Welcome to the second, and final, part of this interview with Zafka (Zhang Anding). Here he discusses China Youthology, the brand consultancy he co-founded, as well as his involvement in Yao Dajuin’s Revolutions Per Minute exhibition of sound art in China, working with the rapper J-Fever, and his recent performance with Sheng Jie for the Pixel Echo series of concerts. Finally Zafka discusses his thoughts on the political significance of sound and the current state of experimental sound in China.
Research – China Youthology
After 2007 I found even these band-based, instrument soundscapes were too boring. Basically I stopped the traditional practices of field recording and the performances, and even my more private sound practice; I found they still couldn’t give me energy or inspiration in my life. So I stopped for a while! I realised my identity is really as a researcher. I always found people and the society around me interesting. I like to interpret and write things about them. So in 2008 I established China Youthology and I focussed all my energies on how to create this unique business, shifting all my energies onto observing culture and the social changes, and at the same time providing research and consultancy for brands.
ES: It’s interesting how you progress from one thing to the other, their connections.
ZAD: Actually the only connection is that I have a consistent research identity when I’m doing this. But actually there’s not much clear connection between the research I do here and my previous art practice. I tried to put my Youthology projects into art form, but I found it so hard.
ES: But the research methodology is consistent?
ZAD: Yes, it’s only the methodology that is the same. But the content is very different. We do a lot of interesting projects, about sex culture, hip-hop, different categories of culture, these fundamental understandings of individuality, working with a lot of great researchers and consultancies. But I found it is still hard to inspire my creation and artwork. So I have a tension, but at least in the first few years I quite enjoyed building this new thing. For me Youthology is a creation, an art piece. I was able to do some things in a different way. So we have a great brand reputation. We were the top qualitative research company in China, the experts at understanding the youth culture here, and our business is growing – it’s good! I feel very confident, but I have a lot of tensions about this, because I haven’t created real artworks since 2007.
ES: You feel like that’s a problem?
ZAD: That’s a problem for me. Because after several years I feel bored. I already built the DNA for the company, and it’s growing the way I expect. Now all the activities are focused on how to make it better, but the DNA is unchanging. So I found it is not creation anymore, it’s a business! Though it’s interesting – every part is interesting, every part is exciting! But beneath it all it’s the same.
Revolutions per Minute
Actually after my daughter was born in January 2012, and after the first year (because that’s the hardest year with a kid), I realised, “Shit! I have to do something! I have to get back to the art world!” In 2012 Yao Dajuin had invited me to take part in his Revolutions Per Minute sound art exhibition in the US. But at that time I was too busy with my family. In 2013, the exhibition moved to Hong Kong and by then I had a very clear idea about what I’m doing. Basically I didn’t want to do an electro-acoustic performance, a traditional performance or an installation. I see a lot of sound installations that are so poor! Their only value exists in the installation, not in their sound. The sound itself and its presentation, and how it is compared to the history of sound art and to other artists’ work – this is all very poor quality. So I don’t want to do a simple sound installation. What I am really interested in are the new soundscapes in China, through social media, through mobile phones. Every day I listen to a lot of different apps on my phone, and people are beginning to use sound media in their daily life with them. It’s a huge change over the past several years. On the mobile phones people really treat their sounds seriously, as something fun, and something that can help them to express themselves. So my interest moves to the social media based soundscape. And how people use the new media to express themselves, to grow up in their culture, and build their identity through this new media. It is so accessible today – everybody does recordings on their mobile phone. Also there is this grassroots podcasting: a lot of middle school kids have their own daily podcast, recording their laughter, and storytelling. There is such rich material now!
So I decided that when I do sound art I will treat myself more like a contemporary artist first. I free my mind from sound itself, and move to how I see people and the world around me through sound. I’m so amazed about how people use the social media sounds to build their different identities, to express themselves. So I do a lot of online research and make online field recordings from there, and I divide the people into several types based on how they express themselves, and the way they use the media.
