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At The Zoo, Oakland, U.S. Image by Randy H.Y. Yau

Yan Jun is a creative polymorph. Search on his name on the Internet and you’ll come up with a list of roles – from experimental sound artist, to critic, to curator, to performance poet – and stories of his pioneering in China's underground music scene from the late 1990s to early 2000s. In 1998 he began the independent label, Sub Jam, initially to publish zines and later for music CDs; and in 2004 he established Kwanyin records for the release of more experimental works. From June 2005 to December 2010, Yan and his Sub Jam community organised a series weekly of performances called Waterland Kwanyin at the Beijing Bar, 2Kolegas, serving up rock, experimental and electronic music to an ever-morphing crowd of listeners.

Both Sub Jam and Kwanyin continue, supported by a regularly updated blog (see here for Yan Jun’s own), as do gigs, and the general greasing of communal and creative activities for which Yan Jun has become widely known. Meanwhile Yan remains one of China’s most important experimental artists, pushing the limits of sound, language and music in his own performances and recordings. Translator, Maghiel van Crevel once said Yan Jun makes things happen, and there is no doubt that Yan has this generative role. Raised in Lanzhou, but based in Beijing since the late 1990s, Yan is something of a creative catalyst, preferring the early and ambiguous stages of invention and putting a high value on the amorphous in artistic communities.

I met with Yan Jun last week in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, where we chatted over kim chi and corn patties. A generous conversation partner, Yan is modest yet brims with ideas; self-deprecating in both his philosophy and humour. Our discussion covered topics well beyond China’s experimental arts scene, and is chockers with food for thought, so I’ve posted a longer interview than usual here. Read on for Yan’s provocations on the role of art in an age of consumerism (ala Beijing’s 798 Art Zone) and that of culture in a new world shaped by the power of the Chinese economy.

Christen Cornell: Between June 2005 and January 2010 you hosted weekly gigs called Waterland Kwanyin at the Beijing bar, 2Kolegas. This event obviously became quite an institution. Who was your audience at those?

Yan Jun: It was changing all the time. And there were all kinds of people. There were periods where there were more people who just went to have a good time than to listen to music. So there might have been ten people in the audience really listening to the music, and fifty people there to drink. Those fifty people were pretty easy to distinguish – artists, foreigners, foreign artists, Chinese hipsters [wenyi qingnian] … But those ten people who were truly listening to the music – they could be anybody. Old, young, from the art scene or not, students, employed, middle class, rich, poor. You really had no way of predicting who these people were. They were the most indefinable. It was really interesting.

CC: And then last year you held monthly gigs at the UCCA in the Beijing art district, 798.

YJ: That’s right, from January to December. Sometimes there was a big crowd; sometimes there was a small crowd. Most of the time it was pretty small, though – and they were pretty cold. Every time you perform you learn something new about contemporary society - your audience - and these were really interesting for that. Because 798 is a tourist place – one that turns everything into a tourist souvenir, regardless of what it was in the first place, regardless of what it might be in another space. When culture enters this framework it comes out as a product. When culture enters a space like 798 it becomes a part of a productive system, so what becomes more important is understanding the logic behind that process.

So in Europe and America, for example, there is this new thing called Art for People. This expression has become very fashionable. Art for People. The premise is that art can have educational purposes: you hold free festivals, or children’s festivals – more and more events to take art to a broader public with this educational angle.

From the outside it suggests a kind of equality or democratic approach. But the result is a kind of self-imposed muffler on democracy. It turns culture into a kind of production process, one that produces ‘good citizens’ by removing the possibility for uncertainty. These events don’t develop a relationship between the individual and an artwork – they don’t suggest that some things are unknowable – but rather they remove the possibility for the unknowable in individuals. They also remove the same possibility for uncertainty in artists and their artworks. By giving art this fixed arena, we sterilise it. By giving it this very general introduction, this popular context, we make it safe. We put all the madness into this machine to make it clean and safe.

Most importantly, we can see these art festivals, these free public events, but we can’t see how so many other things are being distilled and removed from our daily experience. Our daily life is becoming more and more deprived; meanwhile, Chinese galleries have more art than ever. Our lives seem to be losing their meaning; meanwhile, the art is increasingly rich and abundant. These two phenomena are connected – they’re effects of the very same logic.

CC: Would you say this is part of the process of commercialisation?

YJ: You could say that. But it’s not only about commercialisation. Commercialisation itself is part of a bigger process that tells us how to live our daily lives.

