Alternatives for Performance: Interview with Nerve on the development of his performance since COVID in Hong Kong

Date of original interview: 22 October 2021; UPDATED: February 2023


This interview with Steve Hui, aka Nerve, originally took place in October 2021, and was part of my PhD research into the live-streaming of experimental music in Hong Kong and Mainland China during the COVID-19 restrictions. Hui is an artist, educator, and co-founder of the Twenty Alpha live venue that has been situated in the Foo Tak Building in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district since March 2018. Twenty Alpha has become one of the main venues in Hong Kong for non-mainstream music and performance generally, and with the COVID-19 restrictions became a base for broadcasting events when audiences could not be invited in. This interview reviews Hui’s approaches to performance over this period, both the broadcasts from Twenty Alpha, as well as the group and solo performances he took part in the tunnels, walkways, and trams of Hong Kong, some of which were live-streamed.

COVID-19 in Hong Kong

Edward Sanderson (ES): I believe the first announcement of COVID in Hong Kong was in February 2020. What was the situation like for you then?

Steve Hui (SH): It was quite traumatic for me. In January 2020 I was in Europe, touring with Absurd TRAX. I came back to Hong Kong on January 30 and then the next day we rehearsed here in Twenty Alpha for the project 0202 2020, an online program lasting for 24 hours non-stop and which was due to happen on February 2. If we hadn’t had this performance, I think I may have stayed in Europe a little bit longer. We had a few members of the audience live in this space, but basically Twenty Alpha was our streaming centre and we would invite people to watch the performance online.

ES: Why this choice of title, “0202 2020”? Was it related to the beginning of COVID?

SH: No, the date was just because it is a unique number. When this project was planned, the organiser Lam Lai obviously had no idea COVID would happen. Actually, she had always been interested in online collaboration. When she was living in Hong Kong before, she had already done some other projects which involved playing together with people over the internet. She’s interested in working across different time zones and so for the 0202 2020 project she intentionally worked over many time zones, with different collaborators and different venues, in different parts of the world.

ES: When you got back to Hong Kong, had things already started shutting down due to COVID?

SH: Yes, this had already started. I remember the supply of face masks at that time was very limited. I got some face masks in Berlin airport before coming back, but just a few days after I came back those face masks were all gone and I had trouble finding more in Hong Kong for my family.

ES: After the 0202 2020 performance, did everything go into lockdown?

SH: Basically, yes. We couldn’t organise anything in person again until July 10 – the Kimberley Road Union release rooftop party. This was when the COVID slowed down a little bit, but I remember we were very careful to try to limit the audience size.

ES: Was that because of the threat of official checks or were you just being careful?

SH: Just being careful. At that time the COVID numbers were still going up and down unpredictably, and also you needed to make sure the audience felt safe. Performing on the rooftop made us feel safer than indoors.

ES: Then you took part in The Quarantine Concerts on April 22,1 TOPH Housebound #7 on May 9,2 and IKLECTIK on June 143 and these were then all online. Did you perform in Twenty Alpha for all these without an audience?

SH: We did all these online performances from here in Twenty Alpha. The Quarantine Concerts were a collaboration with the Chicago Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) and were lined up by soundpocket, a Hong Kong non-profit, commissioning sound works. That one was live in my afternoon/their morning, 11 a.m.

I think at that time many people from different parts of the world were seeking alternatives for performance. The TOPH and IKLECTIK events were interesting for me because we had built up all those connections during our European tour, in January 2020. Suddenly we had a global network of online collaborators across all these different organisations. We all wanted to support each other!

2020/06/14 Nerve performing during the Twenty Alpha at IKLECTIK live-stream (screenshot).

ES: I saw that TOPH was at three o’clock in the morning!

SH: Yes. TOPH was a live festival in the UK, and I remember I probably played at 3 a.m. because that was 8 p.m. there. It felt a little bit surreal, because I set up all the equipment on my own, the camera, and the streaming things, and then I played alone. That particular performance felt really lonely.

2020/05/09 Nerve performing during the The Quarantine Concerts live-stream (screenshot).

With 0202 and the Quarantine Concerts, on the other hand, at that point I still didn’t know how to set up the camera and everything, so with the Quarantine Concert, for instance, Vanessa Lai (from soundpocket), Wendy Lee (my partner), and Kampo Tse (our technical support) were all here to help. But TOPH was a little bit different, as I managed to do it all by myself. I had to! Because no one wanted to help me at 3am!

