Welcome to the second, and final, part of this interview with Zafka (Zhang Anding). Here he discusses China Youthology, the brand consultancy he co-founded, as well as his involvement in Yao Dajuin’s Revolutions Per Minute exhibition of sound art in China, working with the rapper J-Fever, and his recent performance with Sheng Jie for the Pixel Echo series of concerts. Finally Zafka discusses his thoughts on the political significance of sound and the current state of experimental sound in China.
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 fourth interview in this series. Today I am honoured to be able to publish the first part of an interview with Zafka (Zhang Anding), an experimental musician, sound artist, and founder of the brand consultancy, China Youthology. Zafka’s story takes us from the early practices of experimental music and sound art in China in the late ’90s, his first bands through to his investigations of field recording to tap the political power of sound, and his more recent work on sound in relation to social media and online platforms. Over the years Zafka has been involved in many of the important festivals and exhibitions related to sound art held in China, including Revolutions per Minute, Get it Louder, Mini Midi, and Pixel Echo, and in this interview provides a critical perspective on a wide range of aspects of the development of sound practices there.
Despite the closure over the last few years of a number of live venues that were homes for experimental music in Beijing, the scene—while small—is generally maintaining a level of activity that gives great cause for optimism. By way of example, I’d here like to focus on the activities of two members of the Beijing improvisation scene, Zhu Wenbo and Sean Lee.
Zhu Wenbo has quite a high profile locally due to his activity performing solo as well as in a number of groups, and as the organiser of experimental music events, particularly the Zoomin’ Nights series. Sean Lee has a quieter presence as a performer focusing on computer music practices. They first met through their work at the social media company, Douban, and since 2015 have performed together under the name of “no performance”. Zhu Wenbo has elsewhere described no performance as, “between composition and improvisation, electronic and acoustic, or computer program and instrument”, and in 2016 they debuted a new piece called “Okra” combining rule-based composition and improvisation, which has since been performed in a number of forms with different sets of people. I met up with them both at Wenbo’s apartment in Beijing to talk about their backgrounds and what Okra means for them.
Edward Sanderson: Can you give me your background? You were born in Japan? How did you end up in China?
Emi Uemura: I was born in Japan and grew up there, going to College in Sapporo to study English Literature for two years and then transferring to the University in Halifax, Canada,
I went to Halifax to study spoken English first of all, and while at the University I took Cultural and Linguistic Anthropology, which still influences my thinking. Around that time, I started to meet students from NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) and began engaging with art, social activities and changing eating habits, After graduating from the University, I went back to Japan, worked for a year, then went to Frankfurt, Germany.
ES: What was Germany for?
EU: At this time, a couple of my friends attended Städelschule, a school in Frankfurt, so I was simply curious to experience living in Germany with a group of friends. I was not an official student at the school, but I sneaked around and attended their lectures, film screenings and especially their cooking classes. And did some small projects while I was there.
ES: When would that have been?
EU: 2005–2007, for two and half years. And I think that was the time I was really influenced by the relations between space and food. Even though it was a small school they had a chef and a huge cafeteria where the students and teachers sat together and eat. I found that quality interesting, that in front of food people are very open and have discussions. I think from that point on I wanted to be working with food.
Then I went back to Japan again for two years and I consciously worked with food. The artist Fuyuka Shindo and I had a collaboration unit called DUET♪. We started catering and organizing food events and projects. At this time, I was working with the Sapporo Artist in Residence programme, and I learned the importance of long-term processes for producing work and engaging with people. I’ve now been in Beijing since the end of last year, because a friend of mine is living here and again, I’m looking forward to experiencing a different culture.
ES: Maybe you can talk about some of the things that you’ve done, like the Bento boxes, the Chain Letter Dinner at “also space”, and the seed bombing. I’d also like to ask about your work with Elaine Ho’s HomeShop. There’s an informal group of people around that, and you work together on certain things. Perhaps saying you work together is too much of a structure – it’s an informal, friendship thing, so the seed bombing, for instance, is a kind of joint effort.