So for example, we preserve the Forbidden City, but we demolish the hutongs. It’s the same logic behind these two decisions. The more the Forbidden City is preserved, the more hutongs are demolished. This logic is invisible but it’s there. Our daily lives are becoming more and more rationalised, more and more administered by others; meanwhile Chinese art is more rich and developed than ever.

So it’s this kind of relationship. It’s not simple as saying ‘They’re using 798 to do business,’ or ‘Look at these tourists, they’re so stupid.’ The tourists are the sweetest people at 798. Because they have been deprived of something in their daily lives, and they’ve come to 798 to try to find some joy. What the artists and arts organisations give them here though isn’t food, but opium. It’s not sustenance, but drugs. And that’s sad.


CC: A lot of people today would say China doesn't have any underground culture.

YJ: That’s true, it doesn’t. I agree. The way society is organised today, there is no space for an underground. This space doesn’t exist, so you can’t go there. It doesn’t exist. So you could go behind those pipes, you could go to some space behind this wall, you could make a hole in the ground, but you’re not going to go anywhere new. There is no place prepared for you, there is no place prepared for the underground – like a basement where people say stay here and make art, or train an underground army. There is just another kind of maze. If we’re still addicted to this idea of the underground, we just participate in the same system. We give it a black flag but it’s just another side of the white flag. You can’t make your own flag here. The harder you push against the system the more you become a part of it, because this system is a paradox.

CC: What is the system you’re talking about here – capitalism?

YJ: No, China. Of course today’s capitalism is also a super paradox, but in China it’s even more than a super paradox. It’s like anything you look at, you look through that and you find that it’s against itself. In this country, in this culture, I mean.

CC: For example?

YJ: Well, we always say the government has a way to control everything in China, but there is something that will get in the way of that control, like bureaucracy, or the grey areas of the system. You can’t fight with the law, but you can go through and around that. This is the system, the paradox of the system – it’s against itself. It’s the paradox of power in China. So today the system might tell you that you can’t do something, but tomorrow it might say … well, it’s not going to say ‘Yes you can do this now’, but it might just forget what it was you wanted to do in the first place. So there are still possibilities, but we don’t always use them. There is a big contract in China that goes from the surface to the inside. This is China – this is the system.

In this system everything is contradictory, so we don’t need to go and add a contradiction to it, like the idea of the ‘underground’. We don’t need to go and protest; protest will just become part of the system’s existing contradictions. What we have to do is deny it, negate it. We have to go and do our own things.

CC: And what might those things be?

YJ: The reason for a person’s life is to live, not to protest. And I don’t just mean artists here, I mean everybody – from business people to low level party members to people in positions of authority. Everybody. This is what we all need to do. Make our own life. When you go to protest, you just become a slave to the system. Real protest is one that doesn’t make you a slave to the system. You have to be stronger and more powerful than it. Real protest is attack, not revenge. Our underground rock generation spent too much time thinking about revenge. We were full of hatred. But I think we have to get to a time where we forget this hatred, and truly attack. Attack and revenge are two completely different things.

CC: So you’re not talking about a kind of non-participation?

YJ: No, I’m talking about attack. We have to attack the system.

CC: How do you do that?

YJ: There are many ways, and everybody has his own way of doing this. The action is not what I’m talking about here though. What I’m talking about is a different way of thinking.


CC: What do you think of the cultural situation in the West these days? Of course there are lots of things that are becoming more similar but we’re all coming from different histories so the current moment is different.

YJ: I’m not sure what is ‘Western’ because, at the very least, I know that Europe and America are different. In China we often say Oumei, or Euromerica, to mean developed countries.

CC: What about Australia and New Zealand?

YJ: Nobody talks about them. They’re not important, because (along with Canada) they don’t really rate politically. We often say Western Europe, Europe, America … this is how Chinese people understand the West. But then of course these countries aren’t even the same, not even internally. So I’m still not really sure what ‘Western’ means. Japan is even counted as ‘Western’ sometimes.

People always say that China is the next global power. This is maybe right but I think we have to look at this from another angle. Instead of thinking of ‘the next’, as if it were a new version of the old, we have to think about the whole world is going to be changed. We have to think about the future in the context of globalism, of this new form of capitalism, of new forms of the nation. We have to take all this into account. There are a lot of new experiments taking place in China, so we don’t know what the future might be.

