2018.06.29 Fri, by
Is Sound Critical?—”Grounds for Sound” Research and Practice

Over the past few years my research has focused on the development of sound art and experimental music practices in China since the early ’90s. My approach to these practices has been strongly influenced by the idea that sound can be critical. “Critical sound” is necessarily an engaged practice with  the potential to affect social change—particularly within the specific conditions of Mainland China. That said, critical sound may seem antithetical to what is commonly understood as “socially engaged art”, at times being introspective and/or antagonistic to its audience. I believe, however, that both the act of creating these critical sound works and their entry into and existence in the world, are community-forming activities and implicit engagements with the realities of Chinese society.

In this text I will focus on this idea of the critical, criticality, and self-criticality as it relates to sound in general and how sound is practiced in China, specifically.

What I have avoided dwelling too much upon is the history behind the development of experimental sound practices in China. A number of books and texts have already been published in which a lot of that information can be found. But I am also looking forward to updating these with my own research.

Ake and Zhao Cong performing, MIJI Concert 40 at Meridian Space, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

Ake and Zhao Cong performing, MIJI Concert 40 at Meridian Space, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

What is Criticality?

In my curatorial text for “Grounds for Sound”, I wrote:

“[This exhibition] … presents three artists whose practices adopt the active and critical use of sound as their central feature. Active, in the sense that sound is not an “object” abstracted from its milieu, but is an active agent in the world; and critical, in the sense that these sounds embody the artist’s self-awareness, where foregrounding their mediation of the sound is a central part of an understanding of that sound’s social meaning.”

In this context, stated simply, “criticism” or “criticality” are processes of asking questions about what we sense around us.

Art is perhaps a privileged place where such critical thinking finds its home, and cultural production generally, and (sometimes) the art world specifically, are where theorists look for criticality. But in order for art to be actively critical, it must bring something into being that raises questions about the world.

As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has said, “critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.”[1]

This idea of dissensus is particularly developed in the writings of philosopher Jacques Rancière. As paraphrased by Rancière’s translator, Gabriel Rockhill, if consensus is “the presupposition according to which every part of a population, along with all of its specific problems, can be incorporated into a political order and taken into account”, dissensus is “a political process that resists juridical litigation and creates a fissure in the sensible order by confronting the established framework of perception, thought, and action with the ‘inadmissible,’ i.e. a political subject.” [2]This idea of the subject and subjectivization is important, because at the end of the definition of consensus the translator also concludes, “By abolishing dissensus and placing a ban on political subjectivization, consensus reduces politics to the police.”

We can see here how Rancière favors this act of dissensus as a way in which the political subject comes into being—a subject with some kind of political efficacy. And Mouffe accords this thing she calls “critical art” with the possibility of fomenting such dissensus.

Certainly, Rancière, and I believe Mouffe also, were looking to the Situationists as one source of inspiration for this. A very popular touchstone for so-called radical art practices, the Situationists recently re-appeared in the writings of the music theorist G Douglas Barrett, who brought their approaches into contact with sound and music in his book “After Sound: Toward a Critical Music” (2016)[3].

Barrett writes, “Summarizing the Situationists’ theory of détournement, [Guy] Debord explains that, rather than being concerned with the creation of the new, ‘critical art can be produced as of now using the existing means of cultural expression.’ ‘Critical in its content,’ he continues, ‘such art must also be critical of itself in its very form.’” [4]

This is effectively a self-criticism drawn from one’s own form, which leads to a more general criticality of the society that one exists within—the society from which our political subjectivity is formed.

Arong Violence Against a Violent Musician 2015 screenshot. photo courtesy of the artist

Arong Violence Against a Violent Musician 2015 screenshot. photo courtesy of the artist

How Does Sound Fit into a Consideration of Criticality?

G Douglas Barrett’s writing has been particularly helpful for me in clarifying my own thinking about the possibilities of sound practices. This is because Barrett extends the thinking about critical art into the field of music when he talks about a thing called “Critical Music.”

Sound and certain types of institutionalized music have become idealized as things or objects that can be understood separately from their context. The context would be any understanding of the sound’s process of creation, or of its reception. Critical Music is a conception of sound and music that rethinks this separation.

As such, this critical music does not rely solely on sound to be effective, and Critical Music, for Barrett, incorporates the creation of subjectivity and community.

