Yao Dajuin, currently based in Hangzhou where he teaches at the China Academy of Art, is an artist and thinker rather anomalous within the Chinese media scene for his intellectual and historical approach to contemporary cultural material.
His name is typically followed by a seemingly endless deluge of titles and roles: sound artist (and founder of the influential China Sound Unit, recently succeeded by Hangzhou Sound Unit), DJ (on his own Fore Taste Radio, among other venues), musician (and now publisher of the already influential Post-Concrete Records), art historian (with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley), poet (interested particularly in concrete poetry in new media), typographer (and pioneer in the application of vertical Chinese), curator (of a wide range of sound and media exhibitions around China), and educator.
It is this last epithet in which I am currently interested: as something of a wild card embedded within what was once a rather conservative institution offering a doctorate in calligraphy, Yao Dajuin has already made his mark not only through his own work but also through a handful of emerging artists under his tutelage.
As he shifts this year into a new role at the innovative School of Intermedia Art, formed in the fall of 2010, I tried to find out exactly what we have to look forward to in the years to come. What follows is his own speculative take on China, sound, media, and the educational nexus of these phenomena.
Robin Peckham: To begin with, could you tell us a bit about the philosophical shift, if any, behind this transition from the New Media Art Department to the School of Intermedia Art, and how it might affect your own pedagogical practice? Does the merger with several other departments change the composition of majors and focuses of students you will be instructing?
Yao Dajuin: The insider scoop is that China Academy of Art really wants to strengthen its structural focus on “contemporary art,” outside of the traditional divisioning of Traditional Chinese Painting, Oil Painting, Printmaking, Sculpture, and New Media Art. The new School of Intermedia Art (SIMA) is the result. It is in fact a merger of three former departments: New Media Art, Mixed Media Art, and Curatorship. The Curatorship section is worth noting, because that is where Gao Shiming, the Executive Director of SIMA, is from, and it shows the new structure’s strong emphasis on curatorial and cultural theory studies.
The main concerns of SIMA now include art as social media, social media as art, integration between cultural/critical theory and art practice, and practical integration between curatorship and art making. Our students in the former New Media Art department had been all undergraduates previously trained in drawing and painting before admission. And now, with the inclusion of graduate students in Curatorship in the new School, who are proficient in reading, writing, discussion, foreign languages, and the basics in cultural studies, we have a good mix of talents covering both discourse and practice. We can do much more in classes together.
I now teach more than sound art and computer music: I have designed courses on social media art, algorithmic art programming and iPhone application development. I’m also on the faculty at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Social Thoughts, which is actually the former curatorship department and the theoretical engine of SIMA, and I will be offering graduate seminars on media theory there.
Robin Peckham:You are now a professor within the Open Media Lab, which takes responsibility for social media art, audiovisual interaction, virtual worlds, and digital imaging. How does your work fit into this rubric? Have you been asked to revise your courses in terms of content? Could you explain how you will contribute to these aims, and how you will share responsibility with the other departmental members?
Yao Dajuin:Open Media Lab (OML) is the major new addition to the existing structure. Actually, OML covers not only what is said in the press release. We see OML really as an “opening,” an outlet in the framework of the old structure, which used to focus mostly on interactive, installation, and video art, or in other words, gallery-space and gallery-ecology-oriented art formats. OML has no preset borders in terms of format; whatever is new and fun to us, we go explore.
This is a key concept that I share with Shen Ligong, Director of OML. Although we often work with the gallery system, we really have no interest in being confined to that ecosystem. For example, we also work with live events or live shows, but that “site” of live happening might not be the gallery or museum at all, it could be happening only in Twitter-land, or Second Life. Currently, OML is concentrating on social media art, hand-held devices (iPhone/iPad) applications, Second Life, virtual reality, internet and algorithmic art, live performances, and so forth, but we really are open to all possibilities.
