online prepublication, early access http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/LEON_a_00895#.U71XQsuSw3Q 2014.7， LEONARDO, MIT PRESS JOURNAL
Discovering the “Big Can” with Asian Sound Artists
In April 2009, a group of Asian musicians hung out in Zhujiajiao, Shanghai. They found an abandoned oilcan. Some of them made sounds inside while others listened. Vocals, scratches, bangs, stomps and whispers mixed with their echos reverberated in the massive oilcan. Among the musicians were the collective group FEN (Fareast Network), Sachiko M from Tokyo, and musicians from Beijing and Shanghai . Sound artist Yan Jun recorded the process. Later it was post-produced as the CD Big Can[大罐]. For people in sound studies, getting together to improvise or experiment with sounds easily evokes Pieter Brueghel’s painting Carnival’s Quarrel with Lent that interests the French economist Jacques Attali. From this painting, Attali foresees a new socio-political relation embodied in the new way of making music, which is “no longer a central network, an unavoidable monologue” . While the socio-political significance of experimental or noise music has been widely discussed, there are much less expressed concerns with the actual place or space where these practices may occur.
Fig.1. Album cover of Big Can, Kwanyin Records, 2010.
During concerts or exhibitions of sound art in China, musicians often complained of the difficulty of having a stable and qualified space to perform. In a few cases, sound artists or musicians open their own spaces (e.g. Otomo Yoshihide’s Gird 605 in Tokyo, Jin Sangtae’s Dotolim in Seoul, Raying Temple in Beijing and BM Space in Shanghai). But in China (probably in other countries too), venues owned by musicians are difficult to sustain due to financial pressures or ill-firmed lease contract. For example, Beijing-based experimental musician Li Yangyang and his friends opened Raying Temple in 2003 for music practice and shows. Over the past nine years, Raying Temple was relocated four times mainly due to leasing issues. It was finally closed in 2012 and became a nomadic virtual space. Another example is BM Space (Body&Music Space) in Shanghai run by the sound artist Yin Yi and his partner, an independent dancer, Liu Yanan. It had been a favorite space among artists and musicians for its openness that allowed body and sound to freely perform and collaborate. The space was closed after ten-months when the Real Estate of M50 (a contemporary art district) took the place back to rent it out for other purposes.
Having a stable and proper performance place is crucial for any art practice to develop. In the case of sound art, questions are “should we continue borrowing gallery spaces that are conceived for viewing art?” or “should we keep relying on music venues with little entry barrier but are more entertainment-oriented?” My answers to both are negative. Sound art requires its own proper space. I propose that “big can” can be a suitable one.
To listen inside of a big can is to listen inside of a sounding object. The French electronic music composer Eliane Radigue once described a listening experience in an interview about her use of church space for her concert. “All of these spaces are like conch shells in which the audience is placed – as if they are inside the body of an instrument. When I was young I used to sit under the piano whenever someone was playing so as to hear the full resonance of the music” . To listen inside of a big can or under the piano is not to attend to information or meanings of sound, but sound itself and its vibration.
This mode of listening is affective. It is to commit to forces, intensities and becoming .To listen is to touch and to go through the duration of a work or at least to spend a significant amount of time with the work. Similar to land art, sound art is best experienced by going in and through the work, sweating and getting dirt, and even by becoming the artist.
Sound Art, Re-contextualized
Sound art is neither visual art nor music. But it is often used to refer to works that are at the extreme ends of both kinds. Whether inside of a concert hall or the “white cube,” or underneath the triangular gird of subway grating in Times Square NYC, sound art takes “sound” as both a tangible reality and a conceptual term; it takes “listening” rather than viewing as its predominant perception.
In recent years, sound art has become a popular category globally. The fad of sound art goes in parallel with serious explorations into this new art territory. Approached from theoretical, artistic, historical and curatorial angels, sound art has been questioned and analyzed over the past ten years. But as a genre, it still exists in the limbo. The ambiguity of the art status of sound art is more positive on a conceptual level than on a practical one. There are still very few academic departments or centers set up to teach and study sound art. There are even fewer art spaces particularly set up for it.
