Alessandro Bosetti interviews Lin Chiwei / by Alessandro Bosetti

Original interview in French for Revue et Corrigé by Alessandro Bosetti, translated into Chinese and English by Taipei Performance Art Center for the 2018 Taipei Performance Art Festival,Proofreading by Benny Shaffer

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Alessandro Bosetti interviews Lin Chiwei

I met the work before meeting the person.

A beautifully embroidered scroll of fabric tape lies at the center of two circles of chairs at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. A moderator at the museum informs visitors about the starting time for the participatory performance. When the moment arrives, a few dozen casual visitors sit on chairs and the tape made of fabric begins to pass from one hand to another. The scroll begins unfolding. The participants read aloud what is written on the tape, both in Chinese and Romanization, mostly consisting of a-semantic phonemes. The effect is striking. A surprising polyphonic echo/delay emerges, carefully crafted to give life to musical consonances and rhythms. 

The tape is very long and the piece goes on for some minutes. Participants continue reading aloud while their faces light up in surprise. No one wants the scroll to end, although we see it getting thinner and thinner at the center of the circle, until the last bit leaves the peoples’ grasp and goes through the last pair of hands. The vocal polyphony fades out after the last person finishes what is left to read. It’s over.

‘Tape Music’ is perhaps the best-known piece by Taiwanese artist Lin Chiwei, recognized as one of the most fascinating figures of the Chinese and Taiwanese experimental music and sound scenes. Emerging from the noise scene of the 1990s, and linked to the seminal group Zero and Sound Liberation Organization, festivals like Industrial Arts Festival, and the Taiwan International Electronic Music Phenomena, Lin Chiwei has developed an extremely original artistic identity across sound, music and performance, while maintaining strong ties to Taiwanese folk culture.

In 2000, he began studying at Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Le-Fresnoy. In 2012, he published his first book, Beyond Sound Art: The Avant Garde, Sound Machine and the Modernity of Hearing.

1. I once read a phrase of yours, and it keeps coming back in mind when I think of your work and our conversations. The phrase goes: “I consider my work as a form of communication. One should, therefore, realize to whom one is talking, and where the conversation is going” (Interview by Alastair Noble in White Fungus magazine). This could be considered a banal statement; nevertheless, coming from an artist of sound and visual art, one who has very little connection with mainstream entertainment culture, this statement sounds both refreshing and odd at the same time. How do you situate yourself? How do you choose the subjects that you would like to talk about? What are these subjects? Are they already there, or are they your own creations?

I was more concerned with Dadaist and Situationist intentions when I said ‘to whom and where.’ That means there is a series of strategies of social action ‘beyond expectations’ that can be a ‘revelation of tacit regulations’. I will give an example for each of them.

For ‘beyond expectation’, in the session entitled ‘Social Measure’ for ‘Tape Music’, typically no instructions were provided in advance. The audience would gradually realize that there would be no performance without them doing something, only after they had the tape in their hands.

For the ‘revelation of tacit regulations’, there are diverse ways. In line with the inactivity of a Taiwanese audience in the theatre, I recorded my own words in the ‘Visionary’ series in front of the audience. These included, ‘I will march over your head when I leave this room’, and then I left it on repeat and modulated the sound from a cassette player. The difference between the rhetoric and the direct expression is therefore reduced. When one constantly repeats certain phrases, like in the music of Steve Reich, people get hypnotized. I would then be able to keep the promise. In the end, I would literally leave the room, walking over the heads of the audience, although it seemed quite difficult to achieve at the beginning. The audience are possessed by the overwhelming regulation of the theatre and become paralyzed.

In another even more theatrical case, I used a very clearly visible electric circuit in the auditorium seats in order to induce electric shocks. After the audience took their seats, I began practicing a kind of Taoist gymnastics, and played a recording from a cassette deck in front of the audience. It was a poem that I recited to honor the three well-known inventions of Thomas Edison: the light-bulb, phonograph and electric chair. The phases were mixed with the descriptions of legal procedures for Nazi deportation to concentration camps. At one given moment, the recording revealed that the whole scene in the theatre was meant as a collective murder and started a countdown of ten seconds before the execution. I then gave them electric shocks, inevitably not agreeable (I tested them on myself before the performance). No one left their seats, as they believed that it was part of the performance.

