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.
15/22 March 2017
Interviews conducted at camera stylo (with Rong Guang Rong) and Sanlitun (with Ambra Corinti), Beijing
Edward Sanderson (ES): A Rong, how long have you been in Beijing?
Rong Guang Rong (RGR): I came to Beijing in 2003 – for art! I wanted to find a master, to study film at Beijing Film Academy. But when I came to Beijing I had no money, so I asked many people to lend me some, but I wasn’t able to get any. So I went to the 798 Art District to find some work. My first job was with Sun Ning, who is now director of Platform China [an art gallery in Beijing], but at that time she was at 798 Space, which was the first commercial gallery in the district, a very big space. My first job was in their library, helping her. At the same time I was also studying how to make commercial movies. It’s 2008 and the Chinese movie business is very hot, and I can make a lot of money working on these films. But I don’t want to work on these kinds of movies, and also Ambra, my wife, didn’t like this life where I’m always out, and never at home. So I moved to Dali and lived there for one or two years. But, again, I think this is not my life, so I came back to Beijing in 2009.
But I needed to do something to feed us – I know art can’t provide that. So I thought we could open a coffee bar, maybe that way we can make some money. At this point Ambra had our first child, and she is in Italy, so I look round to find a space. Over three months I tried three spaces [around Beijing], one in Sanlitun, one in Wangjing, and the final one in Gulou. One day, I saw the Hong’en Dao Temple building in Gulou, and I thought, “Oh! This is Zajia!” And so we took the place!
RGR: The idea behind Zajia is really Ambra’s; I’m better at the practical things! We didn’t have too much money, so we did everything ourselves. We took out the old things in the building, and fixed it up with new water pipes and electricity, everything! Together we made it! So we had a space, and we thought we could have some shows in there.
Ambra Corinti (AC): A Rong had this idea of opening a bar. I’d never run a bar, but I thought we could set up something like a “space”. I didn’t have a specific idea at the beginning; I just wanted it to be a space, available for free, to be used by artists and other people. We didn’t want it to be in one of the Beijing art districts, especially not 798 or Caochangdi.
ES: What kind of events did you want to present?
AC: Personally what I wanted to see were “conflicts” in this space! At that time I was living in Caochangdi and going to the exhibitions and performances in that area, and the audience was always people who were really interested in art – they could be the artists, or the public or whoever wanted to go and see that kind of thing. But you never saw the type of people who would be saying, “What is this?”, or, “Ah, this is crap!”, or any kind of real reaction. And everything was happening mainly in these districts and nowhere else. So what I wanted was to have a space in the middle of the city, for people who would never have gone to see performance art (for example).
AC: So A Rong was looking for many places downtown, and then he found this one. What really attracted us was basically because it was right on the street. We really didn’t want an enclosed space, like the typical hutong courtyard spaces. We wanted something going out on the street. That kind of space was not easy to find, but the fact that we found Hong’en Dao Temple was really destiny!
Before we moved in, there was a tofu shop on one side inside the temple building. The whole room was a white cube, with this plastic material covering all the walls and ceiling. And the other side was a room, in half of which they were playing mah-jong, and the other half was selling liangcai (cold dishes and stuff). The ceilings were all closed in, but from the outside we could see it had this very old wood structure, so we knew that should be something interesting.
AC: After six months (this was towards the end of 2011) the mah-jong people decided to leave, and we took over that whole room and it became the project space. The evening we got the whole space we invited people in to come and smash down the dividing wall. The artist Sun Shaokun did a performance where she stood on the other side of the wall, and we were supposed to smash the wall down and open it up to reveal her, but she was almost crushed by the wall! It was a shocking performance!
So that’s when we were able to use the full space. From then my idea was that people could come to see something they would never see if they went to 798. Or perhaps for people who would never have gone to 798 anyway because it was too far away.
