A Look Into Taiwan’s Cutting-Edge Performing Arts

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[Photograph]I-Lien Ho & Betty Apple


A Look Into Taiwan’s Cutting-Edge Performing Arts

I-Lien Ho & Betty Apple[Artist]


[Photograph・Text]  Takuro Mizuta Lippit

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 22 February, 2023.

Reading time:13 minutes

(Date updated)11 May, 2023

(About this story)

An interview with two cutting-edge artists from Taiwan, whose practice reflects some of the progressive values that their society has embraced.


In recent years, Taiwan has gained international recognition for its leading role in Asia in implementing progressive policies.1) We interviewed two cutting-edge artists who we believe exemplify Taiwan’s vibrant art scene and a society that embraces diverse values.

1)In 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian country to recognize same-sex marriage, and in 2022, this was extended to include couples where one partner is a foreign national. Additionally, Taiwan’s current president Tsai Ing-wen is the first woman to be elected, and Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang is the first transgender and non-binary official in the executive cabinet. To a large extent, these developments can be attributed to progressive policies such as the implementation of the Gender Equality Education Act in 2004, which mandates gender education, and a globally-aware youth population pushing for societal change. According to the “Human Freedom Index” released by the Fraser Institute of Canada in 2022, Taiwan was ranked 14th in the world, making it the highest-ranked country in Asia.

[Photograph]On stage, performers with various different disabilities are performing in a scene where each one is facing a different direction.

“I'm a Normal Person Part II: We Found the Gun Together” (2020) Photo by Jun-Yong Lin, provided by Kong Performance Experimental Field.

Creating a situation for true “encounters” - Interview with I-Lien Ho

A philosophy of listening to the body

You have spent some time in the U.S. and U.K., but can you tell me about your artistic background? Did you start as a performer?

I-Lien Ho
Yes, I have a background in butoh, improvisation, and physical theater as a performer. I used to create solo works that I performed myself. These were reinterpretations of the works of artists like Namjune Pike, Marina Abramavich, and John Cage through the concept of “Kongwu” from Buddhism and Daoism. My research led me to develop a body-centric approach when making art. In my recent work, I collaborate with people with disabilities mostly as a director, but even then I don’t use a pre-written script. Instead, we start by listening to the body through playful improvisations or breathing exercises.

How did you come to work with people with disabilities?

I-Lien Ho
I came to the realization that the ideas of Kongwu were very useful in understanding identity politics. Generally, people think of Kongwu as emptiness or as an abstract religious concept regarding spirituality and otherness, but I believe by focusing on the ethical aspects, we can gain insight on how our reality is constructed through empathy. There is a rich political and social dimension to this philosophy.

When I returned to Taiwan and became situated here, I started to think: “How can I create situations of true encounters and connectedness through these ideas?”

Trust that comes after “breakdowns”

Can you tell me about your group “Kong Performance Experimental Field”?

I-Lien Ho
Kong Performance Experimental Field was established together with Yi-Jun Chen in 2019. That same year we presented our first work “I’m a Normal Person Part I”, which was a solo performance by Xiaojun Xie, who we met at a workshop that we hosted. At this workshop, we would give participants simple instructions like, “Fall from point A to B.” When Xiaojun, who lives with cerebral palsy, performed this action, I felt so many emotions arise within me from just watching her body move. It was like experiencing a movie. This inspired us to form our theater group and create a performance piece featuring Xiaojun.

Our second production, “I’m a Normal Person Part II: We Found the Gun Together” (2020), was a collaboration with a diverse group of performers, including those who were deaf, visually impaired, and living with polio or cerebral palsy. However, while both of our productions feature performers with disabilities, our mission is to explore how art can connect with society and the everyday.

How did you meet the performers? Did you collaborate with advocacy groups or organizations that support people with disabilities?

I-Lien Ho
No, everyone came to us through a call we put out on Facebook and other social media platforms. We spend a very long time in the production process: we workshop together for 3 months, then the next 3 months interviewing each member to decide what they want to do. We then begin rehearsals for the performance. During this period, the participants are together for 3 hours up to 4 times a week, so each participant must have a strong will to continue and the desire to express themselves. In Taiwan, many organizations see art as a form of therapy or as a way to make friends, so it is difficult to ask for the kind of time and commitment that we are seeking.

[Photograph]I-Lien Ho in an online interview from her room in Taiwan

I-Lien Ho - Artist and director of Kong Performance Experimental Field

Did everyone who responded to the call have previous experience in performance or theater production?

I-Lien Ho
None of the performers had experience with performance and theater, except for Xiaojun who had experience from our first piece which was her first time to perform. Therefore, it became important to create an environment where every participant felt comfortable, while at the same time embracing their differences. Communication breakdowns would frequently happen, where it was difficult to communicate with each other or to come to an agreement. However, instead of trying to become united as one, I believe these breakdowns and disagreements are necessary to truly accept others.

