Critical Music series: Interview with Sheng Jie (part 1)

This is a new series of posts for this blog focusing on individuals, groups, or organisations that have played notable roles in the history of critical music practices in China. These practices appears in many different guises, often described as “experimental music” or “sound art”, neither of which is entirely satisfactory in describing the practices which often exist in many hybrid forms. My adoption of the term “critical music” (following the writings of G Douglas Barrett) attempts to avoid the limitations of these terms, while highlighting the active nature of the sound component of the practices. These posts will primarily take the form of interviews, each one aiming to place the subject within the general history of critical music practices in China, and contextualise their current practice within their overall development.

Sheng Jie (aka gogoj) is a visual artist and musician based in Beijing. Much of her current experimental music and sound work reflects her study of the violin and cello, as well as of video and performance art. Since returning to Beijing from college in France in 2005, she has been developing various forms of audio/visual performance using these elements. Recently she has begun incorporating a gesture-based computer interface that allows her to “manually” manipulate her video and audio signals on stage. In this interview she talks about her practice and how it has developed, her relationship with the music and art worlds in Beijing, and why she adopted this gesture interface. The interview covers a lot of ground, and so has been split over two days for convenience. Part two will be published on this blog tomorrow.

12 March 2017 Sheng Jie aka gogoj

12 March 2017 Sheng Jie aka gogoj

24 February, 2017 in Beijing

Early Years and Development

Edward Sanderson (ES): When did you start performing? Did you study music at school?

Sheng Jie (SJ): I studied violin since my childhood. It was not my choice, it was my family’s choice. I studied classical music, and western music. Then when I was 15 years old I could start to choose the things that I wanted to study, so I chose painting. Then in 2000 I went to study video in France for five years. So that’s how I can mix things together, the sound and the image, that mixture is very important to me. I use these two materials very often in my work. The basic way I get information every day is from my ears and from my eyes, so I also send it back out in these two ways: listening and watching.

ES: Were you performing while you were in France?

SJ: It’s when I’m back in Beijing that I’m performing with the audio-visuals. In France I studied video, sound art, and installation. I was also doing performance art, but not really sound or dance performances.

ES: When you came back to Beijing, were you in touch with people here?

SJ: To begin I already had some friends from the contemporary art field, and then I met 8gg, a couple who are new media artists and musicians and who now live in Berlin. They put me in contact with Yan Jun in Beijing.

ES: If people like Yan Jun represent a first generation of sound artists in China, would you say you’re the next generation?

SJ: Well, that’s difficult to answer, because generation is a big word! For me there is a big difference between our developments. While I was away from Beijing between 2000 and 2005 many things happened that I didn’t know about. So when I got back it was quite exciting, there were many things to go out and see, you have many chances to do what you want. I was also doing some exhibitions in galleries and with other people. So Yan Jun and many others had been active in China earlier, and I just joined that field after 2005.

ES: What kind of thing were you doing in these exhibitions?

SJ: Video works mostly. But later I realised that in the arts, there are many people who want to do interesting things, but once I work with them I realize they’re just not professional enough. In the Chinese contemporary art field the most important thing seems to be making money quickly; it’s really hypocritical, just about consumption, and the appearance of deep academic meaning. So this is not interesting to me any more. But the art is not the only way for me to put food on the table; I do some short commercial videos too. It’s good that I can keep the art and the commercial side in parallel.

But doing the experimental music is more… clear and interesting! Because no one really expects to become rich or famous this way! That’s the point! The people in this field are really passionate and serious; they really like doing what they are doing. It’s very real. Most of the concerts you perform in you maybe receive only 100 Yuan as a fee, but you’re happy with that! Maybe with this 100 you can only afford a taxi with your equipment – but that’s okay! They really know that the joy and freedom of creation in life is not only about money and fame. So why not!

19 July 2013 Sheng Jie performing with Yannick Barman, at Zajia, Beijing

19 July 2013 Sheng Jie performing with Yannick Barman, at Zajia, Beijing

ES: Which places were you playing at back then?

SJ: 2kolegas, for example, and Zajia Lab and XP were also good places.

ES: Are the venues in Beijing better or worse now, do you think?

SJ: For me it is worse now. fRUITYSPACE and Meridian Space have a good location in the centre of town. It’s good to have these because there are not many places in the centre now, but they both have problems disturbing their neighbours, so the volume of the gig can’t be too loud. You also have Yue Space and AOTU Space, but neither of them are very good places for experimental noise music. The ambience of the venue, the lifestyle that it can accommodate, is very important, and experimental music can be difficult.

ES: Right. You usually need some distance from your neighbours. fRUITYSPACE is in the basement under a restaurant and always has complaints from upstairs if the performance gets too noisy.

Delayed Cultural Sensibility

ES: So when you came back to Beijing what were your performances like?

SJ: In the beginning I performed with a lot of visuals with the music, in solo gigs. I preferred to do them on my own, and create the music and visuals together. I think that is the way I can work best with my ideas. It can become more complex that way.

ES: I remember when I first came here (in 2007) a lot of galleries invited musicians to perform at their openings, this kind of very superficial event. But that doesn’t seem to happen any more (for better or worse)?

