Welcome to part two of the second interview in this series on critical music, talking with Colin Siyuan Chinnery. Part one can be found here. This final part will cover Colin’s more recent activities in relation to sound: his involvement with the Shijia Hutong Museum and the development of the Sound Museum, an entity investigating and exploiting the full potential of sound.
10 March, 2017 in Beijing
Shijia Hutong Museum and the Sound Museum
ES: At the same time as you’re working for the British Council, you’re still a practicing artist. Are you working with sound at all in your work?
CSC: Well, I never really have. That is if I’m an artist – and I guess I am. I have problems with these titles. I know I’m not a curator, but everyone calls me a curator. I would call myself a conceptual artist because each of my projects starts with an idea, and then I choose a medium that suits that idea, rather than start with a studio practice, and then build upon that studio practice. So I haven’t actually ever made sound art. The Sound Museum project is not for me a sound art project. It’s a conceptual art project. Sound artists are people who are really personally invested in the texture of sound and work with that like painters work with pigment. I’m not like that. So I haven’t actually worked with sound in my own practice. Even though Sound and the City blew me away in terms of how much potential it had. But then whenever I make my own work, I am always influenced by artists around me. They are usually painters or installation artists – working in very traditional ways, basically.
ES: So you could pick and choose whatever is necessary?
CSC: I was also very constrained by that idea of art. It did disturb or slightly annoy me. This project that I had done, Sound and the City, I felt was a really interesting, different kind of project, but it just didn’t register for people in the art world here, because it’s not an art world thing. It was disturbing at the time but I didn’t realise the repercussions. The repercussions are that, actually the Chinese art world is really, really conservative. That was true then, and it’s perhaps even more true now. But the art world is also a thing that’s driven by a lot of very social things, like success. You need to make things work for you within the art world, as a social construct, with competing motives and interests.. Even though it slightly annoyed me, but I kind of understood – fair enough. But what’s interesting now, looking back on that, is how those little things very slowly shaped what will eventually be my own attitude towards art, my own attitude towards how the Sound Museum idea was shaped, and is being shaped. So now I feel that I’ve got to the stage where I am totally outside of that mental space, and I’m constructing a new mental space. That mental space will create a project that has different structure from the art world, and relies on a different set of economic and social factors, but is still fundamentally an artwork. The very, very early seeds of that came from Sound and the City.
Then after the project ended I went back to my old routine and I didn’t really think about sound at all for many years, until recently when they were developing the Shijia Hutong Museum, and I was invited to be a consultant. You might know that I’m a descendant of the last owner of that place. So they invited me because they know that I organise events and exhibitions, and I have a connection to the place, so they invited me just to be polite, I think. I asked, since they were making a museum of old Beijing, had they thought about the sounds of old Beijing? They hadn’t, and they asked me to come up with a proposal. My proposal was to make a history of Beijing using sound. It sounded so simple at the time. I still think it’s a great idea – just incredibly expensive and difficult to do. This is what developed into the idea of the Sound Museum.
Actually the Sound Museum is really about contemporary society. There is going to be very little old stuff at all. I started the project with the idea of old sounds because of this museum; they need old stuff, right? The old sounds were the one part of Sound and the City that really exploded in the media, and people related to the idea: all these disappearing sounds, all the jiaomai [叫卖 – street calls] disappearing in time. So I started with this idea of sound and memory. That was really the thing that captured my imagination, in the way that smell can remind you of a whole situation that is not so much remembering, as actually re-experiencing something different. You experience the event again, at a much lower intensity. So I started listening to some of the recordings, and I wasn’t listening to recordings of Old Beijing, I was listening to recordings that were made in 2005, and I heard the sound of an old taximeter. I heard the dianbaodalou [电报大楼] – The East is Red tune played over very crappy loudspeakers. And I had that kind of experience of re-experiencing. Then I started talking to friends about it, thinking about it a little bit, and what I realised is it’s actually a different way of thinking about or conveying history. If you play someone a sound that they heard a long time ago, that sound is a totally objective sound recording of something that happened, like the taximeter, or a bell, it is just a fact – this thing existed. However, if you lived in Beijing in 2005 and you listen to the recording of the taximeter, what you will experience is your emotions from that time – everyone will experience their emotions from that time, and they cannot be the same as anyone else’s. It is totally subjective. So what you have is something totally objective, and then what you experience in history, in the sense of time, is completely unique for every single person. It turns the idea of history itself on its head.
Because history is, generally speaking, trying to find the objective truth about what happened at any particular time (although there are sub-branches of history that aren’t). Of course we all know that it’s subjective, there are lots and lots of positions, so what we are we trying to hone in on is something that is as objective as possible. But maybe for the nitty-gritty of what people were thinking or feeling, sound can be used. There’s no other way of doing that part. You can’t do that with smell, because smell is not based in time. So sound is a new way of conveying and experiencing history. That’s amazing. So that was the revelatory concept for me. That’s why making a history of Beijing using sounds is not just a cool idea, it’s about how we think about history, how we think about time, how we re-experience it, how we can convey it.