Live or pre-recorded

ES: What system were you using?

SH: For TOPH I used the OBS software, with just one Sony camera and an iPad. I tried to make it multi-angle, because I wanted to show my hand movements while I was playing, as well as the full scene. I had a software switch to automatically show one minute of camera A, then one minute camera B. I was very nervous because as I couldn’t be sure if the stream had broken when I was playing – it was extremely worrying. Also, the organisers had performances from Hong Kong and from the UK, and they tried to link things very tightly. I remember they streamed through Skype, and then they mixed the various Skype streams and streamed the mix to Twitch. I didn’t understand the logic, but they said this was the only way they could connect multiple shows together.

But IKLECTIK was a pre-recording. That was four sets by Alex Yiu, Chin King, Crystal Bug, and me with 龢wo4, aka Brian Chu.

ES: A lot of people I have spoken to in my research have not been happy with live streaming because of the quality of the signal and the sound. I think more and more of these international festivals are asking for pre-recorded material to address this problem. How do you feel about pre-recorded performances?

SH: I still prefer live. But long before COVID we already had experience of recording our sets, much like a studio set, and also with playing online. For instance, since 2017 I had often joined Hong Kong Community Radio (HKCR) to perform shows online, so we have some experience there already. But usually, I don’t interact with the audience online. I’m not in the chat room, because I have to play! Nevertheless, I still much prefer live online rather than pre-recorded. The quality is maybe not as good, but, in any case there’s a lot of compromises on the quality already when you are online – you really have no control over it. When I play electronics the speakers and the volume are very important for me but playing online there are a lot of compromises with the sound quality, level, and also the structure.

In terms of the experience of playing online, playing through headphones and playing through speakers are entirely different for a performer. In fact, when we play through the headphones for the online performances there’s more chance that what we’re hearing is closer to what the audience is hearing, because it’s bypassing the speaker. ReNew Vision E(ar)-Storm,4 for example, began with five solo performances which were like portraits of all the artists who took part, and then there was a closing performance which we recorded together at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

2020/11/28 Alex Yu, Fiona Lee, Nerve, Vanissa Law, and Jasper Fung performing together for ReNew Vision E(ar)-Storm (screenshot).

For this the five of us were all wearing headphones to listen to the final mix; this was the first time I had played together with people where all of us were using headphones. Actually, the experience wasn’t that good, but it was the first time I realized, “Oh, this is exactly what the online audience are listening to.” In some way, this meant I was more confident about the outcome of the performance. But for the experience of playing this is not such a good feeling.

COVID slows

ES: Then after July 2020 were the COVID restrictions in Hong Kong relaxing a bit?

SH: A little bit. Sound Forms 2020, which took place in the Tai Kwun venue on July 25, was my first public solo set after COVID.5 It had already been postponed from May or June to July. For a few of those performances there was even a full house.

The COVID infections were going up and down during that period. That year Sound Forms was also split over two venues with different dates – the Hong Kong Arts Centre and Tai Kwun, and during the week at the Arts Centre COVID was quite bad. As a result, So Ho Chi couldn’t come to Hong Kong so he had to show a video at the Arts Centre. In fact, the shows there ended up including pre-recorded material. I also remember there were not many in the audience – So Ho Chi’s show only had something like ten people in the audience.

2020/07/25 Nerve performance for Sound Forms 2020, at Tai Kwun (screenshot).

ES: I remember in Tai Kwun they had put tape over a lot of seats so you couldn’t sit too close to each other.

SH: Yes, they said it was a full house but actually there could only be about 100 in the audience.

Tunnels and trams

2020/11/26 Cassette Party in underpass (screenshot).

ES: I was interested in your Cassette Party in the pedestrian tunnel. Was the first one in November 2020?

SH: That was the first one I did after COVID, but I had played outdoors before although those events were usually organised by other people, and usually DJ performances. That Cassette Party was organised by Ho. He collects and sells many cassette tapes and he also helps people repair their cassette machines (as 木目田心卡式会社). He had had this idea for a long time – I think maybe he told me about it more than a year before it happened. But it was not because of COVID. He was already interested in cassettes and he was interested in performing outdoors. He told me he is not interested in online at all.

ES: So, it wasn’t live streamed?

SH: No, it wasn’t. I took a little bit of a video, and I posted it online.6

ES: Have you done any more outdoor performances?

