ArtSlant: (Possibly) China’s First Video Art

Certain Pleasures: Zhang Peili Retrospective

Minsheng Art Museum, Bldg F, No.570 West Huaihai Road, Shanghai

16 July – 14 August, 2011

A short excursion to Shanghai from my usual territory of Beijing allowed for a quick visit to the Minsheng Art Museum, while dodging the storms presaging the arrival of typhoon Muifa. The Minsheng is a non-profit institution occupying a large warehouse-type set of spaces at the back of an off-street cultural area. It was established in 2008 by the China Minsheng Banking Corporation, and is currently hosting a large retrospective of the work of veteran new media artist, Zhang Peili.

What this exhibition does, inevitably in somewhat hagiographic terms, is support the notion of Zhang as one of the very first new media artists in China. From his beginnings in the mid ‘80s through to the present day, he has become an influential figure, now heading up the New Media Arts Center housed in a rather futuristic new building at the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou. He is something of a father-figure for the new media arts scene here in China, a scene that goes to great pains to assert itself as an autonomous style and format amongst the often osmotic boundaries between the art forms of contemporary art in China.

Originally trained in oil painting, Zhang has developed a practice across video, filmed performance, installation, and actions, with a typically heavy conceptual backing. Early new media works by the artist can be seen to pick up on process practices from abroad, displaying durational and task based techniques, in most cases with few geographical or cultural specifics.

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Isaac Mao / Robin Peckham

I’m in the process of editing a short piece based on last November’s -empyre- online forum on Media Arts in China, to be published in Contemporary Art & Investment Magazine in the near future. In the process I was reminded of an interesting comment made by Robin Peckham, one of the participants, referring back to an interview he had done with Isaac Mao about the concept of Sharism (the full interview can be found here). The quote is interesting to me because of current attitudes to privacy in the Chinese context, current events, and how this affects everyday life.

RP: […] how does privacy fit in with the context of Sharism?

IM: I think privacy is becoming more important. Sharism gives people a better sense of the social spectrum. Previously, we only had two polar modes: private and public, and of course we don’t like our private things to become public. However, we are now living in a spectrum that we never sensed before. Some things are private at some times, but at others they are not, depending on the context or who we are with. This is a spectrum that we can manage and come to consensus on what kind of information we can share or don’t like to share. Sometimes I share different things to different people. It’s a kind of strategy. We intuitively manage privacy now. Of course sometimes I don’t like to share my private phone number and private address in some places, like perhaps in China. But in other countries it may be different, depending on cultural difference or safety.

But we are seeing changes. In China, many dissidents and activists are open up their personal information. Why? Because previously they just wanted to close it down to protect themselves without being tracked by the government. Someone might want people to know his position so he can do things secretly. But now many are opening up this information because they see the social power. Once they’ve opened up their position, home phone, and travel plans, more people in the cloud know where they are at the same time as the authorities. He is protected even as he is tracked. This has happened over the past two years.

thinking aloud: listening and making generative music

Why just listen to generative music when you can easily make your own…1

It strikes me that because Generative music is likely different every time it is listened to, the act of listening to it can be accorded the role of creating that particular piece every time, therefore putting listening on a par with making, or even demoting listening as a role for the audience – maybe listening becomes “active,” listening as part of the generative process.

Generative music is the the most adaptable of “live” music – in that it’s always new, always different, no matter if it is a public or private situation, and it’s dependence on mechanical reproduction allows it the portability that “traditional” live music lacks. In terms of community experience, that particular version of the piece could be a shared experienced, in a live performance with an audience, but on a one to one basis it never has the potential to be communal, or shared – every launch of the piece occasions a new version, and unless it is hard coded as a static file cannot be transferred. But hard coding as a static file destroys the nature of the piece as generative.

