China’s art beat: a research into the history of Chinese contemporary sound art (2000-2019)

China is China. many words have been spent in highlighting the peculiarities and differences of the Chinese art movements as opposed to the rest of the world, often ending up in the cul-de-sac of essentialising the artistic expression of Chinese-born creatives by branding them with “Chineseness” or to read their whole artistic practice uniquely from the perspective of political repression.

notwithstanding the issues aroused by this projection of western stereotypes and presumption over foreign artistic productions, the artists in China thrive, sometimes exploiting these stereotypes in their favour.

a clear example of this was the boom of Chinese sound art production in the first decade of the 2000s, a niche of the wider art boom following the economic flourishing of the country.

find below a summary of my contribution to House of China‘s research on contemporary sound art in China. click HERE for the open source complete research.

▲Yao Dajuin, Chinese sound art expert and forefather

Under today’s ‘we-have-everything’ surface of experimental sound in China, the energy and diversity of which have been much appreciated recently in the West by critics, magazine editors, and audiences, something is a bit anachronistic, or out of context, with the global progress.
“在当下「我们拥有一切」的中国实验声音的表面下,其能量和多样性最近在西方得到了评论家、杂志编辑和观众的高度赞赏,但随着全球的进步,有些东西有点不合时宜,或断章取义。”

Yao Dajuin

▌Introduction 介绍

culture is not a segmented and compartmentalized system. it is composed of flows and backflows, as well as influences and inspirations across different disciplines. they often overlap and are virtually indistinguishable from each other. therefore, it is valuable to observe disciplines bordering with Chinese electronic music. sound art will be a good form to present “neighboring” disciplines, which further influences electronic music in China. and, in many underground manifestations,  it even overlaps with it.

consequently, the influence of sound art on electronic music development is significant. for instance, in the 2019 Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), a globally recognized music conference and festival, various sound artists applied multi-fields practice between art and electronic music. such artists include Shelly Knotts, and Timo Hoogland, who performed an Algorave, a rave which human DJs code in real-time and “embrace the alien sounds of raves from the past, and introduce alien, futuristic rhythms and beats made through strange, algorithm-aided processes“ in the event.

▲Shelly Knotts – Algosix Live Stream Performance

the full article focuses on the definition of sound art, its industry forefathers, some early development in China, presenting a selection of Chinese sound artists based on the main Chinese trends, and finally highlighting some leading Chinese platforms and labels which support the industry. 

sound art is an artistic practice which treats sound as its primary medium, and, in most cases, is only part of a larger interdisciplinary and multimedia artwork. the loose definition of sound art is, in fact, symptomatic that it is both contemporary art and music, written words and sound vibration.

▲John Cage @ Newyorker

▌ HISTORY 历史

the first modern manifestations of sound art did not include electronic noises. for instance, some scholars attribute the first sound artwork to the Futurist artist, Luigi Russolo. His work, the Intonarumori (1913), or “noise intoner,” is a recording of urban sounds of the city undergoing industrial mechanization. later, this innovative art practice was picked up by Dadaist, Fluxus, postmodern artists and poets during the following decades, such as Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Halim El-Dabh, Max Neuhaus, Robert Morris, Alvin Lucier, Marianne Amacher. the first recorded artwork using electronic sounds in art installations was in the 70s, by artists, such as La Monte Young, Tania Mouraud, Keith Sonnier and Nicolas Collins. in the 1990s the term “sound art” was coined to define such artistic production. outside this fertile cultural ground, the electro-acoustic music genre emerged since the 80s, among other new fields of artistic research such as phonography or field recording, sound walking, sound politics, and sound cinema. These developments gradually blurred the lines between art and music

▲Luigi Russolo – Intonarumori (1913)

▌ CHINA 中国 

the Chinese scene developed into one of the most fertile and dynamic grounds for sound art, which is witnessed by the wide range of sound art genres: extreme noise, musique concrete, electroacoustic, field recording, mixer feedback, circuit-bending, interactive controller, live audio-visual, glitch, minimal electro, gallery-based sound art, free improvisation, etc.. however, China had a very long sound art history preceding what Westerners define as such: ancient texts such as Ji Kang’s (260 C.E.) and the Yue Ji (10 B.C.E.), alongside with refined architectural acoustic techniques are witnesses to a very mature Chinese sound aesthetic. sadly, the true content of these traditions is only starting to be tapped now by researchers, given it was mostly lost during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

 Yue Ji 乐记
Yan Jun – Music for Listening to the Earth (excerpt)

▌ PHONOGRAPHY 音系学

phonography or field recording, occupies a very predominant position in Chinese sound art, almost taking over the role of documentary films. however, it does not focus on the rendition of reality, but the interest is purely about the fascination with the sounds of modern China themselves in an emotional and intellectual sense. because of this, it has sometimes been defined as “Confucian”, given its emphasis on humanism and the interest in linguistic diversity, given the richness of diverse Chinese dialects and accents.

