Interview via email on 29th November, 2016
KL: Welcome to Beijing! You haven’t been in the neighbourhood for long but what are your first impressions of the creative scene here in our smoggy city? What encouraged you to move here?
HC: Thanks, two months fresh and just beginning to dive into some of Beijing’s local goodness. I just had to figure out how to dial in the WeChat a bit and the floodgates pretty much opened for sweet tunes, cool art digs, and rad people… food’s not bad here either.
Beijing way is product of my lovely cohort Griffin, guiding us out after her master’s degreeing and professoring at UCDenver. I have a gourmet food truck, on temporary hiatus, that also needed some new menu inspirad and so here we are.
KL: How does the scene differ from Colorado? How long have you been creating art? Is this an egg-carton crocodile situation (from the kinder years) or have you discovered the passion recently? Have you always worked in mixed media or is this a new venture? If not, what have you done before?
HC: As far as art scenes go, I’m not really too keen. All my recent artstuffs emerged unexpectedly after isolating up in a tiny mountain town cabin after realizing the 9 years of food truckin’ living was catching up. Incidentally, of course, no rest for the weary, I ended up trading in cooking powpow for the ∆Ʀƚ§ & ₵ƦƌƑƬɎ, one intense lifestyle for another. Turned out it was so much fun that I ended up churning out somewhere in the ballpark of 6-700 pieces over the following winter months there. Once the seasons changed and spring rolled around it seemed like it was time to get out of lockdown and start showing people the artshiiit. My food truck biz, from the very beginning, was always interconnected with the local art/music scene. So, all summer long, just prior to moving out here to Beijing, I got to showcase ∀ŘŦ instead of ȇ₳Ƭƨ at all these venues, markets, and shows. Nice change of scenery.
KL: Your works are created from 19th century textbooks, is the vintage an integral part of the works or is it secondary to subject?
HC: The vintage aspect of the books doesn’t concern me. I had been collecting old textbooks for years because I enjoyed the aesthetic; the worn covers, the brittle yellow paper, the weird smell, and the scribbled notes from previous keepers. Much of the time the words or content within the page or on the backside became the driving force for the piece. I never really imagined that I’d end up destroying these old books all to make artstuffs. I mean destroying their original intended purpose. Is what it is now.
KL: Your collages are made in the old-school tactile cut and paste style, what is the allure of the old cut-and-paste? Are you totally in love with your X-Acto knife? Are the tools part of the appeal?
HC: It’s funny, the whole collage thing and cut-out incorporation also follows a bizzaro progression like the repurposed textbooks. I’d never been interested in collage art or anything similar, let alone doing it. And then shortly after moving up the mountain from Denver, an elderly neighbor lady asked for my help throwing out some old junk she was finally through with. She was trying to dumpster toss heavy milk-crates full of old National Geographics, from the 1960’s to present day, a lot of em doubles. I don’t even know what compelled me to take em all home but I did. Hundreds of lbs of magazines. Seemed like a waste to trash them and for a time they ended up just taking up space in an already limited cabin. But, another key ingredient for the project had serendipitously lined itself again. Didn’t even consider cutting them up until a friend came to visit and suggested we chop em up.
The tools, the tools, like everything else was a slow burn. I already had a pretty extensive set of slicers and dicers from a previous woodcut print infatuation I had a few years back in NYC. I was digging all kinds of tossed wood pieces out of garbages and carving woodcut designs for acrylic paint prints I was trying to do at the time but could never fully realize then. Luckily I kept em all during my travelings in between. All those woodcuts would become the middle-ground for these new mixed-media pieces, connecting the old text to the cut-outs sort of.
I had a few X-Actos around but never really used them much or any other knives to extract all the cut-outs… seemed so tedious and my hand isn’t that steady. I’m more of a scissor cutter. I started with some small sewing scissors. Used them for the first long while, then realized there’s all kinds of rad scissors out there…I’ve got a lot of scissors now.
KL: I noticed that you sell your work on Etsy, what role do you think Etsy plays in the art scene? It has created an avenue for people to share and sell their artworks at reasonable prices but has not created any art successes in anything other than a commercial sense. Does it matter? Is it the true democratisation of art?