These conditions of sound art do not change much in the context of China. The situation only becomes messier. China’s sound art originated from China’s independent music scene, with the self-taught musician Wang Fan making the first experimental music album The Grand Rules in Beijing in 1996, and with the sound artist and curator Yao Dajuin introducing to the mainland listeners a vast range of avant-garde, experimental and world music through his Internet radio Qianwei Yinyue Diantaifrom 2000. In the same year, the underground rock music label Sub Jam founded by Yan Jun shifted to experimental music and sound art works. Sub Jam later becomes one of the most important labels and platforms for the growth of China’s international sound scene.
Underground rock music culture, the “dakou generation” and later the “download generation” were among the first that delved into this new art practice, which was and still is hesitantly called “sound art” . From the beginning, there was not much interest among musicians in classifying their practice. It was partially because practicing musicians were not academically related, thus there was no institutional pressure to define themselves. Practice developed ahead of its definition and theorization. Names like avant-garde music, experimental music and sound art are often used confusedly to refer to the same work.
Early music events provided platforms where all kinds of new music practice could occur, including Sounding Beijing 2003 organized by Yao Dajuin, the annual 2pi Music Festival (2003-2007, Hangzhou) organized by the experimental/improvisational musician Li Jianhong, and Waterland Kwanyin sound series (2005-2010, Beijing) organized by Yan Jun. What connected all different kinds of music and sound practices were people’s interest in creative ways of making music and in exploring conceptual and material possibilities of sound. Compared to the robust development of music and performance-oriented sound art practice, sound art installations are much less made partially due to non-academic artists’ limited access to art spaces in China.
If to roughly categorize existing sound practices, up until now, China’s sound art encompasses three kinds: experimental improvisation music, conceptual and performative sound practices, field recordings and soundmaps.
First, experimental improvisation music. Major practicing musicians include Wang Fan, known for creating minimalist religious and mysterious soundscapes, Weiwei, who professes in improvisational atmospheric laptop music, Wang Changcun, who skillful manipulates programming languages to generate soundscapes on his laptop, Yan Jun, who operates a DIY electronic feedback sound system and emphasizes on listening throughout his works, and Li Jianhong, who creates environment improvisation .
Second, conceptual and performative sound practice. A representative piece is Tape Music by Beijing-based Taiwanese artist Lin Chi-Wei (Fig. 2). The piece was inspired by futurists’soirees, the artist Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Polyphonix and real-time signal processing techniques. Lin treats the audience body as electronic components to make “electronic music” with only human qualities and without being dependent on any electric supply . Hangzhou-based artist Jiang Zhuyundid an outdoor sound performance in December 2005 in a sound installation exhibition curated by Yao Dajuin in China Academy of Art. It was titled Frequency of Temperature, in which Zhuyun placed one contact microphone close to his heart, the other one on the face close to his teeth (Fig. 3) . Yao praised the piece as defining in its kind in China.
Fig.2. Tape Music, Lin Chi-Wei, Stockholm, March 25, 2007
Fig. 3. Frequency of Temperature, Jiang Zhuyun, December 9, 2005
The third kind is field-recordings and soundmaps. Examples include China’s Sound Unit, a field-recording project led by Yao Dajuin to investigate soundscapes of different cities. Also artists Wang Changcun and Zhang Liming began to make a web-based project China Sound Map in 2009.
Sound Art Venues in China and Related Issues The burgeoning of sound art in China has to partially thank to venues that support its activities. During its early stage when galleries and museums were only open to visual art made by academic artists, sound art practice was mainly held outdoors in public parks or in music bars. Only until the emergence of contemporary art districts (e.g. 798 in Beijing) or privately owned galleries did sound art find an entrance into the “white cube” space. Currently, China’s sound art is performed in music venues, galleries, and in a few cases, coffee shops and bookstores.
The advantages of music venues are their already installed sound systems and a stable body of music consumers. 2 Kolegas Bar and D-22 are two stable music venues for electronic, noise, and experimental music in Beijing. However, although both venues are friendly to new music and do not mind the small size of audience the music bring in, these places often cater to a spectator or consumer mentality that fails to appreciate experimental improvisational music which is different from popular music. Owners of music venues tend to make their space expressive and stylistic to acquire certain symbolic identities. People come to music venues to relax, meet friends or get a community feeling. Very often, music performances become a background for people’ social and entertainment activities; either there are no people listening or it is difficult to listen.