Zhong Minjie and Li Zhiying are part of a phonographic collective, PlayBack Unit from Guangzhou, whose mission is to extensively document the city’s acoustic environment. in their artistic practice, they tend to violate personal privacy by shamelessly listening to private phone calls and
recording in private spaces, granting their audience “voyeuristic” audio access to otherwise socially forbidden spaces.

a clear case of focus on modern China is Yan Jun, first Chinese artist to win the honorary mention Ars Electronica prize for media arts in 2011, with his Music for Listening on the Earth (2008-2009) piece: the artwork consists of “micro-sounds” from the building where Yan Jun’s previous work, Wormhole (2008), was installed, such as human movement, gurgling of the water pipes, air flow, and other noises that were recorded by contact microphones strategically placed. by modulating them in order to make them otherworldly, the artist also aroused in the audience a sense of alienation from everyday sounds.

Sun Wei, Chengdu local, is renown for his Song for 100 Children (2006), a performance/installation. the work consists of two Chinese printing machines, which are fed a text of the lyrics of the homonymous Sichuan folk song. the printing sound is digitally recorded, modulated, and amplified. The outcome is a spectacular, psychedelic music, despite its “traditional” source input. the artist was able to translate the Sichuanese traditional song into a modern, electronic sound, due to the printing process, which indeed is unique to that specific song’s document.

Sun Wei – Song for 100 Children (excerpt)

Hwang Dawang and Zhang You-Sheng – Minkoku Hyakunen (excerpt)

▌ POLITICAL 政治

some see sound art as a potentially highly critical form of sound art. however, as Yao Dajuin puts it:

“The political element is rarely found in sound art in China. And the reading of the Chinese harsh noise scene as critical protest would prove to be too simplistic and naive. The artists in general are not overly interested in politics, and even for those who are, sound art would not be their channel of expression. It’s not so much the overall climate of censorship as a shared sense of futility and apathy in the post-1989 era.”

Yao Dajuin

indeed, some artists claim their artworks are political but are often more theoretical than critical, addressing the era or society rather than a specific target. therefore, especially if devoid of lyrics, sound art is rarely censored.

the Torturing Nurse band from Shanghai is the most typical example of extreme noise act: extreme performances including explicit and sexual clothing and even hot wax dripping on their bodies while on stage, such as in their 2007 performance.

Hwang Dawang and Zhang You-Sheng‘s Minkoku Hyakunen – “100 Years of the Republic of China” (2011) is the most obvious case of political criticism in sound art. it is a political satire on the Taiwan nationalist government, which was then celebrating its 100th birthday, using invasive field recording, where the artists comment and “act” on the various scenes.

the Hong Kong-based Samson Young, is also one explicitly political sound artists: In Pastoral Music (2015), he reviewed six hours of footage of US bombings in the Middle East on mute, recreating the war sounds with a set of unlikely instruments. his artworks all clearly indicate an art practice focusing on the sounds of violence and sounds as violence.

▲Samson Young – Pastoral Music (2015)

▌ DIGITAL 数字化

in China, there has been special attention to the internet and smartphones as a source of noise, with specific interest to social media platforms, the medium, and once again the social elements behind them. most recently the focus shifted to User Generated Content platforms, highlighting a change of roles from the audience as such to the audience as collective producers of sounds.

Jiang Zhuyun performed a phone-based work Start with Wei – “start with hello” (2005) in which he had two cellphones set up so that one’s mouthpiece would be next to the earpiece and vice versa. he then dialed two random numbers and recorded the spontaneous, yet dysfunctional, dialogues which took place. he thus enabled two strangers to connect and unknowingly engage in a conversation with an equally confused counterpart, causing the two to doubt, for a second,

Zhang Liming is an artist that worked with social media scapes, and set up the Harbin Sound Map (2008) an open web sound project that allows users to post and share their own recordings based on their geographical location. therefore, the artist combines space and sound to visually and sonically map the city, thus creating a unique spatial archive of phonographies that develops independently from its creator.