AC: At the beginning, we tried to make many of the things a way to bring different groups together to create the conflict I talked about. There is this Inner Mongolian musical group called Ajinai, and we had them performing with the Japanese performance artist Megumi Shimizu who was living in Beijing at that point. The public for each are from completely different worlds. Ajinai is very famous in China, so the performance was full of people to see them, but they didn’t care about Megumi, only people who knew Megumi cared about her performance! So there were some very interesting reactions. Megumi was doing her stuff, she was performing with some of that rope from Mongolia made from horse’s tail, a very long one, and she was moving around the whole space with it. I don’t remember if she got naked that time, but possibly! I heard a lot of people complaining about the performance, saying, “What is this?!” But that’s the reaction I really wanted!
For me, at the beginning, I didn’t know what Zajia was. I didn’t want to have a name for it. At the very beginning we just called it Zajia, or Zajia Lab. Then after a while, for some people it was a bar, it was a social centre, or a project space – everybody saw in it something different. Also the name we chose, “Zajia”, has a lot of meanings, and also no meaning. One of the meanings is for when you are making an archive of documents, zajia means something unclassifiable under any standard. “za” itself means “mix”. “jia” is home, and this meaning can be perfect for many of the things we were interested in. After many years I realised this need to keep things unclassifiable was actually related to what is happening in the world: now everything must be classified into something. Actually the reason why Zajia worked for everybody (except maybe for people who like “cool” places – it was not “cool”!), was because it was open.
ES: The natural arrangement was very good, with the bar on one side, the project space on the other, separated by the entrance corridor.
AC: Yes, but then it was also very difficult. One of the things that would make us crazy was because we didn’t want to make the project space “for profit”. Sometimes people would come to us, saying, they wanted to do a party, or a commercial event. But our arrangement of spaces with their different functions has always been very troublesome. Every time we were having a screening or anything that was very quiet, the bar would have to be quiet too. For us of course the cultural events were much more important than the bar, so we were having a very crazy situation with people. They come and they want to drink, we had to say sorry, if you come you have to be silent!
RGR: We have this bigger space, so we want to show more art, and have more noise gigs, and many different things. So one day Li Jianhong, Yan Jun, Li Tieqiao, and someone else, four people were performing for a couple of days. The first day it’s very good, the sound is good; many people come. On the second day, I told them “I give you the wonderful day! It’s Saturday, and many people will come!” But in the bar that day there is a birthday party. These two things can’t balance! On one side is the noise! On the other side is drinking, and talk, talk, talk, and “Happy Birthday to you!” Ah! I’m crazy! It’s very bad! So I go to the party, and say, “Sorry, you can’t be so noisy!” But they say, “We are having a birthday! You can’t tell me I can’t sing on my birthday!” Actually, when Li Jianhong had finished, he said, “Next time, beforehand, you tell me, and I will put one microphone outside, so we can have Happy Birthday on the PA! It will be very good!”
Okay, so we need to get this balance, because when there is a noise performance, people in the bar go crazy! They don’t want to drink; they don’t want to buy anything, so our business was getting worse! Ok, well, it’s bad for business but maybe we can just about find the balance between the money and the art, although it’s not as good as before.
AC: I thought it would never work. Because people who spend money there to drink and have fun, if once or twice they come and they see that they have to be peaceful, because on the other side there is some guy doing meditation, or reading poetry, or doing something weird, maybe they will never come again. But actually it really didn’t happen. The bar was always going anyway, people were always coming, even if there was no event, they were just coming to see friends. It was difficult, but it worked.
If you want to have a successful bar with an arts space now, you cannot do it, unless you have another completely soundproofed room. We also thought that we should do this, and then we didn’t. Thinking about it now, I think it was good thing not to, because the interesting thing was really this conflict about what Zajia was. I knew a lot of people never, ever went inside the project space to see any of the things. It was really two completely different worlds sometimes. And that’s why different kinds of people were meeting. This is happening with space. The space itself was like this, a duality which was having conflict, but this conflict was good.