The weekly (later twice a month) music event WaterLand Kwanyin initiated in 2005 by Yan Jun, Wu Quan, and the music duoFM3, took place in 2 Kolegas Bar. It featured experimental, noise, avant-garde, improvisational, and electronic music. With its high frequency of occurrence and low standards for participation, WaterLand Kwanyin soon became an important platform for local and foreign musicians and sound artists. In total, there were 167 Waterland Kwanyin events held at 2 Kolegas Bar(June 21, 2005—January 19, 2010). Over the course of five years, WaterLand Kwanyin gradually evolved into a gathering place for artists and musicians. Other than foreign artists, there were fewer new faces joining in. Gradually, people came to the event more for meeting old friends than listening to music. For Yan Jun, this closed sense of community built around the event was problematic as it stifled creativity and the production of good sound works. In January 2010, Yan Jun began to organize another sound event series Sub Jam Monthly Concert at UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in 798 Art District.
Sub Jam Monthly Concert at UCCA was still music-oriented, but it differed from Waterland Kwanyin in terms of its local and global publicity. The comprehensive contemporary art gallery situates the event in an art world context. The time of the show changed from 9 p.m. to 2 p.m. The concert was also less selective of its audience. There were new groups of visitors who included regular art gallery visitors, foreign artists, tourists, art students and families. The art space allowed the event to be more interactive, conversational and pedagogical (the following concert given by Li Jianhong as shown in Fig. 4 is a good example.)
Fig. 4. Sub UCCA Jam Concert, Ji Lianhong, July 31, 2010. UCCA. Photos by the author.
However, it did not take long before Yan Jun realized that UCCA offered their gallery space for Sub Jam Monthly Concertonly to increase the comprehensiveness of their contemporary art collections. “They do not care about sound art itself and did not want to spend time discussing how to make the concert better,” Yan Jun complained . On December 25, 2010, Sub Jam finished its collaboration with UCCA with the last concert titled “You Have No Place to Escape—A Gathering of Losers” (see fig. 5,6) . In his email to Sub Jamsubscribers, Yan Jun wrote in English, “no specific performance area and no definition of performer or audience… it’s an action to feel the failure from the time of supermarket, of simulacra of freedom…. Let’s face the tourist-audience at the unconcerned space again.”
For artists and musicians, the last concert was a success. For UCCA, on the contrary, the concert was a total disaster. From an email the manager at the service desk sent to her boss, one could tell that UCCA was disturbed.
“One artist led visitors with their eyes covered running in the exhibition hall, disturbing other tourists. A musician after his saxophone performance crawled to our coffee shop, almost tearing down our curtains. One person broke into one of our charged exhibition area and told visitors that the wolf is coming. Someone splashed a bucket of fish onto our floor, and prevented us from cleaning. The noises were too loud, severely interrupting activities in other sections . ”
Fig.5. Playing Saxophone at the concert “You Have No Place to Escape-A Gathering of Losers.” Li Tieqiao plays prepared saxophone (white case); Li Zenghui played alto saxophone facing against the wall; Wang Ziheng played soprano saxophone. December 25, 2010.
Fig.6. Art activist Yang Licai does his sound performance. On the floor in front of him are small live goldfish. The goldfish is a separate piece (by the poet Gerard Altaió) from Lao Yang’s. Audiences are supposed to listen to sounds from the tails of those goldfish hitting on the floor, December 25, 2010.
This last concert embodied a disruptive gesture of Dadaism, the playful and critical nature of Fluxus and Happenings, and the openness of participatory art. Unlike many emotionally stressful and physically painful performance art practices, events like this one had a light and joyful atmosphere. The whole event was also a collective act among musicians, artists and audience to criticize market-oriented contemporary art space. It confronted rules of the gallery space in a way intrusive enough to irritate the staff, managers and even some visitors, but not enough to cause official policing.