Wei Wei’s performance iPhone Improvisation (2012), consists in an experiment in which she attaches various transducers to an iPhone. then, she performs various physical actions as well as digital actions on the smartphone, thus recording a stream of physical and digital noises. the artist thus is proposing to use a smartphone as an actual instrument, by both physically and digitally playing it, but also allowing it to autonomously “improvise” given the unforeseeable combination of sounds the phone’s components would produce.

▲ Torturing Nurse act

▌ OTHER 另外

the sheer number of sound artists in China makes it impossible to effectively categorize all of the past and current trends of Chinese sound music. however, find listed below some specific noteworthy mentions of artists with different takes on sound art.

the Buddha Machine (2005) was created by electronica duo FM3 (Christian Virant and Zhang Jian) using cheap, mass-produced, Buddhist prayer machines. the artists replaced the buddhist chanting with FM3’s own electronic ambient tracks. not only the concept was successful, but the
marketability of the artwork for mass consumption, positions it as a jokingly critical look at Chinese mass production culture and superficial religiousness.

Wang Changcun’s Antechre (2007) live performance in Shanghai and its subsequent release in Post-Concrete’s “Archival Vinyl” series is an interesting take on Chinese copy culture as related to sound. the name and content both hint at the British electronica duo Autechre, specifically their
Untilted CD. Wang’s performance was intentionally presented as one of the many widely popular bootlegs of the real band Autechre’s performance. the similarity was painstakingly accurate, down to the perfect copy of made-up bootleg lineage listing, the pauses of the recording, and the audience applause. he thus “tricked” consumers into listening to his performance while looking for the almost homonymous band’s performance. the artist is then creating a humorous paradox in which users looking for free illegal music, end up downloading free legal artworks.

FM3 – Buddha Machine

▌ PLATFORMS 平台 

an indispensable element for the development of this scene is the presence of established sound art labels and platforms in China. below is listed a selection of them.

Nojiji/Raying Temple: is one of China’s DIY experimental music labels. Focuses on harsh noise, free jazz and warped post rock. the label was created by a small community of self-selected outcasts. the group runs Raying Temple, a DIY performance space/recording studio/bar in Tongzhou, an industrial suburb of Beijing.

Zoomin’ Night Live Recordings: is a now-defunct weekly experimental music showcase located at D-22, in Beijing’s university district. Zoomin’ used to attract a scene of university students and recent graduates every week. the artists performing there mixed post-punk, No Wave, early Krautrock, Modernist Minimalism and other forms.

Subjam: subjam.org is the source of many projects of Yan Jun, a pioneer of Chinese sound art. subjam and its sub-labels Kwanyin Records, Yaji, and Mini-Kwanyin, published a vast catalogue of sound art, including field recordings, concrete poetry, sound art, collections of music writing, independent films, and design books. Subjam has also organized hundreds of live performances and music festivals such as MIJI concerts.

Post-Concrete: is one of the largest sources of recordings and articles on Chinese sound art and experimental music. Yao Dajun is its founder and custodian, who has extensive connections to mainland artists and can be considered one of the forefathers of the Chinese scene.

Beijing Sounds: is a website (sinoglot.com) archiving field recordings from Beijing. its primary focus is linguistic, cataloguing different dialects with detailed explanations of regional variations in pronunciation and vocabulary.

Pangbianr: pangbianr.com is an online source for discovering avant garde/emerging music from Beijing and elsewhere in China. the archives include audio and video streaming, reviews, interviews, and articles about independent Chinese art, music, and film. the platform also organizes performances, screenings and various events in Beijing.

Li Zhenhua, sound art curator @ocula

▌ CONCLUSION 总结 

it appears that the golden age of Chinese sound art has by now passed and gone, peaking in the mid-2000s and having a short revival in the early 2010s. however, it is undeniable that China has what Yao Dajuin defines as an “inexplicable acoustic energy” which one can only hope will be able to evolve into an innovative force for the field of sound art within and outside China. however, some argue that this potential will only be valuable when the Chinese artists will be producing content “out of sync” with the sound art abroad, fostering real innovation.

click HERE to download the full research


Rollerblading with I: text as experiment in the work of Ekaterina Luzgina and Mike McShane

Concrete letters, words in a radio broadcast and poetry in three dimensions. After they graduated from Chelsea College of Art and Design in 2016 the married couple started to make art together as well. In April they completed a month-long residency, titled Text As in Campbell Works in London, where they let their mother tongues of English and Russian collide and started the search for a collective vernacular. Their work was on view previously in group and solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, London and Moscow. I spoke to Kat and Mike about their collaboration, the importance of place and the formal aspects of language. 


