Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club

Lot’s going on this week on the music front. Tuesday saw Carsten Nicolai playing at Yugong Yishan courtesy of Goethe-Institut, with Kid Koala playing there the next night. Over the next few weekends we have the NOTCH Festival (NOrdic+CHina) which was at Yugong Yishan last year, but has now decamped to the rather more chichi surroundings of the Sanlitun Village. I plan on getting over to NOTCH tonight, to experience a:

Halloween sleeping concert with hypnotic audio-visuals and specially designed air bed by Swedish architecture group Testbed.

Lineup: Biosphere (Norway), Mokira (Sweden), Vectral (Denmark), Dead J (China), Chen Xiongwei (China)

I’ll post some pics of that tomorrow – or maybe even tonight if they have a free internet connection there.

Before that, though, I made some notes after Carsten Nicolai’s performance which follow on from my thoughts about live music/events in general, which I outlined after the Laoban event we hosted at the Gallery last year and which keep coming up for me every time I go to hear a performance. I have rather confused, ambivalent and romantic expectations from music, I want it to move me and excite me, and that means for it to have a “meaning” for itself and hence for me. As far as the former are concerned, I know that’s problematic and indicative of a surrendering of my control to someone else; for the latter, that seems an overly analytical reaction to the former on my part. Where is the middle-ground, if indeed there is such a thing?

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club Case in point: Carsten Nicolai’s appearance. I didn’t know much about him before going, but his name had cropped up in art-related contexts, so I was pleased to be able to get a chance to see what he was about. His set seemed short, possibly due to it being marred by some technical glitches (at one point I thought the whole thing would just be called off). At the end of it all I felt quite a bit of frustration. Carsten is described as someone “who uses art and music as complementary tools to create microscopic views of creative processes.” From my point of view, as music I was not hearing anything very “creative” or giving an insight into the processes involved, and as a visual experience it failed to reveal anything beyond a confusing array of techno-fetishism. Sure, there was the requisite amount of glitch, noise, and the visuals were distracting for a short while, but there seemed very little meaning behind it all, very little of an idea to hold on to, very little of anything interactive between the music and visuals beyond a certain didactic “this is what I’m playing and this is what it looks like.”

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club In terms of my reactions, I think it all comes down to what criteria I judge the evening on, either as music, or as visuals, or as art; and I obviously apply different criteria to each format. So, for the music I didn’t hear anything imaginative about the beats he was using, the glitches seemed more or less random, without an underlying form which would have allowed you to follow the reasoning (or an algorithm?) behind them through some sort of progression (in the way you can with Autechre, for instance). The visuals of the filters and processes the audio and video were going through were interesting, but left me with a bit of a “so what” feeling. And, ultimately, as “art” the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me.

  • My stream-of-consciousness notes following the event:
    • I want to feel some connection to the music.
    • Do that through the beats and melody, I think.
    • Beats that make you move, force you to react.
    • Trying to put a good view on that, as it seems like tyranny in a way. Being controlled by the beats, that can’t be good, no freewill.
    • Maybe more like some kind of empathy between the beats and the person – naive, idealistic maybe.
    • Dangerous, as it is too close to letting yourself lose control – letting someone else control you.
    • So CN’s music could be good in that it prevents me from letting go? hmmm..
    • But as a DJ what are you doing? Obviously many different types of DJs. But I think most will want some sort of recognition or connection with their audience – otherwise they could just stay as bedroom noodlers. Working for public display as a means of verification? approval?
    • Doing work is one thing, but in a milieu which guides you, which you participate in, in which you like contributing things – a community of agreement.
    • For CN its slightly different. He is at a stage when he can do what he wants. He is known and he already has an audience which accepts him. He does not have to remake his audience every time.
    • But in a way that’s what we always have to do – hence the technical problems being a way to lose your audience. You already have an audience before the show. Some come to the show and then you have to retain and satisfy that audience in your performance.

djs and vjs: so what (are you doing)?

The previous post about the relationship between the fashion house Dior and the artists in its exhibition at Ullens Centre here in Beijing reminded me about a certain uneasiness I had about how much enjoyment I was having at the Laoban Mixing Event which took place at the CPU:798 in December and which we hope to continue in 2009.

[ASIDE: I don’t want to always seem like I’m complaining about things and especially not about Laoban, I had a great time and Jon did a great job and I fully support what he’s doing. I think in every positive I see the potential for improvement, and I also want to understand what it is that I am finding so good, I guess so I can find more of the same. So, I can be quite critical of things, as I have high expectations.]