AC: Of course, we were not a professional bar, so we didn’t have the income of a professional bar. But I have to say we never had to put money into the bar. At the beginning we put money towards the decoration, but after that the space, as if it were alive, became independent and self-sustaining, because the money that was coming in was enough to pay for everything, and we could also take something for ourselves. Because we were giving a lot of time! 24 hours a day, especially for the first three years. So we had some income to live on. So there was a balance. It was really a magical thing!
A living space and local people
AC: The bar was working well anyway, people were just coming anyway, because they knew something will happen – or maybe nothing will happen, but it’s nice to be there, where people are. So it was really a social place that interconnected people in a natural way, without any need to organise things too much. For me, Zajia was not a place for “events”, it was a place where naturally things were happening. Now, when I see some young Chinese people renting a space, or the government gives them a space, and you ask, “What are you going to do with this?” they tell you, “I want to organise events!” But it’s just a box; the space they have is just a place for organising. But Zajia was not like this for us; the space became like it was alive, and people were using it.
My other point of view was that I never wanted to have a curatorial structure. For me, everything could go inside the space – I refused very few people, and only then because I really thought it was pointless for them to come, they could go to any bar to have a show, they didn’t need to come to Zajia. For me it was a matter of whoever needs the space, can use it. It was also a way for me to observe what was going on. Every kind of community, the foreigners, the Chinese, the young Chinese, the artists – we even had stuff for the tourists, coming to have talks about the local historic area. It was as if the outside world was coming inside, and we were also going outside.
AC: When it was really working was with the involvement of the local people. We never proposed or organised events specifically for the local people to come, they just found the events for themselves. That’s why we were doing many things outside, on the stairs, so naturally local people would come to see, and also participate. After a while they knew us, they also came and sat inside the bar, because they feel like it is a place to drink, or somewhere just to sit. Hutong people are very relaxed about this kind of thing. We had a lot of series of concerts on the stairs. So the musicians or performers were performing on the stairs, or in front of the building, so most of the audience was local public. [Experimental musician] Yan Jun was organising a series of performance in which everybody had to wear headphones, so all the people were sitting on the stairs with their headphones on. He was recording live sounds, remixing them, and sending them back to the headphones. Some local people wanted to try too, and they stayed there for a long time, listening. There was this 91-year-old man; everyday he was sitting beside Zajia’s stairs, and that day he also spontaneously said he wanted to try! Yan Jun was very excited; this was the eldest public audience he had ever had!
Zajia and film
ES: How long were you running the space for?
AC: Five years. We opened on April the 16th or 18th, 2010. And we closed on April the 17th or 18th, 2015 – the same day more or less!
ES: Why did you close?
RGR: So we have to think about what do we want to do? Do we want a bar and make money, or do we want to do the art, or what? Gulou was also changing, and we were warned we couldn’t use our space. Also the rents were going up a lot, so that meant we couldn’t get the balance right. So slowly it got more difficult, and we realised we had to close.
AC: The temple is a government building, and they took it back, so they asked all the tenants to leave. They had plans for some big companies to use the temple in other ways, to rent it out to them.
ES: So since the space closed, how has the Zajia name carried on?
AC: There are different people who are working with us, who also worked with Zajia. Some of them have gone on to do other things. But we made an open call, only in Chinese, for people to join Zajia to organise independent film screenings, and many people answered. For us organising these kind of documentaries is a way to let people know about reality. Last year we also did screenings in BeiDa [北京大学 – Peking University], and in other universities, and then in different small venues around town.
A Rong is developing a film production group called Hybrid Film Productions. He doesn’t want to use the Zajia name, because it is still something we don’t want to classify. He is working with a lot of other people who want to do independent films. They’re trying to make independent movies together. There is also a festival of independent films that those people involved with Zajia are organising.
ES: What do you see Zajia as being now?
AC: I think it is still something that we still cannot classify what we’re doing. We are organising screenings and maybe next year we do something a bit different, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll find another space, our destiny, I don’t know.
ES: Do you want to find another space?