MULTIAUTHOR MULTIMEDIA 

J

You work together, but also as solo artists and in collaboration with other artists, through different media and disciplines: how and where do you start?  

MK

Our story began at Art College 6 years ago when we shared a studio for the entire 3 years. Then in our final year it all got too much and we started dating as well. However, we only started working together after we had graduated. Kat needed a photographer/driver for her project Where does sculpture go when we cannot take it home? and Mike offered to help. At that point we realised that we share a lot of common interests and decided to begin working together. Since then we have done numerous shows as a duo. However we have quite different approaches to our work.

For me, inspiration comes by setting up a method of working that allows chance or instinct to dictate the results; I like to construct games for myself and to work with pairs of things that I then aim to fuse together. I will often begin with a question that I set myself: usually that involves seeing or reading about something and then using a specific material, I will see how that idea can be translated or re-materialised into that medium. I am interested in how ideas can exist simultaneously as objects, words and images. Through my practice I am looking for how an idea changes as it moves and is translated across these mediums. 

K

As for me, inspiration comes from different experiences of my body in architectural and urban spaces; rollerblading, walking and climbing through these spaces informs my sculptural approach to the work I make. It also reflects in the materials I choose to use, especially when it comes to concrete and scaffolding. Another big inspiration for me is language and its potential to transcend meaning. Ideas usually come from a crossover of these two areas of inspiration and the journey from an initial idea to the outcome is when the logistics, aesthetics and context for the work is worked out.

MK 

When working with each other we start with a conversation based on a similar interest in something and, because we approach the same idea very differently, we often work individually on the same idea and then synthesise the results. During this synthesis we can be very direct and passionate with each other which can sometimes lead to emotional rollercoastering. However, through this conflict we as a pair are able to produce more thought-through and vigorous work.

When working with other people we follow a similar process but we act much calmer and are less shouty.


WORDS & WORK 

What were the outcomes of the Text As residency? Did you arrive at a collective vernacular? 

MK 

The idea for the Text As residency evolved from a show in Russia that we had done two months previously. The show was called какие слова (Which Words) and had stemmed from us revelling in and reflecting on our own miscommunication with each other in English and Russian. Having enjoyed working in text for that show we then wanted to use the residency to see how the meaning of words changed across mediums rather than languages. The manifesto printed during the Russian show ended up being used as the template for how we structured the residency: each of the four weeks was dedicated to a specific medium (printmaking, casting, performance and broadcasting.) Each medium used the works produced in the previous week as a material for the next one. We then decided to open up the residency to the public, through a series of workshops to see how people would engage with our ideas and ways of working.

K

I really enjoyed the printmaking week both as a way to develop my own practice and as an experiment in producing co-authored text works with participants of the workshops. Before the residency Mike and me developed a method that we called sequential poetry, which we implemented into the printmaking workshop. It is based on each participant printing a line of text, one after another, forming a rather abstract and vivid flow of narrative and structure that is not in the control of a single person. This way the text appeared so alive and the meaning was constantly changing after each addition made to it, gaining a performative quality.

M

My favourite moment was during the week of performance. The Gallery space was filled with the printed and cast concrete pieces that we had made so far and we invited a group of 15 students to come and create installations out of the objects surrounding them. Working sequentially, each person would choose either a print or sculpture, and then reading aloud the text on its surface they would arrange the pieces within the space. It created a truly spatial poetry: a fusion of gesture, spoken word and constructed visual landscape. It was at this moment I believe that we were the closest to creating a truly collective vernacular.

MK

The project is definitely still open, and very much informs our current practice. Ultimately we would like to produce a publication that summarises and develops the ideas and work that we have explored so far.

How do you feel about the relationship between art and writing on art – since your work itself investigates reproduction of text, meaning and finding new dimensions of interpretation? 

M

That’s a very difficult question. Writing about Art at its best can provide new ways of looking at Art: reinvigorating the old and expanding the new. However it can also be used as a crutch or filler to support Art that is overly opaque. It depends upon the language used and the intention of the text that is produced. Personally, I prefer texts that add something to the Artwork in a creative or narrative way, that do not rely on overly clichéd academic terms and instead interact with the image or object presented in a simple and thought provoking way. Similarly, when using text within an artwork I am looking at the interaction between what it means as writing and how it is presented as an object: i.e. text has the same potential to create images or ideas within the mind of the viewer as the form of a sculpture or the image of a painting. When you begin to combine these elements, each act of collage creates new potential interpretations. It is about playing with the anticipated meaning of words in the same way you would with any other material or image.

