intensely connected at others.
There is a lonely and entitled place that we have lost parts of ourselves and our societies to, but it may also be a place that welcomes strange acts of refusing to scale up or down, to amplify, unplug, move, or stay put. The small world might lure us towards illusions of impossible permanence and simplicity, towards absolute primacies and intoxicating authenticities that surpass all influences, promising the comfort of becoming immersed in ourselves. But it also encourages us to betray the need to translate and be understood, to please others for some eventual benefit that never arrives. Maybe we took too long to recognize an imbalance in scales as unbearable, and maybe it is only now that we can begin to explore how limited movement can bring expressive power.
Freya Chou, Reem Shadid, Brian Kuan Wood