Astha Butail

RETRACING THE PATH OF ORAL TRADITIONS

ASHTA BUTAIL IN CONVERSATION WITH ANDRÁS SZÁNTÓ

AS: You were selected for the fifth BMW Art Journey after the Hong Kong Art Basel exhibition? The final decision happened in the summer of 2017. What were your thoughts when you first realized this journey might become a reality?

AB: I was at once reminded of a journey I had undertaken in 2012, when I visited twelve ritual points, some of which were still active centres of faith. My travels took me to the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, where I met and interviewed twelve purohits (high priests) who educated me on aspects of… read more

REEF ECOLOGY AND HUMAN ARTWORK

Max Hooper Schneider is just about to set off on his trip to New Zealand, Singapore, the Pulau Bawah Islands, the Maldives, Oman, the Cocos Keeling, and Christmas Islands. The artist elaborates on his journey into the complex relationship between humans and nature along major reef ecologies in a conversation with cultural consultant András Szántó. Stay tuned for regular updates from Hooper Schneider’s Art Journey.

AS: What was the first thought that came to mind when you heard you were selected for the BMW Art Journey?

MHS: Surprise, then deluxe excitement—an excitement that felt like the terminus of a feverish round of research that would only lead to many… read more

Max Hooper Schneider

Cocktail Reception during Art Basel in Hong Kong 2017

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Samson Young at Team Gallery, New York, 2015. Photograph courtesy of Edouard Malingue Gallery

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Pointing one's camera at interesting situations

A Conversation between Henning Fehr, Philipp Rühr and András Szántó

Let’s start at the beginning. What is a “cultural loop” and how did you become interested in the subject?

Initially, we became interested in the loop through Dub-Music. The loop is a defining characteristic of this music, which is produced with a mixer—unlike Reggae music, which is still an instrumental form of music. Another difference between these two kinds… read more

A journey into the dark

Abigail Reynolds in Conversation with András Szántó

Books have figured prominently in your work as an artist. How so exactly?

I am aware that I am more interested in communities than in individual voices. I often work with books that have some sort of objective view—a guide to England, or London, or an overview of a place or a time period. Such books channel a sort of wider sense that is held by a community that the writer belongs to, rather than a very individualized reaction or research.

I am also interested in structures. I often work with images of architecture. I think of books as a kind of architecture. The architectures I am drawn to are colleges, motorways, theatres or libraries rather than private houses. In such buildings, society… read more

Ein ähnliches Geräusch wie Bomben

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Art Basel без границ

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A glimpse into „So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island“, Samson Young’s site-specific multimedia walk incorporating research and recordings from the journey.

It premiered on March 24 during Art Basel in Hong Kong.

Local Artist Samson Young Takes Us Through His Art Basel in Hong Kong Multimedia Walk

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Week At A Glance

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香港藝術周,怎麽逛

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So You Are Old by the Time you Reach the Island

Samson Young to premiere multi-media walk at Art Basel in Hong Kong

March 24, 2016
1.15—7.30 pm (in hourly rotations)

Starting point: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, BMW Lounge, Level 3 Concourse

Pre-Register or walk in 15 mins prior to each slot

Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young will present So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island, an interactive multi-media walk during the 2016 Hong Kong… read more

Philipp Rühr & Henning Fehr Win BMW Art Journey Award

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德国艺术家搭档获“宝马艺术之旅”大奖,关注雷鬼与央视大楼、探索别样文化记忆

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Botanical Garden Reception Art Basel in Miami Beach 2015

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Journey Samson Young documentary short

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Hearing Histories

Samson Young in Conversation with András Szántó

As we speak, you are just about to set out on the first phase of your journey, which will take you to Burma, various European cities, then Morocco, Kenya, and Australia – all in search of bells. What is it about bells that fascinates you?

