Yan Jun is a writer and sound artist from Beijing whose practice focuses on the use of feedback, field recording, voice and gesture. Yan Jun began his sound art career by celebrating Chinese underground rock bands in Sub Jam magazine, a venture which soon developed into a “guerilla label” and publishing house in the year 2000.
With Sub Jam – and its subsidiary sister label Kwanyin Records – Yan Jun has released over fifty albums of experimental music by himself and others. These include field recordings by Peter Cusack, Laurent Jeanneau & Kink Gong, noise music by Tim Blechmann & Manuel Knapp as well as improvised music from the Beijing underground. This scene is best articulated by Yan Jun’s ‘Living Room Tour’, whereby intimate concerts occur in private domestic settings.
In 2013, Sub Jam published 23 Formes En Élastique / The Only Authentic Work. This collection of music concrete compositions by Lionel Marchetti was coupled with Yan Jun’s poetic and literary responses to them. The book sought to build “a labyrinth of elasticity, empty space, reality and its metamorphosis” by looking back on 23 years’ worth of work with forward-thinking lyricism.
Yan Jun is currently based in Berlin, as a result of a DAAD Scholarship and artist residency programme, which allows him to attend “innumerable events” and perform in front of “open-minded audiences” in what he considers to be “the last paradise”. Yan Jun is a member of the FEN Quartet (along with Otomo Yoshihihe, Ryu Hankil and Yuen Chee Wai) who will be performing at Cafe Oto on the 24th and 25th April 2017.
Ilia Rogatchevski talks to Yan Jun about the notions reality and authenticity in underground music culture. This interview was conducted over email in February 2017.
Ilia Rogatchevski: Sub Jam began as a magazine before developing into a label and publishing imprint. What were the reasons behind this explosion of activity?
Yan Jun: Yes, this name first popped up as title for a magazine. I actually made only one issue, but in 5000 copies. It was supposed to be published with a concert I was organising – the first gathering of underground rock bands around China – but it failed. That was 1998. I was inspired by [the US independent label] Sub Pop, and ‘jam’, as a free-form of playing (I didn’t yet know the English word ‘improvisation’).
Next year, I moved to Beijing and, in 2000, I decided to release friends’ work. Most of them were in a queue to be signed by a few small, but mainstream labels. I prefer DIY, a spirit lacking in the scene. The so-called underground was weak. There was no [sense of] its own tradition. No deep thought. Very few experiences of touring. Sub Jam was perhaps the third independent label established in the country. Most people thought the underground was just not successful. I thought: “Ok, let’s do something urgently!”[Now] there is no underground in China. No such culture or scene. No such community or aesthetics. It had a chance to grow it but it stopped about 15 years ago. If someone uses this word now it’s either to sell something to you or it has already been bought. There is a small scene of fake Dionysos, which looks ‘underground’ due to the noise, free jazz and rock & roll styles, as well as the weed and New Age Taoism/Buddhism bullshit, but it’s just another version of the Spectacle. It’s true that it’s at least a reaction to reality. Perhaps a sad one. Like those people who embraced Romanticism while some others embraced National Socialism when they felt tired by the struggle with modernity.
Why did the concert fail? Have you ever used failure to your advantage when creating work?
It was a typical failure, when one wants to create independent art by borrowing resources from the mainstream. I was dependent on one businessman’s word that he will pay the cost [of the event]. Somehow, he disappeared.
My life is full of mistakes and failures. I was (am) always stupid and sometimes an asshole, but I always change and turn direction to new territories. Most people are educated that they are losers in this society. That’s why we depend on dreams. So, in my experience, all these failures are good. Noise is good. Malfunction is good. Non-music is good. Poor sound and nothing meaningful is good. Feedback starts from mistakes, right?