This kind of performance was specifically directed toward certain circumstances, and one could not really move it elsewhere. It was necessary to come up with an appropriate strategy, one that responded to the crowd’s state of mind.

2 – In this interview, what was equally in question was the ‘turn to the event’, or the fact that each and every one of your works was inseparable from a specific event. On the contrary, due to the distance with which I am used to applying when listening to and considering your musical works, it seems to me that you could split into two persons: one that always works with a social objective, while another that is devoted to an aesthetics indifferent to the social modality of participation through listening.

Even your most well-known work, Tape Music, is a work—or it may be preferable to call it a series of works—a lot more complex, and rooted more in composition than it may appear at the beginning. Beyond the immediate relational force, there is an incredibly strong attention paid to the compositional detail! What is your relationship with composition and musique concrète in the construction of complex sound objects?

There are several questions here, but you have clearly seen the paradoxical dimensions that always exist in my works, especially in ‘Tape Music’. There is a side that I call ‘social measure’ and another that can be called the ‘artistic’. The two sides do not always go hand in hand!

I want to say that the original version of ‘Tape Music’, since its debut in 2004, was merely designed to demonstrate a concept of ‘here and now’: the state of the audiences’ temporal gathering (be it practictioners in their temple, students at their school, or workers in their factory). Typically, I do not give instructions to the audience before a performance. This means that no one knows what will happen before the show starts.

There was no given agreement, but when the tape is transmitted into your hand, you are obliged to react right away. In most cases, one person starts to read the tape and others follow suit. But there are always people who improvise in unpredictable ways. At times, there were also occasions when no one reacted, though this rarely happened.

The ‘social measure’ version is typically never played twice in front of the same audience. This essentially means that there was never any rehearsal!

The other side, or what we can call the ‘artistic’ side, is therefore very limited. I came to this conclusion after several years of experimenting with crowds. To augment the artistic expression, it is necessary not only to rehearse, but also to play with experienced musicians.

It wasn’t possible for me until 2014, more than ten years after the debut of ‘Social Measure’, to start to compose for enthusiasts who were interested in exploring the possibility of expressions for my solo exhibition at the gallery IT Park. In 2015, via an invitation from Weiyu and Kaiwei for a gig at Cafe OTO, we would meet and work with the London-based chorus MUSARC, which is composed of serious musicians who were keen to explore the artistic dimensions of the ‘Tape’. Soon after, in 2016, I wrote a special long version for them to bring to different music festivals. That has largely turned the ‘Social Measure’ into a real performance.

3 – How do you see the world of electroacoustic music and its immense archives?

‘Electroacoustic music’ seems to always have dual aspects to me, which are even more present today than before; the duality is the contrast between ‘traditional aesthetics’ and ‘open methodology’. Last year, I experienced all of the works for an electroacoustic music contest, which lasted two evenings. I was surprised to find more than forty works selected, compositions coming from Europe, China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Considering how few resources exist in the electroacoustic scene in Asian countries, it was an enormous number! But what really surprised me was how these composers shared the same aesthetic. Going from one piece to the other without many ‘interruptions’ , I was under the impression that one could not easily distinguish one from another!

But if we consider electroacoustic music merely as an open methodology, not so much as a specific aesthetic, then the output can be really abundant! I think it is pretty much the case that when we talk about ‘electronic music’ today, we cannot ignore the fact that most musical productions, regardless of musical genre, are digital. So in a broad sense, every recorded type of music has its ‘electronic’ aspect. It is the same for the term electroacoustic. When we appropriate a recording from any context and use it in a music composition, we create a ‘sound object’, and then we manipulate this object according to all possible means and aesthetics. Whether it is ambient, bruitist, EDM, sound installation, or even rap and pop music, all kinds of music receive the influence of the electroacoustic from its methodology, though probably not so much from its aesthetics! For me, this vocabulary exploded long ago. So when I consider the immense archives that it results in, it can be an abundant resource as material for all kinds of sonic practices.

4 – Are you in the process of writing an opera? What is your relationship with traditional Taiwanese music?