HC: I think etsy is a great platform… for some folks, but it didn’t work very well for me. I guess they say things only work as hard as you work em and I never did care much for dealing with it. Selling art is the worst part of this whole deal! My girlfriend ended up setting it up and managed it from time to time but I think I only ended up selling maybe a dozen pieces the whole year or so it’s been up and running. Better than nothing yes, but the time expense it takes to put it all together with just the right pics and prices and shipping and ahhhH! Just wasn’t really worth it for me. But hell, other people make their livelihoods with etsy and mediums like it so more power to em.
KL: Loreli encourages collaboration and I’m curious to know if you have already or would consider collaborating with other artist, writers or musicians. Your pieces would work well in an illustrative context or even as animation.
HC: YES COLLABORATION YES! Art’s fun by yourself an all but it’s a blast with other creators. I play music too, was always in bands and such along the way, but for the life of me I can’t sit down along and write a tune or record songs from single tracks. For me music has always been a collaboration must and, even with the collage stuff, I’d love to throw it in the mix with other ideas, techniques, media, whatever.
KL: Do you think China will have an impact on the context for your art? There is a strong techno-propaganda feel to a lot of your work. Will China give you the opportunity to expand on that? You should definitely explore the markets for old books and other ephemera.
HC: China will most certainly have an impact on whatever creative output I’m spewing. Every little bit of stimuli changes the course, for me at least, whether subtle or intense… and China’s pretty damn intense. I’ve got no clue where it’s all heading next but I’m down for the ride and I’ll try and do my part if I have a part. Artshiit never seemed like it was ever up to me anyways, always a madman at the wheel.
KL: What are your plans for Beijing? Will you be working on your art fulltime? What aspirations do you have in the scene? Markets like the Loreli Affordable Art Market, galleries, or residencies?
HC: Plans…. never been good at those. I figure as long as I keep doing something every day, it’ll lead to the next thing, inevitably. Even just getting connected with you and Loreli China was all very auspicious. One little thing leads to the other if you follow it. Griffin left a webpage up on my comp, I suppose it was a recent event she had seen of your alls and your EMAIL happened there, centered on the screen, seemed to stand out to me for a second. So, I fired one off click clack, on a whim. What could it hurt? Not really expecting to hear anything back. And so… THANK YOU so much for reaching back out. Without your forum and stage to throw this stuff on, a lot of us would just be hiding out, making this shit in basements hoping someone, someday will come looking. I appreciate YOU….and now that I know it works I think I’ll go try that email thing again, see what happens next.
Interview via email on November 23rd, 2016
KL: Tell us a little about you, Philippe, what is your history in the music/theatre scene before China. I noticed your Chinese is fantastic, how did you end up in Beijing and how long have you been here?
PB: I worked as an archaeologist for different French institutions (Louvre Museum, Lutece street, French Senat) from 1979 to 1990.
From 1989 to 2002, I composed music for cartoons and films, such as Sharky and George (104 episodes), Canal+, “Sur le pont d’Avignon” cartoon, music for educational DVDs etc.
From 1998, I worked as light engineer in different kinds of spaces (outside stage, theatre, church) in different countries.
Since 1995, I have been working on over 100 projects as music producer & art director in Europe, Africa and China. Projects include collaborations with renowned European recording companies such as Musique du monde, Nord-Sud, Night and Day, Al Sur and many others.
Besides that, I was also photographer for CD covers, magazines and personal exhibitions in China and France.
KL: Have you been involved in any other art or culture projects in China?
PB: During my first trips to China, I produced two albums of popular Qiang ethnic songs in the North part of Sichuan province and made photography exhibitions linked to those music recordings.
I also plan exhibition with French artists in La Plantation and some in France for Chinese artists.
KL: Can you give us an overview of La Plantation? How long have you been around? Where can we find you and what do you do?
The idea of “La Plantation” is born from our shared cultural interests and the discovery of an industrial wasteland in January 2006.
We dreamed of an art project for La Plantation more than for a business one,
We wanted a space which look like us, curious, open-minded floricultural and designed with a feeling of warmness and originality, even by keeping the industrial past of the place alive.