One day I was talking with my friend in Rotterdam and I was telling him about how they’re building a new China centre in his city. They’re building a new commercial centre there to celebrate the one hundred year anniversary of the first group of Chinese people who lived in Rotterdam. But this celebration is in the form of commerce, is all about trading, because China now means more money. Meanwhile, the Netherlands is cutting money for its own ‘useless people’, like artists or immigrants …

I met the mayor of this city. He’s from a Muslim background, a child of immigrants to the Netherlands, but he’s very strong on the idea that immigrants have to respect the host country’s rules, otherwise you Muslim people will be punished. So what he means is you are a guest, and you have to respect the rules that the host has. The host gives you the rules and you have the follow them and be a good guest. Ten years ago nobody would say this. Ten years ago if a mayor said something like this a lot of people would call it ‘politically incorrect,’ but now many people agree, and fewer stand up to say it is wrong. The right is on the rise.

So I told my friend from Rotterdam, next year your government will send some officers to China to learn how the Chinese government is operating. They will learn some really functional, helpful things. I think this situation is not far off.

CC: I really liked another line of yours I’ve read, where you said that: in Europe everybody is bored and looking for change, while in China things are changing every day but people are waiting for real change.

YJ: Everybody feels like something big needs to change in China. But how to participate in this change? How to be the one – or how to avoid to being the one – who brings about that change?

CC: I feel like, in China, people want change but they’re also frightened of it.

YJ: Because real change always comes as something beyond your imagination, beyond your will. Andy Warhol once said Be careful of what you want, because one day you might get it. In other words, You don’t really know what you want. You don’t know what you are fighting for. So the most important thing is to know.

CC: Do you know?

YJ: I’m trying to know.

CC: Do your friends know?

YJ: I think some people are trying but some people just give up. Because it’s not easy; and it’s painful.

CC: And disappointing?

YJ: Yeah. I think many people are in this state of disappointment. They feel powerless. It’s as if one day you were once in a prison, in a dark room, but today you have been released. But the thing is you’ve never moved, you’re still in the same place – it’s just that the prison has turned into a supermarket. You have everything now, everything that you ever wished for, and more. And that’s exactly why you feel powerless.

CC: Because you no longer have a goal?

YJ: You no longer have a reason to ask for anything, because anything you can imagine is here. The only thing you could ask for is something that doesn’t exist, something that hasn’t been produced, that hasn’t been imagined. This is all you can wish for. But you can’t articulate this. The supermarket staff will ask you to give them a name for this thing. And if you can give it a name they’ll just sell it back to you.

If you ask for something that doesn’t exist they’ll say Hey, we’ve got a crazy in here. People will tell you to be realistic.


CC: I’m wondering why you don’t write more.

YJ: I’d rather write literature than theory or critique, because I think it’s more powerful. It could be poetry, essays, or my blog – anything, but I don’t want to make people think too much.

CC: But you’re good at it. You talk like an intellectual.

YJ: Of course, I do want people to think, but I want them to think by themselves. I don’t want to tell them how to think. I’d rather trigger those thoughts with something invisible, something that comes via perception, via an experience in the moment. I’d like them to feel after this moment that their desire had been evoked – a curiosity grows, a thought process, something more. This is more powerful I think.

CC: Do you think you’d be able to reach more people that way as well?

YJ: I don’t care about how many people I reach so much as the quality of that communication – and its impact. And anyway, to write academically you need a specific training, and I don’t have this.

CC: You could get it if you wanted it.

YJ: I don’t want it. I want to keep something broken in me. Something illegal. Something wrong.

CC: Do you find that people come to you asking you to talk, though, to share your ideas? Do you find yourself ending up in this role?

YJ: Sometimes, but I’m trying to avoid this role. Most of the people who come to me want to ‘produce’ me as a media object. So I mean journalists, or organisers of commercial events … they don’t really want to listen to me, they just want me to represent something for them. So I have to find a better way to talk.

I also think it’s not good to be too loud. Especially here, and now, it’s not good. There is a very powerful logic in this system which says that you can be a hero if you like – a celebrity. You can have a leading role in the drama. But I don’t want to be on the stage. I want to keep my energy to myself in order to let it grow. I don’t want to be used up too fast, or too simply. I don’t want to be consumed.

And anyway, I’m not even an expert in anything. I don’t have a good education. I can’t play a musical instrument. I don’t have enough time to practice my electronics. I don’t have enough time to write. I don’t read enough. I don’t think enough. I’m not physically strong. My IQ is just normal. I’m just a lucky guy. So I have to save myself. I’m too small; I’m too normal. If I don’t protect myself I won’t survive.

CC: You obviously have big expectations of yourself though.

YJ: Maybe. In Chinese we say tiansheng cai bi youyong. If you have an ability you have to use it. So if I don’t try to save myself from the illusion of the time I will be nothing - I'll just die. I’ll just be a zombie in the system.

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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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