AC: Yes. But I still think we should wait for the flow to bring it to us. Like it happened before, a sort of destined place. Now we have an idea to collaborate with different spaces, like here at camera stylo, to do other kinds of events.
I have an idea of keeping Zajia alive, because now it has a bit of Chinese guanzhu [关注 – attention], there are a lot of Chinese people on Weibo or Douban, they know about Zajia. Some of them they even didn’t go to the space when it was open. But after they heard about it, now they follow. So I want to keep it alive, and then, I don’t know, in two years, if we find a space, then okay, we do something again, although of course it will be different.
ES: When you have the focus of a physical space, it makes it possible for a lot of things to happen.
AC: When we closed, to begin with, our attitude was, “Who needs a space?” I felt, as an artist, you have to be flexible and go everywhere. But then, after a year, I found that this is not right. What I feel now, in this society, this system, what they push is exactly this: to not be fixed in one place, to be fluid, and to go everywhere. But actually, what human beings need is the contrary. We don’t need to always be flowing, floating everywhere, in our relationships, daily life, and community, everything. So during the last year I started to feel like, actually, having a space is important. If I do a space it is just for the idea of the existing place, which is there, and people who go there can meet other people without organising, without making a free date, or consider that there is an event. I really feel, now, it’s necessary, actually.
RGR: We think about whether we want to find another space, and make a new Zajia? But Ambra and me talk about what is this life? Why do we want to make a new Zajia? Is it for the business? Because by now Zajia is a mingpai [名牌 – a well-known brand], we can use Zajia to make money. Or what do we want to do? Show art? When we opened Zajia in 2010, there are not many places which mixed a bar and art. We had it and many people liked this. But now that Zajia is finished I think Beijing doesn’t need any more of these spaces. Beijing needs better content, because many spaces don’t have good content. So we think maybe we can use other spaces. So we wait; maybe one day we can do something again. But now it’s like this room in camera stylo [a small café/bar and film club in Beijing] is enough: for art, for sound, for film, everything. And now I think, in China (and maybe in England, Japan, every country has the same issue) it’s not about big content, we need long-term content. We need smaller events, but over longer periods of time. In Chinese we say xishuichanglu [细水长流 – a trickle lasts a long time]. So now we have an event here at camera stylo every week, on Mondays.
ES: How long has camera stylo been here?
RGR: Two years, more or less. But before we found this place we put on some events in fRUITYSHOP [a record store and live venue in Beijing] as well. But then the owner, LaoZhai moved to the new space [fRUITYSPACE], and he had different ideas for it. He had more nuli [压力 – pressures], it was not like a sitting room anymore. The sitting room is nice; maybe if not many people are there, it’s no problem to turn off the lights and close the bar. But now it’s more like a live house, and LaoZhai wants people to be able to buy drinks all the time. For me I think you can’t have a film showing in the same room that there is a bar, with noise from making coffee or cocktails. So I can’t use his space anymore.
But for LaoZhai that kind of space is good. Even though it is very close to other businesses and the neighbours, he can keep a balance and not have too much trouble with the police. Partly this is because he is also a Beijinger! With Zajia, when the police came about complaints, I told them, “I’m a Beijinger!”, and they say “Oh! A Beijinger! Let’s have a drink!” It was much easier! If you say you are a waidiren [外地 – a non-local person], that’s a problem. Because Beijing is like a family! This is the shehui [社会 – community] balance. But LaoZhai also has problems. I was performing there last week, and he told me the people from the restaurant upstairs came down twice and warned him, “Ah, you need to stop this noise! I’ll call the police!” At Zajia it was very good, because there were no people around.
ES: Yes, because the old temple was physically separate from the surrounding buildings.
RGR: Yes, but I needed to buy something for the neighbours. Because they say, “Oh, the summer is very hot. I need to open the windows. But I open the windows, your sound is too noisy!” So I say, “Okay, I buy an air conditioning unit for you, so you can be more comfortable!”
This is the hutong [胡同 – alleyways] balance!
