Critical Music 5: Interview with Ambra Corinti and Rong Guang Rong

Critical Music series: This series of posts focuses on individuals, groups, or organisations that have played notable roles in the history of critical music practices in China. These practices appear in many different guises, often related to concepts such as “experimental music” or “sound art”, although neither term 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.

Welcome to the fifth interview in this series. This is an interview with Rong Guang Rong (A Rong) and Ambra Corinti. In 2010 A Rong and Ambra founded Zajia in Beijing, an influential arts space and bar in the Gulou – a very traditional urban area in the centre of town, characterised by the network of hutong (thin alleyways surrounding the imperial palace in central Beijing). For Zajia, these hutong provided an everyday community setting far from the more or less segregated art districts of Beijing. Zajia became an important hub for experimental music performances, amongst many other things. Its story demonstrates how such physical venues appear and survive, and ultimately how they reach the end of their lives – giving insights into many aspects of how the community and infrastructure for critical music is developing in China. In the latter part of the interview A Rong talks about his activity as a documentary film-maker. He recently won an award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival for his most recent film, and he has various ongoing documentary film projects that will survey experimental music and sound practices in China.

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alternative BJ – project work

I think in general it’s an interesting question: what is alternative? It’s obviously completely relative to the established situation. I think the way things are at the moment in Beijing, that means working around the profound commercialisation of the majority of presentations that are currently taking place.

So, if I was asked to point someone in the direction of ‘alternative’ spaces in Beijing, where would I send them?

My first thought would be the Arrow Factory, a project space located in an old hutong shop front. And why do I think of this as alternative? Because it’s one of the few spaces which leaves behind the established art zones (798, Dashanzi, the Liquor Factory), and is also determinedly non-commercial.

I think project work in general and specifically the kind of things Arrow Factory are presenting, are some of the most interesting thing happening in the visual arts in Beijing at the moment. By ‘project’ I mean to go beyond producing just a set of products which fit nicely into the ultra-commercialised environment we have here at the moment. The gallery I look after also concentrates on projects, with an internal definition of working with the artists to make the most of their ideas, supporting them however we can, allowing them to develop their ideas in new presentations that may be within or outside the space itself. Other spaces like Long March, Arario and Joy Art (wow, they don’t have a website) also have this kind of vision, I think.

Another interesting space, although technically from Guangzhou, is Vitamin Creative Space. They are currently showing their ‘SHOP’ project here in Beijing after its debut at London’s Frieze Art Fair. Now this piece seems to throw the commercialism back in your face – it is a shop after all, positively revelling in the commercial status of the works on display, but by doing so you feel that there is an implicit critique going on of that structure from which the ‘SHOP’ gains it’s everyday meaning and rôle.

But I don’t think I’m being naïve or overly idealistic, even given the situation we are in at the moment. We all have to make money somehow, not least the artists, so I’m not talking about rejecting saleability altogether (unless that is your particular schtick). I’m just trying to make a case for seeing other meanings for artworks than an immediate call to their capital value, which in my experience has tended to lead to lack of innovation and staleness in recent Chinese contemporary art, as it has done elsewhere in the world at different moments.

With project work you have a kind of commitment to the artwork which seems to be one way to define ‘alternative’ at this moment in Beijing, as it’s not that common yet, or perhaps it’s just that good results are rare to find.

As an afternote, it will be interesting to see how things develop with the global financial downturn, and what this means for ‘alternatives’.

Shu Yong at Highlight Gallery

Shu Yong at Highlight Gallery

Shu Yong at Highlight Gallery

Highlight Gallery have just opened a group show called Body Media, and although I’ve not been in to see the show yet, it’s been difficult to miss the piece that they’ve placed outside the gallery.

Highlight Gallery is right by one of the entrances to the 798 Art District in Beijing, so placing this particular sculpture outside the gallery, beside the main road was always going to be somewhat problematic (is it obvious what they are? Clue: there’s a tiny woman flying behind them and to which they are connected). And this is the result.

Gallery pics

Dust is Dust installation

Dust is Dust installation (2008) by Wang Yuyang

I just posted some pictures of the gallery to flickr. Unfortunately, it’s a very small space and the installation uses reduced lighting, and these two factors show up the shortcomings of my camera, but the pictures give a flavour of what we have here.

I was thinking about the show the other day, and why I like it so much. I usually profess to prefer more socially committed work, or work which has some sort interaction for the viewer or direct effect, and this would appear not to have such if you looked at it superficially. However, through talking to the artist (via interpreter, obviously) and thinking about his work’s methods, I’ve come to appreciate the meaning and significance of these works more and more, and how these actually have as much effect in their way as the kind of work I usually go for.

The pursuit of truth is a very strong and emotive subject, and one which is probably common to all of us in some shape or form. Closely allied with truth would be understanding, one step towards truth. The means we take in the pursuit of truth and understanding vary massively – this show and some of the artist’s other pieces investigate the place science and technology take in the formation of ‘truths’ through the facilitation of understanding. Their relationship is scrutinised by the artist and in the pieces is opened up to analysis in itself by the viewer, potentially clarifying the constructions in play.

A corollary of this activity would be that the artist’s very actions are just adding a further layer of complexity to the process. Analysis could go on forever, but at some point we stop, take stock and report on what it is that we have found. Written into that report is the awareness that this is very much a provisional state. This is an artificial, man-made point and one which is as much a construction as any in the subject matter.

Artificial Moon (2007)

Artificial Moon (2007) by Wang Yuyang

One week old

So it’s been a whole week since we opened the gallery, so it’s perhaps time for a bit of a status report?

I think it’s fair to say it’s all going well. There have been a few minor hiccups which are to be expected when you’ve just opened a space, things which become apparent that weren’t obvious until you get into a ‘production-environment’ and actually open to the public.

For instance, it took a lot of phone calls to CNC to get the internet working (not their fault, I should add, and their English-speaking support was very good), there’s still a strange smell coming from the loo area (must get a fan installed), and perhaps painting the floor white was a bad idea as it’s impossible to keep clean. All ‘live-and-learn’ type stuff.

I still have to work out how to encourage more people to come through the door. I think there’s a basic problem that many are still unaware we are here, and this will be remedied over time, but many who get to the door seem scared to open it. There’s an ‘Open’ notice up on the glass door, but I have the feeling that psychologically that puts people off as it looks like a barrier.

Most visitors are non-English speakers. I think that there is about a 80/20 split of Chinese/foreigners. Of the English-speakers I’ve talked to all seem to like the show, most expressing the opinion that it’s an effective use of the space, with powerful results.

I myself actually feel privileged to be able to present this work and also to be around it everyday – corny I know, but it’s good to have a great ‘product’ to show people, something you can talk about with passion.

And finally, one thing I’m very disappointed about is that Guy and Myriam Ullens (of UCCA fame) have not visited – I went to their place (and met them, although I was with a group from my wife’s work, so I was just a hanger-on on that occasion), it’s only fair they should return the favour!