One might ask what meaning it has if it is always different – where is the piece? This seems an inappropriate clinging onto outmoded forms, given the nature of generative systems, a paradigm for music (and indeed art in general) that may be difficult to maintain. If one must reduce it to such a thing one can look at it from two sides (maybe more). The meaning, the piece, is the method by which the piece is generated, the system, the order, the algorithm. Or, as I suggested above, the meaning is in the reception, but in a very fugitive sense. Static recordings can only be examples, maybe representing practical methods of revenue generation or dissemination, as in the production of documentation for ephemeral works by artists.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Robin Peckham just posted a link to a piece by Nick Seaver, at the Comparative Media Studies department of MIT, where “he is studying indeterminacy and control in sound transmission, the role of ‘skill’ in aesthetic judgments, and the history of automatic musical instruments.” Nick posted a piece yesterday on his blog, noise for airports, about his research into the Player Piano. He makes an interesting point about “live” music, and its interpretation where the player piano is involved. This definitely relates to my notes above trying to define the “piece” where generative music is concerned:

“Live” music as we think of it today didn’t exist before audio recording—it was impossible for a sound to not be live. The player piano makes things a bit more complicated: is it still live if the notes are all punched on a roll in advance but “interpreted” by a live pianolist? Advertisements showing the ghostly hands of famous pianists on the keys suggested perfect fidelity: the parts of your piano would move exactly how they did when Rachmaninoff or Paderewski played. Would this recording, played on an actual piano, count as “live?” 2

Player Pianos were also an important instrument for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote extremely complex pieces using punched paper rolls, pushing the machines to their limits and beyond the limits of the human ear. Sound and performance artist Michael Yuen tells me that:

Nancarrow had to specially alter his player pianos. they were fitted with vacuums to suck air out quicker. There are times when his music calls for 25 notes per sec. That’s a note every 40 msec. The ear can only hear a difference at best at 20msec. Without the turbo charged pianolas, the mechanism pulling the air couldn’t move the hammers and notes go missing. 3

I’d be interested to find out if these machines were popular in China, and if musical production of this sort has influenced the current generations of artists and musicians?

  1. Intermorphic (2010) Mixtikl 2: THE Generative Music & Loop Mixing System. [Online]. Available from:
    http://www.intermorphic.com/ [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  2. Seaver, Nick (2010) OLD MEDIA: INTERACTIVITY AND MECHANICAL MUSIC. noise for airports. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://noiseforairports.com/post/426858290/old-media-interactivity-and-mechanical-music [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  3. Yuen, Michael (michael.yuen@internode.on.net) (10 February 2010) Re: generative v. hand-crafted. Email to: Sanderson, Edward (cpupro.art@gmail.com).

Chu Yun: “soft monumentality”

“Make a Great Work” [by Chinese artist Chu Yun] is an urban intervention on the level of soft monumentality. Soft monumentality is a concept developed by Wu Hung in his reading of the political and discursive uses of the architecture of Tiananmen Square. It is intended to encompass the flower displays, temporary amusement rides, ephemeral photo backgrounds, and other public sculptures that began to be placed in the square during National Day under the Jiang Zemin regime; all of this was opposed to the hard monumentality of earlier interventions in the political texture of the space, including the Monument to the People’s Heroes and, most notably, the Mao Zedong Mausoleum. Perhaps somewhat enamored with Jiang-era politics, Wu Hung claims that such techniques are akin to Michel de Certeau’s tactics of the everyday, and opposed to the strategic manipulations of architectural hegemony. Though he may have been overly optimistic, Chu Yun now brings a new version of soft monumentality for the age of soft power.

As an aside, “soft monumentality” is a term which could have been used to describe the soft works of American Pop artist, Claes Oldenburg (although I’m not sure that this exact conjunction is used with his work, but the words are separately applied to them). His pieces favoured humour over the gravity which art was expected to display at that time, and this seems to parallel, at least in its intentions if not it’s exact material or methods, the flowers amongst the monuments. The humour (in the sense of lightening the mood, perhaps) and the play with scale, if taken metaphorically, can be seen to be present over both these interventions.

Peckham, Robin (2010) CHU YUN IN FRANKFURT (2 OF 3). Kunsthalle Kowloon. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://kunsthallekowloon.org/archives/219 [Accessed 2010/02/05].