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 appears 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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ArtSlant: Noise and Context

The Sound of Nowhere

Various sites around Dongcheng District, Beijing

5 – 12 June, 2011

Like any art form, creative activity that involves sound has a relationship with the world as a production and with an audience as reception. Both relationships have different expectations and requirements for whatever might be termed “success.”

The often ephemeral form of sound work dictates that it must assert itself in a stronger way to ensure its reception as in some way distinct from the “distractions” it works within. The concert hall, for instance, not only provides a hermetic, purpose-built environment for the perception of sound, but—as with the gallery—it creates a psychological space devoted to sound, which prepares the audience to receive the material.

As visual art has its idealised environments in the white/grey/black cubes, and must negotiate new tactics of reception upon leaving those spaces, so sound encounters a potentially hostile, but promisingly productive terrain upon entering the outside world. This boundary between the sound work and the world is a fertile creative ground for the artist, on which the work can take any position, and which creates the relationship with the audience and their understanding of how the work fits into the environment. This might be described, referring back to visual arts, as its “framing,” which include not just the physical details of the environment, but the institutional structures around the pieces.

In the case of The Sound of Nowhere, the environment is made up of the collection of this particular set of pieces in a group show with this particular name and provenance; the (rather nicely designed) handout guiding the audience to the sites; the background information about the artists and works provided.

Sound’s ephemeral nature perhaps encourages me to focus on these “extraneous” details in the appreciation of the work. The organisers themselves stress “the processes of the search, discovery, listening to and/or taking in.” The works in The Sound of Nowhere are widely dispersed around the hutongs of Beijing’s Dongcheng District and work with these constraints and conditions as part of their being in the world.

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China’s urban surface

Looking out of the window of my bus into central Beijing, I can see a lot of rebuilding going on. This is of course nothing new – I’ve never really seen a lull since I came to China two years ago. But there seems an added urgency now, perhaps driven by the 1 October National Day celebrations just around the corner.

Last year there was a major effort to clean up Beijing’s image in time for the Olympics. This was very much for the benefit of the visitors coming to experience China and Beijing as host for the Games. But this time, we have what an internal affair, the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Republic, and the collective effort has in many ways been refined and expanded from last year’s dry run.

Maybe because time is running out to complete building projects, at this point there is a noticeable concentration of effort going into the borders of the building sites, the edges between the sites and the public areas, in an effort to polish the surfaces of China’s ubiquitous piles of rubble. This concentration is at its height at building sites along the main roads and gets progressively diluted according to the hierarchy of streets, becoming less intense as you move from dajie, to xiaojie, to the alleys and hutongs.

The criteria for effort seems to be dependent on what is public and private space, and is consequently redefining what is public and private. “Public” and “private” seems to be defined by visibility – if you can see it from the road, it’s public, and these “public” areas are seen as part of the State’s responsibility for its image, and are taken under the State’s wing as places which are vulnerable to tidying up.

So new walls and surfaces are being built to hide the messy bits, which through the act of redefining of public and private, become private, invisible places, inside the public, visible boundaries.