Taiwanese Social Soundscapes

Artists Hong-Kai Wang and Yu-Hsien Su talk about their art projects based on sounds

Hong-Kai Wang

Sounds create the fabric of a society, but they can also turn from symbols of vitality into fastidious noises or can assume a political value when hinting at censored and repressed voices. Two Taiwanese artists recently developed projects based on sounds. A graduate in political science with an MA in media studies, Hong-Kai Wang mainly uses sound as a way to investigate social relations and explore new social spaces. For her project “Music While We Work”, Wang went back to her hometown, Huwei, and asked the retired workers of a 100-year old sugar factory to return to this historical site, one of only two plants still in operation in Taiwan. Here they recorded the sounds of their former work environment, a particularly symbolic place since sugar production was vitally important in the colonial history of the country.   

A student at the Graduate Institute of Plastic Arts at Tainan National University of the Arts, Yu-Hsien Su founded his own independent record label, indi-indi, and released a selection of performances by amateurs including foreign boatmen, a scavenger and a vagrant. Recording under a highway viaduct, on the deck of a Taiwanese fishing boat or in a recycling site filled with discarded plastic, Drummer No. 10, Group Java and Plastic Man redefine through Su’s “Sounds of Nothing” project the traditional rock aesthetic, while using music to express their individuality, break social barriers and put an end to their condition of outcasts in which modern society relegated them.   

Hong-Kai Wang

Dazed Digital: What inspired your “Music While We Work” project?
Hong-Kai Wang: The problems I encountered in working on another project at Casino Luxembourg in 2010. In Luxembourg I collaborated with eight industrial sites where I collected sounds generated by workers’ on-site activities. Language barriers, lack of adequate training and limited knowledge of the local situation on my end forced me to re-define the project from working alongside the workers to becoming an active listener and observer. Whereas in this new project, my personal investment on and attachment to the place and the people who live there generated different questions.

DD: Would you compare it to a sort of sound-documentary or an architectural music-space?
Hong-Kai Wang: There is no narrative in this piece. It is really about a temporary social space constructed by sounds. The American composer Robert Ashley once noted that the most important and uninvestigated architectural music-space of our time is the imaginary space made possible by the microphone. “Music While We Work” echoes his reflection and seeks to further investigate this particular space built by shared listening and recording within a century-old sugar factory.

DD: In which ways can sound help us understanding the needs and problems of society?
Hong-Kai Wang: The composer Edgard Varèse once reflected that people usually don’t know how long it takes for sound to speak for itself. In my practice, I often ask the audience to make the effort and to take time to engage in the act of listening, because to do so is political and because it instantly changes the power relationship between the listener and what was unheard and what is to be heard. For instance, in “Music While We Work”, I tried to push this examination further and perhaps make it more accessible by creating a platform where listening can be seen as a potential political agent in contrast to the visual referents of the social spaces that exist therein. 

DD: Do you feel that Taiwanese artists are achieving global recognition?
Hong-Kai Wang: On the global level, this has a lot to do with the power of China, whether we who are of unequivocal Taiwanese identity, like it or not. Maybe we should ask: Is the “Taiwanese artist” a globally recognised and perceived entity?

Yu-Hsien Su

DD: What inspired your “Sounds of Nothing” project?
Yu-Hsien Su: I like buying albums. But I realised that most of the time I don’t just buy music or images, but a document telling us how that particular band or musician introduced their work to their audiences. An album can say something more than just the music or the video itself and I think it is a good way to express oneself. For this reason, I hoped I could use this format as a medium for creation. Besides, I enjoy having open jammming session with someone who cannot play instruments at all since it is experimental and funny.

DD: Would you consider this project as a social protest or does this project have any connections with the protest music tradition coming from Taiwan or with the sound liberation movement?
Yu-Hsien Su: don't think this project has anything to do with protest music. It's more a project involving the liberation of the imagination, or, consensus liberation. I don't care whether the sound is connected with social issues or the sound itself has any possibility. I try to represent the sound in a way that it can make the individual heard and seen since I think we have to challenge the way we talk and express ourselves.

DD: In your opinion, which was the most moving or fun recording you did with Plastic Man, Drummer No. 10 and Group Java?
Yu-Hsien Su: The most interesting part of it was that I had to meet these people without preconceived ideas. I remember that, in the case of Plastic Man, I just passed by and said “Nice to meet you, I am an artist. I want to make a project with you, but I don't know what we can do together. Can we make friends beforehand?” It took me three months to get to know him and the people around him. We ate together at the recycling site and I started getting acquainted with their stories. Then one day, after three months had passed, I suddenly realised that I had interviewed Uncle Mao about his life but had totally neglected something more important than his life stories. Indeed, when Uncle Mao talked about plastic, he looked so confident and charming and at that moment I realised plastic was going to be the protagonist of the project connected with him.

DD: What does sound represent for you?
Yu-Hsien Su: Sound is just sound, but the way we “use sound” interests me the most. For me, this is a kind of social model and you can falsify or reshape it.

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