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Pangbianr 旁边儿 in Chinese means ‘next to’, or ‘to one's side’, so it’s an appropriate name for a group based on the idea of community. Existing at the fringes of Beijing’s fringe culture, Pangbianr is a collective of Chinese and non-Chinese musicians, filmmakers, artists, distributors and general cultural enablers, working to create a DIY arts scene.

Pangbianr run events and a website – they also have an organic community farm beyond Beijing’s sixth ring road! But that’s another story, and you’ll have to check their website for that.

Below is my interview with Josh Feola, Pangbianr’s chief mover and shaker.

Christen Cornell: What is Pangbianr and how did it start?

Josh Feola: Pangbianr at the moment has a few heads to it.

One thing we do is organise events. So every month we book about two or three mostly music performances. We tend to work with emerging, younger college bands; more experimental avant-garde bands – musicians who don’t fall into however much of a mainstream music scene that Beijing has. So we’re kind of on the fringes of mainstream music, and even of the larger of the underground rock scene represented by bands like Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, P.K 14.

We also do some really small-scale releases. We’ve released some CDs and tapes in really small runs with limited production. In the U.S. there are a lot of basement labels that just put out a couple of hundred copies of their friends’ bands and then mail them around the country. And we’re trying to do something like that.

pbrzine2_distro.jpgpangbianr zine #2

The third area is that we’re moving into is actually producing video. We’ve always had some involvement with film – we’ve had screening events in Beijing with some independent filmmakers, and we’d like to do more with that – but we’re also now starting to make our own films. This means bringing other people in to collaborate creatively, whether they’re filmmakers, musicians, editors, or animators. And then we want to start putting out more and more original content, some of which would be more documentary in nature and some of which would be more playful, fictional, experimental shorts – that kind of thing.

CC: So let me get this right. You’re a booking agency but you also do distribution, and now you’re thinking of going into production?

JF: [laughs] Yeah, that’s sounds pretty accurate. But it’s all on a pretty small scale.

CC: And this is where it's DIY in philosophy. You’re obviously facilitating a lot of activities so the costs must be quite low. And I wonder if you’re enabling the artists to do a lot of this production themselves.

JF: Yeah, totally. The costs are really low and it is totally DIY. I mean we don’t have funding and it’s not really run as a business.

So with the CDs we use really inexpensive packaging - we hope to break even but it’s really low cost. When we organise shows, we usually make an arrangement with the bar where they give all the door money to the band directly. So there’s no middle man at all - we don’t take any money, the bar doesn’t take any money, we just give it all to the bands.

We don’t really work with the bands as a manager, or as a label. We work with them more collaboratively.

CC: This kind of community-based activity is very much the current zeitgeist in the arts in the West. I guess you’re doing it in China.

kwanyin_022_sq.jpgPeter Cusack, Favorite Beijing Sounds

JF: Yeah, that’s the idea, but there’s not as much of a pre-existing idea or culture of DIY, especially in the sense of a music scene. Small-scale DIY has actually been going on in the U.S for several decades (in different ways), whereas here it’s a very new phenomenon.

That said some of the younger musicians are now, really for the first time, organically latching onto the idea. Probably because the kids that are starting bands now are ‘digital natives’ so to speak, and can leverage the internet and social media in a way that previous generations of musicians here haven’t. So that’s one thing that’s helped with community forming I think.

And just in terms of the community … seeing the same people at events, working together on these releases, helping promote each others' music and shows – that’s really the essential core feature and reason for Pangbianr.

CC: I guess a lot of these music, film or publishing practices don’t necessarily have an industry anymore anyway, since so much media is free online. So you may as well go for the community aspect. You can’t sell music so you may as well create it for different reasons.

JF: Yeah. Definitely.

CC: What about small publishing? Do Pangbianr do a little bit of that?

JF: Yeah, we do publishing but kind of in the same vein. Very small-scale things. We’ve done two zines, the first one was only recipes and the second one had some recipes and articles, but both of them I think we put together in about 48 hours. It was a really last minute idea that we decided to do for a specific show. It was done for fun. And it’s something that actually I’d like to do more of. But it’s such a small-scale thing, and obviously we’re not publishing anything politically sensitive.


CC: I guess cookbooks are pretty safe!

JF: Exactly. And that’s the only thing that I would worry about. Publishing is in fact a very illegal act, especially for a foreigner. Making a couple of hundred recipe zines isn’t exactly going to pop up on the government’s radar, but just for that reason I’ve been a little more leery of going more in the direction of publishing. I would actually like to. One day I might seek out a way to do it relatively legally, but for now we haven’t done that much of it. There are other people in China who do zines, but they make all their contributors use fake names so it’s a little more untraceable.

hc-cover.jpgHot & ColdBuilding 2

CC: It’s funny that, isn’t it? There are blogs all over China, and they obviously have a wider reach than a little handmade zine. But because zines are printed they’re considered to be more lethal. They just fall within the wrong category I suppose.

