The Point of The Point of Departure

[中文版本在下面!]

I suppose now’s as good a time as any to unveil the pieces that will be included in my solo exhibition The Point of Departure, which is opening this Saturday, Nov. 6. I just finished finalizing all the text for the placards in the exhibition last night, shared below; there’s a little explanation of each piece and a brief discussion of the point of the departure for the show itself. Enjoy!

I also just added the Chinese translation of the show’s press release to the bottom of this post; sorry not to have that up sooner!

Four days out, and I’d say we’re in pretty good shape. We’re constructing the frame for the big Self-Portrait installation, which I can now confirm is up to 18 channels from the originally advertized 15. I tweaked the sound component of the software yesterday and added some real-time color correction (at first I thought this would be cheating, but I checked, and no it’s not). The rest of the gear should show up later today, and then we just plug everything together and see what happens!

I also pulled my synth-pop set out of mothballs two days ago for the first time since my June 5 show at D-22 in Beijing, and it’s surprisingly rust free. “口口口口口口口口” always gives me some trouble, but I’ll have the kinks worked out by Saturday.

See you then!

OK, here are those promised placards…

The Point of Departure
Ben Houge Solo Exhibition

Where to begin? In addition to its strictly geographic connotations, the phrase “point of departure” indicates a conceptual transition. For an artist, “point of departure” is another term for inspiration. It implies a connection, perhaps one that didn’t exist previously. For years, the focus of my work has been to underline connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, disciplines, and people. This has led me to a diverse practice that encompasses classical composition, videogame development, performance, pop production, video art, and sound installation.

The point of departure for my gallery work is sound. Sound is where I started; I grew up singing in church choirs and writing pop songs, and my university studies were in classical music composition. Perhaps music, historically the most abstract art form, lends itself to thinking primarily in purely structural terms. Over time it seemed only natural to attempt to apply my sonic structures to other media.

For twelve years, until about two years ago, my full-time job was designing audio for videogames. Early on, I observed that the challenges of creating organization in this inherently indeterminate medium were prefigured by the aleatoric works of composers like John Cage, Earle Brown, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ideas from their work, as well as from my own experience in videogame development, have in turn served as the point of departure for much of my recent music and installation work, in which I write software that incorporates real-time, algorithmic techniques to generate ambient, evolving environments.

This exhibition marks a transition in the physical, geographical sense as well, as I arrive at the end of my six month artist residency at the True Color Museum. I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Chen Hanxing and all the staff of the True Color Museum for generously supporting my stay here.

-Ben Houge

起航
霍杰明个人展览

从何说起呢?除了它严格的地理学意义, “起航”一词象征着一个概念上的过渡。作为一个艺术家,“起航”在这里代表着另一个含义—-灵感。它暗示一种关系,或许先前本不存在的关系。多年来,我的工作重心是让表面上好似毫无关联的意见、原则和人,加强彼此之间的联系。这种行为让我的艺术创作呈现多元化的特色,包括传统的艺术模式,电子游戏开发,行为艺术,波普艺术,录像艺术及声音装置等。

声音是我的艺术创作的起点。歌声,是我生命开始的地方。小时候,我是在教堂唱诗班长大的,后来,也会学着写流行音乐曲。我在大学里学的就是古典音乐创作。从历史的观点看,可能音乐是最抽象的艺术形式,它让人们从纯粹的结构关系去思考问题。后来自然的,我对声音的严谨把握渐渐延伸到其它的艺术媒介。

有十二年,我都是全身投入到为视频游戏设计声音的工作中,直到两年前才停止。早期的时候,我注意到在这种本来就没有什么固定媒介的创作组织中工作是一种挑战,一些前辈人物,比如John Cage, Earle Brown,和Karlheinz Stockhausen等都在挑战这样的尝试,他们工作的灵感结合我自己在电子游戏方面的工作经验,成为我近年来音乐及装置作品的创作源泉。我运用我所学到的知识,去编写软件程序,把真实时间和算法技术合并到一起,去建立一个不断发展变化的周边世界。

这个展览是我结束在本色美术馆6个月驻馆计划的一个过渡性总结,不管在身体上或地理上都是这样。在这里我对陈涵星先生和本色美术馆全体同仁致以诚挚的感谢!

-Ben Houge

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure 起航黄昏的自画像
Real-time audiovisual installation for 18 channels of video and 4 channels of sound
2010

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure suspends a poignant moment in time and makes it last forever, in a way that is unique to the digital medium. Unlike a photograph, which freezes a moment, or a looping video, which repeats a moment, this work uses non-linear deployment techniques borrowed from videogame design to layer and offset a moment in such a way that it can never be said to be starting or stopping, ending or beginning. The rich texture that emerges from this multiplicity of independent images serves to homogenize the source video into a new aggregate that provides an ever-changing vantage point on that captured time.

Much of my work is meant to “emulate nature in her manner of operation,” to quote John Cage. Here, the complex patterns that result from 18 independent video channels evoke falling raindrops, the growth of cells, or the slowly shifting tree branches that are the video’s ostensible subject. The motion of the hand-held camera exposes the movements of the person attempting to hold it still, which can be seen as a metaphor for the effort to hold back time. The source video was filmed in St. Paul, MN, USA, last January, on the lawn outside my brother’s house, in the ten minutes before we got into the car, and he drove me to the airport.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure is dedicated to Nate, Jodi, Lydia, and Elsa Houge.

《起航黄昏的自画像》让一个时刻凝结并永生,在某种程度上,它比数字介质还要独特,不像照片,冻结了某个时刻,也不像循环短片,它重复着一个时刻。这件作品用非线性部署技术借用视频游戏设计层偏移片刻。它无所谓开始,也永远不会结束,她丰富的内容让很多独立片段的影像重叠复制,在瞬间产生动态的积蓄力量。

引用约翰凯奇的话来说,我的大部分工作是为了“在她的运作方式下努力赶超自然”在这里,从18个独立的视频频道中得到的复杂图案,所表现的主题是下雨的雨滴,细胞的生长或者树枝的缓慢移动。手持相机的动作暴露了持有人的企图是仍然想把镜头抓稳,这可以理解为一种想留住时间的努力。源视频是拍摄于圣保罗,明尼苏达,美国。当时是去年一月,在我哥哥的房子外面的草坪上,在坐进轿车之前的十分钟,他才开车送我去机场。

作品《起航黄昏的自画像》献给Nate, Jodi, Lydia Elsa Houge。

Transportation Is Getting a New Look 交通战线换新貌
Real-time, single channel video installation
2010

Transportation20100517184635

Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a continuous, algorithmic reconfiguration of a 1970’s propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌”. It suggests the kind of public collage that emerges when posters are anonymously applied to a city wall. Old posters are covered up or torn down, images fade with time, and the present becomes a canvas for the future, depicting the process history. As the original poster disintegrates, its pieces give way to a formal play of rectilinear forms such as one might find in a Soviet propaganda poster by Kasimir Malevich. The work thus creates a tension between two different modes of meaning: one is representational and textual; the other is structural and experiential.

该作品是对1970年代一个流行的宣传海报“革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌”的持续的解构和重塑。老海报预示着一种未来,也记录着历史的进程,这件作品试图表达两种含义,一是代表性的,文字性的,一是框架性的,实验性的。

Shanghai Traces上海轨迹
Real-time, single-channel video installation
2010

Shanghai Traces 2010119120335

Shanghai Traces was a response to the massive beautification campaign that the city underwent in preparation for hosting the World Expo this year. The falling objects are the colorful wares of Shanghai street vendors, a reminder that every person who passes through a city leaves a trace, however fleeting. The resulting patterns and combinations evoke the movements and exchanges of city dwellers, in the same way Merce Cunningham once explained what his choreography was about by pointing out a window at busy Manhattan traffic and saying, “That.”

《上海轨迹》是对上海为了举办世博会而进行的庞大的城市美化工程的一种反映。画面中坠落的物体都是上海街头小摊的颜色,它寓意是每一个从城市经过的人都留下了痕迹,大家看到的动态图案反应着城市居住者的生活动态。某种程度上类似于Merce Cunningham对他舞蹈含义的描述他指着窗外曼哈顿街头繁忙的交通说:看吧,我的舞蹈就是这样的景象。

Giraffe 2009791224 长颈鹿 2009791224
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 3/20
2009

Giraffe 2009791224

Giraffe 200971712495 长颈鹿200971712495
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 2/20
2009

Giraffe 200971712495

Giraffe 200971315148 长颈鹿 200971315148
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20
2009

Giraffe 200971315148

Giraffe 2009628223541 长颈鹿 2009628223541
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20
2009

Giraffe 2009628223541

Giraffe 2009714105550 长颈鹿2009714105550
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20
2009

Giraffe 2009714105550

Giraffe 2009719145217 长颈鹿 2009719145217
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20
2009

Giraffe 2009719145217

The series I eventually dubbed 29 Giraffes was my first foray into visual art, a process I quietly investigated over a period of more than two years. In the initial tests of my software, I used as source material a photograph of a giraffe I took in Kenya in 2006, but in the prints I finally exhibited for the first time in August 2009, the source material was a set of photographs of neon lights I took along Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian walkway. The resulting images are reminiscent of the compression of the urban experience Kurt Schwitters achieved in his Mertz collages, conveying something of the disorienting and exhilarating overstimulation of life in one of the world’s largest and fastest evolving cities.

这组叫做《长颈鹿》的作品是我首次影像艺术的尝试,整个过程大约两年多。在最初的软件实验中,我使用的是我在2006年肯尼亚拍摄的长颈鹿照片。但是用照片来展示这种艺术形式的时间是2009年,那时的原材料已经换成了我在上海南京东路步行街拍摄的霓虹灯照片。这些图片表达着这个世界上最大最繁忙的都市的城市景象的压缩。有点类似德国艺术家Kurt Schwitters表达的对城市快速发展的疏离感。

Grisly Death by Shanghai Cab

Here’s a song about riding bikes and falling in love in Shanghai (right click and “save as…” to download MP3).

Grisly Death by Shanghai Cab

It’s not connected at all with my upcoming exhibition, but last night as I was practicing the piano for my performance at the show opening (Nov. 6!), I finally solved the puzzle of the harmony of the middle section of this song, which has been nagging at me for months. So I ran out and grabbed my H4 Zoom audio recorder and got it down quick, and I love the idea of something being available for download about 12 hours after it’s finished, so here you go. If you want a setting, imagine a dark auditorium (I don’t know how to turn on the lights in there, but I really don’t mind playing piano in the dark, although it wasn’t so practical for recording, but I managed) on the top floor of the True Color Museum, big windows onto the quiet outskirts of Suzhou, about 10:30pm at night.

I started this song about six years ago. It’s becoming an unfortunate pattern for me to work on a song for five or six years. The last one was “Go,” which I posted on NeoCha about a year ago, and the next one is “Cross Ocean,” which is about half recorded, pending completion of an unnecessarily complex algorithmic breakdown section. (Most of my songs, including “Go,” were posted on Chinese social networking site NeoCha, which despite my unflagging support was shut down a few weeks back, which is a bit annoying, so I currently have a lot of broken links on my site. If you need an interim fix, check out my Last.fm page, or NeoCha’s hardier competitor, Douban.)

Anyway, the title and main hook just came to me, as these things do, about six years ago, as I was getting accustomed to life in Shanghai. At the beginning I was simply amused by the incongruity of such a dark lyric with what I imagined to be a bouncy, Burt Bacharach style musical setting (the melody and irregular phrasing certainly have some Bacharachian countours, if it’s not too immodest of me to say so). I always planned, and still do, I guess, to arrange this for chamber orchestra; there’s an intro/outro flugelhorn figure in my head, not represented in this recording.