There are really many things. I actually hit upon the topic of… read more

Cultural Engagement — A long-term partnership

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Cocktail Reception During Art Basel in Basel

ASHTA BUTAIL IN CONVERSATION WITH ANDRÁS SZÁNTÓ

AS: You were selected for the fifth BMW Art Journey after the Hong Kong Art Basel exhibition? The final decision happened in the summer of 2017. What were your thoughts when you first realized this journey might become a reality?

AB: I was at once reminded of a journey I had undertaken in 2012, when I visited twelve ritual points, some of which were still active centres of faith. My travels took me to the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, where I met and interviewed twelve purohits (high priests) who educated me on aspects of their culture that I was interested in. I was regaled with stories about the land of gods (Dev Bhumi) through many conversations with the locals. I realised that the BMW Art Journey could be an opportunity to travel to the interiors of villages and delve deeper into the methods and histories of these very rituals. Here was a chance to retrace the birth and path of oral traditions across various cultures and geographical boundaries through personal interactions and conversations. For me, this journey has endless possibilities; the wonder of what awaits me around every corner is truly compelling.

AS: You were familiar with the journeys of Samson Young, Henning and Fehr, and Max Hooper Schneider, and there are strong affinities between your journey and Abigail Reynolds’ journey along the Silk Road in search of lost libraries. How did these artists and their journeys influence your plans? Did other journeys, by artists or others, inspire you?

AB: Abigail Reynolds’ journey was all about the written word and exploring the blanks and voids of the knowledge to which we have access. My Indian roots made me realise the power of memory and the spoken word, and so my practice draws on investigating my own history and identity through Oral Traditions. These traditions of knowledge have been passed on in India since 4,500BC and continue to do so, even today. Not only are they seen in formal Sanskrit schools, but also in everyday life, where traditions such as the Gayatri Mantra are passed down through generations purely by word-of-mouth.

In an old work of mine, “A Story Within A Story“ (2012), I made a hundred books consisting of seven pages each. Every page comprised a separate form, which was an open library that aimed at establishing a dialogue on the black sun. It was an interactive project. The idea was to get people to write in continuance to my own stories and drawings. The point of constructing a live library was to emphasise the fact that oral traditions were not written, but rather passed down through generations, which involved a thorough discipline of learning. When the Nalanda university in India was burnt down by invaders, knowledge survived primarily through the oral tradition.

Through this journey I want to meet with people who are working hard to preserve their cultures using this very method. I want to study three oral tradition set ups, that of the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Indians. Studying these would help me understand their respective oral methods and document different patterns of memory techniques through interviewing scholars and masters of each tradition. My study pointed me towards India, Iran, and Jerusalem. My final destinations were selected after thorough research. In India, am visiting Varanasi, where the Gurukul system (where one learns and resides with the teacher) is still alive; along with some parts of central, west and south India. To follow the Avesta tradition, my journey will take me to Mumbai, London, and parts of Iran. As for the Torah tradition, the journey will spann across Kochi and Jerusalem.

AS: How did you become interested in memory and the schools that you are visiting? Not everyone will be familiar with these schools. Can you tell a bit more about their history, origins, and their role in the community?

AB: Through my interest in Vedic literature, I came to realise that collective memory is an extremely powerful tool due to its ability to unite people of a community through the passing down of knowledge. Once a chant would establish itself in the memory then it would be yours forever. These Gurukuls make such collective memories orderly and refined through discipline and learning. The idea that a student could learn the complete Rig-Veda (the oldest knowledge account from India comprising of 1024 hymns) by heart was difficult to fathom, but it fascinated me. This led me to learn more about the methods of learning and memorising that could survive the test of time.

The Gurukul system was the traditional way of learning, where students would live in a teacher’s residence, somewhat like a smaller and more intimate boarding school. Students joined the gurukul anywhere between the ages of 8-12 years and would remain with the guru or teacher till their learning was complete. It seemed like a utopic form of education, sacred and unmaterialistic. The only payment was in the form of a gurudakshina or offering. The form of instruction was primarily oral. During my research, I found a similar form of learning in Jerusalem, in the Yeshivas where learning takes place through a dialogue called havruta (friendship and companionship). Somehow, the feeling is such that collective memory plays an important role today in every culture of the world.

