Critical Music series: Interview with Sheng Jie (part 2)

This is the second and final part of the interview with Sheng Jie (aka gogoj), discussing her activities as a visual artist and experimental musician in China. Link to the first part of the interview.

The Body and The Machine

21 September 2016 Sheng Jie performing with Ding Chenchen, and Yan Yulong, for MIJI Concert #39, at Meridian Space, Beijing

21 September 2016 Sheng Jie performing with Ding Chenchen, and Yan Yulong, for MIJI Concert #39, at Meridian Space, Beijing

ES: This relationship between the body and the machine is very interesting. So often in these performances it is just people using laptops and the technology just seems to take over because there can be so many options available. Sometimes it seems the performer is just playing with these options, and there’s no bigger picture.

SJ: Yes, I think we build this bizarre relationship with the machine. Because we made these machines to help us do something, right? To do something well, to do some stupid work. But finally, with these high-tech developments, eventually the machine seems more intelligent than us! And they know many things, and they can choose what you want, they give you your options, and you totally believe them. What is this? What is this relationship we have?

ES: Traditional instruments are usually built around the human body; they reflect the body’s limits. I think this idea of using the gesture is an interesting way to bring back the body into a very technical performance.

SJ: Today people want to see magic. But how’s it coming, this magic? How do we create it? I mean, the digital machine, computer, and any device, or even the application in your iPhone, you can do something with that, and you can say that’s great because it’s like magic! But from where is the source of this magic? It’s from the human imagination!

ES: It’s also a problem generally, the relationship between what you see and what you hear, and often there are people trying to make music and have the visuals linked to the music but often it doesn’t really work. The connection is missing.

SJ: I can understand why they want to do this. Audio-visual performances give you an ambience: it’s big visuals, big sound levels, you can feel you are really inside of this huge atmosphere. But it doesn’t mean that the visual and music should have no connection and no meaning. I don’t really like that. And it’s boring to just show what you can do, what technique you have.

ES: For the audience, at least, you could be doing anything. You could just be playing a recording. To bring the very performative bodily movement (that you are suggesting) is perhaps a way to make it clearer. It could be very direct.

SJ: The idea is very important, I think, what you want to talk about with this performance. If you just want to make good music, you do your music. Then if you think your music needs a visual for it, to make it bigger or clearer, then you choose your visual exactly connected with your music. It doesn’t mean just visual and just music without any meanings.

Sound, the Destroyer of Image

ES: With your visuals you’re often using the computer-manipulated photography or video. What are these and what are you trying to do with them?

SJ: In my recent gigs all the footage is from my own videos that I shot in Tibet. So there are mountains, and rivers, they appear like sand, fire, water, and wind, the very basic four elements, 风火水土, this kind of video footage. Then I am destroying them with the sound, to make them look less realistic and become a new visual form in real time. That is the function I used for this performance; for me it’s enough. I really want to do this to change our view of the real.

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: What do you think is the meaning of these videos?

SJ: The meaning is in the timing. Because for me the difference between videos and a photo is the time flow. So if you just took a photo now, you don’t have the element of on-going time, you just capture the moment. But if you shoot a video, then you capture this time-flowing mode of motion. I keep the video’s original time-flowing motion, and develop the image surface with the sound. And that’s quite different from animation. The timing in an animation is set by yourself; you tell the computer what it should be.

ES: So in this case the time comes from the material, the real?

SJ: Yes.

ES: Is that why you don’t do the stereotypical 3D computer animations that you see a lot of in performances? Are they too disconnected from reality?

SJ: I also like some 3D stuff, but mostly where there are abstract elements presenting a micro-world, it looks like a new cosmic scene – that’s cool! But I think if I can go to visit space in my lifetime, I’ll probably be shocked by the total darkness. That’s the real power of reality. I can’t even imagine that. There will be no 3D anymore!

9 January 2016 Sheng Jie performing at Pixels Echo X, at AOTU Studio, Beijing

9 January 2016 Sheng Jie performing at Pixels Echo X, at AOTU Studio, Beijing

ES: So then my question is how do you make your choices about what things you show?

SJ: For me it depends on what kind of goal you have – that’s the point. But I also want to ask this question too in the work. I like to ask people why do you do this? Why are you choosing this? Because for me the goal is very important. But the goal is not the end; it is the beginning. It’s the point at which you do it. Without it you will be lost.

Many people don’t want to admit their real reasons for what they are doing. Maybe the goal is very simple – it is just to get more money! And you can stop talking in just a few seconds: “I do it for the money.” oh…

ES: The conversation is over!

SJ: Yes, the conversation is very stupid, so they don’t want to talk like that. They cannot tell you that. And they have to choose another reason, more complicated, that sounds better!

ES: That’s why it’s interesting, what you are saying about working with the limitations of the technology as well. If we all had a lot of money, and could buy all the biggest equipment, and the most fancy equipment, then actually it would be less interesting, perhaps. The more possibilities you have…

SJ: But that’s not bad necessarily. It’s normal. Everybody wants these things. But you just need to be aware of that. Don’t do it, and then tell people you don’t want to do it. That’s weird! Honesty is really important. It’s kind of a goal, when you do your things.

ES: I think in general it’s difficult to be honest in the world!

SJ: Well, it’s not so difficult if you don’t care! If you care about a lot of things, you can’t.