So for a long time I just had this title/lyric and few other ideas that started to casually conglomerate around it usually while walking or biking around Shanghai. But after I’d been dating Jutta for a while, a more complex narrative started to emerge, associated with this idea that basically the more you start to care for someone, the more you worry about them; the two come hand in hand. And Jutta bikes like a maniac, and there have been times when her phone’s been out of battery or she doesn’t pick up and I’ve found myself rather distraught. It’s a little bit of the idea from the film What About Bob, where if you walk down the street yelling things like “turkey tits!” pretending to have Tourette syndrome, you must not actually have it. By imagining the worst, somehow the worst feels less likely.

I was trying to finish this song as a birthday present to Jutta in 2009, but this has proven to be one of the trickiest songs I’ve ever written. I almost completed it in time for her birthday this year, finishing the last lyrics on the train from Frankfurt to meet her in Cologne last August, but these last tricky chords still eluded me. I was trying to convey the idea of working oneself into a worried frenzy, imagining increasingly implausible scenarios, and I found this difficult to reconcile harmonically with the rest of the song.

Here’s the solution. The bridge pops down a whole step to a new, but closely related key area, signifying a new mental perspective. It starts out with a simple pattern (though also ambiguous, hovering mostly on the subdominant), twice transposed through a little twist up a minor third (F-Ab-B), getting higher and louder, then an irrational leap up another minor third (skipping ahead in the twist) to D, then this alternation of Bb minor 7 (implying melodic minor, raised sixth scale degree) with an octatonic scale also based on Bb (starting Bb-Cb-Db), trying out different scale degrees as a root (D, G, and F, kind of directionless pacing or flailing, not leading to harmonic resolution), before finally using F to slip into a FmM7 as a weird kind of resolution to something that’s still not quite settled, then eventually continuing through a more conventional cadence, gm7, d9, then to a kind of BM7 (which I voice as just an F with a Bb in the bass, although I guess I stuck a D in there, too, so whatever you want to call it). Then slipping into this thinner, ambiguous quartal set of G-A-C-D, which, since A is in the bass, allows us to fall, exhausted, back into our familiar e minor in a kind of plagal fashion. It took me many, many drafts to arrive at this! BTW, the high notes that I’m not quite hitting 3 times in this recording are Ab’s, way out of my range, but hopefully fitting in the context of the song.

OK, interlude over, I’m testing some computer configurations for my installation this morning, then I’m off to Shanghai to tackle printing for my show. I guess if I were more marketing/branding-attuned, I would, you know, stay more on message through Nov. 6, but such is the fickle nature of inspiration. Get it while it’s hot!

Now see you on Nov. 6 in Suzhou!

The Point of Departure

My solo show is confirmed, so stoked, here’s the full press release…
中文版本在下面!

The Point of Departure: Ben Houge Solo Exhibition
November 6-December 5, 2010
http://www.benhouge.com/news.html
True Color Museum 本色美术馆
219 Tongda Rd
(at the intersection of Jiushenggang Rd, near Guoxiang)
Wuzhong District, Suzhou, China
苏州市吴中区通达路 219 号本色美术馆(近郭巷)
0512-65968890
http://www.truecolormuseum.org/

Composer and digital media artist Ben Houge presents the culmination of his six-month residency at Suzhou’s True Color Museum with a solo show entitled “The Point of Departure.” The focal point of this exhibition is a new, real-time 18-channel video installation entitled Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure, an ambient work that applies concepts from videogame design and granular synthesis to video, to make a poignant moment last forever. Also included in the show are selected videos and digital prints providing a survey of Ben’s visual output over the past two years.

An afternoon-long digital music festival will celebrate the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, November 6, from 1pm until 7pm. The lineup includes performances by Hangzhou-based digital artists Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 and Wang Changcun 王长存, as well as Shanghai’s Xu Cheng 徐程 (of Torturing Nurse). Ben’s live performances are known to vary widely in style, and he will celebrate this diversity by performing three different sets of music: an ambient electronic set, a synth-pop set of original songs, and an acoustic set of favorite tunes by artists including John Cage and Jay Chou 周杰伦.

Long active in new music circles in China and the US, Ben Houge has been increasingly visible in galleries in recent years, with work exhibited at Art+Shanghai Gallery, OV Gallery, and [the studio] in Shanghai, as well as at the Today Art Museum in Beijing. His video Shanghai Traces, originally exhibited at OV Gallery’s Make Over show last spring, was shortlisted for the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play Biennial and has recently been acquired for permanent installation at Shanghai’s Glamour Bar. Ben has performed around eastern China and at all of Shanghai’s primary live music venues, as well as at the Shanghai eArts Festival, the Mini Midi Festival, Hangzhou’s 2Pi Festival, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, the Shanghai Conservatory, the South River Art Center, and several NOIShanghai events. This summer he toured Germany with trumpet player Justin Sebastian. Prior to embarking on a full-time career as an artist, Ben spent twelve years designing audio for videogames, most recently serving as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar (Xbox 360/PS3) at Ubisoft Shanghai. The concepts of non-linear, real-time, algorithmic and procedural structure he honed as a videogame developer serve as the point of departure for his more recent work in a broader cultural arena. Much more information about Ben is on his website: http://www.benhouge.com.

This exhibition and music festival mark Ben’s final public appearances in Shanghai for the immediate future, as he relocates to the USA for much of 2011. The artist would also like point out that a train from Shanghai to Suzhou takes less than half an hour these days, and a round trip ticket is less than 100 RMB. So don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience the various facets of Ben Houge’s evolving oeuvre in one idyllic setting!

In an ancient city renowned for its cultural heritage, True Color Museum is Suzhou’s key destination for contemporary art. Founded by the intrepid music business entrepreneur Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 in 2008 as one of the leading privately owned art museums in China, True Color Museum has exhibited artwork by leading artists from China and around the world, most recently in the acclaimed “Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta” exhibition last summer and in Taiwan’s Hsiau Jungching 萧荣庆 solo show (ongoing through November 11). The beautiful museum compound, designed by Chen Hanxing, is a destination in itself, and the museum’s active artist residency program has nurtured the careers of many established and emerging artists. Additional information is available on the museum’s website: http://www.truecolormuseum.org/.

《起航:霍杰明个人展览》
二零一零年十一月六号至十二月五号
苏州本色美术馆
苏州市吴中区通达路 219 号本色美术馆(近郭巷)
0512-65968890
http://www.truecolormuseum.org/
http://www.benhouge.com/news.html

个展《起航》是作曲家以及数字媒体艺术家霍杰明(Ben Houge)作为在苏州本色美术馆六个月驻馆经历的浓缩。这次展览的焦点他新作的18个频道录像作品影像装置——《起航点黄昏自画像》, 把电子游戏和粒状合成的概念融合并应用到作品中以营造令人长久感动的氛围 。另外,本次展览中另外一些数字媒体作品是霍杰明过去两年中对此方面的研究。

为庆祝展览开幕,11月6日星期六,将有一场从下午1点持续到7点电子音乐节。会有来自杭州本土声音电子艺术家姚大钧和王长存,以及上海的徐程(来自Torturing Nurse乐队)进行表演。 霍杰明的现场表演一向风格广泛,他将有三次不通风格的表演体现这样的多样性:一次是电子环境音乐,一次是合成器流行歌,一次是我最喜欢的周杰伦和约•翰凯奇歌曲集合。

由于长期在中国和美国新音乐圈活跃,霍杰明的展览的已经越来越多:上海“艺术+上海”画廊、OV画廊、[the studio],以及北京的今日艺术馆。他的录像作品《上海轨迹 Shanghai Traces 》,去年春天参与OV画廊的”Make Over”展览,入围的古根海姆的YouTube播放双年展,最近永久的成为了上海Glamour Bar的室内装置。 霍杰明在中国东部地区和上海所有的主要现场音乐场所表演过。以及上海电子艺术节,迷你迷笛音乐节,杭州二皮音乐节,上海证大现代艺术馆,上海音乐学院,南岸艺术中心等等 。今年夏天,他和小号手贾斯汀塞巴斯蒂安去了德国。 作为一个全职艺术家,霍杰明之前的十二年为视频游戏设计声音,最近在上海的育碧游戏软件开发商担任 Tom Clancy’s EndWar(Xbox 360/PS3) 的音频主管。他作为一个视频游戏开发商磨练出非线性,实时,算法和程序结构的概念,让他在一个更广泛的文化领域工作有一个新的出发点。更多关于Ben请链接:http://www.benhouge.com.

在这个古老又富涵文化底蕴的城市,苏州本色美术馆因当代艺术而闻名,是一所成立于2008年由企业家陈翰星开办的私人美术馆。本色美术馆展出了来自中国和世界各地的先锋艺术家的作品,近期有今年夏天的“中国性:当代艺术文献展“展览,以及台湾萧荣庆的个展(展出至11月11日)。 美术馆由陈翰星设计,外观造型独特,而其本身就是一个目标:美术馆的艺术家留驻计划为很多知名或新兴艺术家建立了良好的平台。更多关于苏州本色美术馆的消息请链接:http://www.truecolormuseum.org/.

Shanghai Traces at the Guggenheim! And e4c!

Two super exciting bits of news about my Shanghai Traces video!

I’m pleased to announce that Shanghai Traces has made the shortlist for YouTube Play, the Guggenheim’s new Biennial for Creative Video. Here’s the full press release. The entire YouTube Play shortlist is on display at http://www.youtube.com/play (keep an eye out for AleaBoy!), as well as at kiosks in the Guggenheim Museums in New York, Berlin, Bilbao, and Venice, through October 21.

I also just realized that I am already at liberty to announce that Shanghai Traces has been selected to be screened at Seattle’s e4c Gallery early next year! Check out their announcement. I’m going to adapt the piece to run across four monitors at 4Culture‘s innovative downtown storefront gallery for digital art, and once it’s up, it will be in rotation for a full year! I’m also planning some Seattle performances around that time; when it’s all nailed down, you’ll be the first to know.

Here’s the video in question:

(Read more about the genesis of Shanghai Traces here.)

The Guggenheim says they received over 23,000 entries from 91 countries for YouTube Play, which they eventually narrowed down to 125 for the shortlist (and, yes, they promise they watched them all). For more info, be sure to check out YouTube Play’s companion blog The Take.

The next step is adjudication by a celebrity panel comprised of Laurie Anderson (a longtime hero of mine), Animal Collective, Darren Aronofsky (I hope he digs up my glowing twitter review of The Fountain from a year or two ago), Douglas Gordon, Ryan McGinley (whose work I just saw at UCCA in Beijing a few months ago), Marilyn Minter, Takashi Murakami, Shirin Neshat, Stefan Sagmeister, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; can’t wait to see it!), and Nancy Spector from the Guggenheim. The jury will select up to 20 of their faves to be presented at a special event at the Guggenheim New York on Oct. 21.

I’m particularly stoked about the prospect of Laurie Anderson spending a few minutes getting to know my work, after all the time I’ve spent getting to know hers. I attribute her, in a roundabout way, to connecting in my brain the world of classical music that I was studying in college with the world of pop music to which I’d been listening (and which I’d been writing) growing up. She was also the reason for my only visit to New York so far, to catch Songs and Stories from Moby Dick at BAM in 1999. Though I wonder how she’s going to find time for all this adjudication with her new performance piece in full swing.

Anyway, wish me luck!

And of course any day now Shanghai Traces should be up at Glamour Bar on Shanghai’s historic riverfront. Since they wanted to show it on a big 42” screen, I obligingly created a high resolution version of the piece, which you can view below (click the four arrows icon in the lower right corner to go full screen).

I, Too, Became a Dissident

Here it is: the ambient, algorithmic art video the Shanghai Cultural Bureau doesn’t want you to see!