AS: I have read elsewhere an interview you with you when you described your journey as a pilgrimage.Is that how you think about it?

AB: A pilgrimage Is a journey of special significance. I aim to choose one hymn from each tradition and translate its meaning, and draw out similarities in memorising patterns within different regions. The project is an homage to the intangible living oral traditions still surviving in the world—some more active than others. I have a feeling that this journey will lead me to many interesting and significant points and help me to bind our varied cultures with the thread of learning. I think this is what makes it special. Since many years, due to my interest in learning these recitations orally, I have been drawn to memorizing a few hymns by heart in the right accents.

AS: How do you see memory, culture, and society interacting, especially in India and in the communities you will be studying?

AB: Today, such mnemonic traditions are a distant reality in contemporary India. In earlier times this tradition was more comprehensively a part of everyday life. It has been reduced to nothing more than ritualistic chanting of morning prayers before one leaves for work. What is interesting is that despite no formal training, most Indians can recite at least one or two of these ancient prayers even today. Unfortunately, even though there has been a revival of interest for old mantras and chants, there is no easily available school or institution that one can attend. There was a lot of scientific premise behind cultural practices which have been sacrificed in our pursuit of western cultures. For example, holidays were based on mathematical calculations of energy levels and not on a static weekend culture. No moon day (amavasya) was a no-work day as energy levels are low.

AS: How will you integrate yourself into these communities? What do you plan to do on site?

I plan on constructing a structure made with sheer muslin, a dwelling space or a tent that I’ll take with me. People from different cultures would be invited to talk about and conduct the oral recitations inside the tent. Conducting this in the tent would signify the act of wearing, inhabiting and containing. The embodied void becomes a symbol of “casting oneself into a mechanism.” To put on one’s self, a performance or a sheath.

AS: What do you expect to be the most challenging for a journey of this kind? Where do you hope to be surprised, for good or bad?

AB: We live in troubled times, so I hope people will be tolerant. Each culture is rich and meaningful in its own way, I want to examine how, through the evolution of mankind, we have started from the same place somewhere and evolved into different but equally beautiful cultures with an underlying unity which we need to rediscover. So I am hoping that I will be met with open arms and a willingness to share throughout this journey.

AS: An experience like this will have an impact on your own thinking. How do you think it might change you, as an artist and as a human being?

AB: Human beings are so much more than we are even aware of today. They have so many faculties that are still undiscovered within us. A project like this, I am quite confident, will expose me to so many new stimuli. This exposure to various cultures and their beginnings is bound to make me grow as a human being. I hope it will also bring to the fore the values of forgiveness and tolerance and the unity of mankind. I am seeking to look at the “universality of celebration” within all cultures.

Max Hooper Schneider is just about to set off on his trip to New Zealand, Singapore, the Pulau Bawah Islands, the Maldives, Oman, the Cocos Keeling, and Christmas Islands. The artist elaborates on his journey into the complex relationship between humans and nature along major reef ecologies in a conversation with cultural consultant András Szántó. Stay tuned for regular updates from Hooper Schneider’s Art Journey.

AS: What was the first thought that came to mind when you heard you were selected for the BMW Art Journey?

MHS: Surprise, then deluxe excitement—an excitement that felt like the terminus of a feverish round of research that would only lead to many more rounds of research. Also, a palpable feeling of abstraction. I may ‘know’ the chosen sites empirically—as text-based curios, as resort-forged necropoli, as coralline labyrinths in varying states of flourishing and decay—but in the end, that means nothing. The fieldwork is what matters: the unforeseen, the polysensorial imprintings offer the final articulation, the ultimate language or immanence of the Journey. Last but not least, one thing that crossed my mind was the necessity of obtaining a scuba-diving certification.