SJ: Well, they have no real reason to do these. With sound art maybe you can sell it, but not experimental music! And if they want to have a fancy opening they can find some guy to do the good electronic stuff, cool stuff, something a bit more fancy.

In China everything is kind of delayed. For example, in Europe an artist can probably understand experimental music, because they’re interested in things like that, they have this cultural sensibility. They know the difference between different types of music and sound. So they have no problem having that at their openings. But it’s not like that in China. Artists don’t necessarily know what this music is. Maybe they just like pop, or rap, or electronic music. But if noise music is not good for listening, they won’t understand. When there is this kind of opening, where they try to have some experimental music, although the audience will mostly be artists they don’t know what’s happening! They have no interest, they don’t get the feeling, and they are only interested if it looks cool!

It’s about the quality of the person. One thing that I cannot accept is that many artists, after every opening, they eat, and then go to karaoke! I really hate karaoke! With the horrible videos, the horrible sound system, and everybody just singing horribly! You’re destroying your ears and your eyes! Why are people happy with that? You are artists! You’re using your eyes, using your ears for your job, and then you destroy them with this bad taste!?

It’s very weird. I don’t want to say that as an artist you have to listen to experimental music – it’s not that. It’s just about a quality. The quality is that you are not just a worker, working only on your own stuff. It’s also what kind of books you read, what kind of cinema you like, and what kind of music you like. That’s also very important as material to inform your work.

ES: People are not thinking very hard?

SJ: There is a kind of delay in understanding. Maybe we still need two generations to develop, I think. This process of the growing up of culture is very important. The state of the economy is important as well, of course. If that could be stable, then the people would not be thinking just about the money. We could think about other things.

Like the artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, they make some good stuff; I think they’re good artists. They make a lot of big work. Usually I don’t like political work. But I like what they have done recently, and I think they have—not changed—but kind of grown up. This growing up means their work is finally moving away from politics. It’s more human, and more questioning.

ES: The problem I have with their work is that they always seem to make these huge installations. I’m a bit wary of artists who just produce big things, because it seems to become simply about spectacle: they’re impressive, perhaps, but what does it mean?

SJ: I suppose the large size is like talking louder, that’s all. The size of a human is usually limited to about two meters. But if the piece is more than this limit, you have to use your eyes or ears to watch, listen, and understand the piece. I think that’s all. I don’t really care what the size is; the important point is the message it gives.

Gesture Interface

12 March 2017 Sheng Jie working in her studio

12 March 2017 Sheng Jie working in her studio

12 March 2017 Sheng Jie working in her studio

12 March 2017 Sheng Jie working in her studio

ES: This idea of how you deal with the limits of the body in a work is interesting and relates nicely to the gesture interface you are working with now, which you’ve used in your performances recently. What is this system and why are you working with it?

SJ: I use a computer hardware sensor made by an American company called Leap Motion, Inc. It’s a little box that can pick up all my hand and finger movements as inputs, it’s a bit like a mouse but you don’t have to touch it at all. It uses software specially designed for hand tracking in virtual reality, and all the movements I patch through to control different aspects of my audio and video, like the x-y-z coordinates of the 3D image or the pitch of the sounds. At this point I’m trying to see how I can control the visuals, as these are easier; the patches for the sound part are more complicated and will take more time.

I think sound is usually just for listening, but if I can relate it to movements, or some gestures, you make like a sculpture. That’s more interesting.

13 November 2016 Sheng Jie performing at Beijing Electronic Music Encounter, at fRUITYSPACE, Beijing

13 November 2016 Sheng Jie performing at Beijing Electronic Music Encounter, at fRUITYSPACE, Beijing

ES: So somehow you’re representing the sound in a three-dimensional space and manipulating it?

SJ: Yes. Firstly I try to do exercises with system, to know how it works with an image, and then how it works with the sound. How can I do things? What are the limits? And then put all this experience together.

ES: In the performance for Pixel Echo, with Zafka (Zhang Anding), I could see you were doing a few small gestures, but his own performance kind of dominated as he was making very physical manipulations of his hardware.

SJ: Yes, I just did a few, very small gestures. Zafka didn’t want us to do too much performing, so I just did a little bit. That’s an interesting point. I think if I want to do something with my hands or with my gestures, it is because I want to use my body. But at the same time the performance is making me realise I cannot use my body the way I want.

17 February 2017 Sheng Jie and Zafka performing at Pixel Echo 2017, at Yue Space, Beijing

17 February 2017 Sheng Jie and Zafka performing at Pixel Echo 2017, at Yue Space, Beijing

ES: Why not?

SJ: It’s like I’m dancing, but with the sensors I have, I have to be within this fixed area; you cannot do things outside of its limits. So you always have limits. I think this is an interesting aspect of my performance for me. I am using my body, this element you can use very easily, but at the same time the machine tells you what you have to do.

ES: If you had a better sensor, if it could cover a bigger area, would you want that?

SJ: Yes, I’m interested in that. Because I think that’s the way I can understand what is the limit from the machine, and what is the limit from the human. Because the human makes the machine, and then the machine controls the human. I just want to know, between these two things, what’s the connection and therefore what’s the meaning?