Transportation Is Getting a New Look from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This piece was first exhibited as part of the “Re-Visioning History” show that opened on May 22, 2010, at OV Gallery in Shanghai. Less than a week later, representatives of the Cultural Bureau came in and shut down the show, walking off with a print from my video.

It’s not clear why my work was singled out for confiscation. The show was centered around the work of Zhang Dali 张大力 and Ren Hong 任虹, with several other artists (myself included) invited to present new work based on a collection of historical propaganda posters on loan from Madame Mao’s Dowry. Most analysts agree, and I wouldn’t argue, that my work was probably the least politically oriented in the show. It may simply have come down to my work being most portable and closest to the door. Oddly, they only took one of the two prints I made from the video, ignoring the video itself.

Transportation20100518011250

The principle objection seems to have been to the work of Zhang Dali. His work was drawn from a 7-year project called “A Second History,” in which he used his connections to gain access to the national archives in Beijing. He managed to locate the original, historical photographs that were used as the basis for various propaganda posters, which he then incorporated into work that presented both versions of history side by side, in digital prints, silk screens, and paintings. He had already exhibited this work several times without major incident, most recently at the Guangdong Museum of Art, though the rumor is that after the Guangdong show he was pegged as someone to keep an eye on. The most plausible explanation I’ve heard for the OV Gallery show’s closure is that the powers-that-be didn’t want to come across as enemies of culture by officially censoring the show (especially with heightened foreign attention during the Shanghai Expo), so instead they got the gallery on technicalities like selling catalogues and exhibiting foreign artists without a license. So it in all likelihood had nothing to do with my art (which does not mean I’m not mentioning it in every grant application I write from this point forward).

You can read more about the incident in That’s Shanghai, Shanghaiist, and the Wall Street Journal.

And then suddenly on June 22, one month after the original opening, the gallery was permitted to reopen. They even returned my piece, which is actually a bit disappointing; I kind of liked the idea of it hanging over some Cultural Bureau functionary’s desk somewhere. There was a little reopening party on June 26, and the show’s run has been extended through August 5, to make up for the period that the gallery was closed.

All of the hoopla surrounding my piece’s confiscation and the gallery closure has somewhat deflected attention from the work itself, with which, in fact, I am quite pleased.

Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a real-time, algorithmic collage of snippets from a 1970’s Chinese propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌.” The point of departure was the idea of a city wall covered with posters. Old posters fade and are torn down, new posters cover them up, and a new, unpredictable form emerges from the remnants, an evolving public collage.

Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌

My video employs custom computer software (developed in Jitter) to algorithmically emulate this process. The program excises sections of the original propaganda poster and pastes them onto a new digital canvas in constantly varying configurations. The composition unfolds in six overlapping “phrases” of about one to two minutes, each of which define an area to be statistically filled with snippets of the original image in varying sizes and densities. Sometimes the program focuses on one part of the source image, resulting in a consistent shape or repeated gesture. Sometimes the differences are greater: a small detail may be enlarged, or an image may be reduced to a texture or color. As new images are overlaid, the foreground is constantly receding into the background; the present forms a canvas for the future.

As with Shanghai Traces, I feel this is a particularly good pairing of subject and medium. The theme of the show, and the subject of this video, is the process of the present becoming the past, forming history. The medium of generative video provides an apt opportunity to evoke this process by means of another process. The video explores the unique properties of the digital medium; you couldn’t obtain the same results (the repetition of images in varying sizes, scales, and degrees of fadedness, not to mention the systematic evolution over time) using traditional paper collage or any other medium.

The video explores modes of propaganda. Slogans on posters, plastered in profusion, represent perhaps the most common form of propaganda: persuasion through sheer repetition, with no attempt at a reasoned argument. You see that happening in this piece, as the program tends to pick from roughly the same area of the source image for stretches at a time. But while working on this piece, I was also reviewing the work of the Russian Constructivist and Suprematist artists of the early 20th century, who were using pure, abstract forms to convey ideas about relationships and society: structural propaganda, still very much intended to alter society. The blocks of images that comprise my video at times resemble some sketches of Kasimir Malevich. The fragmentation of images in my work can at times feel violent as figures are chopped in half and hand-holding friends are sundered. On the other hand, one figure from the source poster can be cloned indefinitely to form an anonymous crowd or disintegrate into an abstract texture.

I don’t deny it: this is a long excerpt to post on Vimeo. But I also wanted to showcase the large scale ebb and flow of the piece. The pacing of this work is slower than other works of mine, such as Shanghai Traces, and things can take longer to come into focus. The viewer must constantly reevaluate the evolving, emergent structure of the composition. There’s a constant fluctuation between foreground and background as the images slowly fade out, and the rate of fade itself is constantly varying. Independent elements may suddenly coalesce into a balanced structure, only to be ruptured by some new element, which may seem out of place until it becomes a key component of some new structure, or it may simply get covered up and forgotten. The eyes and brain are constantly popping between phases of meaning and order, continuously addressing what to me is one of the most important and fundamental structural questions (something I grapple with in audio as well as visual pieces): “What makes things the same, and what makes them different?”

This is not to say you have to watch the video for a long time to appreciate it; part of the point of the piece is that its generative nature allows you to make your own beginning and ending as you enter or leave the installation, so feel free to start the video somewhere in the middle and watch for as long as you want. The piece also works in an excerpt as brief as a single frame, as you can see in this Flickr gallery.

Transportation20100517184635

The video was originally exhibited without sound. For this excerpt, I’ve added some ambient light traffic, recorded from my rooftop studio at True Color Museum, Suzhou, China, where I’m doing an artist residency through the end of July 2010.

BTW, if you read Chinese, you’ll spot some odd characters popping in from time to time. These are from the second batch of simplified Chinese characters (known as “二间”) that were announced in 1977 and then rescinded in 1986, which indicates a time frame in which this poster was originally published. 皃 has since been reverted to its original form 貌, 乙+心 is now 意, 尸+一 is now 展, etc. 片 is also now written slightly differently. For an exhaustive accounting of which characters were changed when, check out this site!

It’s for this experimental film that nobody knows about and which I’m still figuring out what’s going to go in my experimental film.

Hey, look at this thing I made:

Study for Insomnia from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This is what I spent the last 4 days doing, instead of everything else I should have been doing instead. I’m calling it “Study for Insomnia.”

It began as a demo for artist Cindy Ng 吴少英, whose video work is presented in the same room as my 路口 sound installation at Art+Shanghai (you have until November 1 to see the show, so hurry!). She was asking how my piece was constructed (audio “phrases” strung together and overlapped in real-time by a computer, providing constant variation), and I suggested that it would be possible to use the same technique to deploy her video work. I made a quick demo to show her last weekend before we collaborated on one of her “Ink Walk” performances, and she was intrigued to the point that we’re now planning a full-on collaboration. I’ve continued to flesh out my little demo over the last few days into something I’m pretty happy with, and it ought to serve as a pretty good template for whatever we end up doing together.

Like most of my electronic pieces, there’s no pure synthesis going on; everything is manipulated from source recordings, in this case, video and audio recordings of rumpled bed sheets (yes, the inspiration came while lying awake a few nights ago). The unpredictable patterns that result are similar to other kinds of natural phenomena from which I draw inspiration (e.g., rain, fireworks, traffic), chaotic on a small scale, but consistent on a large scale. Like my other installation work, the piece can continue indefinitely, with no beginning or end; here, for convenience, I’ve recorded only a brief excerpt.

I guess you could call this my first video piece. I’ve been using Jitter, the video-processing add-on for Max/MSP for over a year, although this is the first time I’m presenting the results publicly. The first time I used it was in the software I developed for my performance (together with Yan Jun 颜峻 and Bruce Gremo) of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival in October 2008, but it was used only to prepare cues for myself, not projected for the audience to see. (In fact, in the very first version of this little demo, I used a snippet from Screen Play as video source, a shot of rolling waves.) I’ve also used Jitter in some consulting I did for a videogame company last winter, analyzing audio signals to generate game levels.

I’m not sure yet if this will ultimately serve as the background texture of a bigger piece later on, or if it’s fine just as it is, as a super ambient standalone piece. I could see it working as a backdrop for a live performance. Or it could work in a gallery setting (ideally with 4 channels of sound). For what it’s worth, in terms of scale and mood, the 4-day process of putting this program together felt very much like writing a pop song.

What’s happening in the program is pretty simple. I’m picking little bits of my original bed sheet video and slowing them down, rotating them, and fading in and out from black. There are four asynchronous layers of this activity happening at once. The speeds are different, and there are slight hue offsets for each phrase. I adjust the contrast, hue, and saturation, and I add some feedback. For each video phrase, I pick an audio phrase from my original wave file (recorded separately from the video), and fade in and out, in time with the video. I’m also analyzing the average brightness of each video stream and using that to control the pitch of a bank of filters that the audio runs through before hitting the speakers. For each phrase I pick a different pitch multiplier (over roughly 4 octaves of a just intonation minor scale, not that it matters). Hue, feedback, filter Q, cutoff frequency, and probably a few other things are slowly modulated by random offsets to keep things interesting. I found there are lots of settings that produce different outcomes, all acceptable, so I implemented the old John Cage dictum: “Say we have a problem and 100 solutions; instead of chosing just one of them, we use them all.”

I ran into a tricky little trigonometry problem while working on this piece. I had to figure out the zoom ratio while rotating the images so that I wouldn’t go off the image and add weird black edges to the composite. I pondered long and hard, and I think I was at least looking in the right direction, but I eventually had to enlist the help of my pal Micah Sittig, who teaches physics over at SMIC Private School, and to whose class I gave a little presentation on music acoustics last March. He solved the problem in about a minute. It’s good to have smart friends. Thanks, Micah!

Crazy coincidence: yesterday while working on this piece, I thought I’d take a break and listen to something new, and a CD of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen came to mind. I picked up this disk following one of the premiere performances of his fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho’s second opera Adriana Mater in Paris in 2006, but I had never listened to it. I feel like a CD, if I have any reason to believe it will be good, really ought to have a focused and concentrated first listening, and consequently, I have a huge stack of shame of CD’s I’ve purchased, but haven’t yet had the time to devote to a proper first listen. Especially with all the hoo-ha about the new music director Gustavo Dudamel taking Salonen’s place at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I’ve been thinking lately I really ought to listen to it. So today I picked it up and unwrapped it, and to my amazement, the last piece is also called Insomnia! I’d already been planning to call this new piece of mine something about insomnia for a few days, so I swear I didn’t steal the idea, unless it was buried somewhere deep in my subconscious. Anyway, I just listened to it, and it’s really a really nice piece, though somewhat more detailed than mine. Isn’t that nuts?

please briefly describe the future of electronic music

I’ve been asked to perform at a “Non-academic Style Electroacoustic Music” concert at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as part of The 2009 Shanghai International Electroacoustic Music Week. The concert’s being put together by Zhao Junyuan 昭骏园, also featuring Wang Changcun 王长存, Torturing Nurse, Mai Mai, and Junyuan’s band Power Wood Quality 木电质. Our concert occurs on the afternoon of October 21 from 2pm-5pm (discussion included) in the Conservatory’s Reporting Hall, 20 Fenyang Lu (near Fuxing Lu). I plan to present a concert version of Kaleidoscope Music.

The festival runs October 19-23 (plus workshops extending on either side), and the whole week should be fun. There’s lots of other good stuff on the program, including another visit to Shanghai from Neil Rolnick, and a performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars of works by Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, Tan Dun 谭盾, and others. Check out the complete schedule.

I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Rolnick again. He’s a computer music pioneer, and I remember listening to his A Robert Johnson Sampler as an undergrad at St. Olaf in the mid-90’s. He was in China last year for a show at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and he stopped by Shanghai to play at a NOIShanghai event at Live Bar. We had a fascinating chat over Hunan food; he’s got interesting stories about everyone in music. (You can download A Robert Johnson Sampler and other works on his music page.)

