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.
This blog post marks a return to the originally intended subject matter of my recently-completed PhD – that being a study of the physical spaces for the performance of experimental music and sound art in China. Such was my original direction, before the outbreak of COVID-19 forced performance spaces to close (temporarily or, in some cases, permanently), and all public gatherings to be restricted, a situation which led me to consider live-streaming as a space of performance for many of the same artists under these conditions. So here we are, in the long-tail of COVID-19, and while in the near future I plan to return to Mainland China to resume my fieldwork, in the meantime there are spaces in Hong Kong, where I live, that I can learn from.
The interview below stemmed from my first visit to Peng Chau, one of the outer islands of Hong Kong and an hour’s ferry trip from the main urban area of the city. That trip was for a performance by Karen Yu and Olivier Cong, part of a series of experimental music events organised by the musician Nelson Hiu and hosted by the Islander’s Space bookshop. Through Nelson I contacted Kit Chan, one of the owners of Islander’s Space, and had a conversation with him about the space and its relation to the performance of experimental music, and the island’s overall social dynamic. Many thanks to Kit for his time and patience on this.
Back in 2003, in an ecstatic review of the Sounding Beijing festival for The Wire magazine, Steve Barker wrote about a “stone-killer electro-nerd star” named Zhou Pei , and in 2017 Yan Jun’s history of experimental music in China recorded that Zhou’s music was “amateur electronica/avant-pop” . Zhou has therefore been active since the very early days of experimental electronic music in China, and continues to perform and release material under a series of artist names, including Ronez, Karassage, and OddChordSpace, reflecting the diverse styles of sound he is producing. Zhou, however, still considers himself an “outsider” artist, living in Guilin city, in South China’s Guangxi Province, away from the major conurbations where experimental music has usually been found in China, so I got in touch with him by email to ask about his music and life in experimental music.
In this text I will be arguing for the significance of silence or circumspection as a form of active disengagement. In particular I will be looking at this as an artistic tactic, focusing on sound art or experimental music practices that display such tactics as a matter of choice or necessity. These forms of practice will be related to historically situated practices that have taken various approaches to avoid confrontation while nevertheless asserting their presence in relation to specific social issues. I will be proposing that such practices institute new relationships between an artist and their audience that may open up the potential for new social and political effects.