Meeting Marco

Casagrande addresses the audience at the Ruin Academy during his Urban Acupuncture presentation, Saturday 6 November

It has been nearly a month since I turned up unannounced at the Ruin Academy in Ximending, part of Marco Casagrande’s Urban Acupuncture project, which aims at mapping and facilitating what one might call the organicization of Taipei City through green uses of ruins.

There are several reasons why I did not post earlier. Mainly, I have just been too busy but I am also in the process of having the controversial quotes from my first post on Casagrande translated from the Finnish. I will come back to this in a moment. Finally, I have been waiting for Casagrande’s wife Nikita to post up a video of an on-the-spot  interview we conducted. She has assured me she will put this on Vimeo when she gets the chance.

For those who don’t know, my original post was something I had written nearly three years ago about Casagrande’s 1997 book Mostarin tien liftarit / Hitchhikers on the Road to Mostar. The book was written under the pen-name Luca Moconesi and is, Casagrande says, completely fictional. It details the activities of unit of foreign mercenaries during the Bosnian War of 1993-5. Casagrande served in such a force under the HVO, the army of the Bosnian-Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.

Based on translations of the Finnish and discussions such as this one in The Finnish International Yearbook of Law, I judged the book to be a thoroughly unpleasant work, brim full of racist bigotry and references to events that, if they were true, could constitute war crimes.

I was rounded on for not reading Finnish (this is true but, as has been pointed out in the comments section, I don’t say this anywhere, which makes me wonder who some of the people posting are), for misattributing quotes and for failing to recognise that this was black humour.

People, including friends, wondered why I was dragging this up 15 years after these painful events. This is a fair question. Some of Casagrande’s students and associates are obviously irked and have accused me of riding the coattails of a great artist. I cannot say that there might not be an element of truth to this, at least subconsciously, but I do maintain that this was and is a public interest story.

How many people in Taiwan really know about Casagrande’s past? And why shouldn’t they? Young people here are often woefully insular and oblivious to major international (and even local) events of historical importance. Nikita told me she knew nothing about her husband’s time in the Balkans because they never spoke about it. This seems incredible.

My detractors – overwhelmingly in the ascendancy, at least numerically, on the comments section of my initial post – will doubtless be sceptical, but I really did go to the Ruin Academy with good intentions or, at least, to give Casagrande the chance to respond to what I had written.

Until the last minute I was not sure if I should or would go to the Ruin Academy. The former professor of urban ecology at Tamkang University was giving a presentation and his students and peers would be present. I didn’t want to cause a scene, upset him, or interfere with what was clearly an important night for him and everyone who has been working on this project.

When I did finally make the short trip from Main Station down Hankou Street, then Zhonghua, I was nervous to the pit of my stomach. Would he be pissed off? Disgusted? Would he just tell me to sling my hook, that he wasn’t interested in talking to me? Or worse?

And, then, there he was. We almost literally bumped into each other as he strode purposefully out of the open ground-floor room, two damp logs wedged under each tattooed bicep. He looked deceptively diminutive in the snaps I had seen, a lot bigger and more powerfully-built in the flesh. From the beginning, it was clear that he is an intelligent, charismatic man.

I immediately told him my purpose: that I wanted to speak to him about his time in the Balkans; about the blog post; how I had got my information (he looked very mildly surprised when I mentioned the name Jani Anttola); the ire that my comments had provoked.

“It’s OK,” he said reassuringly. “I deserve criticism for some things, certainly.” Motioning with the logs, he invited me up to the sauna on the top floor of the five-storey house. I felt we were off to as good a start as could be expected.

The acupuncture points (urban farms and green spots) of Taipei represented by pins in a map sketched on the wall.

We chatted idly about nothing much as he knelt, stoking the furnace of the sauna and adding wood. It was hot in there. He had shut the heavy mahogany door tight and I, again, felt a little nervous. I told him I didn’t want to disrupt his evening and asked if I could come and see him on Tuesday before he flew back to Finland on the Wednesday. He agreed.

Perhaps I should just have left then. Instead I hung around for his presentation, parts of which I found extremely interesting, others a little vague.

His statement that he doesn’t believe in the notion of eco-cities, instead advocating an anarchist approach to his green revolution, chimed, making particular sense for a city like Taipei, which has limited space and where people have long shown themslves adaptible and innovative. “Spontaneous” was the word Casagrande used.

All around, he insisted, small scale urban farmers were punching holes in the industrial leviathan, using even the tiniest corners of ruined space to grow fruit and veg. “Ruin is when man made becomes nature” was the theme of the presentation and is something of a guiding mantra for Casagrande’s vision.

Casagrande also spoke at length of his disappointment at how the Treasure Hill project had turned out. The very people who were needed to make Urban Acupuncture a reality – the veterans who had their own allotments – were forced out, with NGOs and artists taking over. Now you could hear “gangsta rap in a yellow plastic tent where the gardens used to be,” he lamented.

When I spoke to him later, he was quite forthright in accepting responsibility but insisted it had been worth the risk. I wondered what outcome he could have expected. After all, weren’t the invaders the very people who were being actively encouraged to move in?

Unfortunately, not long after the presentation finished, and having availed myself of the free Taiwan Beer flying around and some hunks of barbecued meet, I was drawn into a confrontation I would have preferred to avoid. 

It started when an associate professor of visual arts whom I had met the week before at a gallery, encouraged me to go and chat to Casagrande, unaware of why I was really there.