I got to say, I’ve criticized the Shanghai Conservatory in the past for being insular and not taking a leading role in the city’s cultural life, but I have to publicly eat my words. It’s a really great gesture for them to invite other parts of Shanghai’s active new music community to come participate in this event. Good on ya, Shanghai Conservatory!

In preparation for the concert, I was asked to respond to the following questions.

1. your definition to electronic music?

I don’t know if electronic music has a useful definition anymore. Everything we listen to now is electronic. Most music is produced on a computer, even if it starts off as an acoustic recording. And almost all music we listen to is coming from an electronic device, a CD player, an iPod, a television, etc. Even most acoustic performances, other than strictly traditional classical performances, are usually amplified, with sound coming from speakers that are plugged in.

2. your opinion on “electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media”?

Probably the most worthless of those terms is “new media.” To me that just means, “We’ll think of a better term for this later.” All media was new at some point. Even so, I find myself using this term as an umbrella term out of convenience sometimes, to indicate recent art involving electricity that doesn’t fall into a clearer category.

“Noise” isn’t very useful either. The most useful definition of noise is something unpredictable, a series in which there’s no relationship between what’s happening now and what’s come before. In a computer, a stream of random numbers sent to the sound card is a literal definition of white noise. “Noise” has come to mean something harsh and anarchic and aggressive, but in fact, noise is a component of almost all sound. The lulling sound of waves on the shore or wind in the trees is noise, but it doesn’t come across as angry; it’s just nature.

I usually use “digital art” to describe my work, since a lot of it can only be done in the digital domain, using a computer. But I suppose if you really wanted, you could find analog ways to do a lot of what I’m doing.

3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music

Coming from a background in videogames, I fervently believe that interactivity and real-time algorithmic procedures are going to play an increasing role in how we experience music. People like me have been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s a failed vision of utopia; it’s just that there’s a lot of work left to do. On one hand, it’s the future of the CD, not as a physical medium, but a digital format. It’s also the proliferation of sound installation-like artworks in virtual spaces. Some things will be interactive, some things will non-interactive but ever-changing, and some things will continue to be linear experiences; it depends on what’s right for the idea the artist is trying to convey. We need to devise new formats and new experiences for these formats, rather than to try to retrofit existing, linear music into non-linear formats.

I’d like to think multi-channel sound will play a prominent role in the future of music, but I’m somewhat less optimistic on this front, given that most people can’t properly set up a 5.1 system in their living rooms. But we can hope. And of course, there needs to be compelling content authored for multi-channel formats to encourage people to configure their systems properly. When we finally get to the point where we can beam music directly into peoples’ brains, then this problem will finally go away.

4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?

A piece I’ve been talking about a lot lately is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (2006). It comes very close to the idea of a virtual, portable audiovisual installation. It’s not a CD or DVD, but a program you install on your computer, and every time you run it, it generates a new version of the piece; hence the 77 million paintings of the title. The audio and visual components are not synthesized, but prepared in advance, which gives them a rough, natural, hand-manipulated quality. But the juxtapositions are determined in real-time by the program, so that you never see and hear the same thing twice. The images change very slowly, to the point that you’re not sure if the images are changing or if your eyes are simply adjusting to the color. I think that’s part of the genius of Brian Eno, a quality shared by his iPhone application Bloom, operating on the edge of perception.

I think the piece is almost perfect, but it’s still got a problem regarding the forum in which it is appreciated. Since you’ve got to install the program on your computer, you’re probably experiencing it on a computer monitor, sitting in an office chair, with your face several inches from the screen, alone, listening to the sound on poor quality computer monitors. It lacks a sense of space. The ideal forum for a piece like this is a living room. If the program could be run on a game console such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you could watch it on your HDTV, listen to it in 5.1 on high quality speakers, while lounging on your couch with friends. The game console is the closest thing we have to a distribution platform for sound installations.

5. what’s the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?

If classical music is well taught, there is no difference. Music is sound organized in time. Digital sound synthesis is music theory. Composers have always tried to organize sound with the tools at their disposal. In order to create more sophisticated structures, systems were created, rules were established. Rules and systems must serve the music. Common Practice Era harmony is one possible outcome of this line of thinking, but there are others, and thinking evolves over time. In music, as with the other arts, we are in a continual conversation with history, as artists have always been, and a responsible artist questions what is received from history before putting it to use.

I have very little patience for arguments that there’s some inherent difference between music and sound. This usually stems from some poor or incomplete musical training; people think that if something can’t be played on a piano or written on a five-line staff, it can’t be music.

6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception

One observation I’d make is that all music is indeterminate in some regard (and no music is indeterminate in every regard). A group of musicians performing a piece of acoustic music will play it slightly differently each time, with subtle inconsistencies in phrasing, volume, articulation, intonation, etc. In fact, these inconsistencies are often desirable, resulting in what we call “warmth” or “richness” in a performance. Even purely electronic pieces vary from performance to performance, depending on the playback equipment, the acoustical environment, and the audience’s position in it. And even if every other parameter could be fixed, the listener’s psychological state would be different at each listening, if for no other reason than the very fact of having heard the piece one more time.

Having acknowledged this, I find it useful to explore indeterminacy as an overt parameter of my music, to write music that encompasses all possible permutations, and to try to quantify what these permutations might mean.

7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.

I’m interested in using electronics exploring non-linear structures. If you define a structure that has some variability built into it, a computer is the most efficient tool to quickly examine and evaluate all possible permutations of that structure. I think this is a unique aspect of modern existence, with which everyone must grapple, consciously or not. So much of what we encounter everyday is non-linear, web pages for example, and mediated by technology. The sheer volume of information coming at us is so much greater than any previous generation has encountered, and we need tools to navigate it. Our lives have become tangled up in technology, which creates new challenges, but in understanding technology we can find new perspectives on the world around us.

A One-week Slice of Hong Kong Art Life

Circumstances conspired to land me in Hong Kong from September 28 through October 5, and I enjoyed a remarkably fun and eventful visit.

The night before I left Shanghai, I had dinner with Junky (from Torturing Nurse), Li Jianhong 李剑鸿, and Zbigniew Karkowski, who had just performed a very loud, very sparsely attended set at the 0093 rehearsal space a block from my apartment. Karkowski commented that in his often outspoken opinion, Hong Kong was overtaking mainland China as a hub for creativity activity, at least in the sonic arts. So it was a good time for me to go and make some assessments of my own.

My friend Nana Seo Eun-A had been encouraging me to come down to visit for a while. She works for Videotage, the 23-year-old Hong Kong-based new media center, but she always seems to be anywhere there’s cool stuff going on in Asian art. I met her in Beijing last April, when my and Chen Hangfeng’s 陈航峰 Kaleidoscope installation was up at the Today Art Museum (coinciding with the China International Gallery Exposition, just up the road), and she stopped by my workspace on a recent visit to Shanghai for the SH Contemporary. When I told her I might be swinging through Hong Kong, she encouraged me to extend my visit long enough to check out the beginning of the October Contemporary festival (October 2-31, 2009). Lots of other events were going on to coincide with the festival, too, so it was a great time to be in town. Nana has her finger on the pulse; she seems to know everyone and everything that’s going on in the arts, the result of a simple, sincere love for art, artists, and creativity that I truly admire.

Among her many welcoming gestures, when I sent an email to Nana asking about budget accommodation in Hong Kong, she wrote back almost immediately saying I had a reservation at ACO Air in Wan Chai (super centrally located on Hong Kong Island). ACO stands for Art and Culture Outreach, and their mission encompasses an affordable, short-term living space for visiting artists on the fourteenth floor of the Foo Tak Building (which also houses a number of arts organizations and artist studios, including those of Samson Young and João Vasco, about whom I will write more shortly), in addition to a wonderful bookstore and reading room on the first floor. As they would like it to be known, the operation of ACO 藝鴶 is largely supported by the Dawei Charitable Foundation Limited 達微慈善基金有限公司, and I would like to extend my heartiest thanks to them, and to their gracious manager Kobe, for supporting my arts investigation in Hong Kong; it was a fantastic place to stay, clean, central, with a nice view, and lots of opportunities to bump into other creative folks..

Monday

This was my second trip to Hong Kong; the first trip was exactly four years earlier, also during China’s national holiday. It felt familiar in a lot of regards. Getting from the airport to ACO was super convenient on the Airport Express and subway. Everywhere I looked, the obsession with cleanliness, especially in the swine flu era, was in full effect. Last time I visited, I was impressed with the orderliness of people queueing up to get on or off the subway; this time that impression was significantly less pronounced. Coming from ultraflat Shanghai, the vistas of mountain and ocean that would sneak up on me between buildings were a continual delight.

After Kobe got me settled in at ACO, I ventured out into the typhoon warning to meet up with Nana and her boyfriend Emmanuele (who goes by his old tagger name, Mine [pronounced Mee-nay]) for a fantastic vegetarian Indian dinner in Kowloon, at a little place called Branlo, I think. As I scribbled furious notes, the two of them gave me a very thorough itinerary of all the shows and galleries and openings and performances I was required to check out while I was in town.

Tuesday

Heading out on Tuesday, an old maxim was again validated; when looking for a restaurant, find the longest line and get in it! Fantastic barbecue pork with rice on Fleming, between Lockhart and Hennessy.

We had made plans for me to swing by Videotage on Tuesday afternoon, so I thought I’d stop by Osage Gallery, whose main branch is also on the Kowloon side, on the way there. When Nana told me about Nipan Oranniwesna’s City of Ghost installation, a sprawling city map rendered in baby powder, it didn’t sound like much, but when I walked into the space and caught sight of the work, I think I gasped audibly at the size, detail, and ephemerality of the undertaking. Also on view were a photo series called Hong Kong Intervenion by mainland artists Sun Yuan 孙原 and Peng Yu 彭禹 on the city’s large Filipino population, and Singaporean artist Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 蒋才雄 Story of Money installation, consisting of luxury suitcases containing Chinese characters in which the “bei 贝” radicals (etymologically indicating “money,” or literally, “cowry”) were replaced by actual cowries, a kind of clever comment on the deep roots of contemporary Chinese consumer culture.

In the elevator on the way down, I chatted with Wilson Kwan, who works for Osage, and handed him a Radiospace CD, which sparked a conversation about the gallery’s upcoming (last) intervention show (Oct 10-Nov 29), part of October Contemporary, featuring the work of Samson Young and Kingsley Ng, “two of Hong Kong’s emerging generation of tech-savvy multi-disciplinarians.” In addition to the gallery show, on the 17th Samson Young will be leading Urban Palimpsest: A Twilight Sound-Walk, a tour through the gallery’s Kwun Tong neighborhood, augmented by portable electronics. Sounds super cool; wish I was in town for that.

From Osage, I proceeded to get hopelessly lost in Kowloon. I thought I’d be able to find my way to Videotage using public transportation, too vain a world traveler to hail a cab. First I went two stops on the subway before I got Nana’s message that the only way to get there was a to take a bus, then it took another 45 minutes to find the right bus stop, then I went the wrong way on the bus (all the way to the terminus), until someone motioned for me to get on another bus, which randomly turned off its engine at another bus stop, at which point I was motioned into another bus with a different number, which never stopped at the stop I was looking for…I eventually got out and hailed a cab anyway. Nana latter laughed when I told her where I’d been, saying I’d managed to completely traverse Kowloon from east to west.

