It was the sophomore year of my undergraduate program. After class, I was walking around the campus of Taipei National University of the Arts. It was a windy afternoon, less than a month into spring. The weather was beautiful and cozy compared to the coldness of winter. While I was enjoying my time, far far away I saw grass growing on a concrete wall, separating nature from the cold, human-made path for scooters. I walked closer to it, and it turned out that the grass was rising from the crack between the bricks of the wall. It was growing well, even compared to the plants in the soil inside the low wall. I took a photo of it, framing it in a composition that showed it was the only sign of life springing from the human-made fence.
I adjusted the color and posted it on Instagram, and I put in the hashtag #夾縫求生 #Survivinginthecracks, which is a mandarin idiom meaning “Working hard to survive.” However, I only used it back then because of its literal meaning, surviving in the cracks — the plant is surviving in the crack, trying its best to live.
Back then, I thought this photo was just going to be a single, ordinary post on my Instagram stream, but it soon started to expand. I started paying attention to it and every time I saw grass growing in cracks on concrete walls, sidewalks, roads, curbs, or any harsh environment, I took photos of them. By observing the relationship of the grass and their surroundings, I can read a story from them. I can get a sense of what they have been through and how hard is it for them to survive. As an artist, I know that not everyone can see the beautiful world we see, especially those details in our environment that are ignored every day. Sharing my photos on Instagram is like being a translator. Although I can always read the stories of the grass, I never write the stories down along with the photos when I upload them to Instagram, because I think the photographs tell the stories themselves.
of pictures, it is like a process of documenting the growth of the grass instead of reading the stories from them. Of course, if I felt like the plants are telling me a different story, or there are changes to the environment, I will still upload the photo even if it was grass or a plant that I’ve photographed before I have been taking these photos for 5-years now. As of October 10th, 2018, I have uploaded seventy-five pictures of “surviving in the cracks” to Instagram (which includes photos from Taiwan, Japan and the United States of America [in which there are 10 states, 10 cities and 11 Places]). The latest photograph in the series was taken a few days ago at the Boston Harbor Shipyard. Other than the images I upload to Instagram, I do sometimes take photos without uploading them. These are photos of the same plant that I’ve captured before. When I make these kinds.
Map view showing the locations where the photos were taken
In the spring of 2018, the second semester of my study in the Dynamic Media Institute at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I created an interactive piece based on the photos I shot over the past few years. It was a task of the Design Studio 2 class taught by Professor Jan Kubasiewicz in which we had to create a project based on Jørgen Leth’s The Perfect Human (1967) or 66 Scenes from America (1982). After watching the pieces mentioned above, I was struggling with ideas of what to make. One day, in a meeting with my other professor, Joe Quackenbush, I discovered that I already had almost sixty-six photos of “surviving in the cracks” in hand. I decided to design an interface with which the users can easily navigate through my photographs and sort them in a more humanized way. For example, instead of using name, date or size, in my interface, the photos can be ordered using mood, environment and other kinds of information. Then, in that interface, I can show stories I read from the grass which were never included with the pictures. With encouragement from Joe, I started writing the stories in my point of view by revisiting all of my photographs. It was incredible that I could instantly recall every detail from when I took the photos. For example, I remembered what I was doing and where was I going, my reaction when I first saw the grass, and how I stopped and took the photo and why I took the picture in the specific angle in which I shot it.
I presented the first prototype including some of my stories to the class. I received quite a bit of questions, including:
Do I want to only use text?
Do I want to include other media? Sound?
How much information do I want to show on the interface?
How much control do I want to give the users?
That day, I went home and thought about the questions. I sat down in front of my computer, and I looked at the photos once again. I realized that if I obtained the stories from the grass, why not tell the stories from their perspective? Since I can feel the exact moment when I look at the photos, why don’t I try to make the audience feel the same way? I rewrote some of the stories in the first-person perspective of the grass, and I designed ambient sounds that matched the atmosphere of the moment. A week later, I brought the updated prototype to class. During our discussion, Abraham Evensen Tena, one of my classmates, suggested that maybe it would be interesting to combine different languages that I know. This suggestion rang another bell in my head. I immediately decided to add voiceover into the piece, but with a slight twist. I planned to combine different languages uniquely. For example, sometimes the text will be in English, but the voiceover will be in Chinese, and sometimes vice versa. This formal twist not only shows users the diversity of grass but also creates a layer of metaphors.
