Like any art form, creative activity that involves sound has a relationship with the world as a production and with an audience as reception. Both relationships have different expectations and requirements for whatever might be termed “success.”
The often ephemeral form of sound-work dictates that it must assert itself in a stronger way to ensure its reception as in some way distinct from the “distractions” it works within. The concert hall, for instance, not only provides a hermetic, purpose-built environment for the perception of sound, but—as with the gallery—it creates a psychological space devoted to sound that prepares the audience to receive the material.
As visual art has its idealised environments in the white/grey/black cubes, and must negotiate new tactics of reception upon leaving those spaces, so sound encounters a potentially hostile but promisingly productive terrain upon entering the outside world. This boundary between the sound work and the world is a fertile creative ground for the artist, on which the work can take any position, and which creates the relationship with the audience and their understanding of how the work fits into the environment. This might be described, referring back to visual arts, as its “framing,” which include not just the physical details of the environment, but the institutional structures around the pieces.
In the case of The Sound of Nowhere, a week-long event based around sound-based work and organised by ZUZHE, HomeShop and Shan-Studio, the environment is made up of the collection of this particular set of pieces in a group show with this particular name and provenance; the (rather nicely designed) handout guiding the audience to the sites; the background information about the artists and works provided.
Sound’s ephemeral nature perhaps encourages me to focus on these “extraneous” details in the appreciation of the work. The organisers themselves stress “the processes of the search, discovery, listening to and/or taking in.” The works in The Sound of Nowhere are widely dispersed around the hutongs of Beijing’s Dongcheng District and work with these constraints and conditions as part of their being in the world.
The Sound of Nowhere presents sixteen sites or works by as many artists, all within a twenty minute walk from the HomeShop. The creative collective HomeShop acts as an informal starting point for the tour where you can pick up the map and begin your journey. In their front room, with No Name Sounds Good for this Poem, “anti-poet” Gerard Altaió’s dismantled PC sends ten year’s worth of his poems to a paperless dot matrix printer, the print-head wiping back and forth with the characteristic ripping sound of thousands of ink spots hitting the mute roller. This sound intermittently displaces the ambient noise, converting his texts into distracting staccato pulses of sound.
Hanging outside the front door, Elaine Wing-ah Ho’s red Bucket as Practice serves as a makeshift listening post, into which you can insert your head to hear a series of sung questions, designed to defamiliarise them in the ears of the listener. A microphone picks up your answers, transmitting them to a local hair salon a few doors away to become part of Michael Eddy’s The Fresh Connoisseur, your words mingling with the techno soundtrack blasted out onto the street, typical of these establishments.
Once out in the hutongs, you might come across Whiteshirt Design Studio’s pleasant courtyard, with Olaf Hochherz One, Two, Three, Quite a Lot – two speakers set up on a collapsible table playing slight chirping sounds, which may be the animals and objects illustrated by drawings sitting alongside them. A few streets further, in the back room of a French delicatessen, Su Wenxiang’s computerised voices announce Beijing Welcomes you Hell (sic) in various languages (perhaps referring to the heat in Beijing right now).
For me, the more successful pieces displayed an element of interactivity, either manually by encouraging the participant to create the noises themselves or on a more conceptual level. In the entrance to the Confucius International Youth Hostel, Niko de Lafaye has strung up a collection of objects for La Mélodie du Hutong. These are connected by wires and pulleys that can be pulled to knock them together, creating the sounds one might hear having left the busy main roads of Beijing and entered the quieter, more homely hutong alleyways.
He Yida’s CD library of Untitled Music plays in the popular Alba Café along the main road of Gulou Dongdajie, gently encouraging participation and an investment in its workings by asking the listener to help identify these unknown songs. On a wall chart beside the CD player the visitor can leave their valuable contributions to the track listing. This piece for me successfully bridged the gap between sound for its own sake, and sound as part of a greater social fabric.
Mei Zhiyong’s 2Way took the form of an old boombox sitting on a table in the corner of the tiny Penghao Theatre. Mei had adapted the stereo to include a motion detector, so that when you moved in front of it a clicking sound was produced. Unfortunately this was so subtle an intervention that I completely missed it to begin with. Even when I knew what was happening I did not make the connection between Mei and his Beijing noise music label, Nojiji, a fact that gives a whole new meaning to the sounds. Without that extra piece of information, the piece became a bit hermetic for me.
On the roof terrace of Triple-Major, a fashion label occupying a tiny store near the Drum and Bell Tower area, Sheng Jie (gogoj) installed Zero which made a play of creating its own sound environment, sonically separating itself from the world around it. The visitor stands between a set of four electric fans, which serve to mask the sounds of the street below. In front of them strings of little fabric and wire filters shaped like small ping-pong bats, flap back and forth in the breeze. This was probably the most well thought out intervention into the daily sound life, combining installation with the aural, providing a surreal moment amongst the hutong rooftops.
Overall, I loved The Sound of Nowhere. Wandering the hutongs trying to find the pieces, and in the process discovering new places and artists creating interesting work was a joy. This was a great event for the audience, and seems to represent a successful way to interact with the neighbourhood for the organisers.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Shan Studio and the artists.)