Anyway, I finally found Videotage, nestled into the Cattle Depot Artist Village, alongside 1a Space, On and On Theater, and other arts organizations. They didn’t have an exhibit up at the moment, but I got a presentation on the history of Videotage from Nana and her colleague Hilda Chan. They’re preparing an upcoming show called 20/20, which pairs work by artists currently in their 20’s with artists who were working at Videotage when it was founded over 20 years ago. Nana’s also planning a big event called Night Light Graffiti for the closing of October Contemporary on October 31. And just three days ago, they hosted Zbigniew Karkowski, Dickson Dee, and Sin:Ned on their Staticizer Tour, which I’m sad I had to miss, as I was already back in Shanghai. I was impressed by their clever Videotage business cards, cut at different intervals from those at which they were printed, so each one is unique!

My getting lost put us a bit behind schedule, so Nana and I had to rush off back to Wan Chai for a very tasty Cantonese seafood dinner with Ellen Pau and Alvis Choi, colleagues from Videotage who are also involved in the upcoming Microwave Festival of new media art this November. We had a fascinating discussion comparing the Hong Kong and Shanghai art landscapes, and as we were talking about art apps for iPhones, the topic of granular synthesis came up, which is about as good an invitation as I can think of for me to present some of my work. I happened to have my laptop handy, so I pulled out the EZGranulator app I had developed in Max/MSP a while ago as a demo for colleagues at Ubisoft, and also showed a bunch of my giraffe images, which I think of as a kind of visual granular synthesis.

Wednesday

Wednesday morning I set out for the Hong Kong Arts Center, a quick walk from ACO. Nana had recommended the show at the Goethe Institut on the 14th floor, which documents with photographs, transcribed interviews, and architectural renderings the illegal, temporary shelters that have been built on the roofs of dilapidated buildings in some of Hong Kong’s poorer neighborhoods, one of which happens to be across the street from Videotage. It was an interesting show, and while there I poked my head into their library, a minor treasure trove of German culture. I took the opportunity to get acquainted with Stockhausen’s Zyklus for solo percussion (1959) and took in the view of the Victoria Harbor land reclamation project (which I have often used as a metaphor for how I’ve sought to structure my daily schedule). In reading about the composer, I noticed that Stockhausen also had a policy of providing all of his own equipment at shows to ensure quality, further reinforcing a principle I’ve learned from experience.

From there I went downstairs to the Pau Gallery (no relation to Ellen) on the 4th floor. The show Cities of Desire, ostensibly a dialog between artists working in Viennese and Hong Kong, struck me as a bit scruffy and haphazard (Artforum liked it better), but it provided a chance to hear some of Cedric Maridet’s beautiful ambisonic sound work, which folks had been telling me I needed to check out.

It had been raining off and on since my arrival in Hong Kong, but on Tuesday the floodgates were truly loosed. My original plan had been to check out a bunch of galleries Nana had recommended in the afternoon, but I was sopping after a mere dash to the nearest covered walkway from the Hong Kong Art Center. I spent some time watching the rain and traffic (which throughout my trip continuously brought to mind Tarkovsky’s Solaris; only after I got back did research reveal the driving scenes were shot in Tokyo, not Hong Kong), deciding whether to venture to the nearest subway stop or the nearest pub, and eventually decided to head back to the dry Goethe Institut library, where I checked out Wolfgang Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine, a pretty wacky piece of music theater that is probably not best served by an audio recording, especially without an accompanying translation.

On top of the weather, my phone was out of wack, so I was unable to reach Nana, but I thought we had made plans to hear a performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Center (on the Kowloon side of the harbor) featuring Alok Leung, the sound artist/musician and Lona Records founder who’s long been a Facebook friend, but whom I’d never met in person, as part of a show called Architecture is Discourse with Music (I’m leaving out the gratuitous ellipses). So I made it through the rain to the ferry and caught the show, and only realized later that the plan had actually been to catch the same show the following night. The program featured three artists—KWC, Alok Leung, and Aenon Loo—in audiovisual laptop performances, followed by a Power Point presentation by mainland Chinese architect Liu Jiakun 刘家琨.

In fact, there was no discourse between architecture and music whatsoever. A generous reading of the laptop artists’ performances would suggest a sensitivity to the structural issues of architecture, and the videos contained images of architecture, but the architect himself made no mention of music, and in fact at no point did the musicians and architect even share the stage. Mr. Liu’s presentation was interesting for the most part, until he ended by showing a long, ridiculously self-aggrandizing video documentary of the memorial he designed and financed for Sichuan earthquake victim Hu Huishan 胡慧姗. I’m not interested in anyone who has to show a video of a bereft woman bowing down to him to reinforce his benevolence.

Afterwards I had a chance to chat very briefly with the musicians as they were packing up their stuff, but the talk had gone on quite long, and they understandably seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to leave.

And the Hong Kong Cultural Center has free government wi-fi! Thanks, government!

Thursday

So I thought that on Thursday I would head out early and try to catch some of the galleries that I missed the day before. Of course, I knew it was the Chinese National Holiday, but I figured that for galleries that would be a good day to catch people who were off work and about town (it seems Hong Kong only took the one day off, as opposed to the week or more in mainland China). So I took the subway to Sheung Wan, two stops down from where I was staying (so convenient!) and walked through the stalls of exotic Chinese medicinal ingredients to Art Hub Asia, where I had to present identification and sign in before being allowed up to the 11th floor to discover that they were indeed closed for the holiday. The same was true of Tang Contemporary downstairs and Parasite across the street and Amelia Johnson Contemporary and Art Statements down the road. I gave up before trying Gallery Exit; Aenon Loo had told me the night before he’d be there, but I assumed he had forgotten about the holiday. Turns out he probably was there after all, since he runs the place. Whoops!

At least the Man Mo 文武 Temple was open, just around the corner, so I popped in for a look, although even that felt a bit like a failure, as it is currently undergoing renovation.

So I gave up on galleries and set out for the ferry station, wandering down a stretch of the Mid-Levels escalator, which serves as a gathering point for the city’s Filipina population on holidays, a lively and convivial atmosphere (and the subject of Cedric Maridet’s sound installation Filipina Heterotopia that I had just seen at Pau Gallery the day before).

Once on the Kowloon side, I headed to HMV for a happy hour or two of CD shopping. It’s really hard to get new music in China. Most CD’s that get official release here are pop garbage, and you can only get local underground stuff at shows for the most part. In my flush Ubisoft days, I used to order a lot of CD’s from Amazon, but I can’t really justify the cost of that anymore. And I’m a lousy pirate. So, despite HMV’s abysmal classical/jazz collection (they share a room, along with country and easy listening), I seized the chance to pick up the new Jim O’Rourke CD, La Roux, the Beatles’ remastered Rubber Soul, Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics in 5.1 (since their 5.1 Yoshimi was so excellently mixed) and two old Pet Shop Boys albums (2 for 1 sale, and good reference for my recent synth-pop productions).

I was supposed to meet Nana at a housewarming party for the new Shanghai Street Artspace, but I was a bit early, so I walked from HMV north through Kowloon Park, and actually way farther than I needed to go on Shanghai Street. I stopped at a place called I Love Cake and bought mooncake molds and heart-shaped cookie cutters, then found a bar in a mall celebrating Belgian beer week with Kronenbourg on tap (let’s not quibble), where I could rest my weary feet and start making my way through the liner notes of my recent purchases.

At the appointed time, I headed back down to Shanghai Street Artspace. It wasn’t an exhibition, just an open house. As I understand it, there had been a call for people to submit proposals for the space, and the winners invited all the other applicants over to have a discussion about what they envisioned for the place as a community art hub. Gotta say, I didn’t get much out of it, as the discussion was in Cantonese, but one friendly guy named Jasper pulled me aside and filled me in. Things livened up a bit after Nana arrived, and some of us started playing ping pong. Later I spilled some kind of lychee gelatin on the purse of someone I later identified as Phoebe Wong from Asia Art Archive. Sorry again!

From there Nana took me by Kubrick Bookstore Café, an amazing store for books and DVD’s and film soundtracks, but I only had a quick chance to peek inside (and to inquire whether they had the soundtrack for L’Odeur de la papaya verte, and to strike out yet again), before heading out to dinner with some of Nana’s friends, including the artist Nadim Abbas, who’s in a band with Alok called A Roller Control and was one of the artists included in the recent Louis Vuitton show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

I actually wasn’t planning on checking out the Architecture Is Discourse with Music show again, since it was the same line up as the night before, but when we left the restaurant, the streets were all cordoned off for the National Day fireworks over the harbor (on my previous trip to Hong Kong I had watched the fireworks from the nearby 28th floor restaurant Hutong, which I’ve just discovered has a super annoying web page), so only be explaining that we were on our way to the show could we get through. I wouldn’t have been able to see the fireworks or even get to the ferry, so I just stuck with the group, which turned out to be a good move, because afterwards folks were more relaxed, and we all repaired to a bar called Phonograph for beer and conversation. I got to chat with Alok at length, and also with Nana and Mine and lots of other folks. (The non-discourse this time was with Beijing architect Zhu Xiaodi 朱小地, who showed an awful lot of pictures of some luxury bar complex he had designed, certainly swank and easy on the eyes, but representative of a kind of lulling, complacency-inducing architectural riff on traditional Chinese forms that I view somewhat suspectly.)

Friday

I scheduled lunch on Friday with Edwin Lo, another Facebook friend whom I’d never met in person, sound artist and recent graduate of the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media. (You can read an interview with French musician Yannick Dauby that he did for the Sound Pocket website, which I stumbled upon rather at random; can’t seem to link to it directly, so happy exploring!) Nana joined us, too. Edwin suggested a beef curry place not far from ACO that was ridiculously tasty, in a kind of Hong Kong food court, but where everything was handmade, on the third floor of a building into which I would otherwise never have ventured. So tasty!

We had a good chat about sound in Hong Kong, and planned an amble over to nearby White Noise Records, a Hong Kong institution I had visited on my list trip through town, still going strong. But we got there too early; on Fridays they only open at two. So we parted ways, and Edwin slipped me a 3 inch CD he’d done called “In The Memory Of…,” released on the Little Sound label, a slow, elegiac montage of field recordings, quite nice.

On my way back to Sheung Wan, amid all the Chinese medicine shops, I stopped at one of these funky little herbal tea stands for some 夏枯草, labeled “Prunella Vulgaris” in English. No idea what that is, but it was sufficiently cool and refreshing. Then, finally on the third attempt, I had some success on my Hong Kong gallery crawl.

I spent over an hour at the Asia Art Archive, and I could have spent much longer. Like the Goethe Institut, it’s a place I could see myself visiting often if I lived in Hong Kong. My friend Amy Wood, who works there, was out of town, but her colleague Clara Cheung gave me a comprehensive tour of the facility. I also bumped into Phoebe , to whom I apologized again for spilling that lychee goop on her bag. Their collection runs a little slim on the sonic art front, but they’re open tp submissions, so feel free to send ‘em stuff! I did a search for Yan Jun 颜峻 and up popped an event called Around from earlier this year, organized by Yang Yeung 楊陽, Sound Pocket founder and another person people had been telling me I should meet; they had a catalog from the show in the collection, so I looked it up and read all about it. I found out I’m also in the database as a collaborator with Yan Jun at last year’s eArts Festival, and before I left I gave them a Radiospace CD, so now I’m in there twice! Do your own search here, there’s lot of fun stuff.

In fact, Parasite, Tang Contemporary, and Art Statements were all closed to prepare new shows, but I got to talk with folks briefly at the first two places. (In fact, the same was true of Parasite four years ago when I tried to visit; strike two!) I had peeked in the window at the Art Statements show earlier to see some of the controversial logo graffiti pieces that caused a furor around the time of the Louis Vuitton show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, but they were closed to set up a new show by Danish artist Troels Wörsel.

Gotta say, I was a bit bored at Amelia Johnson Gallery; I’m really not much for those kind of personal family history unearthed as artistic narrative kinds of series you see a lot, and the title of Dinu Li’s The Mother of All Journeys can only be taken as a bad pun. Some pretty photos, though.

