A CITY WITH THE SOUND OF ITS OWN MAKING
January 6, 2016 | Post In LEAP 36|
Beijing is one of the best places in China for access to the plethora of facilities and audiences that can support experimental culture, and arguably has the best set of international connections of any city in China. Its combination of location and audience creates the basic infrastructure for survival and development.
The attention that such opportunities and exposure create, however, can be a double-edged sword. Public performance has always been viewed with suspicion by the authorities. Most live venues in Beijing (and elsewhere in China) play it safe by choosing to work with artists who steer clear of difficult formats and topics. Experimental work, by its very nature, seeks to investigate its own form and context in surprising and sometimes difficult ways, with implications beyond itself. Behind closed doors and with a self-selecting audience the consequences are limited, but, unfortunately, the threat of intervention is stifling. Many artists still see their investigations as vital enough to seek out ways to enact them.
Six venues have shut their doors in 2015 (so far). Venues close for many reasons, and it would be simplistic to point the finger in only one direction. There are repercussions for sensitive content due to high-level events affecting the city as a whole (this year saw the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Fifth Plenum) as well as more prosaic operational issues.
Meridian Space, just north of the National Art Museum of China, emerged this year as an important host for experimental events, including some memorable MIJI Concerts organized by veteran musician, journalist, and poet Yan Jun. XP, the bar and music venue established by the Maybe Mars record label, closed in July to focus on developing new offices for its parent company.
But, in other respects, 2015 was a good year for the experimental scene. Audiences are growing slowly but steadily. This may be related to the development of regular event series and festivals as well as better channels of communication, particularly via the subscriptions service on WeChat. It may also be a matter of this work becoming more established: audiences have developed over the past few years to the point that organizers can now rely on a critical mass of people attending, making the events (relatively) profitable for venues to host.
The unpredictability and uncontrollability that makes experimental events troublesome can lead to creative forms of presentation that negotiate perceived, threatened, or imposed restrictions. In the clearest instance of this negotiation, the closure of XP led Zhu Wenbo, the organiser of the weekly Zoomin’ Nights hosted there, to more temporary, liminal spaces. Zoomin’ Nights is now thriving in its new home: a pedestrian underpass under Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The underpass echoes with the droning of vehicles passing a few meters overhead and the occasional footsteps of pedestrians. This precarious and seemingly inhospitable acoustic environment turns out to be a creative foil for an ever-changing cast of performers. Many established and emerging artists have taken advantage of this opportunity, as well as many foreign performers visiting the city. Recent performances have included the live-coding trio of Sean Lee, Li Bingyu, and Ding Chenchen filling the long tunnel with ambient code manipulations, and the duo of Li Jianhong on prepared guitar with Vavabond on laptop producing harsh love songs to the cosmos under their Mind Fiber moniker.
Another intermittent series of events is Yan Jun’s Living Room Tour. Yan has been one of the prime movers of the experimental music scene in China since the late 1990s, but, over the past few years, has become skeptical of live venues, both in terms of sound quality and the levels of attention that audiences bring to venues that double as bars. His Living Room Tour attempts to take more control of the environment by locating the performance within private living spaces. These intimate and domestic settings develop attention from both performers and audience, creating possibilities for creative engagement with sound.
These events exploit an ephemerality also reflected in short festivals of experimental performances. The Sally Can’t Dance avant-garde music festival was founded in 2008 by musician Li Tieqiao; this year’s fifth appearance was organized by Zhu Wenbo and Josh Feola of experimental promoter Pangbianr over two days at School Bar in November. October saw the fourth Beijing Electronic Music Encounter, organized by Feola and Markus M. Schneider, over three nights at DADA (an indie club), fRUITYSHOP (a record store), and Modernsky Lab (a live venue and recording studio under the aegis of a record label).
Foreign artists living in or visiting Beijing have played an important role in the experimental scene as both organizers and performers. Electronic music pioneer Bob Ostertag played the last gigs of his China tour in Beijing, and on one night of the BEME festival performed his piece Sooner or Later at fRUITYSHOP. This work manipulates recordings of a young child burying his father, who had been killed by security forces in El Salvador in the early 1970s. Ostertag created an intensely political and emotional piece that raised hard questions about the ethics involved in the manipulation of sound. Such deeply provocative work rarely appears in Beijing; subject matter like this is considered too sensitive to deal with.
Beyond the wider social issues the scene has to cope with, there are also internal problems, including a severe lack of gender diversity. In terms of the work itself, there is little clear direction and innovation—a downside to the lack of a supportive institutional and educational environment. Content that is often abstract and audiences that are often small are both limitations and features that provide subtlety and resilience. While the future for experimental sound in Beijing will never be stable, this flexibility can develop a relatively sustainable space while retaining the potential for serious critique.