Well, it is true that we are working on a collective project, but it’s not really like an opera. It’s rather something else. I started working two years ago on this project ‘Human Dynamic Coordination Models’ with the help of the film director Singing Chen and theatre director Snow Huang. It is a system devised in order for actors and singers to improvise according to a series of interactive codes. It ensures the counterpoint and syncronisation of the whole structure without a fixed timeline or definite sequence. These ‘coordination models’ work in an unconventional way. We give a series of ‘rules’ before each rehearsal, and leave the actor-singers to improvise and interact without interrupting them during the process. We observe their interactions to see which rules work and which don’t, so we can rewrite the rules for the next rehearsal. In this way, we experimented with about fifteen models with groups of performers over the past two years.

For half of the models, the result were exciting, and the other half just didn’t work. But for all these models we tested a fundamental question. As a training tool for workshop it functioned perfectly well, but if we insist on a totally random methology, it is not easy to adapt it to a live performance. However, we don’t expect for it to be a stage show at this moment, and are working on a video version. Actually, it is a kind of video instruction manual or tutorial, which allows people to see the principles for how it works.

It is interesting that you notice the unevident connection between traditional music and my works. I do think that much traditional music, especially sound and music in ritual contexts, functions under a certain set of rules. This actually represents a kind of ‘model’.

I am very much interested in traditional Taiwanese music, like Nan-Kwan (Nanguan) music for example; recently I am working with Nan-kwan musician friends on experimental compositions. These pieces are classical in terms of the styles and scales, though with modern lyrics and meters. I get really excited when I imagine how they will be played at tea ceremonies!

In the 1990s, I had a chance to attend courses taught by major researchers in this area: Professor Chui-Kuan Lu, who opened my eyes and ears to fieldwork in ethnomusicology, especially related to Nan-Kwan and Taoist rituals. All these experiences allowed me to take a step back and embrace the cultural traditions, instead of staying within the very limited range of imagination of the contemporary art circle.

5 – The music in ‘Erotic Journey to the West’ (Erotiches reise nach westen) is exquisite. What happened during your ‘Erotic Journey to the West’? Why is it the only work with a CD release in your career? Why is the title in German?

‘Erotic Journey’ was created during my stay in France, which was quite an emotional time in my life. I worked and composed in the dormitory of an ancient textile factory in Roubaix, under the low-hanging sky and the Flemmish industrial landscape. I listened to nothing but some CDs that my friends had left me, such as Franz Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ and a Leonard Cohen’s greatest hits compilation. All the rest seemed too harsh and noisy to me. I was not aware of my state until one day on my way home from some grocery shopping, along the canal, I accidentally saw some burning floating dead leaves on the water. As I raised my head, I saw the trees around literally in flames before me, just like in Van Gogh’s paintings.

The ‘Erotic Journey’ was inspired by Schwitters’ ‘The Cathedral of Erotic Misery’ (Die Kathedrale des erotischen Elends). It is true that after the split of the Z.S.L.O. group around 1998, I had not released anything in CD album format but ‘Erotic Journey’. I am a disorganized artist. This is already very bad for production work. But what really limits my productivity is that I cannot create without a target, or, to be more precise, I need to know who will listen and react to my music. In Roubaix, fortunately, I had dear friends around me who understood and supported me. It was because of them that I could start to create, but this was a rather rare case.

After returning to Asia in 2003, the active audiences from the 90s student movement had disappeared. There were very few fans of experimental music. I started to look for other targets. Since ‘Media Art’ and ‘Sound Art’ were fashionable in the art circle, I thought that maybe I could do something for the scene. In 2004, I was invited to play in a festival for technological art. I found myself on the program alongside Francisco Lopez and Carl Stone on the same stage. It turned out to be interesting to me to challenge the audience’s taste for ‘technological art’. Rather than making some laptop music, I transcribed an anti-war poem on a very long plastic ribbon for the audience to read. I invited a presenter who would direct the audience on how to play four little noise instruments with four little flags (each of them had these noise instruments). We announced that it was a concert of analog and digital 3-bit music. The result was a minor riot. The majority of the audience was amused, while those more interested in ‘new media’ were quite annoyed. That was also the origin of the ‘Tape Music’ series…

6 – During the years of Z.S.L.O., some pieces were very neatly conceived, yet at the same time quite violent. You produced an impressive body of extraordinary noise works. Could you tell me more about the words that make up this name? Why Zero? Why Sound? (As, for example, an opposition to “music”?) Why Liberation? And why Organization, which is so different from group, collective, orchestra, and so on?