Kwan Sheung Chi’s 關尚智 show No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. at Gallery Exit cracked me up, though. Not all of the pieces were well executed, and the typical problems of presenting video in a gallery context were all manifest, but sometimes there’s a fine line behind between a good conceptual artist and someone who’s just fun to have at a party. One of the pieces documented him and his friends performing a drinking game/endurance test during one of Hong Kong’s annual art walk events, and another piece showed him trying to recreate the performance by drinking the same amount of alcohol in the same time frame alone in his studio. I’ve been arguing for a while that intoxication is an underutilized parameter in performance.

After leaving, I stopped at a nearby crossroads, trying to get my bearings, and Phoebe Wong once again materialized and pointed me towards the Input/Output Gallery, just up the hill from Hong Kong’s notorious Lan Kwai Fong bar street (with an opportunity to grab a schwarma at the same schwarma stand where I grabbed one four years ago, yum!). Nana had emphasized this event, the official kick off of the October Contemporary, and it was probably the best party of the week. (Input/Output is owned by Teddy Leow, who currently has an interesting piece—from a technology perspective, at least—at MOCA Shanghai, a flashing LED panel that creates creepy afterimages in your retina when you look away.) Most notably, I got to meet my newest two best friends, Rachel and Paul, who are so cool, smart, friendly, and funny. Rachel is the manager of Input/Output, and it turns out she had actually seen my performance at Art+Shanghai when my 路口 installation opened. I enjoyed talking with Jessica, who also works at the gallery, since she doesn’t shy from asking very direct and difficult questions about why artists are doing what they’re doing. Then when someone introduced Cedric Marinet, and after hearing his installations and having people tell me all week that I needed to meet him, I was so excited that I greeted him with a big hug, to which he responded, “Who are you?” We talked for a long time about our respective practices and background and the exigencies of sound art, a very sharp and thoughtful fellow. I also spoke at length with Yang Yeung of Sound Pocket (who organized the aforementioned show with Yan Jun); she was interested in my thoughts on what made a good artists’ residency program, and I gave her an earful. Ellen Pau was there, too, and lots of other people…an excellent time.

I talked at length with all three artists in the show: Evan Roth, Desmond Leung, and Cho Yiu Cheng. Desmond had a really beautiful digital animation showing on two panels, abstract, but evoking flowing water, which reminded me a lot of Cindy Ng’s video that’s running next to my sound installation at Art+ Shanghai right now, although his is in color and hers is in black and white (which I think goes better with the theme of the Art+ show, as well as with my piece). Cho Yiu Cheng’s piece was a little more conceptual, images of peoples’ faces with bright lights being flashed in their eyes, blown up to fill a whole wall, and with an accompanying flashbulb soundtrack, should you decide to don headphones. Both pieces loop, but they’re dramatically flat to the point that the loops are pretty inconspicuous; you could still come or go at any point and get a taste of the work, which for me is an important criterion of video installation.

Cho Yiu Cheng

Evan Roth’s work probably had the most resonance for me, as someone working in the digital domain. He’s written a program to digitally sample people’s writing on a glass screen, then store these gestures in a database and visualize them using custom software on a screen in the gallery. He was inspired by watching graffiti artists working, the choreography of their writing styles, and he makes overt connections between this practice and Chinese calligraphy. He’s committed to keeping this an open source project, and I was struck by the countless possibilities contained in his database of digital tags; it’s wide open for all kinds of mapping in the visual and aural domains. I’m also grateful to him for turning me on to the Open Frameworks libraries for C++, which I plan to dive into soon.

Check out Evan’s video of the opening, into which a certain hatted, bearded man features prominently.

When the party started to wind down, a large group of artists, arts organization workers, and hangers on like me ventured out for Thai food. They were selling bunny ears in Lan Kwai Fong, since the Mid-Autumn Festival was nearly upon us, and I bought a pair. After dinner, we went to a homely little joint called Club 71, which was overrun by art folks. Here I made the acquaintance of Adrian Wong (another artist featured in the Louis Vuitton show), and we chatted for a good long while.

Afterwards, Rachel and Paul and I headed out for another schwarma, before finally calling it a night. An awesome evening!

Saturday

I asked Kobe at ACO if she could recommend a nearby place for dim sum, and she came through with the Lung Moon Restaurant 龙门大酒楼 near the Wan Chai subway stop. I arranged to meet a pal from my Ubisoft days, Kevin Lau, who had contracted for Ubisoft on EndWar to do a whole ton video work for marketing and PR purposes, so he had spent quite a bit of time in Shanghai. He brought a friend of his, Simon, and I invited my neighbor from ACO, Matt Gano, a fellow Seattleite, who was in town teaching poetry at the Hong Kong Creative School. Matt’s also an accomplished slam poet and hip hop artist; listen to some of his stuff!

We had a lovely meal, and then Simon suggested heading over to Page One books in Times Square, not far from ACO, where I think I managed to bore them all completely looking for the perfect present to bring back to Jutta in Shanghai. From there, Kevin and Simon had to leave, but Matt and I pressed on to White Noise Records.

Heading up the stairs to White Noise, I noticed that the guy walking in front of us had long hair, rock star pants, and what looked like a silver case for music equipment, so I wondered if there was going to be some kind of in-store performance. When we got in, I started to introduce myself to the proprietor, Gary (with whom I had chatted four years earlier, but who had no reason to remember me), but when I said my name, the musician-looking guy, who had been bending over his case, stood up and said, “Oh, Ben’s a busy guy in Shanghai,” and I recognized him as Christiaan Virant, half of the Beijing-based experimental duo FM3, best known for their wildly successful Buddha Machines. He was in town working on the getting the third Buddha Machine, a collaboration with Throbbing Gristle (dubbed “Gristleism”), produced, and I got to hear the only prototype in existence. He says the original Buddha Machine alone has sold about 80,000 units, pretty impressive.

We chatted for about half an hour about his work, the Buddha Machines, Chinese factories, generative music, iPhone applications (there’s a Buddha Machine for iPhone, if you don’t have it already!) and such.

After he left I chatted with Gary a bit more, and I walked out of there with Christopher WillitsSurf Boundaries (truly excellent), a compilation of Moondog’s years in Germany (alternately mesmerizing and dully noodling, as you’d expect), and Nosaj Thing (quite dull; btw, “Jason” spelled backwards is supposed to be pronounced “no such,” which I don’t think works at all).

I dropped off my loot at ACO, then took the ferry over to the Hong Kong Cultural Center for one last Architecture/Discourse/Music show, this time featuring Portuguese transplant João Vasco (see some of his video stuff here), whom I had met 2 years prior when he performed at Li Jianhong’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou (which is unfortunately not being held again this year, as Li Jianhong confirmed over dinner the night before I left for Hong Kong). João performed a mesmerizing sneak preview of an upcoming audiovisual installation he’s working on, comprised of slow moving videos constructed of time-lapse images of Hong Kong cityscapes, with lush, slow-moving audio generated from the images. I’m really curious to hear those segments in the context of an installation, where the different segments can interact and interpenetrate in a non-linear context. This performance had an increased clarity and focus over what I remember from his 2007 performance; it’s really thrilling to be able to observe an artist’s evolution. On the same bill were Sin:Ned and Pun Tak Shu 潘德恕, who also delivered riveting sets. The architect this time was Zhang Lei 张雷 from Nanjing, who showed some interesting photos, but he had an incredibly annoying tendency to replace the simplest words of his Mandarin lecture with their English equivalents; to give just one example, “gui 贵” is one of the first words most foreigners learn, for its usefulness in bargaining, but I guess he felt “expensive” sounded more luxurious, since it has more syllables, or maybe because it’s foreign and exotic (by contrast, he did not replace “pianyi 便宜” with “cheap”).

After the show, a large group of us went out for a fantastic Indian meal at Chungking Mansions nearby, and then it was realized that in fact there was a party on the roof of the Foo Tak building (where ACO is located, and where João also has his studio), so we all headed over. It wasn’t just an ordinary Saturday night; it was the Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important traditional festival on the Chinese calendar (hmm, wouldn’t that make a great subject for a song?), which people traditionally celebrate by eating mooncakes and holding moon appreciation sessions. We had a fantastic view of the moon and surrounding buildings, as well as a glimpse of the harbor, and folks had brought lanterns, mooncakes, and beer. Later in the evening, I played my newly finished song “Mid-Autumn Moon” on a small portable sound system someone had brought. There was great conversation with Nana and other new friends late into the night, and João and I had a particularly interesting exchange on the intersection of music and architecture, perhaps the first real discourse of the festival. His perspective (and his original proposal for his performance that night, which the organizers vetoed) was to set up some kind of feedback system to probe the acoustics of the room, for him the truest sonic equivalent of architecture, whereas I was more interested in abstract forms and the non-linear potential suggested by a space, which is only activated when a person actually navigates it.

All week everyone had been telling me that I have to meet Samson Young (the guy with the upcoming Osage show), and on the roof of the Foo Tak building, I finally had my chance, since his studio is also in the building. He’s quite a sharp and accomplished fellow, with an impressive resume of interesting projects and performances (and a PhD from Princeton, where he got to work with Paul Lansky, whose music I’ve long dug). He shared with me about his RPG Triptych to be featured at the upcoming Osage show, which uses an off the shelf RPG game engine (I forget which) to present what sounds like a humorously surreal virtual experience. If I understood correctly, there will be three independent games running in the gallery, non-networked, but if everyone happens to be in the same room at the same time, the music is composed to that the layers will fit together in a harmonious way.

Sunday

After such a late Mid-Autumn Festival celebration, it took a bit of effort, but I made it back to Input/Output for a 1pm panel discussion with the artists (I arrived nearer to 2pm), a fairly open Q&A on new media art. In the lively discussion, I found an improved way to phrase one of my longstanding observations about video installation: if you author a piece to have a beginning, middle, and end, you need to also present it in such a way that the audience walking into the gallery experiences it as beginning, middle, and end. If someone walks in halfway through, your middle just became their beginning, and the dramatic trajectory of the piece is compromised. I’ll pontificate further on this point in the future.

After a lively discussion, I set off with Rachel & Paul to meet Nana at another opening, way up in Kowloon, but first we stopped off for a plein air meal of fresh seafood on Temple St. The opening was at C&G gallery, which several people mentioned has been particularly successful in cultivating a community hub atmosphere. The show was called “No Money for Art vs. No Time for Art,” featuring stop-motion animation. Several artists, including Clara Cheung, whom I had met earlier at Asia Art Archive, had just returned from an artist residency in Puck, Poland, and they were sharing about their experience, and also sharing some fancy Polish vodka and cookies. I chatted at length with a new friend named John from the British Council, and we put a fair dent in the vodka supply.

From there we headed over to see Chopsticks, just around the corner, which is in fact where I was supposed to be the afternoon the typhoon rained me in at the Goethe Institut. Chopsticks is spearheaded by Patricia Choi (who had been at the Foo Tak moon appreciation session and was also present at C&G), and her concept is that the gallery actually has no permanent location, setting up events wherever there happens to be some unused space at the time. The current show was a modest photography exhibit with some nice images; Patricia opened the space just for us and phoned the artists, who popped over to say hello. She also plans to open a hostel somewhere in the neighborhood.

From there we finally made it over to see the new space where Robin Peckham, who joined the party back at C&G, has been working. He and I met last April in Beijing, back when he was working for Boers Li Gallery, and in the intervening months he’s relocated to Hong Kong to set up the Society for Experimental Cultural Production. We’d been trying to find a good time for me to see his new space all week, and we finally made it happen the day before my departure. For now, he shares space with some active musicians, and it’s hard to imagine a better hang out spot, with old tiles and a big balcony evoking some idealized “old Hong Kong” fantasy. Fill that place up with interesting folks and beer, and you’ve got one heck of a party! It’ll be very interesting to see where a man of Robin’s capabilities takes this endeavor in the months ahead.