Problematizing the “White Cube”
While being critical about cultural and social functions of contemporary art space, it has to be admitted that museums and galleries are still important and stable places for the public to experience art. Compared to more entertainment-oriented music venues, art spaces are more suitable for sound art. However, the majority of current museums and galleries are not prepared and equipped for exhibiting works of sound art.
In a gallery where paintings, sculptures or video arts are the primary art on display, works of sound art often fail to capture audience’s attention. The visual-based situation makes it more difficult for audience to shift from the dominant perception of seeing to listening. To add sound to an exhibition may make the event more interesting, but it is often the case that sound is poorly curated and it becomes background noise for the exhibition, or it arouses a fleeting curiosity among viewers who are too busy looking to listen. Sound artist Christian Marclay is right when he claims, “more and more museums have a lounge type listening room, but there are still a lot of changes that need to happen before the art world is ready to present sound as art” .
To prepare for sound art, galleries not only have to consider getting more professional sound system and knowing how to install them properly; they need to curate sound works in an effective manner. Licht once commented on examples of unsuccessful sound exhibitions. “In the New Museum’s Unmo- numental (2008), which examined contemporary collage, there were separate sculptural, two-dimensional, online and sound components. The sound pieces were played over loudspeakers but not identified other than a back announcement at the piece’s conclusion, which was fairly inaudible above the din of the museum’s visitors. The works were reduced to anonymous background music” . Another example he gave is PS1’s Organizing Chaos (2007). “In PS1’s Organizing Chaos (2007), the high-volume soundtrack of Christian Marclay’s video Guitar Drag was audible in every other room of the exhibition, providing an unwitting soundtrack to the rest of the show, even to other sound pieces or films or videos that had their own soundtracks…” .
It is not difficult to recognize that what separate visually do not necessarily separate aurally. Sound leaks through screens and walls; sound travels long distances. To exhibit visual art and sound art works in the same space and in the same way is to pay respect to neither.
In a recent exhibition in Berkeley Art Museum titled Silence, Robert Morris’s 1961 sculpture Box with the Sound of Its Own Making was exhibited along with surrealist paintings, installations, and Duchamp’s readymades. The Box is a maple cube that contains a speaker playing a three-and-a-half-hour audio recording of the sawing and hammering sounds produced during its construction. The sound of the recording was mild and did not easily draw attention unless one walked closer to the cube. A possibility was that while the rest of the work on the same floor afforded a visual experience, the sound work was more looked at than listened to with similar perceptual attention. It is known that John Cage sat through the entire three-and-a-half-hour recordings while visiting the work in Morris’ apartment . If the Box was placed in a separate space, as how another film piece Sounds of Silence was separately exhibited in the PFA theater, or as how Tino Sehgal performed her slow dance writhing on the floor in a space isolated from paintings and installations, there would be a higher chance that visitors would switch perceptual attentions more easily, and spend longer time listening to the Box, which was itself with nothing much to be looked at.
Fig.7. Silence, Berkeley Art Museum, Feb. 2013. Photo by author
This exhibition again reflects that sound art still faces a dilemma when it comes to its exhibition. While video art and performance art have acquired their separate spaces as distinguished from paintings and sculptures, sound art either borrows space of music venues or is squeezed into art spaces constructed for video art, sculptures and paintings.
Examples of Sound Art Space
While museums and galleries lag behind in effectively exhibiting works of sound art, individual artists have suggested art spaces for sound art.
The Chinese artist Hu Jieming’s recent installation Black Box—A Liminal Lab (2012), designed for theater, as an alternative performance space to stimulate non-visual sense perceptions, is a great spatial example. It is made of a shipping container (12*2.4*3 meters) with its interior walled with porous sound absorbing materials. The space is equipped with infrared camera to document activities in the darkness, and four cardioid condenser boundary microphones on surrounding walls to play sounds.