It was the ‘frontman’ of our group, Steve Chan, who conceived of the name in the literary club at Fujen Catholic University before our first rehearsal in 1992, which was a turbulent time of social movements in Taiwan. I think his inspiration came from some kind of ‘terrorist’ group with whom he sympathized of that time. As for Zero, it might have something to do with his own nihilist philosophy; Steve was a Hong Kong student who studied philosophy. It is also important to know that the name was conceived in Chinese, 零與聲音解放組織, where the Sound was composed of sheng (聲) and yin (音). The two words together mean sound. But there is a variation of the meaning. The character for sheng is an ear that listens to the sound of a lithophone, signifying the physical sound, which according to Confucians, is known to all animals and inferior men. The word yin originated from ‘speaking’ or ‘pronunciation’, signifying the original sound of the spirit that was molded and shaped as a structure, which was in turn reserved for the superiors. Anyway, even in Chinese, the name Z.S.L.O. is rather perverse and strange.

At the beginning of the 1990s, we preserved ‘Zero and Sound’ but constantly changed the second half of the name from ‘Liberation Organization’, according to the needs of each specific scene, such as ‘Zero and Sound Monster Liberation’. Then the name got more or less fixed around 1995, when the means of the work started to become more steady. We brought about a narrower methodology, resembling that of the musique concrète, which we had a hard time working with at first. That means we observed a gradual ossification, one that we were not really aware of at that time. Singing Liu, another group member, vividly described that state in his memoir after a decade: ‘Chaos opened his seven orifices’, according to the words of Chuang Tzu, and that was the end of our group.


7 – In your work, your house and your personality, I find a lack of differentiation between what is contemporary, and what is old or very ancient. I find that very inspiring. Although you surely would not ignore historical process. It seems to me that your imaginary is full of images and thoughts that come from a world very much distant in time, and yet this does not pose any problem. The preoccupations of the musical scene often refer to quite narrow historical scales: the 60s, the 50s, and so on. Even the rise of Romanticism in music was only 200 years ago. What happens if we start to embrace deeper, longer distances in time and civilization when we think about music?

In ritual music, we can find a path toward the past. You can hear the echo of extremely ancient sounds in the aboriginal ceremonies and the shamanic rituals of Tangki. In Taoist music, you can hear a voice that is more than a thousand years old. This is present even in the ceremonies paying homage to Confucius, which date back at least 300 years. In Taiwan, we actually live in a living heritage.

Even in the music of the present time, we can also find an ancient spirit revived by today’s musicians. This essentially means an ability to evoke. Ritual music is not just a ceremony of evocation, but it evokes a body, a system of liaisons both between humans, and between humans and nature. These evocations have a long-lasting efficacy after the practice.

At the same time, I do not want to deny that today’s musicians are also led to evoke the spirit of consumerism! And the grand traditions that I just mentioned here are on the verge of collapse. Even the small traditions we have can’t last forever. But ‘ritual music’ will nonetheless find the proper body that it is looking to find.


8 – Also, on a related theme, the tension between the possibility and the impossibility of a transposition of a set of memories is something that interests me in particular. Here, I consider memory as an alive and useful medium for composition, recording and writing, and not a simple receptacle for nostalgia.
Above all, I think of the use of memory as a medium of work that runs alternative to temporal linearity proper in sound and performance, as in the works of Mette Edvardsen, for example. Could you give a few suggestions on ways to use memory as a living tool for artistic and sonic creation?

