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?
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.
TLD: What would be your dream Scratching gig? Where would you have and what performers would be included?
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.