La Plantation offers concerts: classical music, jazz, world music and fusion on Saturdays at 7:00 PM and on Sundays at 4:00 PM. We have organized more than 200 concerts in La Plantation concert hall with international artists.
KL: What was your mission with opening the theatre? Was the idea to spread western classical music or was there a larger intention to engage with Chinese musicians?
PB: I did not have any missions I think, I was just attracted by the country dynamism and people’s energy.
If I try to work as well as possible to promote different kind of arts, I’m not the government and do not have any “mission” here! I am just interested in musicians really motivated, wherever they come from.
KL: Loreli’s modus operandi is to encourage collaboration between artists of different styles and mediums; does La Plantation do anything to connect musicians of varying backgrounds and styles? Do you have any interest in musical hybrids, crossovers and experimentation or does the theatre stick to more traditional bands and orchestras?
PB: We did residencies around dance and music, art exhibitions with French and Chinese artists. I am quite open to many kinds of art, I already designed some video, photos on stage or during art exhibitions to offer some new ways to the audience. I am into real creative contemporary composers more than recycling music stuff as many these days are.
KL: The theatre itself is beautifully designed with wooden stairs descending into a central pit/performance space. The original industrial warehouse space is visible above the audience’s heads while wooden panelling creates the perfect cocoon for the music. Who designed the space? How long did it take to realise the theatre from conception to opening?
PB: The design is the work of Zhang Xing 张行my best friend in China and his wife Shu Kun 束坤, both famous designers who are working all over China. We renovated and redesigned the location of La Plantation from 2007 to 2009.
KL: The upper level of the theatre space showcases large canvasses. Is showing visual art an important part of what the theatre wants to achieve? Is the exhibition permanent or will it change periodically?
PB: I often have long time partnership with French artists, so I regularly change the exhibition in the gallery above the theatre.
All the place must have an artistic mood to make the difference with others.
KL: You mentioned to me that there are few independent Chinese led chamber groups in Beijing with most classical music being organised through official Chinese channels. Why do you think there is so few and is La Plantation doing anything to remedy this?
PB: Chamber music needs a market, so it will take generations to improve the amount of theatres, audiences and orchestras. I cannot remedy that, it is a matter for society, this will come over time. That’s why we hold concerts with musicians like Chu Yibing who did create a six cello chamber orchestra on his own 10 years ago, he is a pioneer and he will play again in La Plantation on the 26th of November 2016.
KL: La Plantation is located in Art base 1, Hegezhuang Village in Beijing’s Northeast past Wangjing. Does this provide any problems or challenges with running a theatre program? I was out there a week before to visit the Wen Pulin archive in the nearby Red Brick Gallery and the space was humming but for a night show everything is closed and dark and my walk back to the station alone was slightly harrowing. Are you able to counter the remoteness in anyway? You mentioned about live streaming events.
PB: Far from where? This is the point! We are 24 million people in Beijing, just around us there is Wangjing, Shunyi and Chaoyang. It’s like 6 million people, already three times Paris!
Beijing subway line 15 arrived in 2011, line 14 in 2015 with more and more connections to the city center, it takes 50 mn to go to Dawanglu or Nanluoguxiang … and now there is an electric shuttle service from and to the subway station from 7am to 11pm! Of course it is a challenge to catch people from the inner city, but the quality of concerts we propose make people come, whatever the distance.
KL: How do you feel about the Beijing “art space” scene? With the success of 798 Art District we have had more and more large industrial parks dedicated to art and design open on the fringes of the city. Due you think this is conducive to cultural awareness or innovation in the city? Operating in one of the spaces, do you think they are successful?
PB: In a way, yes, on a long term, this is part of the modernity of a capital.
If we talk about economic success, no, I think culture is improving day after day and some are going well, some are collapsing. Being still here after 10 years is already a success.
KL: The theatre feels distinctly French in many ways, do you work together with other purveyors of French culture such as the Institut Francais to promote or collaborate?
PB: My Chinese partners have been to France several times with me and they like the life quality, art protection and variety of French culture, so we all respect France and China through our design and programs.