K

When I use writing in art it is to create a space within which a narrative can unfold. However, this narrative is never a definitive one but instead made from fragments floating in and out of conscious meaning. They exist in the same way as I experience dreams. 

J

Do you like other people’s interpretations of your work; do you both share the same interpretations?

MK

Yes, other people’s interpretations of our work are always brilliant to hear. We like to think that once we have finished a piece it is then separate from us and has a life of its own. 

No we do not share the same interpretation of our work.

TRANSLATE/PLACE 

J

You have had solo and group shows in Moscow, London and LA, using your native tongues which use different scripts for the work displayed in these different contexts.  Do viewers respond differently to the work, depending on the languages they know? Do you keep the language of the viewer in mind?

MK

Before we started working with text there was less concern for the possibility of misinterpretation or alienation of viewers from the work depending on the language they speak/don’t speak, because it was possible to contextualize our works in both languages. Moreover, every time we exhibit in different spaces or for different audiences, even if they speak the same language, we keep the specific context of the show in mind and try to make our work accessible but also open for various interpretations. 

Nevertheless at the core of our work together we are interested in how text can exist beyond a purely linguistic sign: how it can be broken down into a pattern forming an image, as shape forming a sculpture or as the rhythm of sound in space. Our aim as Kat said earlier is to find a way for words to transcend their linguistic meaning.

M

In terms of how viewers have responded to our work in different countries I have found that it depended much more upon the culture of that country and its relationship to our individual nationalities than the ability to understand the language of the work. As soon as text of a specific language is present in an artwork, viewers are able to signify what culture that artwork comes from, and that can affect how the artwork is interpreted. In some ways you could say it depended upon what they were looking to find in the work as a reflection of themselves and their perception of us.

K

When we were preparing for the show in Russia we had to select works that made sense for a Russian speaking audience. For works in English we came up with tailored translations and I got to show text works made in Russian, which were more appropriate for that show than any other show in the UK.

J

I think there are a lot of different levels of translation happening in your work, especially of course with regards to Text As, where apart from using different languages you also translated words and their meanings into different materials and actions. How do these levels of translation intersect and connect for you?

MK

These levels of translation make a lot of sense in our practice, because they eliminate direct, ordered and grammatical ways of dealing with language, which we both are not that interested in, and instead they appear as a playground full of possibilities of material, conceptual and even performative engagement.

J

Do you feel tied to a specific place and is place important for your work? What does London mean for your artistic practices?

K

Place always plays an important role in my practice because I have lived between Russia and the UK since I was 16 and a lot of my inspiration comes from the contrast of architectural, social and linguistic elements of both countries. I also feel like the theme of home and belonging has been a prevalent one in my practice, especially in my text works in the Russian language.

M

The location of where I am making work greatly affects the kind of things that I am thinking about and the materials that I am able to use. The spatial restrictions of where I am making something or where I am showing something creates a challenge that will feed into the end result of what I produce

MK

For us being in London means having a great studio space that we have spent a long time looking for and then adjusting to fit our needs. It is also the city where the community of artists that we have worked and will continue to work with is based.  Also, here we have the support of institutions we are allied with and a lot of opportunities. However, it doesn’t mean that we are tied to this location and not considering the possibility of moving.


FUTURES

J

In conclusion: where do you both see your artistic practice move to?  

K

Working together feels incredibly empowering and makes me feel as if we can do anything, of any scale and complexity. We keep on expanding our shared practice committing to experiments and projects that I wouldn’t attempt on my own, and having each other to bounce ideas against. I see our future being full of great discoveries and challenges.

M

I feel as though doing the residency and working with Kat over the last three years has hugely informed my practice and opened me up to many new ideas and ways of working. It feels as if we are at the beginning of something exciting with many possibilities for the future. I wouldn’t want to close it down with anything too specific though, as I think both of us like to instinctively react to change.

You can view more of Mike & Kat’s work on their websites: www.ekaterinaluzgina.com &www.mikemcshane.co.uk – you can find out more about Text As here: www.instagram.com/text_as_ &www.campbell.works/project/text-as