Noisemakers are being used as guinea pigs to test new art spaces. It won’t last, predicts musician, artist and Wire contributor Yan Jun after a poorly attended gig in the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province
After the performance the first fan I recognised was Zhu; I knew it was him from his smile. He has bought everything I have ever released, even the things he didn’t enjoy (yes, there are some…). He asked me about None Of Us, a CD I had released of a voice duet by Jason Kahn and myself in which I had muted or deleted all the voices from the original recordings. “It’s not for listening to, is it?” he suggested. “But it’s for listening to the rest of the sounds,” I explained, “It’s just quiet.” He didn’t seem convinced. Sun Wei, the other participating artist in the performance, was talking to someone else about his ultrasonic receiver and the other unidentified objects on his table. Then a woman came up to me and asked when my band Tea Rockers would come to Chengdu, because she had been at our concert at Shenzhen’s Tomorrow Festival in 2018. What a surprise! Well, not really perhaps, because that is the only festival in China that hosts krautrock, free jazz, improvised world music and traditional dialect songs all together. Another woman who talked to me that evening was interested in joining the group of volunteers for a translation project I had initiated with some friends. The project is to translate texts on music for online publication, mostly destined for social media and a blog. She was very shy and left before I could invite her to join us for the afterparty drinks.
But no one talked about the performance itself. I had no idea if they liked it or not. I wish I didn’t care, but actually I do. In fact, this ‘concert’ was more like a performative lecture in collaboration with Sun Wei. At one point I talked a bit about the body and the machine, while he captured my ultrasonic waves. When there were breaks in my talk, he would unroll some plastic wrap into the space. It was too dark to see what he actually did with it, but it emitted small vibrational sounds punctuated by long pauses. Neither of us was too busy. During the last 15 minutes I made some little uncertain movements and poses while Sun Wei produced some small, hesitant or absurd noises. I wasn’t sure if he intended to make these or if they were his electronics malfunctioning. In all, six people attended this concert at Chengdu’s Nu Space, in a room designed for 400–500 people. We enjoyed the luxury of this deluxe rich space even as we felt sorry for the venue, which perhaps only made 100 yuan [about £12 UK]. Nu Space is one of around 50–100 new live houses that have arisen in China since 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. Rock bands and singer-songwriters are now able to tour China with their managers (some even with their lawyers), sometimes performing across 40 cities or so. Some of them are even able to put a down payment on a flat after a tour. Most of the new venues are open to promoting different kinds of music. All you need to do is find a local colleague to call the booking manager and say: “Hi, I have two noise music friends from Beijing and Oslo. Do you still have an empty window in your schedule?”
I appreciate this open spirit, but I’m not sure how long it can continue. For one thing, it is like there is no concern about manpower costs, labour exploitation being a symptom of China’s rapid economic rise. In the live house the technicians are overworked in general, and this time they have to work for our concert which doesn’t make any money. It’s not always because they or their boss like it, sometimes it’s just because they are cheap labour. In this case in Chengdu we met a nice manager who is really open for different music. But how is the logic of capital behind her? I’m not especially interested in economics, but a recent piece of news shocked me. It said that a notorious real estate group in China sold an average of 5000 apartment units each year, and all their new projects were on the market within six months of breaking ground. But in order to dominate the market this way they had sacrificed their employees’ rights. A scandal was breaking all over the news because it had come to light that the company’s bylaws stipulated that “employees must work overnight”. Maybe many people think it’s normal to do anything to keep your market share, or to keep your job… I’m not sure how much the technicians were paid for our concert, but their costs must have been higher than the door money shared between them. I actually think they should cancel an event if there is no possibility of it supporting all the costs. They could support artists by other sustainable ways, such as “bringing your own technician” or “calling for curating proposal”. And I’m certain the venues are not simply doing this to support the artists. Some of them must just think, “We have some spare time and space, so why not use it up?” And, "What if we find new groups of audiences/customers by doing this?” So in this way we are being used by the venues and art spaces as a test. In Beijing and Shanghai there are already no more tests. In most cases you have to pay several thousand yuan if your concert attracts an audience of less than 70 or 80. During some tests in less busy venues in other cities the bosses or managers cut off the volume after 15 minutes and ask the noise makers to go home. The next day we played at a local art gallery with a manager who spoke to me while her eyes were somewhere else: “Yes, we want to support experimental art, and we have some spare time and energy to do today’s show.”
Actually, the manager and her assistant were not pleased by what they saw. These people have no idea what “experimental music” is, and in the end they were extremely unhappy, impatient and impolite about their experiment with it.
This reminds me of one of my laptop musician friends. His performances often involve him occupying every frequency of sound by playing many applications at once, until his CPU crashes. When I asked for some more chairs during the office lunch hour, the gallery manager also seemed to be crashing. She just said, “No! There are no more chairs!” But, in fact, there were a lot. Maybe they should ask Sun Wei to curate something, to add an extra CPU to their system. As this gallery, A Thousand Plateaus, was named after a Deleuze and Guattari book, I assume they understand an open system is better than traditional capitalist ones. And I'm sure that Sun Wei, with his high professional quality, is up to the task of supporting experimental music on a low budget
The fourth audience member at the Chengdu performance was an artist who also teaches at an art school. He had been in a group exhibition with Sun Wei. We met again over the next few days, when there were further concerts, workshops, teas and dinners. Indeed, there were more tea and dinner meetings than actual production. Chengdu is a paradise for spicy food and the slow life. Hipsters call it Chamsterdam for its weed subculture. Did you know that the human brain releases endorphins and dopamine when eating spicy food? Especially the local Sichuan pepper, which stimulates 50 little pricks per second on the tongue, like an electric current. No wonder there are no listeners of harsh noise here – they taste it instead!
But perhaps I was wrong: there were maybe two other audience members, but I didn’t get to meet them, and listeners of harsh noise are always quiet.
The last day in Chengdu I attended a slightly less spicy dinner with old friends. Among them were members of the quiet folk band Wild Children. In the 1990s when they were based at the legendary River Bar in Beijing, I was still a drunk rock critic among their six to 60 audience. The day before we met for dinner, they had just played a concert in front of 600 people at the longrunning venue Little Bar in Chengdu. “How long is it since you last met?” asked a friend. “Half a lifetime!” answered the singer with a smile.
Special thanks to Edward Sanderson for his help with this piece.