Based on this research I did a piece called “Sound Theatre”. There are two key things here: sound writing, and sound theatre. For me sound writing means I’m trying to develop a new skill when I listen to different sounds. I am writing them down as a bodily improvisation. I listen to the streaming online podcast, at the same time I’m improvising my writing down of everything I imagine from the sounds. Sometimes I use the first person perspective, I say “I”, sometimes “he”, I’m shifting perspective, sometimes using just one or two words quickly, sometimes I try to make a story around it.
ES: Is it like automatic writing?
ZAD: A little bit automatic, but very focused on these sounds. If the piece is short I listen to it one or two times first.
ES: So you’re prepared?
ZAD: Half and half. 50% improvised, and 50% revising, making it like a piece. This sound writing part for me is another way to drill down into daily life, even though these are sounds of very small things. When I listen to these very private online podcasts, I find that there’s a lot of information there, a lot of very complex things, but it’s all communicated through modalities of sound, how the speaker expresses themselves, not just in language. By the way he uses the microphone, I can imagine how he lives! So this writing is actually an anthropological way to listen, to build in the context. All these materials, written material, sound material, combined together form the theatre. So for the piece I did at OCAT Shenzhen I used nine screens in a very dark room, six-channel sound, and in the centre is a huge mountain of papers. On these papers are a lot of my writings. I make the whole experience like theatre, and the whole structure relates to how people build their identity, the way people understand the world through the use of their sound media.
The screen visuals are actually part of an online social media culture, how people are making sound art online, at the same time as they’re recording the visuals of them making the sound. Actually there’s this subculture called it Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), it’s very close listening, using equipment to capture very close, small sounds of objects. They are trying to record everything, and very close to the ear. I record a lot of these from the internet. On the screens in the installation you see people using daily objects, listening to them, understanding them. I think it is almost a religious way to get these sounds and understand the world. The dark room is basically like a mysterious theatre, and people talking like in a drama. On the pieces of paper all the words – almost 200,000 Chinese words are written. I had all the language, all the talk transcribed onto the paper.
For the show I did a related performance for which I select some parts of the sound recordings and reorganised them into a 20 minutes performance. My written texts are also part of it, I recycle all these things, to present the relation between the words, my voice, and the sound samples. This all becomes a complex narration again. I call it Sound Theatre. It’s about sound, about the concepts of sound, and the sound materials – it’s a new kind of performance, I think.
ES: And this is how you want to present this material that you research?
ZAD: Yes, because I want to know who all those people are behind these media. I hear their voices, how they present their everyday lives. They cry into the microphone, some laugh, some say bad stories, sad stories about their friends, some say they hate their teachers, some are just boring. I divide the people as to how they use the different sound media, and the different ways of expressing and constructing themselves. For instance one type is the online sales person, or the self-help person: “You have to be the best! You are the best!” Another group of people never say anything, they just shout, “rah, rah, rah!” Some people just tell sad stories everyday. I cut this material and their identities into different sections, and select and reorganise them in the installation and in the performance. For me it is more interesting than doing normal field recording.
Another project I am doing is with my friend, a hip-hop rapper called J-Fever. In China he is the best freestyle hip-hop rapper. He’s a poet. His lyrics are so colourful; your imagination is blown! He’s a very good partner for me to develop this project, because his writing is very funny and imaginative, and some parts of my writing he likes very much, and put it into his lyrics for a new song on one of his albums!
I did a project with him where we used a mobile phone to record clips every day. We published them on a tumblr site and then we wrote about each other’s life based on these recordings. I listen to your clips, and I imagine your life! I found that even though I know this person so well, I still have no idea about what they are doing everyday and what your life really means! Through this process we understand each other better, and imagine each other. Then we read out all the writings and record them again. So it’s a process of rebuilding identity again, and again, and again. To listen, write, and read.