Wow…these are sensible questions that no one has ever posed me in interviews. As you mentioned, it is above all the dialectic between the possibility and the impossibility of expression that reigns in the domain of the representation of memory. I totally agree. There is a situation that we enact or paint in order to enter a ‘performative’ state where the memory takes its principal role. But for me, it is rather ‘the evocation’ rather than ‘the memorisation’ […] that can be made with the small signs of memory: objects, images, certain sounds. In order to work on some pieces, I dive into emotions that certain objects evoke in me. For example, with the help of old photos left by female relatives in my family. I have tried to approach the sadness they endured for many years. In the creation of my mix-media collage ‘Ceremony of a Shell’ (Cérémonie d’une Coquille), some small paper with words left in my grandmother’s sacred Buddhist book, in which she expresses the despair of her life, was a key for me to go into her unknown story. This emotion managed to last for hours when I worked, and I thus could form some kind of mandala from the rediscovered materials and the objects/photos of her time. (http://www.linchiwei.com/archives/2976)

Or we can also take a look at the piece ‘A Leaving Song’ in the ‘Erotic Journey to the West’. This was also made with the emotion evoked by certain extremely specific sounds, although I am not sure whether this would allow me to transfer my sentiments through this recording. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYLtx-0lHNI)


9 – How do you negotiate your life between Taipei and Shanghai? What is the situation of artists of mainland China in 2018, and what differentiates them from, for example, that of the year 2000? After the seething time of the 1990s and the 2000s, do you think a new wave and a new scene of ‘experimental music’ is conceivable on both sides of the sea? Or, is there something different fused with the worlds of visual arts and activism that might take shape?

Well, I don’t know if I am capable of answering this question since, I am pretty distant from the actual scene. Historically speaking, from the side of Taiwan, between 1966 and 1968, there was a big stream of musical nativists, a tendency of connecting fieldwork (on traditional music) to contemporary composition, which provided inspirations and resources that composers needed in the 1970s and 1980s. The ‘bruitism period’ came after the Tiananmen Massacre, and the Wild Lily movement in Taiwan, between 1992 and 1998. After the year 2000, there came a new generation of ‘Laptop Music’. But we must know that all these currents were not really connected. This means that the new generation are above all things inspired by the Western world and the fashions of their time, rather than by local and historical resources. In China, the infrastructure for experimental music (concert houses, academia, music industry, media) didn’t develop well in the last twenty years. Especially after the 2008 Olympics, independent spaces and festivals became a lot more controlled than before. Musicians are therefore put in a state of constant difficulty. I have great respect for my underground colleagues who have the courage to struggle and to create in an unfavorable conjuncture and continuous uncertainty.

I believe that academic work on art will play a role even more important than before, because the scene of ‘contemporary art’ is the one system that arrives to function publicly, in terms of innovation. We can’t prevent the experimental musical scene from continuing to integrate with the world of contemporary art. On this issue of the two sides of the sea, including Hong Kong, they are more or less in a similar situation.

10 – Among all the artists I have encountered, you are probably the only artist in Asia that takes France and the French language as his connection with the world of Western art, which, on the contrary, seems to be quite colonised by the English language. I am Italian and you are Taiwanese, and we both speak in French and English, so we have the chance to choose one of these languages for communication. For you, the choice always seems, somewhat instinctively, more likely to be French. Why is that?

We use English as communication tool all the time, and once there’s a chance to use French I will not miss it.

11 – Taiwan seems to me to be a serene place, one placid yet at times impregnated with a kind melancholy. It also feels suspended at the verge of a geopolitical conflict, a potentially dangerous one. However, it provides a link to the enormous cultural and linguistic world of China, has a well preserved a subtropical environment, and a relative freedom of expression for artists who work in the Chinese language; while they often find themselves more and more brutally censored in mainland China. On the one hand, the social and gender norms seem to be strict, but at the same time there is a certain kind of lightness. What do you make of these naive feelings from an outsider? Would it be too distant to think of a future Taiwan as an artistic laboratory?

As for the cultural resources that I need for my own artistic work, Taiwan is incredibly generous.
This island is the only place where the Chinese language still preserves all the precious traditional rituals of Buddhism, Taoism, and Shamanism, which I have been delving into since my adolescence. Linguistically especially, Taiwanese is the language that best preserves Chinese phonetics from the Middle Ages, so that we can sing the poems of Tang Dynasty in Taiwanese without much modification in rhymes, which are notably lost in Mandarin. It could be also essential for the revival of esoteric Buddhist (mikkyō) traditions in the practices of poetry. I find the Taiwanese language to be one of the indispensable keys.