SH: At that time the venues were often still closed so I started to think more about performing outdoors. I did one in January 2021, in a pedestrian tunnel near Happy Valley. But this was totally different from the Cassette Party because I played alone. I just brought speakers and a few instruments, and I set up my iPhone for streaming online. The Cassette Party had many performances and we made a flyer, so many friends came. But for Happy Valley, I tried not to let any people know, so that I feel alone when I was performing – it’s more like typical busking. I interact with people who I don’t know, who pass by, like a pop up.

After that, actually, we had a few more unofficial performances. The constraints, the difficulties, of these opened up our imagination. We started to think in different ways about performances, the spaces, and the audience. For example, the artist Jasper Fung suddenly announced, “Hey, let’s take the tram and play something!” So there was me, Jasper, and the Feaston group – five people in total playing sound boards and mini-amps on the upper level of the tram from Kennedy Town to the end of Happy Valley, for around 45 minutes.7 The driver had no clue what we were doing, and he stopped the tram and came upstairs. I guess he could hear it or maybe some people complained. He didn’t even know what word to use to describe it – he said (how to translate this into English), he said ”Just stop! Don’t do things!”, something like that! “Stop! Don’t do anything!”

2021/01/24 performance on tram (screenshot).

ES: Before COVID would you have done this as much? Has COVID made it more attractive to perform outside?

SH: It’s not like a direct response to the situation, but more like the situation changed and then you try to think of something new. It’s a very normal response. Before, say 10 years ago, we played a lot outside on the harbour side, near Kwun Tong ferry station, every Autumn Festival and especially Chinese New Year. Our model was that we have a sound system and our equipment, a group of performers, and the flyers, so these were more like the indoor events even though they happened on the street.

But after COVID we tried to think of something more like pop-up performances, or like playing alone. Sometimes I watch people busking in Tsim Sha Tsui or Mong Kok, or dancing in the public spaces. It’s interesting to watch those performers who, for example, sing and play guitar and set up a smartphone to stream themselves. It’s very weird because the performers are not really interacting with their live audience. Or at least, not very much: they may just say, “thank you” and then go on to the next song, and then say, “thank you” again. They only react as if their only live audience is the people in the online chat room. It’s really interesting for me, because sometimes there is a large audience on the street, but no interaction.

My pedestrian tunnel performances are kind of like the opposite – although I’m online and people may type things in the chat room, I am just focussing on my playing. The people type “Oh, be careful of the police!” or something. But I don’t interact with the internet audience.

ES: Did you have much interaction with the live audience there with you on the street?

SH: Not really, but I play to the space, I play to them in the space, and sometimes people stop and wonder what is this?

ES: Do they try to give you money?

SH: No! I’m not trying to get money. That’s interesting, actually, because even when I was playing outside in New York8 or in Hong Kong, I never set up a donation box.

Spring box and bear synth: playing, not for virtuosity but for finding

SH: One time I played in one of the tunnels in Happy Valley. The acoustics were very interesting there. I was playing with this box with four springs and a contact mic inside.9

2021/01/03 Nerve performing in a pedestrian tunnel in Happy Valley, Hong Kong (screenshot).

ES: You seemed to be using that instrument a lot at that time.

SH: Yes. Cedric Ng, boss of the record label Mouhoi, left it behind in Twenty Alpha one time and then it stayed here forever. It triggered new interests in me. I think even after COVID, there was not much opportunity to play physically, so that changed my thinking a lot, or my way of playing, or my interests in types of performance. I became more interested in being portable. Actually, I have always wanted to be portable, but now I want to be even more portable! I became interested in equipment with no need for electricity, or that you can recharge, or have built-in batteries. Then I became more and more interested in just using my hands. Also, maybe because of the change in my equipment, I’ve become more attuned to the difference between music and sound. The structure of the sound I produce is one difference, of course, but also because my equipment has changed, and this spring box in itself has inspired me this way. It makes me only use my hands. It’s just a microphone and springs, so it’s about playing it by interacting with other objects – I use it as a pick-up for anything I can play around me.