I work closely with Shen Ligong, who is a Second Life artist extraordinaire and overall geek, to seek out new areas to play in. Right after OML was established, Shen and I designed a course together called “Social Media Art Live” which was the very first attempt to work with social media as an art platform in China. In six weeks, starting from zero, we had an exhibition with over a dozen works, each exploring a different dimension and aspect of social media. It looks very promising and shows the potential of OML.
I also formed an iPad/iPhone band called Soul Lemon for a live performance program I curated at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. The idea behind our iPad band is different from the other similar outfits in that we use non-musical and non-sound apps exclusively. The emphasis was on hand-held devices that everybody has, and use them not as musical instruments, but “as is,” as “found objects,” as everybody’s communication device.
Also, we opened up our setup to the audience after the first half of the performance; we let the audience take over the performance, which was clearly a reference to the concept of UGC (“user generated content”). Soul Lemon is just one of the experiments playing with my concepts of “Noise 2.0” and “Performance 2.0.”
I also work closely with SIMA Executive Director Gao Shiming, whose special interest and emphasis is on social media and cultural theory, plus seeing all types of events happening on the international, not just local level. We have planned several projects in various directions and always looking around.
Robin Peckham: Looking at the landscape of media and media arts in China, and particularly in Hangzhou and in Shanghai, it would be impossible to ignore your influence in thought leadership both in terms of your students and in terms of followers of your blogs, writing, and speaking engagements. Do you see that you contribute something more international that might be lacking on the local scene? To what extent does your background in Taiwan and the U.S. effect your artistic and educational practice in China?
Yao Dajuin: As a matter of fact, that really has nothing to do with my teaching, which started only a few years ago. People in China know me mostly through my writings on and promotion of new music and world music (1996-2000, the only Chinese website of new/world music resources at the time), my radio show (1979-1982; 2000-2004; the first free-form radio show in Taiwan and China), both quite massive in terms of quantity of content, and also my curating large-scale international sound art and new media events, including Sounding Beijing 2003 and Streaming Objects (the four-night opening performances for the 2008 Shanghai eArts Festival).
I understand quite well that I stand for a sort of 1970s free spirit, an international frame of mind, but more importantly, I think, a diachronic frame of mind. This country is so self-obsessed with only the here and now, and I always try to remind people not only is there a world outside, but also a world before our parents’ time.
I feel lucky having a background growing up in Taiwan, so that I don’t have to think of my country and culture as being only 62 years old, which is the de facto mentality here. That 2,500 years of cultural heritage is of utmost importance to me in art. I breathe, I live on that cultural database, the textual, aural, visual, aesthetic and philosophical.
I’m never interested an antiquarian reading of the old materials. The most thrilling thing to me is to connect the old aesthetic to the present moment and current practice and see sparks flying–not only in my own art work, but in my theoretical writings too. Those things can still be alive and kicking in our works and our lives, if we so wish.
Robin Peckham: Your research and creative interests span a vast territory, ranging from the criticism and history of sound art to vertical Chinese typography and the exhumation of obscure music and, I am sure, well beyond. What are the issues that most concern you at this juncture, and how will you integrate these into your work at SIMA? Do you see the academic and artistic field changing in the Hangzhou-Shanghai area now that the Expo has passed?
Yao Dajuin:I continue to have projects and interests going in different directions, and I see many ways of integrating them into the curriculum and projects at SIMA, since the system is now really flexible. One example: as I was preparing for the publication of my book of essays on music criticism and listening culture, Gao Shiming happened to have an idea for me to give a graduate seminar at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Social Thoughts this semester on Jacques Attali‘s seminal book, Noise: The Political Economy of Music.
Then it occurred to me that it was the perfect opportunity for me to test out one of the essays in my book: my new theory of a “Noise 2.0” and other issues on music economy in this era of collective piracy. It all worked out very well, the graduate students there (those in that Institute are really students in the former Curatorship Department) are extremely capable and sharp, and up to speed on current cultural studies scholarship.