As for an artistic laboratory in the short term…Yes! This is because, since 1997, Taiwan has developed a new system of sponsorship for art that is quite advanced among Asian countries. It is evident that the art scene in several domains has noticeably expanded in the last twenty years. But, in the long term, we will also see the difficulty of cultural accumulation, for the power holders always have a tendency to efface the culture established by their predecessors in order to gratify their political needs. And in this way, the dialectics of cultural identity are reduced to actual political options.

12 – ‘Tape Music’ created some ephemeral communities. People were united by the only similar trait of having a phonatory organ and a linguistic competence of one kind or another. I am personally very interested in ‘anonymous communities’ (and I like to use radio to create them). This is because the communitarianism in the contemporary world seems more and more strict and dangerous, obliging us to put a stamp on our head to say who we are, to what category of human we belong, what social group represents us, and so on. I think the encounters should always be surprising if we want to hope for a new universalism…

What do you think of these communities?

Totally, as you said. We are in a sensitive period, today more than ever. The community is constantly renewed and redefined by new technological tendencies and the political condition. In a time when artistic creation is largely institutionalised, we are obliged to continue to question how ‘Interactive Art’, ‘Participatory Art’ and ‘Social Art’ could even be valid today.

I also often doubt whether ‘Tape Music’ succeeded in creating a temporary autonomous assembly in diverse contexts. I should admit that it is not always evident. As a tool created in the context of the ‘Third World’, it often seems, in front of an experienced audience, especially in some places in Europe, ‘Tape Music’ will function too well. Because the audience that frequents the experimental scene has already a preexisting collective convention to form the music.

On the contrary, for the naive participants who do not know anything about ‘Experimental Music’ or ‘Social Art’, ‘Tape Music‘ will create a tension, like an ambiguous ambience in which no one knows exactly which role they have, and what is expressed through their voices. In this case, the crowd will seek to identify themselves, maybe in the sense of forming a new, ephemeral community.

There is also good combination of the two. One time, in a community in Stockholm, for example, we created a perfect harmony that I had never heard before via ‘Tape Music’. It appeared that everyone listened to each other before really engaging in it. In the talk after the gig, the participants also taught me the idea of ‘Lagom’ (as it should), which is an essential word of Swedish democracy. They almost forgot my existence in the talk and argued for one hour about ‘Lagom’ and its political problems. That was a perfect experience to me! I hope one day ‘Tape Music’ will become an educational model, so that students can succeed in forming a group that integrates all sorts of elements without much technology; without the guidance of an orchestra or theatre director, yet still succeeding in synchronising a complex performance composed and directed by themselves, one outside of the norms of traditional music.

13 – Once you gave me a book you wrote entitled Beyond Sound Art-The Avant-Garde, Sound Machines, and the Modernity of Hearing. The book is in Mandarin. You gave it to me anyways, although you knew that I would not understand it. I appreciated the gesture and I keep the book as a treasure, which probably contains a different history from what I know and experience. Could you summarise what is newly found in that book? Is it going to be translated?

Beyond Sound Art was made only for creating a Chinese-language database for sound art. When I returned to Taipei around 2003, after four years of absence, ‘Sound Art’ had become fashionable. Everyone in art circle was talking about it without an actual basic knowledge of the history of sound art. (It is true that the definition of ‘sound art’ remains a debatable subject, but this was not even the question at that time.) I noticed that it was necessary to provide the public with a lot of information in order to deepen their knowledge of sound in art. That too was a kind of personal devotion, in order to take responsibility for all that we did in the 1990s. So it took me ten years to finish this book, which is 700,000 characters long. In principle, the book is a compilation of essays regarding the avant-garde, technology of sound, and the modernity of listening. In order to avoid falling into the company of the history of modern music/contemporary art/technology/sociology […] I tried to explain the trajectory and functioning of a social, technological and cultural complex, since the ‘subject’ produces all kinds of ‘noises’. Since the materials I propose here are very well-known in Western countries, I do not think that it should be translated (See the table of contents: http://www.linchiwei.com/archives/2720)

On the contrary, I have another translation project for literature concerning Chinese sound, which puts the accent in its relation to sound and philosophy, spiritualism, and erotism. I think this, rather, may be of interest to European readers.