I wrote a statement about the project, which contains not only instructions on how to use it but also all of the metaphors represented:
Every life has a story, while some of them might be glorious, others might be neglectable. However, every life story is respectable because we are what we have experienced.
We are often too busy to slow down our pace in life to appreciate the surroundings, and that causes us to ignore a lot of beautiful things that are happening around us.
In the perspective of another form of life, we can map the happiness, the sadness, and the struggles of living in the human world onto them.
Every life is worth a spotlight on it. No matter how small it is or how inconspicuous it is, it is the main character of the script of its life.
The project was built with Keynote, Apple’s slideshow presentation software. It has a total of 74 pages, including 3 pages for the title and credit, 3 pages for the main interface, 1 page for transition and 67 pages for each of the photos and their stories.
The title and credit screen were designed with the “crack” element from one of the photos. It was turned into black and white and then separated into two slices, each a side of the crack.
Prototype & User Testing
A click on the title screen moves the two sides of the cracks away. This effect is a symbol of getting into the world of “surviving in the cracks.” The credits are revealed after the animation. Photography, text, and sound, and voiceover by my friend Yuan-Yuan Wang (who did all the mandarin clips, the Taiwanese clip and some of the English clips) and Damon Campagna, who did the rest of the English clips. After 4 seconds, the user automatically enters the main interface, which is a grid created by 6 rows of 11 photos. On the menu bar on the main interface, there are 3 options, When, Mood, and insistence, which will change the arrangement of the images. When "Mood" is clicked, the photos are sorted by the mood of the grass or the mood of the stories. When “insistence “ is clicked, the photos are classified by the hardness of survival.
When users click on one of the pictures on the main interface, they get into the viewing page. Every photo has a viewing page, which shows the photo and the stories’ text in a language. In most of the viewing pages, there will be sounds including ambiance, voiceover, or a combination of both. The first thing that people notice when they enter a viewing page is that once they get here, the system is then locked for 15 seconds. They are forced to look at the picture and text for 15 seconds before they can move on. For a photo with voiceover, that seems fast, but for a dead silent photo, it feels like forever. If we take a look at the statement, in the first paragraph: “Every life story is respectable because we are what we have experienced.” Every life is equal, that is why whether there is sound or not, they all have the same length.
Main screen - user can choose to enter each subject's individual page or use the menu bar on the bottom to rearrange the photographs
Two of the rearranged main screen, mood on the left and insistence on the right
When people are navigating the interface, they might see a photo in the background. However, when they click on the interface (trying to get to that photo), it is nearly impossible to reach. That is if they only try to click on the parts of the interface that seem “clickable”. The only way to get to that photo is to click “in the cracks" between the options on the bottom navigation row. It might seem hard to figure out, but the hint is in the title of the piece. In the second paragraph of the statement, I wrote: “We are often too busy to slow down our pace in life to appreciate the surroundings, and that causes us to ignore a lot of beautiful things that are happening around us.” Only the people who slow down and spend time playing with the interface will be able to discover how to get to the hidden pages and to see the stories.
While time and insistence may be easy to understand, as mentioned above, the third option for a user to choose is “Mood.” What is Mood? In all 67 stories, there is grass that is happy and some that is sad. This way of organizing is the approach toward more humanized file sorting. What’s so special about it? If we take a look at two of the example stories here:
My favorite day in a week is the rainy days. Living on a cliff is often hot and dry, so every time it rains, I am the happiest plant in the world.
I have no idea why I am here. I have no clue what is a friend, and what is family. I own the best view of Taipei City, yet I am always looking at it alone.
We can see that the first one is grass living on a cliff which seldom gets water, thus a pretty harsh environment. Despite that, when it rains, it is super grateful and happy. On the other hand, the second one owns the best view of Taipei City, which is like a penthouse. However, it is always sad because it feels like it lacks company. In the third paragraph of the statement, I wrote: “In the perspective of another form of life, we can map the happiness, the sadness, and the struggles of living in the human world onto them.” Humans are the same, some people live in bad environments, but they are grateful and happy. At the same time, some people own everything yet are always unhappy. By mapping the stories from the grass to situations similar to our daily lives as humans, the viewer will be able to put themselves into the grass’s perspective and rethink their own life. Most of the time it is hard for us to imagine someone else is doing much worse than we are. By using grass as a medium, it is much less direct than showing events involving humans, and sometimes more effective. Seeing grass being grateful for what it has while the other plant is complaining about its much better life, the viewer will project themselves onto the scenario and review themselves, and maybe they will cherish what they have more.