Also, after COVID, I became more interested in finding, rather than playing, and this is partly because when you are online, people can jump in any time and leave anytime. Previously, a standard duration for my improvisations would be thirty minutes, and for the past few years I have also used a similar set of gear – a sampler, a mixer, and an analogue delay. This has made me feel like this set up is my instrument, which I can practice, develop new techniques for. Because I become more and more familiar with this set of equipment, I build up a certain “virtuosity”. If I build up this virtuosity, this also means that sometimes I know that if I play a particular way, the audience will like it. This is what I understand as playing, as in playing an instrument which means building something good or showing off techniques. The more I do this—although sometimes the audience are happy—I’m not necessarily happy. So I became less and less and less interested in playing something “good”. Around two years ago I realised I’m in a situation in which my long sets travel between “adventurous” and “safe”. When I play for around thirty minutes, I like to travel between these two points, a-b-a-b-a-b (b is usually at the end). “Safe” is guaranteed to be an “entertaining” situation for the audience. But if I play with this spring box, and I never play this for an audience, I am playing something very unsafe to the point where I also feel unsafe.

Now I am very interested in just finding – because finding gives me a reason to play. If your reason for playing is that you want to make the audience happy, then this is a very stupid reason for sound making, I think. I’m not interested in purely making the audience feel good.

ES: Do you think you will become a virtuoso with the spring box at some point, and then you’ll have to change again?

SH: I try not to! My hands are good as I trained to play the piano, but I always try to play in different ways. The artist Betty Apple also inspired me for this. I remember we played at playfreely in Singapore in 2018 (but on different nights). She played her gear standing on the table! Of course, the first question is: Why? I think it is because she has developed some body gestures that are impossible if you use these things standing next to the table. Betty really inspired me with that.

Also, because I have a background in skateboarding, I tend to like tricks that demonstrate virtuosity, like ollies. The bear synth I use is interesting in that respect, as I find new sounds by using new body gestures. I got the bear synth in 2019 and I started to explore my body with it. But to begin with I still thought in a virtuosic way, as if playing it was like doing the tricks on my skateboard. The bear is made by steev saunders (aka 3x3x3) and Twenty Alpha organised an exhibition of his projects here, and he also performed here. But after the performance he didn’t want to take everything back, so (like the spring box) it’s also been left here. As I said, when I started playing with it, I again wanted to get to be a virtuoso – like KΣITO from Tokyo who plays finger drumming on a MIDI controller extremely well, he can play a whole set for one hour.10 But actually I like my little bear because while most synthesisers are in machine form and meant to be operated as they are built, the form factor of the bear synth inspired me to explore my own body – it’s almost like I can dance with it! So when I work with it, my performance is something like what I saw in Betty Apple’s performance at playfreely.

So 2020 was when I got the spring box, and then I was thinking a lot about the relation between “body” and “space” at the beginning of COVID-19. Finding then became my preferred method of sound performance, and I would also wear an eye mask to expand on the “adventurous” aspect of some of those performances. I first tried to explore this theme live in the E(ar)-Storm event, but looking back at the video now, I realise I am still trying to be too skilful. But that was the starting point of my process of finding. Then I kept exploring this in “Ambient-Chaos Studio Live Performance Number 65”.11

1.5m of Sound: from finding to trying

All these have led to the recent “1.5m of Sound” performances,12 in which sound making itself is the main reason, rather than judging it by its outcome. In this case I don’t think of it so much as performance, than a situation. This is my new interest in which I move from finding to trying. The method for this is: pick up an object; imagine you are a new-born baby and know nothing about that object (e.g. its name or function); try to do whatever you can with it. The process of trying then becomes the reason and method of sound making – the outcome is not important. There’s no good or bad. What is important is “real” trying, not playing to the audience. The space and audience generate unpredictable factors for such trying, which makes the process even more complicated, more like a situation than a performance, more like something you can see on the street than in a performance space.

Online collaboration

ES: Returning to the subject of online performances, do you have an urge to produce more?

SH: I was interested in doing some online jamming, because it was still hard to play with my friends outside Hong Kong [when the original interview took place in October 2021]. At the CTM MusicMakers Hacklab in February 2021 I had the opportunity to learn a lot of new technologies and tools for virtual collaboration with people from all over the world. I thought that maybe I would try to organise something. As a test, I might collaborate with DIY venues in Prince Edward or Tuen Mun in Hong Kong, while I will be here in Twenty Alpha. In this case it’s [more about the way distance is experienced]. There would be an audience in both the physical venues and online and the performers would all be playing together via the internet but physically they would all be in different parts of Hong Kong – which is so small, in 15 minutes I can be in Prince Edward from Twenty Alpha.

ES: Did this “online jamming” event happen in the end?

SH: No, because [after 2021] performing online became a bit outdated and everyone wanted to watch physical live performances since COVID-19 calmed down. But I still think there are many areas of online performance I want to explore.


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