And then we do a performance based on these texts and the sound samples, sitting opposite each other at a table with two small machines to trigger the sounds. We sometimes stand up, cross to the other side, we have body language, we talk to each other, and we read the texts again, and improvise. It’s sound theatre.
Those are basically all my experiments in sound art. That kind of work will always be part of the contemporary art world, the gallery system, because you need a particular space to present it. In that situation I found I had to bring the performance back into the work again, I have to be part of it! Because I present sound, the whole experience, I am already part of that whole process, and in the end I want to present that.
ES: How much performing are you doing these days? Just recently you performed with Sheng Jie [盛洁 – aka gogo] at Pixel Echo [series of audio/visual performances, organised by the Bwave label].
ZAD: Pixel Echo is another story. In 2015, I presented the sound installation and sound theatre performance I produced for Revolutions Per Minute at another exhibition in Hangzhou. I did the performance again there, and I began to think about new works related to this sound theatre. I began to think that I wanted to do something purely with the body and at that time I was also becoming more interested in electronic music. In an exhibition piece I can combine theory, concepts, and performance together, but I think I need something purely physical, like a daily habit. Plus it can take a year to organise one or two major pieces for an exhibition, and of course I also had my daily job. So I stopped thinking about complicated pieces for a while and thought maybe I could find something in daily life I can do. I had bought some electronic music gear but I had never really played on them, so I wanted to do something based on them, not on a laptop. And I don’t want to do purely techno or house! It’s already become one or two types of thing, it’s very easy to figure out the operating principles of this type of music. So let’s use these machines to try different things. I made some improvisation demos, shared them, and Hong Qile [洪启乐 – founder of the Bwave label] and I discussed them. He also found it interesting that I was working with a lot of hardware rather than software. So he asked if I wanted to do a performance. I say, okay, even though I don’t have any specific piece to perform.
ES: How did you end up performing with gogo? She was doing the visuals, and you were doing sound, is that right?
ZAD: Right. We’ve known each other a long time, and Qile just suggested that we work together. Gogo listened to the demos and had some ideas, especially the last section of our performance when we filmed my face with my eyes closed. I’m wearing headphones and listening to the demo piece that I recorded.
The experimental electronic music I produced for this performance I feel is more like a hobby for me. It’s another way for me to deal with sound. It’s purely about how the sound is generated, how you can manipulate it, not in a purely techno or house way, but in an experimental way. Previously I did field recordings, but how can you manipulate them? They are kind of a simpler thing, they already embody concepts, emotions and narrative structure. But this performance is all hardware. There’s no original sound, you have to generate sound from a very basic level, and you have to organise all the sound at the more complex level, and then you have to perform it, and your body and the performance have to be part of that. It’s another way, a more bodily way to cut into the sound!
So in my work I have progressed from field recording, to sound theatre, and the dimensions of the work become more and more complex. In the centre of all this the body is important; and inspired by the body I found maybe I should do these experimental electronics, because that is also about the body and very fundamental sounds. It is to really study how the sound is generated in this machine by the body!
Sound generation has a lot of parameters. It is interesting to understand how the parameters decide the movement of the sound. Hong Qile, for example, can program – but I hate programming! I’m not a guy who can logically understand everything and remember all this programming. Wang Changcun [王长存] too, he’s also a good friend. He has the capability to design the way the sound is moving through programming. My way is more about the body. I like to learn how I can interact with this machine. And know which parameter is physically here or there on the machine. I’m trying to analyse this through my body.
ES: Is that a matter of understanding the machine itself?
ZAD: Yes, the machine itself has the way to make sounds, but what about me? For example, do I have a clear idea if I want to make a piece about this thing called ‘delay’? How do you feel what the machine is doing to make a delay? What’s the concept of the sound of delay in space? The famous piece, “I am sitting in a room”, is all about reverb and delay, reverb and delay, over and over in space. But now we can make delay in hardware or software. What about that? For me I am now at the early stages of developing my concept, but for Wang Changcun he has already developed thoughts on how he uses software programming to control these sound movements. So for him the passion is all in the design, less in the performance. For me, that’s two different parts. You design a simple idea, but in performance you know you still have the space to enjoy it! So Changcun and I discuss and exchange ideas. Basically we both have software that does similar things, but the pressure on each of us is different. So for me my Pixel Echo performance is strong on the experimentation with the electronics.