Monday

On my last day in town, there was just one man left to see: bassist extraordinaire Peter Scherr. Peter’s been based in Hong Kong for a long time, and we’ve met up several times in Shanghai over the years. Perhaps the first time was when he brought his group Headache (including NYC musicians Jim Black, Seattle-transplant Briggan Krauss, and Peter’s brother Tony on guitar) to the now defunct Number Five on the Bund…back in early 2006, I think? Since then I’ve seen him come through town with a number of groups, all top notch, and every time I threaten to come down to Hong Kong to pay him a visit. So after packing up and checking out of ACO, I hopped on the MTR and set out for relatively remote Sai Kung way up north in the New Territories.

Once I got off the bus at the terminus I could see why someone would want to settle down here. The bus stop was right next to a beautiful bay, full of boats and islands and sunshine, verdant mountains all around. Peter picked me up in his car, and we headed back to his house, with a quick stop at another nearby bay to take in the breathtaking view.

I pride myself on my CD collection (I don’t enjoy listening to music on my computer or iPhone), with probably about 600 disks I brought over from the US, and easily another 600 that I’ve accumulated in the five years since, but Peter’s collection puts me to shame. Since so much of this stuff is so hard to find, he let me rip a bunch of it to my computer, some Eyvind Kang, some Marc Ribot, some Stockhausen, some Ornette Coleman, and a bunch of the newly remastered Beatles mono recordings from the new boxed set (the only way to get ‘em). In exchange I offered what I had on me (like Jim O’Rourke and, um, Pet Shop Boys), and a wide swath of my own tunes.

He showed me his amazing studio, as breathtaking as the surrounding scenery. I took some iPhone snaps of his studio, but they don’t do it justice the way his own webpage does. I plunked around on his beautiful Yamaha C3 piano for a bit; he picked up his bass, and we noodled over some simple changes, and once again I wished I spent more time developing my improv chops. It was a lovely afternoon just shooting the musical breeze, talking about music we like and our various projects, before he drove me around the backside of the peninsula, providing another perspective on the beautiful Hong Kong landscape, to the airport, where he happened to be picking up another musician friend that same night.

I stopped at the Heineken Bar in Terminal 2, where they had Murphy’s Irish Stout on tap and, I thought, quite passable jalapeno poppers (one of the rarest foods in Asia). The airport also offered free wi-fi (thanks, government!).

My whirlwind visit left me with a very favorable impression of Hong Kong. There seem to be lots of people doing really interesting, creative things. The food was great, and every morning when I walked out of my building, the glimpses of mountains and ocean exhilarated me. I was there during an eventful week, but there’s much more on the horizon that I would have liked to stick around for: Dickson Dee’s concert with Zbigniew Karkowski at Videotage a few days ago, a performance at Input/Output on October 14th, Samson and Kingsley’s installation at Osage, a concert by friends Yao Dajuin 姚大均 and Xu Cheng 徐程 on October 17-18 (another part of the architecture festival), the rest of the October Contemporary and Nana’s closing Night Light Graffiti event, and the Microwave festival that’s kicking off in November. There seems to be much more institutional support for the arts than on the Chinese mainland, and most of the people I talked to in the arts had a higher level of arts education (perhaps a by-product of the high concentration of universities in Hong Kong); the flip side that was mentioned to me by a couple of artists I spoke to was a kind of superficiality or pretention that kept relationships from going deep and inhibits healthy criticism.

Perhaps there’s a bit of the “grass is always greener” phenomenon at work, but one thing this visit reminded me is that Hong Kong’s not all that far away. I hope to be back soon! Thanks again, Nana!

Mid-Autumn Moon

I’ve posted a new song called (I’m pretty sure) “Mid-Autumn Moon” on my Neocha page my last.fm page and my Douban 豆瓣 page for your listening pleasure. Give it a spin!

This song has been 5 years in the making, and I still don’t quite consider it done, but this will do for a demo. I wanted to get it out before this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which is China’s second biggest holiday (after the Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year), occurring annually on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which in 2009 falls on October 3.

Mid-Autumn Festival was the first major Chinese holiday I experienced after moving to China in 2004, and I was curious about the traditions and legends associated with it. Through some informal internet research, I became acquainted with the Jade Rabbit 玉兔, the woodcutter Wu Gang 吴刚, and the Moon Goddess Chang’e 嫦娥, all of whom live on the moon. The stories struck me as well-suited for recounting in the context of a folk song, and as I was starting to contemplate the idea of doing a collection of songs about Shanghai around that time, I added this idea to the list.

I wrote the first verse about the Jade Rabbit back then, as well as the “beheld/felled” couplet for the woodcutter verse, and I have often sung the first verse and the main pseudo-guitar riff to myself in the years since, but I didn’t seriously resume work on the rest of the lyrics until about a month or two ago. As with most ancient tales, there are many variations, so I had to do some picking and choosing to centonize my own version, and in the course of finishing up the lyrics, I was reminded that one of the reasons these old stories are so resilient is that they provide so many opportunities for new expression in retelling, depending on where you place the emphasis, or even which versions of the old tales you use.

Musically, I’ve always thought the song fell into a 7/4 pulse quite naturally. A lot of folk songs fall into irregular rhythms, since they are often built around the declamation of text. I’ve noticed this in field recordings of folk singing, as well as in some of Bob Dylan’s early recordings. It seems to me that it’s only a half-applied classical artifice that forces music into an even meter (for a more rigorously applied classical approach, see Zoltán Kodály or Harry Partch). Of course, there’s still a steady pulse, but the groupings are irregular; I’m basically providing an extra beat for breath (actually, I remember Ned Rorem arguing the opposite point in his diaries, that Shakespearean iambic pentameter is not really in an uneven quintuple meter, but in an even sextuple, since you have to add a beat for breath). It’s pretty much the same rhythm Peter Gabriel uses in “Solsbury Hill,” and I was always annoyed that Erasure added an extra beat to even it out in their cover version, so I also intend this as a demonstration to them that you can indeed have a dance groove in seven.

While recording the vocal track, I was a bit surprised to realize that the melody is pentatonic. The melody’s five years old, and I honestly can’t remember if that was intentional or not. Of course, the pentatonic scale is the traditional Chinese scale to which, for example, a gu zheng is tuned. It’s also an incredibly trite and clichéd way of expressing “Chineseness,” and if I were writing the melody today, I think it would strike me as a bit cheesy to overtly employ it, but what I have written, I have written. Interesting to see how my perspective has evolved after living here for five years.

I’d been hoping to finish up my whole Shanghai Travelogue album by the end of the year (which now seems unlikely), so I really wanted to have this track done by this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. That’s part of the reason the production feels a little rushed. At some point I need to go back and clean up some of the keyboard parts, probably redo some of the percussion with some more interesting sounds (perhaps adding more acoustic stuff), even out some of the orchestration, reconcile the slightly different “picking” patterns in the first and second verses, and add a proper beginning and ending. So if you didn’t already dislike the song, here are some reasons to reconsider. But actually all of the songs I’ve posted for the forthcoming album are demos; once the shape and scope of the album is clearer, I’ve got a lot of stuff to revisit.

Another reason the song feels a bit rushed is that in the past month I’ve faced every technological impediment known to humankind. I was planning to debut this song, along with synth-pop versions of the songs on 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, at my show last night with Resist! Resist! at Not Me, which should have been a simple task for the two and a half weeks I had allotted for it since the opening of my sound installation 路口 at Art+ on September 8. In the end I made it, but, Lord, was it an arduous path.

I just got a new laptop (a snazzy new Sony Vaio Z, which is incredibly light, although not as powerful in the end as I had been hoping, and really stingy with the USB ports) about 3 months ago, and my trusty, five-year-old HP started flaking out almost immediately, as if out of jealousy. It would suddenly just decide to shut itself off, and often wouldn’t even boot up. In trying to set up my new laptop for my show at Not Me on August 27, I tried to install an archaic program called GigaPiano, so that I could do the quasi-acoustic portion of the set, but it installed some super low level audio thing that caused my computer to blue screen every other time I booted up, and in the end I had to completely reinstall the operating system. The newer MOTU sound card I bought to run Breaking New Ground and this new installation for a brief period could not be turned on, but then miraculously healed itself. Then of the 4 speakers I ordered for my 路口 installation, 2 had problems and had to be send back two days before I was supposed to install the piece. In the meantime, I thought I had solved my other laptop’s problem by swapping out the power supply, and I considered myself set to have one laptop/sound card rig to run the installation in the gallery, and another to keep at home for work. But within 24 hours of the 无为 opening at Art+, the old laptop, my old sound card, and my iPhone all stopped working. So for the first week and a half that the installation was up, I had to bring my home laptop in to the gallery everyday to run the piece, and then take it home at night to do my own work while the gallery was closed, until we could finally find a replacement laptop. I got my old laptop repaired for about 500 kuai, but it still would occasionally shut itself off (though never when the repairmen were looking); I took it back to them, but they said it must be a software/system problem, and said they couldn’t do anything else. Then I wanted to get back to some MIDI production to prepare for last night’s Not Me show and to finish this song, and I discovered that there are no 64-bit Vista drivers for my MIDISport MIDI interface, so I had to work on the old laptop, which was still arbitrarily shutting itself down. And when I powered up all my MIDI gear, my trusty Yamaha FS1R synth module displayed the “Low Battery” warning and replaced all of my user presets with garbage, so I’ll have to ship that off to have its internal lithium battery replaced. (And my Roland JP-8000 synthesizer is still not working properly after having been in and out of the shop for three years, since the company Ubisoft hired to run sound at their company party in 2006, at which I performed, fried my synth with their wonky equipment.) Since my old sound card had been shipped to Beijing for repairs, and my new sound card was running the installation at Art+, I resorted to using my new Zoom H4 portable recorder as an audio interface, which was ok for inputs, but the only output is a 1/8” headphone jack, which was ridiculously prone to interference, so the tracks I made for the show last night had a ton of digital noise on them that I had to try to minimize with a noise reduction plug-in. Then at the last minute my old computer, which had lately been staying on for hours at a time, decided not to boot up, and I spent an anxious afternoon trying to get it to stay on long enough for me to copy the last 2 weeks’ work off so that I’d have something to play at last night’s show. Things got to the point that to record vocals for this new song, I was reduced to making a MIDI mix, copying it to my iPhone (now working again, 900 kuai later), listening to the backing tracks on headphones while recording into my laptop, then later trying to sync everything up in Sound Forge, since I currently don’t even have a multitrack audio editor on my new computer, having seemingly lost the serial number for Cubase (and being utterly talentless at using pirated versions of anything). I had to go to the gallery last night to grab my sound card from the installation, so that I’d be able to use it for the show, and, in a final coup, today when I was hooking it back up at the gallery, the borrowed laptop seemed to have its keyboard frozen in Function mode, so I couldn’t even create a simple Max patch to test the speaker configuration. I have been in technology hell, and it’s made me an irritable wreck of a man.

Anyway, now that you exactly what I went through to bring you this song, I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Go eat a mooncake!

路口

I am so stoked about my new sound installation 路口, currently on display at the Art+ Gallery, located at 22 Fumin Lu, near Yan’an Lu, in Shanghai, 上海市富民路22弄2号, 近延安路. (Note new address! This is the first show in their new space.) It’s part of a show called 无为 Being and Nothing, on display from September 9 through November 1, 2009, Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-7pm (closed Mondays).

路口, or Lukou, means “intersection” or “crossroads” in Mandarin. It’s a four channel sound installation, programmed in Max/MSP, that manipulates some field recordings I made of Shanghai traffic at various intersections around town. As with all of my sound installation work, the sound is produced by a computer program running in real-time, to ensure that the sound never loops and never repeats itself. These pieces are extensions of my thinking about non-linear, time-based structures, honed over 13 year of videogame development. Lukou has no beginning or end; instead, each listener creates her or his own beginning and end by entering and leaving the space. It’s more of a sonic environment than a musical composition.