I still believe in Nietzsche’s idea that tragedy was born out of music. It’s not about things we already know or what we can draw from an image by narrative or drama. We don’t paint it by an atmosphere of shining effects – which is what Nietzsche criticised Wagner for – art has to be abstract and emphatic. Life is a tragedy and we should enjoy it by dancing into its depths. If you paint life with colourful wallpaper (as Brian Eno does today), you are cheating.
Your mission statement describes Sub Jam as a “guerrilla organisation”. In what sense is Sub Jam’s output radical? In other words, what guerrilla tactics do you employ when approaching new publications, films, events or sound art releases?
To be radical is to react with the ‘Radical Reality’, [something] far more radical than art. Think about the huge LED screen on Tiananmen Square, used for government propaganda, and all the performative and poetic tactics used by politicians and big companies. Think about the everyday news we read: that someone suddenly turns mad and burns a bus for revenge on ‘society’. I think I’m not radical enough. I’m trying.
It’s not easy to stand steadily in this rapid changing environment. You have to move, follow, find fissure, collaborate, kill yourself and rebirth yourself, betray, learn, wake up again and again… that’s guerrilla.
Listening to your work, I get a sense that persistence and feedback play a major role in your sound art practice. What are the motivations behind approaching sound in this way? Are they political, personal or purely aesthetic?
I’m not good of playing anything. Instruments, [computer] programmes, voice, anything. That’s my education and that’s me. I started to make music when I was thirty years old and I was busy organising [concerts] as well. No time to learn to play ‘music’.
Feedback is the thing I finally found easy. You don’t put your beautiful ego and virtuoso skill into an object. It’s there already. And I don’t know how to start and end musically. It’s better to let things be persistent. I think the best music sounds like field recording (and the worst field recording sounds like music).
Do you have a favourite frequency, or a method, to which you find yourself returning to again and again? If yes, why?
15800 Hz. It’s the frequency my feedback system always produces. I can’t chose it. I like it as it comes to me. And it’s audible while some people aren’t aware. It’s radically sharp and small and intense. Once my friend complained that it’s more painful than Merzbow. I was very happy because Merzbow is not radical – but he is sweet and beautiful – and I was enjoying the radical aspect of so-called noise music.
What relationship, if any, does your sound work have to gesture? (I’m thinking here not only of theatrical, performative or practical gestures, but symbolic ones too, such as your attempts to blow up cheap speakers.)
Gestures are performative. Political gestures, linguistic gestures, ritual gestures… I enjoy them and I also enjoy breaking them. For instance, stopping and turning before a motive grows fully. Or telling people it was fake, what I just did a second ago. Or just say “but”. If I go too seriously, I would make a joke to myself, which takes things to another level of seriousness. The symbolic world is basically built by gestures. To play the role of the human is to play with gestures. However, for play, it is more passionate if we are aware it’s a game. Artists should devote themselves to games instead of illusion.
Yan Jun – Feedback Solo (2016, Berlin)
In your interview with Perfect Sound Forever you state that your affinity for “dry sound” is an attempt to “expand people’s idea of what reality is”. I feel like, on a social level, we’re moving away from a useful understanding of what reality is and diving into a dangerous flirtation with fallacy – with Trump and Brexit being the most obvious examples. Does your ‘dry-reality’ come at odds with the ‘wet-reality’ of contemporary popular culture? How do you navigate this dichotomy?
First at all, delay pedals were abused too much in the music scene. And beer. It sounds like you’re make many copies of your poor ego and sending them out as a grant army. What about focusing on one tiny substantial sound?
Good psychedelic music depends on no delay effects, but on individual sounds. For example, drums in 1960s psychedelic rock. Of course, people tend to prefer a laid back atmosphere, instead of [focusing on] details. I too enjoy shit beer, if I’m with friends and the vibe is good.
As for Trump, he is perhaps the most successful actor in the history of American presidents. Use him as a mirror and you can see how people need performances and gestures, how thirsty we are, how poor the reality is. People both love him and hate him. I’m sorry, but it’s true that we enjoy him so much. Without such a entertainer life is boring and fighting is meaningless, right?