Thanks to my past in France and collaborations with French organizations in Beijing since 2009 (Festival Croisements and Alliance Francaise), I also offer contemporary dance performances, object theatre or object puppetry and the new French circus.
KL: Does nationality and culture matter when sharing music?
PB: Not at all, only education makes the difference, whatever the nationality is. Music has no passport.
KL: Do you have any passion projects that you would love to see come to fruition at La Plantation? What are your long-term goals for the theatre?
PB: Improve the amount of shows and concerts, do more contemporary dance and new circus but also develop collaborations with international and Chinese schools to make the students discover, as soon as possible, what is the benefit of live performances compared to the very cheap mobile world!
Philippe Bouvet has a history in archaeology, music composition, sound engineering and photography. He has been the art director, curator and co-owner of La Plantation Theatre since its inception in 2007. He also works in lighting design and championing the traditional music of regional China.
Contact him for more information of what La Plantation has on offer at email@example.com.
Interview on November 9 at Alba Café, Gulou
KL: I wanna talk today about your work as the booking agent at Temple Bar. How long have you been booking the acts now?
MM: I started doing it more extensively in, I guess, April but prior to that I’d been booking occasional things at Temple.
KL: So, that was for nothing and now it’s for salary?
MM: That was for nothing and now it’s for cash. Cash and drinks.
KL: And cash and drinks are enough to pay the bills?
MM: Yeah, without a lot of opportunities for luxury, for sure.
KL: That was a long pause… “yeah.” Temple definitely has a reputation as a rock bar so what are you doing to break out from that?
MM: On one hand, I’m not totally upset by Temple’s association with just rock and metal, I mean, those are such extensive and diverse scenes around Gulou that rock music has all kinds of subgenres and different bands. I do think there are interesting opportunities to draw other types of music into Temple. I understand that I’ve made the word “jam” a pejorative but for awhile I’ve wanted to have a Real Book based jam night so jazz musicians could have a jam where they played out of the book instead of jams where people play two chords for twenty minutes. I would love to have a string quartet or chamber music night just to completely switch it up. I mean, Temple being a rock bar doesn’t just refer to the music that we have but it also refers to the types of people that we generally have spending time there. The people we have spending time there also have a very diverse set of interests and Temple can also be a place where we can expose each other to new musical ideas. We have the Modular Free-For-All.
KL: What sorts of crowds are you getting for that? Do you think that you’re actually expanding on the Temple regulars or this something where you’re exposing the Temple regulars to something new?
MM: It’s hard to say because we’ve only done it twice. What I can say is, at our second event we had many mor3e people than the first one. So, the first event had maybe around 30 people at the peak and the last time we did it I almost felt like we had a Thursday sized crowd for awhile, too. I’m not necessarily sure that these are kids that are gonna be hanging out at Temple. They’re not really a go-out-and-party-all-night crowd. They’re kind of like indoor kids who build their own gear and stuff but I do think it could pave the way for interesting musical collaborations. It has created a cool way for people to expand their networks. So, while these people might not be spending time at Temple, they’re creating new communities in Gulou in general and I think that’s an important part of booking events like that, too.
KL: Break down the Rock Against Jams night for me. It definitely seems as if it’s reactionary but you’ve also created something that’s new and interesting and has very quickly got a significant following.
MM: I started Rock Against Jams last March because there was sort of like an out of control epidemic of jams happening in the music scene and it got to the point where places like Temple ended up having two jam sessions a week. The problem wasn’t just that jams are really lame generally and they only take the same six or seven people every time, but it also created a sort of unfair precedent for actual bands. It meant that venues could more reliably make shows where they didn’t have to pay anyone and they could simply let musicians be scabs. In the Beijing scene, we're really fortunate to have dozens of fantastic bands and dozens of fantastic musicians so I thought there was a way to take a jam format and actually make it more productive. It was totally reactionary. I mean, the title is really stupid but it's also really aggressive. Woops! But the point was that, with certain types of constraints, getting musicians to collaborate could create new and longer lasting projects so it wouldn't simply be a one-off thing, it would mean that these people could continue to play together and become consistent contributors to the scene and develop their own audience. Dress Code is one of those bands. I'm trying to think of who else we produced? The Blanks were playing around for a while and now Mario is making a new ska project after kinda getting the itch. I know that members of Endless Square have participated and then taken those musical ideas and developed them into their own repertoire for their own band. So, I think it’s been a productive experiment but I think it has become a place where people can feel musically empowered and that veteran musicians and very new musicians can have an equal ground where they can be creative. So I think it has become more of a distinctive thing. It’s also musically more diverse than jams.