For him, “A common feature uniting [the various examples of critical music he presents] … exists not only in their individually expressed senses of political urgency, but also in the insistence upon a broadened musical field necessary for their adequate contextualization and analysis.”[5]

Edward Sanderson. photo courtesy of Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum

Edward Sanderson. photo courtesy of Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum

Theoretical Applications to Research

My research into sound art and experimental music in China has tried to reflect this understanding of a “critical music”. Over the past few years, I have been interviewing notable people in the sound world in China. In these interviews I have tried to build up a fuller picture of these people’s lives within which their sound practices have developed, by asking: “From where do these practices develop?”

My experience in China is that sound practices for the most part have not developed though an academic/institutional framework. This seems to be because, up until recently, there simply wasn’t an academic framework that took this kind of practice seriously (exceptions being the School of Experimental Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and the School of Intermedia Art at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou). Because of this, the practices of the artists I have talked to have depended largely on a self-motivated and/or community-driven search for appropriate means of self-expression.

Given their distance from the official institutions that traditionally confer value onto sound practices (in China, from the music side of things, these would be the conservatories, or, from the art world side, the university art departments), other institutions and connections played similar roles in creating an environment in which these people could develop their practices, ascribe value to their work, disseminate it, and find an audience for sound art. In this way, these other institutions and connections have created the specific possibilities for these works to exist in China, and must therefore be addressed so as to furnish an understanding of these practices.

In addition, the artists I spoke with, who were not located in major cities in China where there may already be like-minded communities, were finding their information via the internet, where sharing and a “virtual” community existed. This has had a huge effect on the specific forms of sound making, recording, and distribution that took place. If, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, BBS and file sharing sites were the methods to disseminate sound files, we now have popular sites like Douban, Xiami, and Bandcamp for the DIY promotion and distribution of work.

Fiona Lee, tide.hong kong, installation at Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum. photo courtesy of BIOAM

Fiona Lee, tide.hong kong, installation at Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum. photo courtesy of BIOAM

The Directions of Development of Sound Practices

As I have suggested above, there have been perhaps two main directions from which sound practices have developed outside of the academy.

One is from the direction of “art”, and the other is from the direction of “music” (although these often overlap).

It might be possible to distinguish these two directions by the venues involved—as these confer meaning and value on each specific practice. For the art world, it is the gallery space, and for the music world it is the live venue or the recording format itself.

Remaining in the context of the “Grounds for Sound” exhibition, I will here focus on just two categories, noise music and field recordings, that address an idea of critical sound sitting somewhere between the worlds of art  and music.

fRUITYSPACE, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

fRUITYSPACE, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

Noise Music

Noise music is the embodiment and mediation of the body of the performer and audience through sound. It does this through the overwhelming environment that it creates. This environment is a symbiotic relationship between the artist and their technology, as well as between the space and the audience.

This relationship is clearly evident in the video documentation of the performance “Violence against a violent musician”, in which the director, A rong, battles with noise musician A ming. The performers follow a set of rules whereby A ming may “attack” A rong audibly with his noise piped directly into headphones fixed to A rong’s ears, while A rong may only respond physically with the boxing gloves fixed to his hands.

There are a number of other artists who adopt this format to create their intense performances, such as Torturing Nurse in Shanghai and Ding Chenchen in Beijing.

HomeShop_ayi DE (Aug 2011). photo by 何颖雅 Elaine W HO

HomeShop_ayi DE (Aug 2011). photo by 何颖雅 Elaine W HO

Field Recording?

Field recording (or “phonography”, as it is sometimes known) is the act of going out and recording the world. Such recordings may be presented “raw”, without modification, to represent accounts of a particular place or situation. Other artists may choose to manipulate their recordings through collage, synthesis, etc. to bring out hidden aspects of the original recordings.

For instance, Fiona Lee in her piece “tide.hong kong” collages two field recordings together to create a piece which attempts to reflect on her emotions relating to the political situation in her home town.

Zhang Liming has been working with field recording in Harbin since the early 2000s. For this exhibition he chose to present two aspects of his work. On one side of the cassette (which you can play in his installation) are a collection of his field recordings, while on the other is a spoken-word piece addressing his thoughts on his own sound art practice.

Again, there are a number of other artists who adopt this format within their practice, such as Feng Hao in Beijing, Edwin Lo in Hong Kong, Sun Wei in Chengdu, etc.

In conclusion, I want to outline some directions in which my research will progress, building upon the points I have touched on already.

For an artwork, a sound element is usually only the penumbra of a series of connected practices, no matter how much sound appears to be the focus. Sound, because of its non-objective nature, is rarely perceived or experienced in isolation from other sensory data.

All these pieces suggest the possibility of sound as an information-rich—yet subversively meaningful—environmental practice.