The Limits of the Body and the Real

ES: How are you going to develop the gesture interface?

SJ: I want to know the human limits that you can control with this system. Actually all these things are fake. The visual is fake, and the sound. In the end, where is real? In this performance it is the motion, right? When you move, when you do things physically, you express an emotion to the audience, you send it out.

ES: From seeing the human body actually moving and doing something? So the image is really just a reflection, an extraneous thing?

SJ: The image is just footage, it’s a kind of medium to express your emotion. I think the music is also for that. On this point I pretty much agree with what Li Jianhong [influential experimental musician in China] wrote on Wechat a few days ago about performance, concerts in general. He said he thinks the performer is very important for the performance. They should be human, that’s the primary point. You go to a gig not just to listen to a bigger or better sound, you need to see this man or woman, when and how she communicates the emotion. That’s important.

ES: There’s got to be that link to a real body somehow, otherwise it is could be anything?

SJ: Yes, and you can be listening to a CD or MP3 at home. Then if that’s all it’s about, and if you have good enough equipment, why would you go out to watch a gig?

ES: I suppose that’s the thing about improvisation. Of course you can record improvisation, but improvisation, by definition, you have to be there with the performer, watching, listening with them.

SJ: I think Li Jianhong’s meaning is that now there are many gigs that don’t have this emotion. The performer knows how to perform to a high technical standard, but there is often no meaning. And I agree, because I think if I want to go somewhere to see a performance, it is because I want to see this person. What he is doing. How he controls his emotions and his ideas – everything is control, actually. It’s not like people are going crazy; actually it is about control. Like with Junky [of the group Torturing Nurse, famous for his very physically violent performances], he has great control!

So finally an interesting thing happens between control and the uncontrolled. Every control represents this limit, and humans need the limit. It’s like when we make tools, these tools represent our limits and give us our limits. Because in these limitations we can give more meaning.

ES: So in the future as you develop the gesture interface, will you focus more on making this more visible?

SJ: Yes. I will show the movement of my body much more. It may look quite stupid, but that’s no problem! I just want to know my limits and what I can do. It may be that in the end people will just look stupid using this technology!

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: That reminds me of the Theremin. Playing a Theremin can appear a little odd.

SJ: Playing a Theremin is more beautiful, I think!

ES: I’m sure when people first saw someone playing the Theremin, they may have thought it looked stupid. With a hands-on instrument, somehow the movements seem more purposeful. Again it seems to be about the link between your movements and the results.

SJ: With most instruments the body movements look real; they are not virtual. With the violin, for example, you bow it and you have the sound. But with my gestures, these movements, they look totally fake! But with the gestures I’m describing a virtual sound object, like a sculpture. It is a kind of a shape that is consistent – every time I put my hand in one place the same thing will happen.

ES: It’s as if you’re blind, and you are using your hands to understand the shape.

SJ: Except instead of feeling the shape, you are touching the sounds! Because with the gesture interface it’s not that you need a good ear or good eyes, but you need a good sense of movement. How you gesture in relation to the sound you hear. This perception of dimension in relation to the imagination is interesting. For example, when you are taking a shower, you get some soap in your eyes and you try to touch something you can use, it’s often totally wrong! But I think blind people know this dimension very well. I may even ask a blind person to perform with this system too.

So this virtual shape stays the same based on how I set the parameters. So by moving your hands you can describe that shape in space. And if people are watching you, they can see how your hands move and then in their head they can also imagine the shape. The most important point is you need the audience to understand this idea, this conception, then they can understand how it works. That’s part of the work; you need to work with that. I mean, the reason people come to see your performance, is because they want to know some new things, or have some new experiences, right? So just give this experience, why not?

ES: Experimental music sometimes has this problem with a lack of communication. It’s partly a contextual thing. Sound art often has designated places where it appears, like art galleries. For example, in the MIJI concerts at Meridian Space, that’s a context where you know that sort of thing is going to happen. Then (at least to a certain extent) that’s okay, the audience is positive, is on your side. But at other venues people don’t necessarily know that!

SJ: For me sound art is a sort of art classification, where artists are using sound as a medium to make art pieces; so in this case you need to be an artist first. Experimental music is musical expression at a gig and on many different publication formats; so you need to be a musician first. That’s two different ways to export your thinking, and like other forms of creation, they both need to make a connection with other people to get a reaction, So we build these channels for the exchange of thought when we make these relations. If it is a good work then through this channel you can see your creation develop well and make people think about its development. Also, I don’t agree with experiments without result. Any experiment without a result is not experimental! If you want to try something, the reason should be to get the new result. That’s the goal.

ES: You need to progress somehow?

SJ: It is not about showing your progress all the time. You should be taking steps by experimentation, and then there will be results, and then you take another step. Maybe there can be a better result next time, or in the future. That’s a good thing. Then can you see the hope in the process.

21 September 2016 Sheng Jie performing with Yan Yulong for MIJI Concert #39, at Meridian Space, Beijing

21 September 2016 Sheng Jie performing with Yan Yulong for MIJI Concert #39, at Meridian Space, Beijing

But if you want to express more feeling, you really need to know your technique. So that’s the subject we have been talking about since the beginning of this conversation. Finally technology is the tool, the way you choose. It’s not the major focus. But you do need to know how to use it.

ES: Otherwise you’re just presenting the tool?

SJ: Right.