Political Soundscapes & Noise
ES: I read in another interview with you, where you were talking about political soundscapes. To me it seems that so much sound work and noise music generally is just for itself, it doesn’t connect with a bigger picture. The artists don’t appear to be thinking beyond making a noise.
ZAD: But what about Torturing Nurse, Junkie? Making his noise everyday! He is the noise! It’s very strong. That is a good interpretation of what sound means in the power perspective!
ES: That it upsets?
ZAD: Yes, that is its power!
Actually you seldom see someone from the “elite” class doing noise so regularly. They may choose it as a way to express themselves, but only limited times, or as kind of an attitude. But only those who don’t give a fuck – like Junky. They’re hard-core! They do it as their life, they’re totally different kinds of people.
ES: It makes me think of some of the conceptual artists who were really focussed on one idea and just committed to it all through their life. Like Roman Opalka, who painted his series of numbers on canvas – and that’s all he does for 40 or so years, until his death! It’s difficult to appreciate it at the time. You have to think of it as a long-term project.
ZAD: It’s about quantity!
ES: What is your impression of how the sound art/experimental music scene is at the moment in China?
ZAD: Actually, it’s quite different from 10 years ago. A lot of the sound artists then were influenced by Yao Dajuin and his radio show Radio Subborg [前味音乐网 subborg.net]. This was the first time many of us heard about sound art practices, the experimental, avant-garde – he presented a lot of new material to us. After that a lot of students and young people were inspired to do the own works. But at that time it was quite focused on field recording, noise, and performance. But now there are a lot of different forms of sound, the audio-visual performance, contemporary art practices, sound installations, it is quite different now. But the number of people involved has not really increased much!
Sound is only one of the media. So what’s your idea about this media? What do you perceive? From that you make your art. But still there needs to be more discussion, and artists need to present their own thoughts in public. If you’re looking at the group of artists working with sound, actually everyone is still quite stuck on their own area. Someone like Li Jianhong [李剑鸿] is obviously getting better and better at what they are doing, but it’s still guitar noise and improvisation. But actually his photography is great too!
So most of the people are still in their own groups. Yan Jun after so many years is still improvising, doing his field recordings. Zhong Minjie, Lin Zhiying never change, they are still highly focused on daily recording, they are still changing the way they artistically represent these so that they become not just socio-cultural sounds, but also poetic ones.
Last year Zhong Minjie released a long piece, a website called “Classic Tree”. It’s huge! It has many pictures, language, and sound. Yan Jun wrote a critique on that, he was highly impressed by that piece.
We are also not limited to sound. Although the way we have understood sound has maybe not changed so much, but the way we deal with sound has expanded, with photography, etc. We are still exploring it and forming something really new. For myself that’s with my Sound Theatre; for Li Jianhong it’s his Environment Improvisation; we all have new ideas!
You know Lin Chiwei [林其蔚]? He’s great. He published a book in Taiwan titled “超越声音艺术林其蔚 Beyond Sound Art”. The book focuses on tensions in contemporary art, and the relationship between art and sound, and how sound itself should go beyond the limited concepts of contemporary arts or sound arts. So when I’m doing my works on sound or theatre, I find his writing is resonant with my intentions, for example, issues of the body, of intuition, of putting different media together (like my writing). What I found is that this book is bringing together other interesting art pieces, by sound artists and also some writings. He is also promoting performance and I found this is highly relevant to my sound theatre concepts. This art practice is more holistic, not limited by contemporary art’s problems, or sound art’s problems. It’s back to the people. He’s thinking about how we can jump out of all the contradictions of contemporaneity, of modernity. It’s great!