Then they didn’t have any money, and we left it at that. But I kept on thinking that this is something worth doing. So I gave up my other projects, cleared the plates so to speak, to really get into this thing. It slowly dawned on me that if you want to document sound, for a history of sound project, all these historical sounds have to be recreated. If you want to record the sound of the doors slamming on an old bus, you have to actually find an old bus. It’s incredibly time consuming and expensive. So I thought about what can be done quickly, and be meaningful right now. I was thinking about the taximeter again: that didn’t need a professional sound recorder just to record that taximeter, it could have just been a mobile phone. We all have mobile phones, we all use them with the camera, for still and video. They all have a sound recorder, but none of us really use it much. But it can be used to record everyday reality. And all these little sounds will become memories in the future. But not only that, if we use it in that way, then you’re documenting a whole other level of reality, that otherwise we’re ignoring (because we have to ignore background sounds, otherwise we’ll go mad.) So if we do that, then it’s not just limited to Beijing, it can be done across the whole world.
Now I want to build up an international project with lots of institutions around the world, and then do a kind of outreach. At first it has to be the people in the art world, people who are interested. Once the projects end, each participating institution might do different things with the collected sounds, with different communities. It could be a community outreach thing; it could be a thing with artists, or musicians, or whatever. I’ll try to make this into some kind of larger, international event, with social repercussions.
Through this project I want to get more and more field recordings involved. Because they can open up lots of stories, and if it’s an international project then a lot of these things can be brought together. So we will work with an institution to set up a project on something like, let’s say, Palestine. The thing about Palestine is most of the population is dispersed around the world; it’s a diaspora. So that would be a very different structure for a sound collection. Because the sounds collected would all be recorded by Palestinians around the world, they might actually be from New York or France. They would create this sense of community. So this project would be asking, “What is a diaspora community? How do you represent that through time with sound?” Of course, this would be different for each country. I’m working with curators as I think this might be a different kind of international project. It creates a strange but very interesting map, in the sense that each place will have a very, very different way of thinking about the sounds.
Then all those sounds will be uploaded to my website, which will be the Sound Museum. As this project grows there will be commercial elements to this. We would be a company related to sound, developing apps, things that anyone can participate with. Then you have this continuous process of capturing reality. We have constantly new environments, constantly new sounds, and there will always be new people who can get involved. It will be a constantly shifting pattern of material, because sound is not going to stop. Nor will reality stay the same, with the same sounds over and over again.
Then there is the other side of this. I want to think about sound in terms of how we design our lives now. Sound is not yet a part of that – music is a part of that, always has been, but not really sound. This is probably the biggest part of the project. I’m thinking of this as more like the kind of idea that Warhol had. How art and society and money find natural ways of existing together. The ways of making art and money that are currently being used sound smart, for instance the way that Damien Hirst plays the art market or auctions, but they are also very, very old approaches to the market. They are also working with the existing power structures, and at the end of the day that is elite money, and it’s not that interesting. It’s really just selling expensive art to rich people. There’s nothing wrong with that – people have been doing it for hundreds of years, but it’s certainly not new. So what I found interesting is if we are going to find a new model of reality, money is important and interesting in all kinds of ways, in that it has a form like any other thing; it has a life of its own, it’s got ways of flowing, of breaking things and building things – it’s basically morphogenic, in the way that it gives life to things, and it’s got it’s own life through these systems and flows.
Now, if we going to make money in society now, it has to all be about the way money flows, and we can’t understand it with 20th century thinking. And sound is very, very important part of this, but not sounds in themselves. Sound is important because it’s an untapped, or an under-tapped resource. It can play an important part of our lives, but right now it’s not. It’s stuck in experimental shows, and very small niches, as sound effects in films, or in the British Library archives. It’s not actually playing an active part in our lives, in the way images do. You can think of this way of looking at sound as kind of exploitative, and this is certainly not because I love sound as such, but I think there is amazing potential to it, and that potential gives rise to all these different ideas. So I don’t think to myself, “Oh, that sound! Lets do something with that sound. Let’s make an artwork, or a piece of music.” That’s not what I find attractive. That’s what a sound artist would find attractive, and that’s why I’m saying I’m not a sound artist. That’s why I’m saying I’m a conceptual artist. I’m certainly not saying one is better than the other. This is a thing that is so rich and full of different potentials that aren’t really being tapped. And there is this other thing called money, which is flowing in these amazing ways. This is the really interesting thing that I want to look into. It’s not about wanting to become rich. It’s not about trying to make money. It’s also not about trying to make sound art. The concept is really that there’s sound on the one hand that is untapped; there are new ways that people and money interact, and ways that money flows. Just look at WeChat, or Apple Pay, or the bike sharing companies. How do they make money? It’s all in the down payments, the deposits that then get invested. At the same time, they get money from the government who want to invest in clean energy. So on the one hand the company gets money from investors, and on the other hand from the government. And this is changing the way we live. You’ve got the mobile phone, which can be a very negative thing but also has this amazing new possibility; you can unlock a bike with it, or even control your house with it. But there are also other things that you can do with it. That’s what I was saying about recording and documenting reality in a different way. The key is the morphogenic and social potential of these things.