But why is the reality poor or do we just think it’s poor? Why do we lack the ability to process information? Why don’t we just accept that the reality is poor and being poor is totally ok, or even great? Why don’t we just accept that we are not beautiful and elegant, but just nothing, and that being nothing is great?
The medicine companies tell us that we have certain diseases and that we need comforting pills. Why are musicians and artists also doing the same thing as those companies? Why are these fucking star artists telling people that you, little losers, [need to] come and worship my giant spectacle? Why do those losers produce dreamy art, which looks better than themselves, yet they forget they they will be greater greater if they don’t make up?
I feel touched sometimes when I see people devoted to making up so much, for example Brian Eno or Merzbow. So childish. So poor. So sad and so true. I would cry for a such love song, because I’m a loser too.
Yan Jun – Living Room Tour: Vickie’s Place (2015, Singapore)
What is it about the music of Brian Eno, Merzbow and other artists who “make-up”, as you say, that is so poor and childish?
Merzbow and Brian Eno are different. Merzbow here is more symbolic as the “king of noise”. People always want a king – of pop, of noise, of Russia, of the USA, of China etc. I enjoy his music. It’s always peaceful and shining. Beautiful in a traditional way. It’s easy to be used as drugs. Harsh noise or fast cut noise or shitcore or noisecore or avant-garde metal or whatever, are no purer than Brian Eno’s wallpaper.
To be childish is not bad. Poor is not bad. It’s just a problem of staying in a feedback loop where poor people always buy dreams produced by noble people. Or they produce dreams by themselves.
How would you define authenticity in this context? Is it a question of process, or delivery, perhaps? Is a living room concert more ‘authentic’ than one that is staged in a concert hall?
No, a living room concert is not more authentic than a concert hall one. An avant-garde composition is not more authentic than a classical one. A master piece is not any better than an auto-tuned teenager song.
To be authentic is to have the ability to make people listen or dive into [your work]. [The pre-Socratic philosopher] Empedocles defined image as consequence of two lights streaming from eyes and touching things. Without the gaze there is no image. To make art is to make people emit themselves through sight. All the CDs and vinyl and sounds are nothing, but waiting for such attention.
Although I see the poetic licence you’ve employed with regards to his theory on sight and perception, Empedocles was fundamentally wrong about this process. Light comes into the eyes. The same goes for sound. There is a strand of thought in sound art theory, leading back to John Cage, which states that the audience is as significant as the performer/composer, because their ‘active listening’ allows them to ‘compose’ the piece as it is happening. Would you agree with this statement?
Of course he was wrong in the sense of science, but let’s think about artists instead of audience. Artists have to emit themselves!
I don’t think the audience changes anything other than their perception. If you just come to take a photo and post it on Facebook, I doubt there is anything valuable in front of you. That’s why we say the audience is the composer. The point of the argument is about an object, i.e. the artwork. “Can you change it by just gazing on?” I don’t care if this object can be changed or not.
If one is merely a receiver, and/or an aesthetics cataloguing machine, s/he does not deserve her/his life (the tragedy, the possibility, the only chance of life). It’s simple: do something. I don’t care for that strand of sound study. My concern is that I don’t want to be a sad consumer who couldn’t find a nice wallet to buy.
The relationship between the audience and the artwork is not one between the consumer and the supermarket. Today, in Beijing, I have seen many experienced audiences who are always picky and criticise the music on stage: “Shit, this is so bad! Oh, he ruined everything! That master shouldn’t play with this local young guy!” This [attitude] is total consumption. No love for the world. In ancient times, people named a small booth as a “place for listening to rain” or a “booth for listening to trees”. Why does nobody complain that the tree does not sound virtuous enough? Because they didn’t buy a ticket for it? You have to do something. Art is life.
23 Formes En Élastique / The Only Authentic Work is available to purchase from the IKLECTIK bookshop. For more information about Yan Jun please visit the Yan Jun or Sub Jam website.