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.
On the occasion of the release of the cassette compilation of experimental music, “There is no music from China” (published simultaneously in China and New Zealand by Zoomin’ Night 燥眠夜 and End of the Alphabet Recordings respectively), I wrote this text expressing why I think the compilation format is so important. Where it occurs the experimental music scene in China is truly vibrant, but doesn’t have many outlets for expression, is under pressure as it often antagonises authority in any number of ways, and so can be difficult to locate and understand for outsiders. So for the artists in China a compilation such as this is really helpful for creating visibility for their activities, which in turn cements their own practices in relation to their peers.
Compilations are great. Where before there was an amorphous set of individuals working away on their respective projects, whose relationship to their peers and their history was far from amounting to the self-understanding of a distinct grouping or a “scene”, along comes a compilation and magically makes concrete those relationships and gives form to those potential arrangements. This works well both for the artists, giving them a sense of identity based on relativity, and also for the audience, who perhaps were unaware such connections existed. And hence a scene is formed. It’s something of an illusion, of course, but serves as a useful public face for those involved.
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.
“no performance” (Sean Lee (left) and Zhu Wenbo (right)) performing Okra, Meridian Space, Beijing, November 2016, photograph by Edward Sanderson.
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.