My main concern has always been a techno-media cultural identity that can stand on its own, especially in this Chinese era of “knock-offs” and “rip-offs” (shanzhai in Chinese), where an “Ars Electronica über alles” mentality prevails in school in the Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
It’s funny that you mentioned the Shanghai-Hangzhou art circle. Just recently, a couple of major Shanghai art space directors have expressed to Open Media Lab their worries about no longer being able to attract attention and audience with the traditional installation-based exhibitions. They invited us to offer ideas using social media and whatever else we’re playing with as platform, and so we are now working together on various projects. I think that’s a very telling sign
Robin Peckham: How do you think the reorganized School of Intermedia Art will affect emerging art in China over the coming years and decades? What changes in mentality can we look forward to? How will the school change the practices not only of artistic production but also curation, interpretation, and display? Will you be involved at all with the exhibition program at the Center of Intermedia Art International in Shanghai?
Yao Dajuin:I think SIMA will be a hotspot to watch out for in the coming years, for we really love experimenting on a macro, structural level, mixing different resources together and see what sparks can come out. Collaboration is the keyword here. The “inter-” in “intermedia” is not just a slogan. And it’s not just mixing in between different media, it’s also breaking out from the old sense of the word. Gao Shiming has a clear trans-national, trans-media, interdisciplinary vision, is highly efficient, and is not afraid to carry out any experiment.
Also, one of SIMA’s main concern is the integration of curating and art-making at the root level: our aim is to have our curatorship students and media art students working closely with one another from the very beginning of projects. Theory and praxis also go hand in hand here; for example, we would have graduate-level critical seminars on undergrad group exhibitions that just went on display.
Yes, at the Center of Intermedia Art International, in Shanghai, I will be in charge of live sound, audio-visual performance programming, which I think can prove to be very inspirational for installation-based new media art in general. Even at the previous New Media Art Department, we had been already moving more and more towards live, often bodily, performance in recent years. So, now combined with our colleague Qiu Zhijie’s persistent emphasis on “live event,” I think this will be one of the areas in which we could play a major role.
Robin Peckham: Finally, are there any exhibitions or other projects you’re working on now that we can present?
Yao Dajuin: I will be teaching a class on iPhone application development this spring, as I want to jump-start at SIMA this new way of thinking about artistic creativity, combining software design, user experience design, and programming technique. This is where everything–social media, art, technology, programming, practical use in everyday life, and plain fun–is converging now. I really want to divert some of our collective talent toward this alternative direction (alternative only in the old art school sense, not at all in real life), and see our students and colleagues getting excited designing iPhone and desktop apps.
Also, I have just founded the Hangzhou Sound Unit, which is a joint project between my own Post-Concrete Records and Open Media Lab. We will be launching an on-going series of audio-visual live performances, forums, workshops, CD/DVD releases, and related events. I have started collaborations with European and Scandinavian organizations.
For example, I am working on bringing leading audio-visual artists, including the ones coming from the German label Raster-Noton , to China for large-scale live events, of course also showcasing domestic artists. This will be a continuation of what I have been doing for years: to promote new music and sound art in China and also bringing Chinese artists to the world.
On the personal side, algorithmic calligraphy is a very private part of my art and I want to release more works in this area in 2011. I have done extensive work in “Chinese character art” (which is partly an extension of the international movement of Concrete Poetry from decades ago), exploring the tripartite wealth of contents embodied in the Chinese script system–sound, visuality, and semantics.
have released quite a number of audio works exploring the sounds and meanings of Chinese characters (e.g., the albums Dream Reverberations in 1997 and Cinnabar Red Drizzle of 1999, and live performances), and have started exhibiting a new series of algorithmic visual works, IdeoRhythm, since 2009 (shown at the 2009 Beijing Typography exhibition and then in the U.S.). Currently I’m experimenting with possibilities opened up by the iPad platform, which offers unprecedented physical, emotional proximity and interaction between the user/viewer and the computer-age, typographied Chinese ideographic script. There is so much work for me to do there.