Another metaphor related to this paragraph from the statement is that there are a few photos that are silent with only Chinese text telling the story. In that case, most of the people in the United States aren’t able to understand the story. This is a representation of the concept that in life we can never know or obtain anything without the effort of learning or trying hard to get it.
The last metaphor is the use of next and previous page buttons. This project was shown during the Fresh Media 2018 show, and I was asked many questions about buttons during the show. Most of the people asked why not add buttons so they can browse the photos and their stories one after another? Well, I said that this is intentional because I didn’t want people to look at the pictures one by one. If we revisit the statement, in the last paragraph: “Every life is worth a spotlight on them. No matter how small they are or how inconspicuous they are, they are the main character of the script of their lives.” The purpose of this design is to amplify the “Main Character” concept. Therefore I made every story stand alone from one another, so people have to go back to the main interface to go on to the next photograph. Another small detail on the viewing page is that the photo “color-pops” during the 15-second lockdown. The color in the background of the photo fades away while only the green of the grass stays saturated. This effect achieves a similar impact as a spotlight. By removing the color in the background, our eyes will automatically look at the remaining colored part, which is the green grass, as if there is a spotlight on it.
The cracks in the menu bar will activate a special animation, leading people to the 67th photo
Special screen leading to the 67th photo
The hidden 67th photo and its story
Plants are a life form that provides the oxygen we need to survive, yet human constructions continue to invade their living spaces. They have to find their way and be part of the concrete jungles we make, instead of living in a forest that belongs to them. I appreciate these tiny plants that not only survived but also grew beautifully. Taking photos of them, on the one hand, is trying to share their story and visual beauty. On the other hand, it is to document every encounter I had with them, because there is a very high chance that these encounters will be the only time that I see them. This is also the reason why I like to use photography as the medium, because it is the best medium to capture the shortest moment. I never thought these photos would have a life beyond social media. This whole project started from one casual photo, and it has come a long way. I consider this one of my most important projects because it has made my thesis topic so clear. After connecting the ideas from this project, I developed my thesis abstract based on the statement of this piece. This project is the one that led me to use my photography and sound designs differently. Before this project, I always thought that they were unrelated.–I had been using them as two separate forms in my art practice. Both of them are standalone media, but they can create a very different effect when put together. I am planning to experiment more with these media in future projects. Compared to only using a single medium to tell the story, I started thinking about how much curation I need to put into my work to adequately convey my thoughts to the viewers. The combination of different media can help the audience to read the story much clearer and influence their point of view, rather than just showing them a photo without pushing the concepts. For example, my old friend Yen-Hsiang Huang has been following my Instagram account since it launched. However, only after he saw my interactive project did he understand the stories behind the grass.
During the making of this project, I realized users don't usually think about certain features as you might have intended. For example, most of the people will feel the 15-second lockdown is not a part of the design; some might even feel the piece is broken. Because this is a metaphoric project, however, this isn't something that I worry about. However, it is a good reference for my future projects. Since this project is designed to be an interactive gallery of my photo series, I am planning to port this into the HTML5 format so I can make it available to view online, opening it up to a potentially wider audience. I also want it to connect to my Instagram stream and update the content automatically. I think in the future the way we sort files will become the way I demonstrated in this project - a more humanized way. So we can find happy photos, sad photos (or any photo) easily, using keywords that are closely tied to human emotions.
This piece is an excellent example of something unintentional that I have always been doing: making the unnoticed noticed. Grass between the cracks on pavements, walls, asphalt, and concrete is a symbol of the neglected. We walk past them all the time, yet we never glance at them. This ignorance happens not only to small grass on the ground. We travel on trains, buses and all kinds of public transportations every day, and we see different people every day, some people in suits, some people in casual wears, some people in old torn articles of clothing. But we never talk to them, and we rarely remember anyone. I think if people can learn to appreciate the stories of the grass, they can then also learn to appreciate the stories of other people.
The piece at the MassArt MFA 2nd Year Show
Apple Keynote, Photoshop, Avid Pro Tools
Fresh Media 2018, MassArt MFA 2nd Year Show