Edward Sanderson (ES): A Rong, you are now also very active as a documentary director, and you just won an award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival for your most recent film, “Children are not Afraid of Death, Children are Afraid of Ghosts”.
Rong Guang Rong (RGR): Now I have finished two documentaries. One is a 50 minute long film called “Nameless Soldiers – In Search of Dreams”. It is similar to “Children are not Afraid of Death…” because it was not a planned project; it was improvised. I heard about something, I needed to know what happened, and so I went to the place. I shoot many things, very quickly. I spent one week shooting “Soldiers”, and four days for “Children are not Afraid of Death…”.
Once the filming was done, I came back to Beijing and thought about what I wanted to do, what did I want to say? So it’s very different from making a feature film, where you write a story, and make a lot of preparations. I feel my documentaries are not a “work” like those you usually see on TV. My documentaries are my life! I think something, I feel bad about something, so I want to do something! So in my documentaries all my feelings are there. If you feel like this you cannot just go and see a Hollywood film that makes you relax, you drink, sit, and chat. These will not make anything happen! I feel that I need to make something happen through my documentaries! To tell people something! So for me documentary is life.
ES: Right now you are working on some new documentaries?
RGR: Now I have three documentaries in progress. The first is about the Gulou area of Beijing, and about Zajia. Gulou is a very mixed area. There are many different things there, bars, cafes, shops, local Beijing people, people from other parts of the country, foreigners – it’s very mixed.
I started filming in 2011, and maybe I need another three years to finish. My friends say my film is like a Beijing xiaoxiang [肖像 – portrait]. It is like when a whole family goes to have their picture taken once a year. It is a very detailed view of Beijing.
Do you know the documentary director, Zhao Liang? He is very good; I like his documentaries. He spends long periods filming his subjects. This is what I want to do with my Gulou film. I want to make this documentary over many years, to show the way the area changes.
ES: You’re still filming this one?
RGR: Yes, in short bursts. I go to Gulou maybe one week each month. Things are changing quickly there, and I am filming a lot of conversations with people in the area.
RGR: So that is one film. Another is about the noise music. I filmed in many places, with many of the music people. I went to Dongbei, to Shanghai, to the South, and Beijing, of course. I go to these places and film many peoples’ lives. Like Li Qing and Li Weisi [experimental musicians] for instance; first in their old house and now they have moved to their new place, and how their lives have changed. Li Jianhong, Liu Xinyu, FM3, Wu Quan, Yan Jun, many people. I want to show people that there are these bubiaozhunde zhongguoren [不标准的中国人 – nonstandard Chinese people] here. Many people think Chinese people are all alike. But I think the experimental musicians are very different from other Chinese people. This is a very big project; I started filming this while we had Zajia, and maybe this year I will make the first film. I think together there will be 25 different movies, about 25 people’s lives. I think these people are very important. Many people should know about them!
ES: What’s the third film?
RGR: The third one is almost finished; it’s about Xinjiang. Again, this is not a project I had planned, it’s the result of a bad feeling I had after I read a news report, and so I went to this place. My friend is a documentary director and had been working for four years on a documentary about a Uyghur child from Xinjiang. The last time he saw him was when he was sent to jail two years ago. Two weeks ago, he was due to be released, so my friend said he wanted to go and help him – maybe he has problems when he is released, because the situation in Xinjiang is very difficult at the moment. I knew the story, I had also seen his film, and helped him with the video, so I wanted to go and help too, and I took my camera with me. But it’s very crazy there! There are so many soldiers! We rented a car to go to inside Xinjiang, to a very small village where there were no Han people, all Uyghur. My friends tell me it’s very dangerous! They told me I shouldn’t go there, because maybe they will kill me! I was together with my friend’s documentary team, and we were all very unsure whether to go or not. Now I want to make a documentary about what I saw. I want to ask, why were you afraid? Why were you afraid that people would kill us? Why are you so afraid of the Uyghur people? So this is my new documentary. I’ve finished shooting, but I need to edit it.
ES: What do you think a film do to change things? Or is documentary film just about presenting information?
