Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club

Lot’s going on this week on the music front. Tuesday saw Carsten Nicolai playing at Yugong Yishan courtesy of Goethe-Institut, with Kid Koala playing there the next night. Over the next few weekends we have the NOTCH Festival (NOrdic+CHina) which was at Yugong Yishan last year, but has now decamped to the rather more chichi surroundings of the Sanlitun Village. I plan on getting over to NOTCH tonight, to experience a:

Halloween sleeping concert with hypnotic audio-visuals and specially designed air bed by Swedish architecture group Testbed.

Lineup: Biosphere (Norway), Mokira (Sweden), Vectral (Denmark), Dead J (China), Chen Xiongwei (China)

I’ll post some pics of that tomorrow – or maybe even tonight if they have a free internet connection there.

Before that, though, I made some notes after Carsten Nicolai’s performance which follow on from my thoughts about live music/events in general, which I outlined after the Laoban event we hosted at the Gallery last year and which keep coming up for me every time I go to hear a performance. I have rather confused, ambivalent and romantic expectations from music, I want it to move me and excite me, and that means for it to have a “meaning” for itself and hence for me. As far as the former are concerned, I know that’s problematic and indicative of a surrendering of my control to someone else; for the latter, that seems an overly analytical reaction to the former on my part. Where is the middle-ground, if indeed there is such a thing?

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club Case in point: Carsten Nicolai’s appearance. I didn’t know much about him before going, but his name had cropped up in art-related contexts, so I was pleased to be able to get a chance to see what he was about. His set seemed short, possibly due to it being marred by some technical glitches (at one point I thought the whole thing would just be called off). At the end of it all I felt quite a bit of frustration. Carsten is described as someone “who uses art and music as complementary tools to create microscopic views of creative processes.” From my point of view, as music I was not hearing anything very “creative” or giving an insight into the processes involved, and as a visual experience it failed to reveal anything beyond a confusing array of techno-fetishism. Sure, there was the requisite amount of glitch, noise, and the visuals were distracting for a short while, but there seemed very little meaning behind it all, very little of an idea to hold on to, very little of anything interactive between the music and visuals beyond a certain didactic “this is what I’m playing and this is what it looks like.”

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club In terms of my reactions, I think it all comes down to what criteria I judge the evening on, either as music, or as visuals, or as art; and I obviously apply different criteria to each format. So, for the music I didn’t hear anything imaginative about the beats he was using, the glitches seemed more or less random, without an underlying form which would have allowed you to follow the reasoning (or an algorithm?) behind them through some sort of progression (in the way you can with Autechre, for instance). The visuals of the filters and processes the audio and video were going through were interesting, but left me with a bit of a “so what” feeling. And, ultimately, as “art” the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me.

  • My stream-of-consciousness notes following the event:
    • I want to feel some connection to the music.
    • Do that through the beats and melody, I think.
    • Beats that make you move, force you to react.
    • Trying to put a good view on that, as it seems like tyranny in a way. Being controlled by the beats, that can’t be good, no freewill.
    • Maybe more like some kind of empathy between the beats and the person – naive, idealistic maybe.
    • Dangerous, as it is too close to letting yourself lose control – letting someone else control you.
    • So CN’s music could be good in that it prevents me from letting go? hmmm..
    • But as a DJ what are you doing? Obviously many different types of DJs. But I think most will want some sort of recognition or connection with their audience – otherwise they could just stay as bedroom noodlers. Working for public display as a means of verification? approval?
    • Doing work is one thing, but in a milieu which guides you, which you participate in, in which you like contributing things – a community of agreement.
    • For CN its slightly different. He is at a stage when he can do what he wants. He is known and he already has an audience which accepts him. He does not have to remake his audience every time.
    • But in a way that’s what we always have to do – hence the technical problems being a way to lose your audience. You already have an audience before the show. Some come to the show and then you have to retain and satisfy that audience in your performance.


There seems to have been a lot of magic in the air for art over the past few years.

I just got back from Europe, mainly to visit the UK with its annual art fair smörgåsbord, Frieze and Zoo. On my way home I stayed for a week in Switzerland (thank you to Marianne for the room) where I was able to catch the impressive SHIFT Festival, which took place in Basel last weekend.

SHIFT is billed as the “Electronic Arts Festival,” and my first experience of it was last year in Beijing where they organised a mini-festival at the Yugong Yishan club.

This year’s Festival theme caught my attention because it reminded me of something which has been annoying my contemporary art peripheral vision over the past few years, being as it was “Magic. Tech-Evocations and Assumptions of Paranormal Realities.” I’ve noticed a growing interest in all things “magic” in contemporary art. A small selection of examples: there have been many shows showing work dealing with or constructing alternative realities based on “magical” appropriations of historical styles and/or events. Just before I left for China I saw a solo show at Wilkinson Gallery (their site is blocked here in China so I can’t get the details just yet), through groups shows such as ”Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art” (one of whose 4 sections was titled “Magic and Belief”). There is also the “mythopoetic fictions” of Plastique Fantastique, and the shamanism and animism of Marcus Coates.

In China, the history of what constitutes magic is somewhat different, but Western ideas of stage magic are still popular here. The performance on CCTV’s 2009 Spring Festival Gala of Taiwanese close-up magician Louis Liu (刘谦) led to an incredible popularisation of magic. TV shows about all kinds of magic have become immensely popular and Louis himself has become a household name. Perhaps we can look forward to seeing Chinese contemporary artists taking the bait and start to address this development of society through their work?