These contexts represent the general environments in which these sound works can be produced. They are the generalized socio-political spaces that the artists work within, and which they must grapple with to create effective work. These exist as environmental pressures on the possible methods and the potential content that can be addressed by the artists in their works.

Ultimately, I want to investigate these possibilities and potentials for sound that exist under specific stresses in China.

Hutong performance at Zajia, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

Hutong performance at Zajia, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

Effectiveness

There are also questions to be asked about sound’s relationship to passive or active censorship (and self-censorship) as it appears in the Chinese context.

This is related to questions about location. Different locations create different possibilities, and comparing the situations in different parts of China, I believe, will be productive in understanding what sound work has been produced.

Meridian Space, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

Meridian Space, Beijing. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

Appearance

I will also be looking at alternative ways to understand how these practices appear and can be understood within their respective contexts.

I believe, rather than working with generational divisions or divisions of musical genre, that the idea of community is more helpful to understanding these practices.

As the scholar Gabriele de Seta wrote, “The birth of the experimental scene [in China] … can be situated between the years 2003 and 2004, when various live events and record releases confirm the existence of a cohesive community.” (de Seta 2012, 40)

So I am looking at communities associated with venues where such live events take place. For Beijing, at least, that would mean locations like Zajia, or HomeShop (both of which are now sadly closed), Meridian Space, and fRUITYSPACE. The Nojiji collective used to be defined in part by their space, Raying Temple, but since that space closed, they have become a nomadic group that retains a communal identity. The experimental musician Wang Ziheng’s SOS Bar was active in organizing experimental events and an important platform for the community until it closed.

I also look at these practices through consistent series of performances. These include the long-running MIJI Concerts (organized by the Sub Jam label, Yan Jun, Zhu Wenbo, Yan Yulong and others); or the Zoomin’ Nights (that Zhu Wenbo also organized); or the Pixel Echo series (organized by Hong Qile).

All these series are connected to publishing labels, so such labels might also serve as markers of community—especially for audiences who are not physically in places where the performances take place. Aside from the aforementioned Sub Jam, Zoomin’ Nights, and Nojiji, there are Bwave Communications, Where is the Zeitgeist?, We Play! Records, Seippelabel, System Error in Xi’an, China Free Improvisation, playrec, etc. Bandcamp, the US-based online music-publishing platform, has proven very popular for individuals and labels in China to present and sell their work on an international stage.

All these factors—the venues, the concert series, the publishing labels—create links to wider understandings of other spaces for sound and its communities, taking the appreciation, involvement, and effect of sound beyond sound as an autonomous object, and into a space where sound can act critically in the world.

An earlier version of this text was presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Grounds for Sound” curated by the author, part of the larger exhibition “Self-Criticism” held at the Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum from May to October 2017.

no performance (Zhu Wenbo, Sean Lee), at fRUITYSPACE. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

no performance (Zhu Wenbo, Sean Lee), at fRUITYSPACE. photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson

 


[1] Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art & Research 1 (2)pp. 1–5, 2007

[2] Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Translated by Gabriel Rockhill. Pbk. ed. London ; New York: Continuum, 2006, p.83, 86

[3] Barrett, G. Douglas. 2016. After Sound: Toward a Critical Music. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

[4] Debord, Guy. “The Situationists and the New Forms of Action in Politics and Art”. In Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, edited by Tom McDonough, translated by Thomas Y. Levin, 1st MIT Press paperback ed, 164. An October Book. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, (1963) 2004. And [4] Barrett, G. Douglas. 2016. After Sound: Toward a Critical Music. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006 p 29-30

[5] Barrett, G. Douglas. 2016. After Sound: Toward a Critical Music. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

Sean Lee, Ding Chenchen, Li Bingyu, Zoomin Night 26 Oct 2015 at Sanyuanqiao Underpass, Beijing (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Sean Lee, Ding Chenchen, Li Bingyu, Zoomin Night 26 Oct 2015 at Sanyuanqiao Underpass, Beijing (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Torturing Nurse, Sally Can't Dance Festival 2015 at School Bar, Beijing (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Torturing Nurse, Sally Can’t Dance Festival 2015 at School Bar, Beijing (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Yan Yulong, Sheng Jie, MIJI Concert 39 at Meridian Space, Beijing (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Yan Yulong, Sheng Jie, MIJI Concert 39 at Meridian Space, Beijing (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Zajia (photo courtesy of Arong and Ambra Corinti)

Zajia (photo courtesy of Arong and Ambra Corinti)

Zhang Liming-, installation at Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)

Zhang Liming-, installation at Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum (photo courtesy of Edward Sanderson)