This is a new series of posts for this blog focusing 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 described as “experimental music” or “sound art”, neither of which 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.
Sheng Jie (aka gogoj) is a visual artist and musician based in Beijing. Much of her current experimental music and sound work reflects her study of the violin and cello, as well as of video and performance art. Since returning to Beijing from college in France in 2005, she has been developing various forms of audio/visual performance using these elements. Recently she has begun incorporating a gesture-based computer interface that allows her to “manually” manipulate her video and audio signals on stage. In this interview she talks about her practice and how it has developed, her relationship with the music and art worlds in Beijing, and why she adopted this gesture interface. The interview covers a lot of ground, and so has been split over two days for convenience. Part two will be published on this blog tomorrow.
For the experimental music community in Beijing, each month holds the promise of another MIJI Concert. Organised since 2011 by various members associated with the Sub Jam record label, MIJI Concert is now in its 39th edition. This event has managed to survive in a city that has become less than fertile ground for experimental creative productions over the past few years with the closure of a number of venues that would host such events; MIJI is now one of the few regular events for such practical research into sound and music. Since edition 18 MIJI has found a home at the Meridian Space, located in a small creative cluster behind the National Art Museum of China not far from the Forbidden City in central Beijing. The long, thin, upstairs room in which it takes place is perhaps inhospitable for regular styles of performance, but within an experimental context provides an ideal foil for the artists. The quality of the space helps to work against divisions between performer and audience, so the physical relationship between them is always under negotiation – dependant on things like the equipment being used, the style of performance, and the nerve of the audience members. Last week’s MIJI Concert 39 was a case in point, with four pieces making various uses of the space, setting up different experiences of the performers’ relationship between themselves and with the audience.
As my own contribution to World Listening Day (tomorrow, July 18 2013), and at the invitation of Jason Coburn at 8trk radio, I’ve put together a mix of recent work by some experimental musicians and sound artists in China. The sounds require a commitment of time and patience, but I hope you can take an hour out of your day to listen, as this selection rewards sustained listening!
Over the past few weeks I’ve begun a series of interviews for the “Uncut Talks” sound magazine, a project initiated by the artist Ma Yongfeng of forget art. At this point I thought I would pull together the first three interviews which (coincidentally) have all been with Chinese sound artists and musicians. Future interviews will venture into other creative fields. Ma Yongfeng and the Italian curator and artist Alessandro Rolandi have also added their own interviews to the Uncut Talks site, so please take a moment and check them out, I think there is something for everyone there!
Yan Jun talks about his “Living Room Tour”:
Sheng Jie (gogo) talks about her audio-visual practice:
VAVABOND (Wei Wei) and Li Jianhong talk about improvisation:
Yan Jun introducing Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas
A good selection of artists played last night at 2kolegas bar, as part of SubJam label’s Miji Concert series. Organised by Yan Jun, the evening began with him playing his electronics and feedback in a trio with Liu Xinyu on electronics and Yan Yulong on violin, performing some harsh noise improvisation.
Yan Jun and co. were followed by Soviet Pop, about whom I had heard good things. They focus on playing a set of analogue synthesizers, and their sound is characteristically softer and more organic than the previous set. While I liked what they were doing, and how they were doing it (very understated, almost aggressively geeky), it bothered me that it was really difficult to get beyond the cliché’d sounds of these instruments, harking back to Forbidden Planet-type tonal music.
Lastly, Tim Blechmann on laptop and Conny Zenk on visuals developed an apparently simple set of gradually building drones. At first I was sceptical, thinking that these endless cycles would be swiftly boring, but an interesting thing happened. Starting very quietly, the musicians seemed to be struggling against the background noise of the bar and a typically talkative audience. Yet as the drones gained in pitch and depth, these extraneous sounds were gradually smothered, leaving the drones to dominate. The visuals had a similar struggle, being projected against the heavily textured brick wall of the venue. This meant that much of the subtlety of the flickering lines being generated was lost, yet after a while watching for the small changes that stood out against the peaks and crevices of the brick became quite fascinating, not completely losing itself against the surface, and complementing the sounds well. In a way quite simple and not particularly original, but—in this setting—effective nonetheless.
Urban Play: Site-Specific Public Art Exhibition, curated by Tang Zehui
Landgent Center, No.20 East Middle 3rd Ring Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing
17 November – 25 December, 2011
The many forms of site-specificity have a long history and can be the most complex of contexts for art. This idea of a productive connection with a setting, and by implication the users of that setting, is an attractive option for artists trying to boost their degree of “relevance.” However, the public realm outside of galleries is the critical realm par excellence – works existing in it are forced into competition with all sorts of other, “natural” activities in the spaces, and away from the focus afforded by more sympathetic, privileged spaces.
Often one of the stated aims of the work is to engage with the “everyday.” But the prosaic nature of these situations pricks at an artworks’ status, pointing up assumptions that may or may not coalesce with the world into which it is thrust. And, for me, this is when it gets interesting.
The group show Urban Play sees eleven artists and artist groups hosted by the Landgent Center, a large retail and office development south of Beijing’s Central Business District. This project, curated by Tang Zehui, has seen the artists on-site for the last few months developing a series of site-specific works in the public spaces.
Print•Concept: The Second Academic Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Prints
Today Art Museum, Building 4, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, 100022 Beijing
7–19 August, 2011
The sound of cracking coming from people’s mouths and underfoot was perhaps the first indication that there was something different about this opening. Today Art Museum’s galleries were filled with the great and good of the Chinese art world for the opening of The Second Academic Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Prints, subtitled: Print•Concept. But throughout, while chatting and viewing the artworks on the walls, many were distractedly clutching small handfuls of sunflower seeds, cracking them open with their front teeth with more or less proficiency, and spitting out or letting the husks fall to the floor in their wake.
While big names in the visual arts such as Xu Bing and Fang Lijun took up the wall space, artist Yan Jun arranged a parallel experience as his own contribution to the show with his piece How To Eat Sunflower Seeds. Yan Jun is famous in the sound art community as a veteran performer and for being pivotal in the development of the Chinese experimental sound and music scene. For the last decade or so he has run the SubJam label, releasing material from a role call of experimental musicians and sound artists from China and beyond.