On March 30, 2013, sound artist Yan Jun (Beijing) and Zhao Junyuan (Shanghai), experimental animation filmmaker Piere Hebert (Montreal) and sound artist Bob Ostertag (U.S) did a three-hour live visual-sound improvisation performance inside of the Black Box. The only visual elements inside include the eye-level projection of Hebert’s hand-drawn animation on the wall, the dim screen light from Bob Ostertag’s laptop and iPad, and the blinking red light on the synthesizer in Yan Jun’s feedback noise system. Audiences were only allowed to come in and out every fifteen minutes. Most audience members were not used to complete darkness. When entering the space, audience was immediately drawn to the visual projection as an attention anchor. A few kept murmuring to each other without realizing that their tiny sounds were clearly heard by everyone present inside of the soundproofed space. When the projection was blocked by those standing close to it, the rest of the audience were literally forced to listen to the improvised soundscape.
Fig. 8. Outside of Black Box, March 30, 2013, Photo by author.
Fig. 9. Inside of Black Box after the performance, March 30, 2013, Photo by author.
Fig. 10. The concert was broadcasted live on the third floor of Power Station of Art, March 30, 2013, Photo by author.
Another art space isOhrenhoch, the Noise Shop, a small sound gallery in Berlin designed specifically with the awareness that galleries are often not suitable to present sound works properly . Ohrenhoch exhibits contemporary electronic music, sound and video installations every Sunday for free. Knut Remond, one of the two owners, designed five loudspeakers in stereo and minimalist wooden furnishing for the sound gallery. Three loudspeakers were installed in the middle of the ceiling. The rest two include a bass subwoofer on the floor and a tweeter on a shelf on the side, both with their membrane pointing to the ceiling. In this way, the listeners are always in the middle of sounds wherever the sound is played. As its website nicely describes, the space is “an oasis for special listening experience.”
These two spatial examples are both built to cater to sound art experience. They achieve a better listening experience through two routes: the Black Box directly disables the visual, while Ohrenhoch, the Noise Shop enhances the aural by installing professional sound system without taking away the visual. Both recognize that space is not only a container where art occurs; it also shapes art works, conditions experiences and stimulates creativity. Combining the two examples of art spaces gets us closer to the unique venue of big can.
Big can is ideal for works that stress listening and demand minimal visual distractions. Big can will be a space with a professional sound system, walls and the roof equipped with soundproof materials, minimal interior decoration, and with the possibility to eliminate any source of light. In the space of a big can, listeners are not the end receiver of sounds as in a traditional concert hall, where the stage and the audience’ seating face each other forming a linear communication channel. In a big can, there is neither a location for the best sound effect nor hierarchical seating arrangement.
Without stylistic decorations and attached identity signifiers as in music venues, without implicit rules of usage imposed by institutional structures as in museums and galleries, space of big can demands listeners to fill or feel the void. There is no enforced listening etiquette, but the space is neither user-friendly in the sense of making everything easy and hands-on. Listeners are called upon to adjust expectations and perceptual habits to re-experience something different. Unavoidably, some people may leave the space angrily and feel offended by what they hear and experience.
Different from a theater or a concert hall, big can is not a utopian space that promises a better and carefree life. As an ordinary space itself, big can makes one engages in one’s everyday space better, not in the sense of accepting its status-quo, but to experience and connect with things in alternative and creative ways. Big can embodies what Yan Jun describes as “revolutionary commonality” in his living room concert tour. As he explained, “in comparison to a professional performance space, I find that a space like this [living room] is much closer to everyday life. It is common and magical. I guess this is an ideal state of revolutionary commonality. Liberate the event of sound and listening from the socialized division of labor; Let it occur where it should occur the most” . Yan’s term “Revolutionary commonality” suggests that revolution comes out of the most ordinary and everyday place. Yan’s use of living room and my proposal of big can share a belief in the revolutionary potentiality in everyday life.
Big can, a listening space without a focal point, inside of which, everyone is simultaneously a listener, a musician and a performer. Big can: forgotten, wasted and free of pre-designed functions. It is a “cold” space, to use Mcluhan’s words, which is of low definition and calls for a high participation and a completion by audience . In the cold space of big can, without visual distractions, the listeners are called upon to summon all his/her attention to listen or to make a sound to generate life. The void of big can may evoke a phobia of inner space and a fear of un-anchored existence. But at the same time, big can promises a void in which raw material and raw existentiality re-composes.