KL: When you have a band that’s created out of Temple, do you find that you end up having a partiality for them when it comes to booking or do you try to be completely impartial? I’ve seen Dress Code at Temple a lot.
MM: Oh, no, I’m totally biased. I have absolutely no problem saying that. I certainly have an agenda. One of Temple’s strengths is that it can be a place where we can take very new bands and promote them on a Fresh Blood show and then continue to book them and keep building them an audience on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. So, Temple is actually a really good place to showcase and build up new bands. And I do try to actively support those bands and make sure that they keep coming back. I mean, one of my other goals, and sometimes this doesn't work out based on who is available for any given show, but I'm really interested in much more integrated shows. I don't want three expat bands, necessarily. Then I might not want three Chinese bands either. I think that one of the major issues that we have in the scene right now is that there is a lot of that so I’m certainly biased towards ensuring that those kind of clique-based or segregated behaviours don't really have a place to continue in Temple.
KL: And how has that agenda worked out, so far?
MM: I have no idea.
KL: Temple doesn't charge, there’s no admission, so that must complicate things as far as what you talked about earlier, scabs, and it must complicate being able to pay bands. How does that actually work? Say a band like Dress Code gets to the point where they are playing Yugong [Yishan] do you find that loyalty brings them back or do you have difficulty booking bands where they are asking for money?
MM: Well, there are bands that have played and developed a reputation and a dependable audience to the point where they can ask for a guarantee and we're willing to pay it but that isn't like a band that has played for three months and now they feel really cool. That's a band where they have cut their teeth like The Diders or Glow Curve. Temple, or any venue that does a free show, if it’s not a sponsored show, are paying bands from a percentage of the bar at the end of the night. It certainly limits some of the bands that we can choose especially like headliners on a weekend. We’re not necessarily in a position where we can get Carsick Cars and we’re not really the type of classy joint that Carsick Cars would want to play in. In part, that’s why we have such a great opportunity to work with younger bands who are really developing. I think the atmosphere is really thrilling for a lot of bands and I think a lot of bands continue to come back because they just like to play. Especially on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays we have a very enthusiastic receptive audience and I think bands generally find that pretty stimulating.
[At this point our interview subject, needing sustenance after an onslaught of probing questions, paused to eat some lunch and hum some Vivaldi.]
KL: Were you classically trained as a musician?
MM: I was raised listening to classical music. If you went through my computer you’d see a ton of classical music in my records.
KL: Is that why you want to get chamber music at Temple?
MM: Chamber music is my absolute favourite. I mean, rock bands have standard formations but chamber groups were always arranged at the discretion of the composer so the colours and timbres that get produced in chamber music are all over the place and they’re awesome. I guess having an event like chamber music or a string quartet night at Temple, I think, I don't know the way that I generally like to organise stuff is that I like to organise spectacles. It’s not just that we’re playing three bands on a Thursday, it’s that there’s a really weird gimmick or something that makes it kind of novel. We did that flannel rock night which would have otherwise been a normal Thursday but because we framed it in the way of wanting to crossover different genres and create a new genre it made it into something that was entirely different. It created a novel space where bands could confront each other under new circumstances but audiences could also confront band musical communities under novel circumstances as well. Having things that, I guess, subvert or call attention to the types of norms that we have in our music scene in Temple.
KL: Do you feel a sense of responsibility booking for Temple? It has a certain status in Beijing, a certain history, reputation and importance. Do you feel a sense of responsibility and who is that responsibility to, is it to the brand? Is it to the punters? Is it to the local upcoming bands?
