Michael Leung, leader of the course that this project is the final presentation for, began his course description with the following quote by Jacque Rancière.
“[…] Critical art intends to raise consciousness of the mechanisms of domination in order to turn the spectator into a conscious agent in the transformation of the world.”
Because of my interest in sound, this led me to question:
“What does (social) engagement mean for sound practices?”
To try and find some answers to that question I began by approaching a small group of Hong Kong-based artists working with sound to gather their opinions. These four artists are Dennis Wong, Elaine W. Ho, Edwin Lo, and Fiona Lee.
The form of my whole project was inspired by this initial conversation with these artists. Although each artist works with sound in different ways, they were equally sceptical of a direct effectivity on society of a practice using sound. They pointed out that such a practice would probably end up instrumentalizing sound – sound would merely be a medium for other meanings. In this case, at its best it would simply be imparting information; at worst it could be used to disseminate propaganda.
Dennis Wong believed that if sound has any effect, it is a very subtle and long-term one. Such an appreciation of the nature of sound’s effectivity as a long-term concern would seem to accord with Claire Bishop’s understanding of participatory art as demanding long-term engagements against short-term experiences. Bishop highlights the Dada movement in Germany in the ‘20s, that was initially perceived by the participants to have failed:
“[André] Breton’s analysis also suggests that work perceived by its makers to be an experimental failure in its own time (like the Dada Season of 1921) may nevertheless have resonance in the future, under new conditions. This model of delayed reaction has been foundational to my selection of examples, whose inclusion is based on their relevance to the present day, rather than for their significance at the time of their making.” (Bishop, 2012)
Symphony of Lights
In the course of thinking about how we could present this project through some kind of performance, Fiona Lee mentioned the Symphony of Lights – a light and music show that takes place every night in two sea front locations in Hong Kong – in Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui. At that point she believed that the music was broadcast by radio and that we might be able to hack into the broadcast with our own performance. Unfortunately it turned out that the radio broadcast had been discontinued some years previously and the music was now being streamed over the internet, as well as being played over speakers in the locations.
Engagement Through Sound: Performance for Radios
Despite this, I chose to retain the element of the radio as a means of mediating the performances of the artists in this location, as well as to key into its history as a communal device. On the evening of 10 December, timed to coincide with the Symphony of Lights, the artists all assembled at Golden Bauhinia Square and began silently broadcasting their performances for anyone with a radio to hear.
Documentation and the full background to this project can be found on this website.
My interest in radio stems partly from its convenience as a relatively simple and stable technology, the radio set’s attribute as a spatially focused point where information is mediated with little visual distraction, but also from radio’s history as a method of community-making – particularly within Mainland China.
Radio has an interesting history in Mainland China in the second half of the 20th century when radio (and its concomitant, the loudspeaker) was an important tool for ideological dissemination, serving as a means of forming a public, a community.
In the 1950s, before they became common domestic appliances, the power of radio was recognised by the Chinese Communist Party and its use was highly controlled. The Party established a network of public radios throughout China. As Lei and Sun explain:
“One key innovation was the construction of [a] reception network (shouyinwang) (Hu, 1950). […] The process involved the setup of a local ‘sound reception station’ (shouyiinzhan) with the assigned radio receiver, and the recruited local individuals as what [were] called ‘sound reception officers’. (Zhou, 1987, p.352)” (Lei & Sun, 2017)
In this way the Party had ultimate control over the presentation of information and the engagement with the audience.
Conversely, this led to the covert phenomenon of “listening to Enemy Radio” (偷听敌台 tōutīng dítái):
“Listening to overseas radio broadcasting, especially those [that are] called ‘enemy radio broadcasting’ (dítái), was criminalized to prevent Chinese individuals from listening out via available radio sets.” (Lei & Sun, 2017)
The author Ah Cheng (阿城), formerly a sent-down youth, later wrote a text titled “On Listening to Enemy Radio” about his experience during that time. In it he focused on the subversive power of broadcasts from other sources:
“Listening to enemy radio provided more food for thought, which in turn changed my views on the world, which made my already long days even longer.” (Ah Cheng, 2017)
This shows how radio could act as a mediating platform for sound and could be instrumental in creating conforming, but also non-conforming publics.
I hope that this project and the accompanying performances have raised questions about how sound can be a critical medium, and how through its reception it can be powerfully involved in forming a public, or a real or imagined community.
Ah, Cheng. (2009) 2017. ‘On Listening to Enemy Radio’. Translated by Yurou Zhong. MCLC Resource Center. 3 July 2017. http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/zhongyurou/.
Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London ; New York: Verso Books.
Lei, Wei, and Wanning Sun. 2017. ‘Radio Listening and the Changing Formations of the Public in China’. Communication and the Public 2 (4): 320–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/2057047317727288.