More on the Guangzhou sound installation

I was asked to write more about the XU Bing(?冰)/Hugh Livingston sound installation in Guangzhou. The latest news is that the two artists will reach Guangzhou on Dec. 4 to begin the actual construction. And hopefully everything will be finished by mid-January.

The site for the installation is actually the entrance aisle and garden of a residential area, it’s a 100% public space with which the residents will have daily encounter, it will be the playground for children, the shelter for seniors, what’s more, as I said in the previous post, there will be a bridge linking 3 art museums/galleries (2 within the garden), so that non-resident visitors will be able to stroll through the 3 without physically interfering with the residents.

It is therefore essential to design a sound installation that doesn’t enrage the de facto sponsor, i.e.: the residents. One thing to keep in mind: this will be a 24-hour, weather-proof sound system, it will keep playing no matter you’re sleeping, eating, working or love-making. What it will play consists of the following:

1. Field-recordings that Livingston made in Guangzhou.

2. Manipulated human speech, something like what Dajuin Yao did in Cinnabar Red Drizzle.

3. On-site pickup of the real-time sounds, either modulated or not. For this, Xu and Livingston are planning to bury some boundary mics under the entrance aisle to record the footstep sounds, also some other mics will be hidden elsewhere.

The playback end of the system will be installed on the bridge that links the 3 galleries. Altogether there will be 20 to 30 channels, each with different signals. It’s a complicated system controlled by Max/MSP patches that Livingston wrote (btw, some of the patches will be projected to a hugh screen somewhere in the garden for people to look at, because both Xu and the guys at Times Group think all those automating-sliders and meters look crazy cool and “techie”!), the sounds will be in a volume that those not on the bridge will basically not be able to hear them.

So what’s the role of Xu Bing in it? Well, he’s the incubator of the overall concept, and it’s him that invited Livingston into this project. You may wonder how did Xu become interested in sound art, it’s all because of his megawork “Tian Shu”(天书,A Book from the Sky, 1987 – 1991), which caught the interest of Livingston who began to design imaginary sounds for some of those incomprehensible characters Xu has invented. Xu, as most of the contemporary artists with few exposure to sound art would be, was amazed by the result, so when he received the invitation from Times Group this time, he came up with the idea of an installation with sound as the central role, and here’s how Livingston came in.

What Xu has proposed for the installation is a mixture of ancient chinese aphorism (Lao Tzu) & concepts, plus the notion of “deja-vu”. For instance, he associated this kind of “outdoor musical practice” with those of the ancient chinese Gu Qin (chinese zither) players, who always play their instrument in mother nature. Also, some well-known titles of traditional chinese music such as “rain falling on the plantain trees”(雨打芭蕉)were quoted to show that Chinese people always have an ear for concrete, natural sounds, therefore justifying the use of field-recordings. As for deja-vu…in some cases, the sounds that made by, say, you chatting with your friend get picked up and played in a loudspeaker 10 meters away after 15 seconds, so by the time you reach the loudspeaker, you’ll hear your own voice again, thus creating a sonic deja-vu.

Ok I know these are only marketing tricks and what matters is the final product, I’m just trying to give you some “scoop” about the genesis of this work. After all, a piece of work involving so many money (6 digits, and the first digit larger than 5) and manpower can be anything but “pure art”.


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