This blog is an archive for my research, interviews with designers and museum staff, and travel experiences as I explore multilingual design practices in Taiwan and the US.
Fulbright research abroad in Taipei, Taiwan will begin in March 2021.   




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You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet”

Language: English
Date: March 26, 2021
Listening to: “Mystery of the Mullet” podcast episode by Decoder Ring
“The first step is to admit that we live on different planets.” affirms the English translation sign in the lower floor of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. The sign introduces visitors to a large room that is part information desk, part entrance to a children’s space, and part open lecture space for visiting artists. While I stood to read the sign, farther to my left sat two older Taiwanese artists leading a Q&A session with a full audience of mostly young museum goers. With no context to what the finished presentation was about and nobody with me to help translate, I couldn’t understand a word of what anyone was saying. Different planets, indeed.

The Taipei Biennial 2020 (TB2020) was named 你我不住在同一星球上 or You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet. The unifying theme of an incredible range of artworks was the insistent voice of reason that we, as a global community, need to take our impending ecological disaster much more seriously…but instead of repeating that same worn-out message, it instead asks the visitors to explore the trite phrases included in it. Do we really have a “global community”? Will ecological disasters look like we think they do, or are we already experiencing the effects in surprise packages? How seriously should we be taking this- should we escape to a new planet with the help of some corrupt nerd emperor or should we lean into our new life here?

In terms of my Fulbright research, I immediately felt a spark of inspiration come from the inspection of globalization. TB2020 contends that globalization has failed us; that it has only lead to “modernization regardless of the planetary boundaries” that does not safeguard human life. Globalization has not given us the promised Post-Cold War emergence of the sense of a global village, but instead a power struggle on the biggest stage yet, now broadcast and downloaded to every humans hand.

Museums and cultural institutions are tools of this global Soft Power War, as well as useful pedestals of “fine art” and viewfinders of history. (Okay, tone it down Mx I Went to a Liberal City University Mandated Brainwashing Class.) But in all earnestness, there is an elitism to museums that we have all experienced. Think of that creeping feeling in your mind when you read artwork description after description and still have no idea what you were supposed to understand about this exhibit, if anything.* Has that ever made you feel like maybe you just don’t “get it” like these other art types do? If you have ever had even a slight thought of non-belonging in a cultural institution that is supposed to be made for growth and engagement, then you have experienced cultural elitism.

Cultural elitism connects to another fallout from rapid globalization: quiet waves of majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is the traditional idea that the “majority of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society.” I see this attitude when “progressive” organizations fail to tailor their physical spaces to disabled people, when Americans refuse to learn a new language because “what’s the point? Everyone speaks English,” and when art museum curators write descriptions that make sense to MFA thesis students and not the local nurse who came in on her day off. The small elitism of daily life is crushing if you are part of the minority.  

According to the Taipei Biennial, “the second step is to imagine procedures that allow us to create ways to engage between these different planets.” In other words, diplomacy on a grand scale. As a Fulbright Scholar, I recognized the power of the fact that this museum exhibition was the first one I got to see in Taiwan. Not only did it set a wonderful example of bilingual signage and technology, it also encouraged me to remember that the core purpose of my design research here is not nitpick at problems in museum exhibitions but to do my part as designer diplomat to develop practices that block cultural elitism in our public spaces.

*I am a new convert to the idea of if you, the artist, want visitors to understand some meaning, knowledge, or theme in your art, please explain it clearly in 6th grade reading level. If not, then don’t put a sign on the wall at all and just let me look at your art in peace.


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