MM: I mean, I think it’s my responsibility but I think this is everyone’s responsibility here. When you participate in a community, you support your community. When I first came here, like six years ago now, I got involved with a number of different Chinese punk bands. I certainly think being in China and being in Beijing and participating in this music scene, it’s my job before anything else to support creative young people that are Chinese. I think that, while it’s completely awesome that we have a lot of western participants and, obviously, I’m one of those participants, this isn’t totally your show and the greatest power that we have here, and also some of the coolest contributions we can make are lending support and knowledge and experience to a very cool emergent generation of young Chinese artists and musicians. So, I think that it’s my responsibility to work with them before anything else.
KL: Obviously you want to expand on your repertoire of spectacles, what’s coming up, other than the chamber music?
MM: On November 17th we have a show that I call, I Can Skank To This. One of my personal methods of judging how much fun I’m having at a punk show is often related to if it’s skankable music. Skanking is this - when we do the write-up, I'm just going to lift this from Wikipedia because it's going to sound a lot better than how I’m gonna describe it - skanking is this type of dance that emerged around ska music in the 80s and 90s that is kind of mosh pit based and includes kicking out your legs and throwing out your elbows. I have three young but really, really interesting punk bands and they all have the type of music that you can totally skank to. So, that one’s coming up and I’m really psyched about that.
KL: Can I ask a question leading on from that? Temple has been getting lively lately and, I don't know if it used to be like this, I’ve been going for a long time but it seems like, as far as the dance floor, it’s heating up. Teeth have been lost. Is that part of the Temple appeal, things getting wild and crazy? Is that something that’s being encouraged or are you suddenly going to have to worry about public liability insurance?
MM: As some point, we're going to have to start making people sign waivers. I do think part of Temple's appeal is that it's kind of like a dramatic movie depiction of a frat house, which I think can be fun, for sure. By the weekend, there are definitely points where things get out of control and I have to go play dad and make sure that people don’t try to jump down the entire flight of stairs because that’s how people die. Then I don’t wanna have to deal with it. I don’t want to have to drag a body outside.
KL: How do you guys maintain that fine line between somebody surfing shirtless on the table and somebody tumbling down the stairs? How do you police that?
MM: We’ve gotten really lucky. I mean, one of the things that does bother me occasionally is that there are people there who definitely need to be regulated in one way or another. They are overstepping other people’s boundaries, especially guys, which doesn’t create a safe or productive environment for anyone. You definitely have people there who’ve already had way too much to drink and they’re a liability for everyone else too. I think it’s the vast minority of people who show up to Temple but there’s definitely that kind of presence. Pink and I try to be as vigilant as we can. I think it does help that we have a lot of people who are keeping a look out and keeping us informed of things that are going on, too. It’s a social effort to make sure Temple remains a safe environment. As long as everyone comes in with at least a small sense of personal responsibility it usually turns out okay.
KL: It’s all part of the fun, right?
MM: Personal responsibility is a fun thing.
KL: It’s hard to know if it’s a community or a cult sometimes inside Temple.
MM: Oh God, yeah! I don't know what the hell it is. We definitely have a community of regulars but like you said there is an expected vibe and an anything goes mentality especially at weekends that does turn it into a weird cult of excess. Part of the reason the weekends have ramped up is we started working on the whole DJ thing, putting people on stage. Really all it takes is having a warm body on stage and people end up sticking around. Not to deride Dominic or Scott but putting people on stage creates an active environment that people respond to. That’s all it took. It’s easy to manipulate.
KL: It also got me off the bar.
MM: Yeah, that was one the reasons, not you specifically, well you…
KL: Yeah, I was part of the problem.
MM: I still can't get Alex off the damn bar. It kept everyone from clustering around the cult of Morgan and spread everyone out… to Morgan’s chagrin.
KL: Is that what drove him out of Beijing?
MM: Yeah, Morgan had to go.
KL: So what else were you going to say is coming up?
MM: I talked about bridging genres and cliques and we have a show on November 11th that is the perfect storm of clique breaking. There is this really new band who are fantastic who are called Streams of Life and they’ve generally been playing with a lot of the hardcore bands but they're really a lot more like post-punk or a post rock band like At the Drive-In. Like, Macondo actually has another band that they could conceivably play with at this point. We have Hotline who are a D.O.G. band and they’re kind of dancey, synth punk stuff and then we have Macondo that’s gonna close up the night. So, it’s an awesomely diverse range of bands and they’re bands that musically complement each other and yet come from very different parts of the music scene. It’s a really great holistic look at the current music situation.