Working in these environments can be challenging. Even within the so-called “disabled community”, there are many differences. For example, it is not common for deaf people to spend time with visually impaired people. There is also a generation gap. When our performers whose ages ranged from their early 20s to their 60s got together, they felt not only their differences in disabilities, but also in their values and language. But it’s in this chaotic situation that we encounter the other in a true sense, and by spending a lot of time together we were able to create an environment where we could trust each other. Once that trust is established, we can encourage each other with what they want to express or gently push for something that they couldn’t previously do but want to try out.

[Photograph]On stage, a person who has difficulty walking is on the floor performing a scene.

“I'm a Normal Person Part II: We Found the Gun Together” (2020) Photo by Jun-Yong Lin, provided by Kong Performance Experimental Field.

Meanings that emerge from the body

How do you arrive at the final form of your performances?

I-Lien Ho
For example, in one part we asked the performers to “walk on stage.” Some can walk with their legs, while others use a wheelchair. If the person who uses a wheelchair decides not to use it, they will crawl. For every situation, the body itself presents a different meaning of “walking.” In another scene, because we had one performer who used sign language, we asked everyone to introduce themselves through gestures and a free interpretation of sign language.

Typically, we start by trying to find what the performers want to express or what they can empathize with. Then we identify what aspects are the most difficult to convey or where the communication breaks down, and try to figure out how this can be turned into an expression.

What kind of reactions did you receive from the audience?

I-Lien Ho
In the first piece that we made with Xiaojun, I wasn’t sure where the ethical boundaries were. I felt that I was very careful and even too polite. Afterwards, I realized that this carefulness was based on preconceptions I had within myself.

So in the second piece, in order to make the viewers be aware of their preconceptions, we included movements that were difficult for the performers or had long silences in the piece which at times made the audience feel uncomfortable. One topic that came up during the rehearsals was that in Taiwanese society, people with disabilities are often treated as if they need to be protected, or as if they are infants who cannot express their will. We wanted to directly address this, instead of candy-coating the reality. However, some told us that we were exposing people with disabilities in an unprotected way, or that it was painful for the performer’s family members to watch.

Creating encounters in public spaces

Do you plan to continue to produce theater works in collaboration with diverse groups of people?

I-Lien Ho
No, we are going in a slightly different direction. In 2020, we did a major project to research how people with disabilities can participate in culture and the arts in southern cities of Taiwan. We looked at what they have to experience when going to museums and theaters. In Taiwan, many cultural institutions and organizations have made diversity and inclusion part of their organizational policies, but in reality, we found that there are many hurdles before people can even experience the artwork. For example, not being able to find a bus schedule with accessibility support or not having appropriate guided tours available at the location.

What was particularly interesting to us was that, for example, in theaters, the audience seats are wheelchair accessible, but there are stairs from the dressing rooms to the stage making it not accessible by a wheelchair. Even in rehearsal studios, there are many places where wheelchairs are not allowed because they are worried about damaging the floor. We found that there is a preconceived notion in these spaces that people with disabilities can be audience members but not the artists.

In December 2022, we started a workshop in a park in Kaohsiung City with university students and citizens with disabilities. The purpose of this workshop is to create a situation for people with differences to meet and get to know each other.

Is it these issues of accessibility in the theater that made you want to work in public spaces?

I-Lien Ho
Yes, but also there were economical concerns. No matter how many grants we apply for, we have to allocate more money to the theater and its production staff, who are only involved for a short time, than to the performers who commit for a very long time. I began to question creating artwork that consumes a lot of resources, but is shown in a place that is accessible to only a few people. This didn’t seem sustainable. Public spaces, such as parks, are not only open to all, but doing something there already creates a lot of new meanings. We plan to spend another year or two thinking about what kind of artworks we can create within our daily lives.

(About embedded content) Video excerpt of “I'm a Normal Person Part II: We Found the Gun Together” (2020) by Kong Performance Experimental Field.

(埋め込みコンテンツの説明) [You Tube]

Sending Messages To The Future
Betty Apple Interview

[Photograph]Betty Apple floats on water in a costume that looks like a mermaid from the future.

Betty Apple. photo by MW Studio

From actor to sound performer

Your current work covers a broad range of disciplines including body art, sound art, improvisation, DJing, and organizing events. Where did you start?

Betty Apple
I was born and raised in the city of Chiayi in southern Taiwan. I took piano lessons as a child and loved it, but my mother made me quit because she thought it would interfere with my studies. In junior high and high school my friends were pretty bad, but somehow I managed to always keep good grades in school. I knew I wanted to do something creative in college and wanted to apply to art school, but I didn’t have enough training in instrument playing or drawing, so I applied to the theater department at the National Taipei University of the Arts, which only required a written test and interview to get in.

In that department, you had to choose between acting or directing, but I was encouraged by my teacher to try both, so I studied both for the first two years. But in the second half of my studies, I concentrated on acting. Many actors and celebrities have come out of my department, so I also studied hard under the strict guidance of my teachers with aspirations to become an actress.

How did your studies in theater influence your work today?

Betty Apple
I learned a lot about music, especially weird electronic music. When choosing music for a theater piece, you have to find something that is abstract and atmospheric rather than something with melodies or lyrics. I was exposed to different kinds of music while helping teachers with their projects. In my last year, a teacher introduced me to improvised music. I was very impressed by a piece that expressed the inner desires of the characters through improvisations on a contrabass. Coming from theater where everything is predetermined, improvisation felt very risky but at the same time very beautiful, like flowing water. It felt like a way to become free.