Here’s the blurb I wrote about it for the show:

Lukou 路口 is a four-channel sound installation that manipulates recordings of a busy Shanghai intersection, dramatically slowing down the sounds to create a lush, meditative environment. The piece seeks to focus concentration by reframing everyday sounds, encouraging people to listen to and evaluate aspects of their environment that they might otherwise ignore. Borrowing techniques from videogame audio design, Lukou presents a continuously evolving, real-time soundscape, generating new juxtapositions and permutations as long as people care to listen. Being stuck in traffic often leads to rash impulses and flares of temper, but at a time when the world’s eyes are riveted by Shanghai’s breakneck development, Lukou provides an opportunity for reflection, forging something beautiful from the city’s chaotic detritus, while also questioning those aspects of our environment and ourselves that we might change for the better.

I started thinking about this piece back in 2004 or 2005, back in my first Shanghai apartment. I was recording something in my living room (I think it may have been a draft of Mobile 2, which you can hear on my MySpace page), and I happened to catch the sound of a passing scooter’s squeaky brakes. For whatever socio-economical reasons, electric scooters with squeaky brakes are a unique and ubiquitous characteristic of Shanghai’s cityscape. It’s a complex, metallic sound, high and piercing (perhaps best served by the French term grinçant), so I thought it might be fun, since I already had it right there in Sound Forge, to futz with it a bit, the way I have often futzed with recordings to create videogame sound effects. When I slowed the pitch way, way down, the recording revealed an interior world of slowly shifting overtones that evoked whale song, an impression aided by the wash of low frequency noise into which the rush of traffic transformed. I was fascinated by this sound and bookmarked it, to use as the basis for a future piece.

In the summer of 2006, abetted by my pal Zhou Jing 周静, I went out and made some field recordings of traffic sounds, to make a study of this idea and see how it might work as a sound installation. These recordings also proved rich in potential for manipulation, and I built a simple Max patch to test my deployment ideas, but put the idea away again until such time as I could find a proper venue in which to present the piece in four channels, which was central to my conception of the work. I also recognized the need to record additional source material at a higher sampling rate, so as to minimize aliasing noise when the recordings were slowed way down.

In the time since, I had presented my Lukou studies in a live performance at D22 in Beijing and in a RESO show at Yu Yin Tang here in Shanghai, but the opportunity to fully revisit the piece as an installation finally came when Diana Freundl approached me about participating in the opening performance of the new show 无为 Being and Nothing that she was putting together at the Art+ Gallery. One of the artists already confirmed for the show was Cindy Ng Sio Ieng 吴少英, and in addition to her visual art on display, she was seeking a sonic collaborator for one of her live video performances, in which she creates slowly evolving images by pouring ink, beer, milk, and other liquids onto a glass plane, which are captured by a video camera and projected onto a wall of the gallery. I found a clear resonance between my Lukou idea and Cindy’s flowing, evolving forms, as well as in Diana’s concept of exploring non-intention; after talking it over, it became clear that Lukou would work not only as an opening party performance, but as an installation that would run as part of the show for its duration.

The deployment of the sound in the piece is actually pretty simple, especially compared to my other sound installations (such as Kaleidoscope Wallpaper or Breaking New Ground). The program picks one of fourteen wave files, picks a duration for each phrase, chooses a point in the original source file at which to start, and chooses volume and pitch offsets. As each phrase plays, a random envelope generator gives it shape. At some point in the second half of each phrase, a new phrase begins; how close to the end is constrained by a random walk, so that there’s a larger scale ebb and flow between dense and sparse textures. The four speakers are arranged in a square in the corners of the room, suggesting a traffic intersection, and each phrase is played on two adjacent speakers (preserving the stereo imaging of the source material), randomly chosen.

That’s about it, really; I toyed with more complex procedures, but I was so pleased by the diversity (and consistency) of this simple formula that I kept it pretty close to my original prototype. When I got the piece running with all four speakers, I knew I had made the right choice.

Have a listen to a 2-channel demo.

From a curatorial perspective, this show is a dream come true; I couldn’t have asked for a better forum in which to present Lukou to the public. Diana has an academic background in Eastern religion, and she sought to bring together a collection of artworks that examine or address aspects of 无为 (wuwei), which can be rendered as “non-action,” and is primarily associated with Taoist or Buddhist meditation, but can be equally applied to Sartrean philosophy. Check out her articulate introduction to the show. In addition to Cindy and I, the other artists exploring these themes in the show are Shi Zhiying 石至莹, Wang Hui 王辉, and Wang Jun 王俊.

Here’s a blurb I wrote about the connection between 无为 and my own practice for the show’s catalogue:

Traditionally, the main thrust of Western art music is drama; whether the music is overtly programmatic or abstract, composers are trained to develop their music along dramatic lines, creating tension and release through contrast, and employing harmonic development, changes in dynamics, and various other developmental techniques to play with memory and anticipation. Or in the case of music for the stage or, later, cinema, the music’s purpose is to follow and support the drama unfolding in another medium. From the time I began developing music for videogames in 1996, however, I realized this paradigm was ill-suited to the kind of unpredictable, non-linear environment that videogames represent.

So I turned my attention to a less prominent, but more ancient, strand of music history: sacred music. Sound is by definition always moving, but in music composed for meditation or ritual, the difference is that sound is not moving towards a specific goal. Of course, this means that the sound is constrained in some ways, but it also provides freedom within those constraints to fill the sonic space with endless permutations and juxtapositions. In the liturgical Lutheran music culture into which I was born, the notion of endless permutations is usually only suggested by the contours of a fixed work, or by the call and response chanting of Psalms; but in the socialized, participatory West African drumming around which I grew up and the Buddhist chanting in the temples of my adopted home in Shanghai, this perpetual mutability is overt. When you don’t know where the music will go next, you focus your attention on the present.

This ethos of non-intention fills the work of the pioneers of open-form composition in the 20th century: John Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and, in several subsequent works, European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Witold Lutoslawski. These artists realized that by incorporating chance operations into the execution of their works, one idea could find infinite incarnations, with no two performances ever being the same. As John Cage put it in 36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamps (1970), “Say we have a problem and one hundred solutions. Instead of choosing just one of them, we use them all.”

In a videogame, this means that the music is able to turn on a dime to follow the emergent dramatic trajectory of the game itself. But the benefits are not simply practical (and let us pause for a moment to consider how amazing it is that 50 years after the experiments of these avant-garde composers were considered by some to be hopelessly inscrutable and irrelevant, they may now be considered a practical precursor to videogame audio design). These kinds of real-time, algorithmic structures provide the tools to define a different kind of sonic space, one that is not linked to the drama of the concert hall, but to the non-teleological, continuously evolving, unpredictable processes of nature. In the same way that Merce Cunningham could point out the window at passing traffic and explain to a student that his work was about “that,” real-time, algorithmic sound in an installation can propose new ways of thinking about the environment around us, our interactions with others in it, and ourselves.

Not only is the show a good thematic match for my work, but Diana has also achieved exactly the kind of imaginative presentation of digital media that I was calling for a while back. The bare minimum for presenting works with a sound component is isolation; so many shows, such as the Fat Art show in which I was involved last April, present sound-producing works in such a way that they overlap each other and become impossible to evaluate or appreciate in any significant way. But to go beyond that bare minimum and present digital media works that complement each other takes a great degree of sensitivity, and Diana has accomplished exactly that in pairing my Lukou installation with a video by Cindy Ng. Both pieces share a sense of inevitable, natural evolution, of one form opening up and unfolding into the next, to the extent that visitors to the show are often surprised that the pieces weren’t developed in collaboration. And in addition to the insightful curating, the show is very well-presented overall, with thoughtful titles, layout, and lighting; it’s a privilege to be associated with such a professional production.

One of the reasons the show has gone so smoothly is that I finally carried out my threat to provide all my own equipment, which allows me to ensure that everything’s up to snuff. For Breaking New Ground and Kaleidoscope Wallpaper, I dutifully outlined my sound equipment needs well in advance, but when it came to set up, the equipment provided was not what I had requested, and in both cases resulted in a lot of unnecessary last minute scrambling. For Breaking New Ground, I had to go buy a new sound card at the last minute, but the end result was satisfactory (if a bit wasteful); at Fat Art, less so. So this time I arranged to provide all my own gear and rent it to the gallery, which means I’m running this show at a loss, but I plan to make it up with future installations (and I’m able to leverage the sound card from Breaking New Ground). (Especially after checking out this year’s eArts exhibit at the Oriental Pearl Tower a few days ago, where about 1/3 of the pieces weren’t working or calibrated correctly, I’m a big fan of operating within one’s means and not relying on other people to supply gear and set it up for you.)

There are just two things of which I want to make a note, so I can try to improve them in future shows (and it’s great that the show is so well presented that my only quibbles are so minor).

One is that the air conditioner at times can be a little loud; this gets back to the ventilation issue we overlooked in constructing our Kaleidoscope room at Fat Art; it’s intermittent, and it’s not egregious, and no one has commented on it, but it reminds me nonetheless that this is a problem that must be explicitly considered at each installation.

The other thing is in the presentation of Cindy’s video (which also affects how my piece is perceived, as visitors experience them simultaneously). The content of her video is an abstract unfolding of natural processes, implicitly suggesting they might continue indefinitely; in acknowledgement of this characteristic, the piece is titled 无垠, or No Limit. But in fact the piece does have a limit: the video loops every 5 minutes. Longtime readers of my blog know that I adhere to a strict “no loops” mantra, and while I do think the piece would be better served by a real-time deployment mechanism that could generate endless permutations of the source video, that’s not really the main issue. What’s distracting is that the loop is emphasized by having the words “The End” come up on the screen, followed by a credits screen, which seems almost comical in the context of a piece called No Limit. From my observation, viewers often interpret this as a cue to leave, like being told a park is closing, even though my sound piece continues to play. I don’t mean to come across as unduly critical, but having spent a lot of time in the installation since the opening, I feel this is a phenomenon worth mentioning, that we may all learn from it. I feel the place for credits in a video installation is the same as for a sculpture or painting: on the wall next to the piece. Flashing these credits interrupts an experience that I had hoped would be indefinitely continuous; it turns the piece from a video installation (part of a continuing space) into just a video, which in this case seems inconsistent with the video’s content.

For completists, here is a list of the intersections that were recorded as part of Lukou:

Summer 2009
Damuqiao Lu 大木桥路/Xietu Lu 斜土路
Ruijin Nan Lu 瑞金南路/Quxi Lu 瞿溪路
Ruijin Nan Lu 瑞金南路/Xietu Lu 斜土路
Ruijin Er Lu 瑞金二路/Zhaojiabang Lu 肇嘉浜路
Tianyaoqiao Lu/ 天钥桥路Zhaojiabang Lu 肇嘉浜路

Summer 2006
Xiangyang Lu 襄阳路/Fuxing Lu 复兴路
Xiangyang Lu 襄阳路/Huaihai Lu 淮海路

Lots of people helped with this piece. Big thanks to Jutta for her help and encouragement, particularly with helping to design the suspension mechanism for the speakers and helping to mount all of the equipment in the gallery (she clearly wears the toolbelt in this relationship). Thanks to Zhou Jing for her help with the initial field recording sessions and for encouraging me to see this project through to the next phase. Thanks to everyone at Art+ Gallery, Ana and Agnes for being incredibly sweet and encouraging, and especially to Diana for inviting me to participate in the first place, as well as helping out with countless details, large and small. Being part of this show has been an absolute joy!

Reminder: you have until November 1, 2009, to go and hear the piece for yourself!