RGR: Before a journalist asked me a similar question. You know, being a journalist is a job, the same as the people who make TV documentaries, and they always think that documentary work must be about making a statement. He asked me what my film was trying to say? He thought I must want to change something! But I never think I can change something! Really, I think I’m very dumb. I see that the world is bad, broken. But I want to do something! I have a bad feeling about something, so I want to do something to help my feeling. So it’s like this [taps on the window], getting people’s attention. I think maybe this subject is important!
In China many people say, “Oh, someone like Ai Weiwei can do this kind of activity, but other people can’t.” Me, I’m the same kind of person as those people. I never went to school. My family is very poor. My mother had a small shop, and my family didn’t have much money. I’m not a big businessman. I’m like many Chinese people. So I think, if I can do it, maybe you can do it too. I’ve shown my films in China, and I talk to young people about them. Maybe we can ask some questions! Maybe we can do something! We are not big city Beijing people, Shanghai people; we come from other places, but we can do something. So do something! But I don’t know answers; I can only ask questions. So my documentaries are mainly about asking questions. To answer is not my work. The journalists sometimes tell us, “Ah! This is good. This is zhengyi [正义 – just, righteous]. You need to do this!” But I say, no! Maybe you don’t do anything: no problem! But maybe we can do something!
ES: There’s a lot of criticism of documentary directors who have actually created a situation because they want something dramatic to film.
RGR: Firstly, I need to say I never went to school to study film, to write the scripts, or to make documentaries. So my learning mostly comes from watching DVDs. But I think that’s maybe good for me, I don’t have all that knowledge, so I don’t think too hard about it. Before I started “Children are not Afraid of Death…” I didn’t think I was going to make a documentary; I wanted to tell a story. Because in the children’s situation who can say what is the truth or not the truth now? You’re not the police. The children are dead now, there are no people who can tell us what was the truth. I am angry about this situation. Why? Because I know my life was like the children’s. The journalist went inside their room, and said, “Oh, the smell is so bad!” But for the children I know it is not a problem, for the children every day it’s like this, they would have been used to it. Yes, maybe it’s very bad, but it’s not a problem, because they’ve been living there many years with no other people to help them. So I think the problem is for the adults, the big people, not for the children. So I make a story about this feeling. I went there, and did something. I also have children, so I want to say, what is it like to be a child in this situation? Some journalists criticise me, saying I only talk about the bad things about this country. But I say that saying these things is not a bad thing – it’s a very important thing!
I never think I shouldn’t go into the frame. I put the camera here, and if I feel I need to go inside, I go. I play with the children, or whatever. I don’t think: “Oh, this is a documentary. I am a director. I can’t go in front of the camera!” For me I come here, I want to do something, not just to show something! This is very different from a TV documentary in which you can’t do anything, you can only film. Maybe for one night I can make the children happy. It’s enough!
When I went, I was not thinking about making a documentary. But when I come back, I wanted to do something about what happened there. Through my film, I want to give people the same feelings that I felt. I only have 100 minutes or so, so I need to make a work, with video and sound. The music is by Li Qing and Li Weisi. Sounds can help people get the same feelings as me. For me, making a “story” is not important, making a “documentary” or a “feature film” is not important. What’s very important for me is how you give the same feeling. So I use every way I can, documentary, feature film, sound, everything.
For my Gulou film, I got to know many people in the area. Some are very old. Once, while I was filming, one of them suddenly started coughing and fell down. So I went over to help him, pick him up. I have to help! But some people say, when you are filming don’t talk to the people! Don’t get involved! But I say: I want to talk to them! I want to ask questions! This is from my heart! I can’t change. If I change, I’m not happy! So I can only work like this!
It’s like Frederick Wiseman [the American documentary director]. He’s famous for this style of filmmaking, of staying behind the camera, not getting involved. Well, style is style, and there are many styles, so I have to ask why use just this one? Sometimes I want to ask questions that I don’t know the answers to. So I don’t think too much about what is the style, I just ask!