There were some very talented performers and artists working at the event, producing stunning visuals and sounds, and I can happily admit that I loved it – I was thoroughly engaged in it.

But at times my self-awareness came back and I was left wondering: what is the point of all this, what possible purpose does it serve apart from instant gratification? There was a hermeticism about it all, cut off inside that room from reality, and that began to worry me.

Looking back, the only artist who directly addressed some audience or source outside of the small group, some kind of larger society, with a hope perhaps of making some kind of comment, was Du Qin (a.k.a. D4Q1N), specifically generating a flying array of what I think was the current RMB to USD exchange rate as part of his projection – at any point in time a quite meaningful piece of information for society.

Du Qin at the Laoban Mixing Event, CPU:798
Du Qin at the Laoban Mixing Event, CPU:798. 12/2008.

Many of the other visuals that I saw were semi- or fully-abstract patterns, which—while distracting and by and large visually appealing—seemed to serve only to distract, not to engage. In most cases the visuals were feeding off the music and vice versa, producing what amounted to a closed loop, again not entering into an engagement with an audience either within the room or beyond.

[ASIDE: Of course, there may have been meanings which were lost on me. I may have missed them, but also the nature of symbolism is much more deeply ingrained in China than in Britain (from where I got most of my visual knowledge), so the significance of some imagery may have been meaningless to me.]

Nevertheless, the disjunction between my enjoyment of the sounds and visions, and my disquiet over the lack of engagement, can be rationalised by understanding the evening itself as the engagement. The possibility of the evening happening and what it represents is the socially important thing, both looking inward to the participants and outward to the rest of the world.

I should probably learn from the Adorno quotation which I posted a while ago, about ‘commitment’ in art. He says: “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” Looking further back in my posted quotes there is the Marxist Art Historian Meyer Shapiro presenting abstraction in art, for all it’s seeming lack of subject, and hence effectiveness, nevertheless is the “domain of culture in which contradiction between the professed ideals and the actuality [of our culture] is most obvious and often becomes tragic.” In a similar way, I think, the abstraction of Laoban’s participants, itself against the norms, presents an alternative which energises society purely by its presence in the system.

I would go further, though, and give more credit to the event itself as a process which creates some change, some difference. At the end of the day the event can only (re)present what the individuals are doing at any given moment. If no one is engaging through their work, then engagement will not appear. But the evening itself can serve as an engagement. By moving the means of engagement onto the level of the container, this perhaps avoids a situation where participants feel pressured to conform to a particular mode of display, one which has a rather bad reputation for histrionics.

It’s true that there are many ways to make a statement, and being part of something which makes a statement—even if you yourself don’t make one—is perhaps enough, and important. You are guilty by association, as it were.

Laoban Mixing Event report

I just posted a short video to youtube of highlights from last night’s Laoban Mixing event at the Gallery. Unfortunately youtube in it’s wisdom has reduced the quality of the video to “very poor” in the process of compressing the file, so the following is the original (still not great, but better):

It was a good night overall, I had a great time (even though I had to keep reminding myself that I was there to look after the space, and not to enjoy myself). Many people came and seemed to respond well to the performers. As you can see from the video above and the photographs there were some very good sounds and visuals. My thanks go to Jon for organising so much at such short notice, with the help of Matt and Lu, and all their friends who pitched in to help out. I think this shows that an exciting idea can get people energised, even on such a cold night.

Looking ahead, I hope there will more variety in the material in future events, last night was very focused on DJs and VJs. Films and short talks were promised, which would have given more of a conceptual structure to the proceedings and will help prevent it becoming just another club night.

I hope, too, that more women will present their work. Last night the performers were without exception all men – it seemed to be the cliché of boys with their toys (I don’t know maybe this is perhaps a feature of the scene rather than a bug, as they say to excuse some oddity in software). I can’t believe there are no women making material and this would make a valuable contribution to the event.

But this was the first version of the event, and was very much about investigating a format for the future, so I want to see how it develops. The original spec for the night I thought was very exciting and something which had the potential for development into something very strong – and this was one of the reasons why I agreed to go with it. I hope that more of what was originally announced becomes incorporated into future events, as they have the possibility to a) bring together some of the creative communities here in Beijing and China in general which hover round each other but which don’t really get to cross-fertilise so often, and b) make links out from the local to the international creative scenes which all have their representatives here in BJ.