JF: Yeah, it’s kind of strange. Maybe everyone’s just being too overly cautious but I think it’s often better to err on the side of caution in these kinds of situations.

*

CC: So you say ‘we’ as in the community. Who is the community?

JF: A group of us started Pangbianr about a year ago, and of that group some have already moved on to Taiwan and the U.S. Then there are others who have come and gone and contributed here and there. But right now the core team is about six people, all in Beijing, with a distributed network of people who are interested abroad. That includes the people who help organise the shows, work on the video projects – the people that I kind of call when there’s something going on with Pangbianr. These are the people that are explicitly part of it.

But then there is the community in a larger sense, and it kind of overlaps with some other existing sub-communities or niches in Beijing, such as Zoomin’ Night. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Zoomin’ but its the experimental night at D-22. Every Tuesday night at D-22 there’s this group of maybe about twenty or thirty kids who do anything from a kind of minimal electronics to really noisy rock to free jazz – every kind of weird or out there experimental music.

That’s just a group that I was naturally attracted to because it’s one of the freest spaces for making new and creative music. And it’s also one of the only examples of a true scene in Beijing. There are some groups of musicians and bands that ‘hang out’, but this is more of a scene in the sense that every week groups of bands and people come and perform for each other, kind of like a friendly competition in a way. So that’s one group that I would sort of consider ‘Pangbiar community’ as including or overlapping with.

Then there are other small groups like that that are also part of Zoomin’ Night and other Pangbianr events. There’s another group called Rose Mansion Analogue, and some of their bands like Soviet Pop and Hot and Cold also play at Zoomin’ Night. I mean that’s kind of their home base. So that’s roughly what I would identify as our community.

pbzine1_distro.jpgpangbianr zine #1

CC: And would it be too simplistic to say that the artists are often Chinese and the facilitators are often Western?

JF: The artists are predominantly Chinese but there are a few non-Chinese artists that are a part of this. For example, there’s a called band Hot and Cold who are two Canadian brothers, but their band consists in the context of playing with all these Chinese musicians. They have a tape on Rose Mansion and before that they did a CD on Maybe Mars. Maybe they’re the exception that proves the rule but they’re also fully certified members of the music scene.

As far as organisers go, there’s also a mix there. Pangbianr is almost exactly half and half in terms of its mix between Chinese and foreigners. And Rose Mansion is run entirely by Chinese musicians. So there’s actually a mix on both sides of it. On the music side I’d say there’s a majority of Chinese musicians but there are more and more foreigners that are becoming part of the scene.

CC: In the past, especially with the visual arts scene, it was usually the laowai, or foreigners, who were doing the curating and the artists were usually Chinese, but that seems to be changing. I guess it’s a generational thing.

JF: Yeah, and I think about this a lot. Firstly just because I like to be very self-aware …

CC: To be a Westerner in China is to have to think about these things, I guess.

JF: Totally. So to get back to your question, I think for something like the art world, compared to music, there’s more money involved. There’s also more of an established curatorial system in the West that could be pretty easily grafted onto Chinese visual art, because the Chinese visual art that sells well is kind of stuff that collectors were already primed to buy in the West. I don’t think you can really do the same kind of grafting in China for music.

But even then, a lot of the labels and a lot of the bigger show promotion agencies, and a lot of the people that book Fest – that’s pretty foreigner driven. So Michael Pettis is an example of a patron. He does Maybe Mars and D-22 because he loves the music, but that’s also kind of indicative of the fact that there is an effort to recreate this same model that you mentioned exists in the art world. There is this thing of foreigners coming in with a Western model.

banban_nofinofict.jpgSkip Skip Ben Ben, No-Fi, No Fiction

So that’s something I try to be very self-aware about. I mean I obviously can’t change the fact that I’m American, but trying to think more along the lines of collaborating and making it more of a group effort is important to me. Trying to circumvent any national or cultural differences and kind of work together on the platform of being interested in the same music and the same art.

CC: I guess doing it for the sake of community, rather than running it as a business, helps that process. You put the value in the local community rather than success in Western markets, even if that local community is stretched across a global network.

JF: Exactly.

Comments

makes me want to be there!
nice work christen and keep on there josh!

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Artspace China profiles Chinese visual arts, music and literature, presenting an overview of Chinese contemporary culture while also being a resource for specialised research. It is jointly sponsored by the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute.
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