While there is an increasing amount of artworks that use sounds as their artistic and conceptual expressions, while academic and intellectual discourses give rise to a field of sound studies, it is time to abandon borrowed spaces from music venues and visual art galleries and to create a proper space for works of sound art.
References and Notes
- FEN was initiated by Otomo Yoshihide to connect like-minded musicians in East Asia. In July 2008, Yoshihide was asked by the founder of MIMI Festival Ferdinand Richard to organize an Asian musicians’ workshop in the festival. He wrote to Yan Jun in Beijing, Ryu Hankil in Seoul, and Yuen Cheewai in Singapore to discuss the possibility. Soon, the collective had its first collaboration in Marseille in the festival. Over the past five years since its establishment, FEN met only once or twice each year to play music together, with supports from festivals, art institutions or galleries. Each member of FEN represents the major force behind his local new music scene.
- Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.) p.143.
- Schütze, Paul. Interview with Eliane Radigue in “Surround Sound” in Frieze Magazine, Issue 142. October 2011.
- Wang, Jing. “Affective Listening: China’s Experimental Music and Sound Art Practice.” The Journal of Sonic Studies 2 (2012). http://journal.sonicstudies.org/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=sonic;sid=228329111373730315c58f57ec4b160c;view=text;idno=m0201a11;rgn=main
- Dakou generation began in the late 1980s and lasted throughout the1990s in China. Dakou describes the small punch hole cut into the excess CDs by Western record companies prior to shipping them to China as trash. Dakou CDs soon became the main source of Western music for Chinese youths. Later, the Dakou generation was replaced by the download generation, which mainly acquired music on the Internet through file sharing networks.
- Environment Improvisation is a term coined by Li Jianhong to describe his free improvisation with the environment, which includes not only natural, constructed and social environment, but also objects, animals and humans. For more discussion see Wang .
- Link to Tape Music: http://www.linchiwei.com/archives/410
- Link to the video of Frequency of Temperature: http://www.post-concrete.com/blog/pics/jimutemperature.mov
Link to the sound installation exhibition http://www.post-concrete.com/blog/?p=277
- Interview with the author, July 2010.
- See a video clip taken during the concert, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVW4WYO8zv0
- Author’s translation.
- Licht, Alan. Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2007.) p.11.
- Licht, Alan. “Sound Art: Origins, Development and Ambiguities”. Organized Sound 14(1): 3-10, (Cambridge University Press. 2010.)
- Licht .
- Seth Kim-Cohen. “Sculpture in the Reduced Field: Robert Morris and Minimalism Beyond Phenomenology.” Link to the article http://www.kim-cohen.com/seth_texts/Sculpture%20In%20The%20Reduced%20Field.pdf
- I learnt about Ohrenhoch, the Noise Shopduring my research on Yan Jun’s sound object Speaker Flower, which was exhibited in this gallery. I have not visited the place by myself, so my discussion of the place is brief and based on what I learnt from its website and from Yan Jun. Link to the sound gallery http://www.ohrenhoch.org/en/sound-gallery.html
- Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.) p.36.
- Interview with the author. In Living Room Concert tour, which began in July 2011, Yan Jun made music in the audience’s apartment upon invitation. The idea is almost nostalgia, evoking the pre-phonograph time when people have to go to live music shows or invite musicians over to experience music. At the same time, it is cutting edge in terms of experimenting with a nomadic way of generating a performance space, which is meant to disappear after the event. The project is a solution after Yan Jun realized that neither music venues nor art spaces were satisfactory in listening to his work. Link to more information about the tour http://www.yanjun.org/archives/654.
Sound art 声音艺术
Avant-garde music 前卫音乐
Experimental music 实验音乐
Dakou generation 打口一代
The Grand Rules大法度
Qianwei Yinyue Diantai前卫音乐电台
Sounding Beijing 2003北京声纳2003
2pi Music Festival二皮音乐节
Frequency of Temperature 温度的频响
China’s Sound Unit中国声音小组
2 Kolegas Bar 两个好朋友酒吧