KL: I’m gonna round it out with one of those horribly clichéd questions. Let’s stick to China, any bands, any theme, what would be the ultimate Temple show?
MM: Do the bands still have to exist?
KL: Aah… no.
MM: Okay, I would say Guai li who used to be completely awesome and they broke up and their lead singer was a total firecracker on stage. Hang on the Box in 2001, for sure. Then who would be my last one…? I’m just gonna say Dirty Fingers because I love those kids. I think they’re absolutely one of my favourites. Like the whole time I’ve been here. Those are my three, for sure.
Marshall's been around Beijing for about 6 years doing research and spending time with the Gulou music community. He organizes cool events plays in a cool band and I don't really know.
***All photos provided by Will Griffith of Live Beijing Music
Interview by email with Thanh Le Dang on November 3rd
KL: I’m interested in organised artist, writer and musician collaborations around Beijing. Please tell me how Scratching Beijing got started.
TLD: Fresh from London I came to Beijing two and half years ago to live, having fallen in love with the place a few years back whilst travelling.
I was ready to take a break from London where I was feeling stifled as British East artist working as a writer and director in theatre. I wanted to refresh and go back to how I began as a fine artist. I needed some headspace space to meet new people and try out something new.
Within my first weeks of moving, it was under the grandeur of the drum and bell tower where I found my nesting ground. And as I wandered around the hutongs between the underground music scene and film nights, I felt there was great potential in the air for a new kind of arts night and after some dutch courage I got talking to a barman to organise something…
I don’t think he knew quite what I was on about at the time but in honesty nor did I, I just wanted a platform to experiment between art forms. To make it happen I needed to reel in some talent.
I found my co-Scratchers Alice Nairn, a kooky costume designer from Scotland and Anna Ruth Yates a real cowgirl with artistic talent exuding from her hair. And so we began, as a couple of friends chatting and sharing ideas over a drink. Scratching Beijing became the perfect playground to test out ideas between different disciplines and grew as a collective of artists developing their work and putting on shows around Beijing.
KL: Do you have a manifesto or certain criteria for choosing the people you work with?
TLD: After the first show we were hooked and we quickly aroused the interest of at least the expatriate crowd and I was approached by different artists to get involved.
Usually, in some place cozy I'd arrange an initial meeting with an artist. From there I'd like to gauge what got them excited, whether it was weird noises put together experimentally or feminist essays followed by what they wanted to actually do. A possible idea for an act or presentation might then surface from these conversations and go on to rehearsals and then to performance.
Or we might simply be out one night and spot an artist like a bass player, a poet we might think would work well together and we’d just approach them directly.
The rest would be piecing it together and curating it into a show that could work. We have worked with over 70 artists from camera man to photographers and dancers in different projects challenging each artist to put their work out there.
As for the choosing, it’s more about the potential we see in an idea and how the work with others for particular shows.
KL: You’ve done similar things in other cities, do you think Beijing is a good city to organise these events? How does it compare to other cities? What challenges do you face when arranging them?
TLD: Beijing is a great city with an open mind so it offers the perfect grounds for experimenting. London can often feel a little ‘poncy’ between the white wall galleries and old theatres that only speak a certain language.
Beijing is amazing and forgiving for artists who want to just try at things because everything is so fresh and also when in Beijing why the hell not? Our shows attract crowds for different reasons whether it’s their friend on guitar that night or another friend first time acting in a stage role. It puts people into a room, they may not normally be together and it opens new experiences whether it's a new south African instrument which they've never heard before or to seeing performance art for the first time.
Our audiences are usually bilingual but we also have Chinese people that don’t speak a word of English or vice versa but they don’t need to, it is what is unique and challenging about being an artist in Beijing. People respond to the pieces in different ways whether the piece speaks to them through movement, music or guest. Beijing definitely has its unique language somewhere between the two cultures and opens ideas about communication.