Casagrande seemed preoccupied and I wanted to save any discussion for our Tuesday meeting but my acquaintance wouldn’t let up. I approached and asked him about the role of destruction in the scheme of his work. After a couple of my admittedly leading questions on the difference between ruins caused by violent destruction as opposed to natural decay, he began to look uncomfortable and was not making regular eye-contact.

Casagrande’s wife and collaborator/project manager Nikita Wu, who clearly knew who I was from pretty early on, and has contributed to the comments section of my original post in some guise, then approached and insisted we talk immediately on camera. I made it clear I would prefer to wait until Tuesday but she was adamant. “Let’s do this right here and now.”

So we did. Downstairs on Marco’s bed, a large warehouse pallet on wheels. He was irritable and on the defensive from the beginning, which was probably fair enough but I felt this jarred with the smiley, friendly front he had presented when I initially told him why I was there.

He said he had no desire to talk about war and at one point asked me why I was bringing all this stuff up on camera. I pointed out that I had not wanted to do things that way (indeed I was struck by the distinct notion that Nikita had forced the issue to try and intimidate me. Casagrande’s sudden change of demeanour from laid-back and charming to infuriated only reaffirmed that impression).

He naturally denied being party to any war crimes, an accusation which – I stress and continue to stress – I have never made. He was, he said, merely a good soldier doing his duty, and had only been involved in reconnaissance. He dismissed as ridiculous the idea that he had any fascist or neo-nazi sympathies (once again, he was denying a nonexistent accusation), saying he had worked for the Israelis –perhaps not the most convincing argument

When I asked why he had participated in a war that had nothing to do with him, Casagrande kept vaguely referring to official forces and intelligence, saying the Western powers were well aware of what was going on and were backing these covert operations. I couldn’t completely get his gist, and when I pressed him his comments became cryptic, but he seemed to be implying that his HVO unit was supported by official channels.

Knowing I was British, he spoke somewhat derisively of the UK’s prosecution of the war, again saying none of these operations could have taken place without their tacit support.

The two quotes I managed to bring up before he had enough and stormed out to rejoin the party upstairs were the one about the destruction of the Mostar Bridge being a “great event” and the reference to cannibalism.

He denied both emphatically, though I felt he was deliberately trying to muddy the waters in the first case by continually repeating that neither he nor my “informant” Anttola had ever been in Mostar, which showed how misinformed and clueless I was (I had never claimed he was there).

When I referred to the passage on cannibalism, saying that – even if it was meant to be black humour, as some have claimed – it was pretty unpleasant, he appeared genuinely stunned. Eating a Muslim? Was I nuts? Completely outrageous.

The trouble is, he appears to be lying. I now have the Finnish originals of the quotes in my posession. The passage in question runs:

Olemme mysökin pyöritelleet ajatusta syöda muslimisotillas. Olishan se kokemus lyöda vainaja lihoisksi ja järjestää osastolle hieman erikoisemmat kekkerit. Jos kroaatit, jotka jo nyt pitävät meitä hulluina näkisivät meidän vielä syövän vihollisiamme, olisivat puitteet ennennäkemättömälle sotahuhukampanjalle pystyssä.

I am in the process of getting all the pages I quoted translated by native Finnish speakers. Even using basic Internet translators, however, it’s hard to see anything amiss with the English translation of the above quote in the original post. The Mostar quote, likewise – though perhaps there are nuances with the word “suurta” – seems accurate.

I have promised ad infinitum that I would retract and apologise for any inaccurate quotes. Having been pilloried for, at best, misrepresentation and, worse, plain lying, I am still waiting for someone – anyone – to show me where I’ve gone wrong.

After Casagrande walked out, I chatted with Nikita for a bit. She stressed that what I had written caused hurt to his family, while at the same time maintaining her husband had not actually read the post.

I tried to get across the idea that what he had written was also extremely hurtful, regardless of whether – as has been contended – it was intended as satire. But despite professing an interest in Marco’s “missing years,” she was looking straight through me as I spoke. 

When I had mentioned the inflammatory nature of the book to Casagrande, he had retorted that is wasn’t meant for Bosnian Muslims (no shit) but for your average Finn looking for a diversion over his morning coffee.

Finishing the bottle Nikita had given me, I went upstairs to say goodbye to Casagrande and ensure that we parted on polite terms. He shook my hand firmly and assured me there were no hard feelings, then returned to his captive audience. Here was the relaxed, sophisticated Marco again.

I felt I hit raw nerves in our conversation. While some of Casagrande’s reaction almost looked like he was playing to the camera, he did look genuinely aggrieved at times. For protracted periods as his spoke, he was not looking at me. I thought I saw some hurt in his eyes and, if not guilt, the faintest sign that his conscience was not completely clear.

So much for my pseudo-psyschological ruminations.

Casagrande told me before he ended our chat that he didn’t want to talk about the war now, on Tuesday, or at any time. Still, I felt there was more to be had from him if I could get him on his own.

So, on the Tuesday I stopped by Breeze for some French cheese and a champagne bottle of beer from a Taipei microbrewery. – a peace offering of sorts. But when I got to Ximending, the Ruin Factory was locked up, its essence forlornly negated.

I thought about trying Nikita’s mobile, but decided it was probably better this way. I didn’t want to antagonise anyone further.  Instead, I went home and drank the beer with my wife. It wasn’t very good. My son has been working his way through the cheese.

Most of the text for Marco Casagrande’s Urban Acupuncture presentation at the Ruin Factory on 6 November can be found on Nikita Wu’s website. I’m still waiting for the footage of our conversation.



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