How long did you pursue acting?

Betty Apple
I gave up the idea of becoming an actress at the age of 23. In Taiwan, if you don’t become famous in your early 20s you can’t make it in the business. Besides, I was gradually becoming interested in different forms of performances. My partner at the time suggested that I try playing music again, so we formed a band. I became really interested in how I could make electronic music with new tools, so when I was 25, I enrolled in a media arts graduate program at the same university. But to my surprise, there were no music classes at all! Everyone there would go on stage and just sit behind a laptop without moving at all. This was very confusing to me! (Laughter)

The period which we can call “our” history is very short

Your approach to technology and sound is also very unique, like your usage of vibrators as instruments. How do you define yourself as an artist?

Betty Apple
One day when I was researching about sound, I typed into my computer “What is sound?” Then I got the definition that it is vibrations transmitted through air, but also a popup ad for these very cheap vibrating sex toys. This is how I started using vibrators in my sound performances. Some of my performances are themed around queerness, but ultimately I think my work is about the idea of “freedom.”

Having gone through the colonial rule of Japan and the White Terror2) era afterwards, we have a very short period of time that we can call “our” history or “our” culture. Therefore as Taiwanese, I believe that finding our identity and having the freedom to transform this identity is very important.

2)White Terror:After Taiwan was liberated from 50 years of Japanese rule in 1945, it experienced a period of martial law and severe political repression by the Kuomintang (KMT) from 1947 to 1987, which is known as the White Terror Period.


Betty Apple in her studio in Taipei. She shares the space with members of her techno music group “Social Dis Dance.” 

Betty Apple
Regarding technology, for example in Taiwan, the microphone was a symbol of a person in power who spoke to the crowd in the square. So I always used a microphone in my performances to subvert this relationship. But as technology advances, these relationships change as well, and today the person in power speaks from the Internet, not from the square. So I have to adapt my approach too, which led to using special microphones that are commonly used for ASMR. In the past few years, I have been interested in clubs and parties. I believe parties can change the dynamic between the artist and their audiences. I formed a group of young female artists called “ArtKB48” (a play on the Japanese idol group AKB48), and we host monthly parties or do things like post our artworks on porn sites.

Party for the future

I can see how your focus on freedom and transformation sets you apart from typical definitions of an artist. From the outside, Taiwan seems to be a very progressive place with a society that embraces diverse values. Do you see it this way too?

Betty Apple
I have jumped around so many different scenes that I am always surrounded with very different kinds of people. I also actively seek out to collaborate with professionals in different fields. “Social Dis Dance”, which is a techno music group that I lead, is one of these examples. However, I do feel that my work is more easily accepted overseas, and that in Taiwan I need to have a text that explains the context or connect the work to historical incidents that people are familiar with.

In 2018, I made work about drag but at the time I felt that people liked it only because it was pop and didn’t understand the deeper political message. However, the students I am working with now crossdress or identify as non-binary not for fashion but more in a natural way, so I think things are changing a little bit.

[Photograph]Betty Apple on stage dressed as a mermaid singing in a microphone. Around her are dancers holding swimming floaties.

Betty Apple “Beta IT-ME” (2022) is themed around a mermaid that arrives from the metaverse to send a message to humanity. Photo by: Zhang Xiuqi

As a final question, what kind of impact do you want your ideas of freedom and transformation manifested through your work to have in Taiwan?

Betty Apple
Through performing various characters, I want to convey a truth about the time that I live in. When we try to understand a certain time period in history, we often look towards its artists, such as poets. I think this is because artists truthfully live their lives, and respond to politics and their society in a very sensitive way. That’s why I feel like I am sending a message to the future about the current time that I live in. I also want to encourage people who have not yet expressed themselves that they should not be afraid to, and that it’s okay to make artwork that some would consider distasteful or that crosses over to entertainment.

(About embedded content) Betty Apple’s music video “Beta-IT-ME” (2022)

(埋め込みコンテンツの説明) [YouTube]

Cover Image / Profile Picture
I-Lien Ho (Photo: Abel Lee, provided by Kong Performance Experimental Field)
Betty Apple (Photo: Carter An)

Related people

I-Lien Ho

(Profile of I-Lien Ho)
I-Lien Ho is a performance artist who works in the cross section between Eastern philosophy and European avant-garde. Utilizing the body as a creative medium, Ho explores the flow of consciousness and the creation of experiences through dance, tai chi, meditation, improvisation, everyday gestures, and playing. She is the director of Kong Performance Experimental Field which has made works in collaboration with differently-abled performers. Ho is also an assistant professor at National Chung Shan University and currently resides in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
(Sites related to I-Lien Ho)

Betty Apple

(Profile of Betty Apple)
Betty Apple is a Generation Y artist from Taiwan who currently resides in Taipei. She graduated from the National Taipei University of the Arts with a degree in theater and the School of New Media Arts. Her practice covers a broad range of disciplines including electronic music, sound art, live art, DJ, and rave party organizer.
(Sites related to Betty Apple)