KL: Is there a Scratching event that you are particularly proud of? Why?
TLD: The first one always, just because it was like ‘phew!’ How did we pull that off? Followed by let’s do it again!
But I would say as a team, it would have to be our last show; 9th Ricochet. We definitely came a long way from the Hutong bars to Modern Skylab in the beautiful Galaxy Soho building designed by Sahib Haeer which is one of my favourite pieces of modern architecture.
KL: Scratching is on hiatus at the moment with the main organisers out of Beijing for some time, would you consider placing Scratching in the hands of someone else or is this your baby?
TLD: Scratching is a team of 3, that moves with us. Anna is doing exciting things at SOAS University and I’m retreating to London and replanting myself creatively and are we waiting for Alice to come join us from Beijing as we move and open up new projects; Scratching Bei-Lon. Connecting Beijing to London and opening opportunities and conversations. More to be announced!
KL: What do you plan for when you get back?
TLD: I’m still working on SBY (scratching Beijing youth) and inviting kids over from Beijing to partake in London Beijing Theatre academy aside from that we’ll have to see what opportunities come from our next project. – Sorry, it's mostly hush hush as I don’t actually know.
KL: Scratching covers so many different kinds of performance, which is your particular favourite? Can you give us a rundown of what you have covered in your prior events?
TLD: Wow, where to begin, we’ve had on-going theatre from the likes of myself and developing writer namely Sebastian Rose water aka Elvis, meditational movement, dance from ‘Scratcher' Rosalyn. Music from amazing bands like math rock bands ‘Seed' to sampled sounds of ‘home’ from DJ Scratchner.
My favourite would maybe be Un-ravel. Unravel started as a conversation in Modernista where I met co-scratcher Alice Nairn and we got talking and never shut up since. In short, Un-Ravel is a video installation that captures a figure dancing, cocooned from head to toe in a knitted costume, we witness the unravelling. The final piece we saw a dramatic evolution over the two years, from trialling the early concepts of the piece in my bedroom, dancing and literally tearing down the walls, a live performance in another show to it being finally filmed in a professional film set with the most amazing dancer Surzhanna, a Siberian dancer, and woman of many talents whom we caught out dancing one night. Unravel captures the essence of what scratching is about, offering the space for creative heads to work together in ongoing conversations.
KL: How sophisticated do you think the scene is in Beijing regarding both artists and audiences?
TLD: Bejing as in any world city moves in its own circles with its own niches from Tribal belly dance to sophisticated fine art galleries hidden in the hutongs, it is more than evolved amongst its own circles.
Working in such an international city across the different mediums, the scene speaks its own language and therefore creates its own of sort communication between cultures which is a dialogue that is still being developed and explored. It's refreshing and inviting and we are seeing evolutions of different nights pop up to fill these spaces. Spittoon Poetry, for example, are doing amazing things that use the richness of different tongues in the poetry in translation section. These are gems which are what makes Beijing special and speak to its own Beijing audience and is hard to compare with other cities which move in their own rhythms.
KL: Some of the work you do takes courage or at least a large dose of extroversion, have you always found it easy to perform publicly or is this a skill you have had to learn?
TLD: It definitely takes practice but Beijing is a fun playground to not take yourself too seriously and try things out. It's just play and what's the fun in sitting out? Being able to work with different artists you are constantly learning how to do things better.
KL: What would be your dream Scratching gig? Where would you have and what performers would be included?
TLD: You guys at Loreli are getting harder and better with your questions! I hate to name drop, for me it’s more about finding fresh energies to make something new and interesting, finding ideas that would get the audiences talking internationally. Scratching Bei-Lon would open a dialogue between the cities and opportunities that challenge both audiences, in new work produced from both sides of the pond.
Thanh Le Dang is a creative nomad and can be found mentally or physically somewhere between Beijing and London. She is can be caught flying around the park in a plastic bag and calling it art and getting into weird wonderful characters to inspire new writing. Thanh set up Scratching Beijing as a contemporary platform to explore her practice as an interdisciplinary artist in an open space where she would feel less strange and could meet like-minded beings. Find more at www.scratchingbeijing.com or facebook.