AS: By the time you were selected, two Art Journeys—those of Samson Young and Henning Fehr and Philipp Rühr—had been completed, and Abigail Reynolds’ journey along the Silk Road was underway. Did these substantially influence you in your thinking? Did any prior artist’s journey in history influence you?

MHS: I knew of the prior journeys and explored works by Young and Fehr and Rühr online. I saw Abigail Reynolds’ presentation in Miami. All these projects are extremely good. However, there was no direct influence on my plans, other than an aspiration to conform to their high standards of excellence. The two journeys that, above all, have influenced my thinking were those undertaken by Charles Darwin and André Breton for the specific purpose of exploring coral reefs.

AS: What about the journey that got you here? These are not the typical interests of an artist. I know you studied marine biology in a serious way. How did you end up with this deep fascination with marine ecologies and interdependent human and non-human systems?

MHS: I have had such a multivalent, wayward, impulsive path—hopefully one that has primed me for this adventure. I still remain disciplinarily promiscuous (I’ve been nurtured by the fields of biology, philosophy, art history, urban planning, landscape architecture, animation, even ikebana and so forth).

One of my earliest sources of fascination as a child was the tidepool. I grew up close to thousands of (now defunct) tidepools along the Pacific Coast Highway, in West Los Angeles, and spent most of my free time as an observer of these discrete worlds. I was a participant in their shape-shifting underwater geneses. Despite their varying scales, morphologies and turbidities, tidepools always represented something larger than myself, something that exceeded my anthropocentric, postulatory thumbings at the ‘natural world.’ I loved that one could witness this multi-dimensional play of habitat creation and destruction, mutualistic partnerships, sieges of elemental forces, and peer into a phantasmagorical sub-planar vista of tube feet, stinging tentacles, and regenerated limbs. This insoluble slurry of single-celled ooze, calcium and synaptic blobs, of plague and overabundance, was all held within a perfect frame of kelp-slicked, miniature outcroppings of rock, crushed shell, and flotsam. For me, this was a universe that had no beginning or end, no borders. Although illusory, they possessed the rapture of containment.

I have studied marine biology in the capacity of the autodidact for much of my life, and continue to do so. I actively research marine ecologies because they are the lens through which I prefer to see the world. Marine ecologies offer up allegories on core themes in my work, e.g., interdependence, non-human life, empiricism, genesis, succession, chaos, fantasy, and so on. The maritime environment, from polyp to abyss, is the first responder to changes in humankind’s palpable world.

AS: We’re having this conversation in July of 2017, just a few weeks before you are to set off to your first destination. How are you preparing? What will be the main stops on your Journey?

MHS: At the core of everything is mutation: my practice, fieldwork, the scientific method, this Journey, and thus the preparation is ongoing on several fronts. The final target sites have been both whittled down from the original proposal and expanded to accommodate recent breakthroughs in my artistic research since being awarded this opportunity. They include: White Island in New Zealand, home to extremophilic organisms that thrive within a boiling volcanic landscape (an adumbration of our infernal, alkaline world to come); the Cocos Keeling Islands, where Darwin conducted his seminal research on atoll and coral formation; Christmas Island, a paragon of geographic isolation, limited human disturbance, and a resultant endemicism of flora and fauna; Singapore, the global epicenter of the ornamental fish, invertebrate and aquaculture trade; Bawah Island of the Anambas Islands, Indonesia, a pristine region that serves as an organism capture/cyanide-poaching site stocking much the world’s public and private aquaria; the Maldives, the autocratic atoll nation where relentless resort construction indiscriminately mangles some of the most pristine reef ecologies in the world; and the Sultanate of Oman, where a xenophobic lack of tourism and low-impact subsistence living along coastal human habitats allow for coral reefs and biodiversity to thrive as it did in an ancient epoch. (Oman may be perhaps the least threatened site of this Journey, and hence can serve as a terminus of hope and regeneration in my fieldwork.)

Bikini Atoll, which exists as the paradigm of the post-atomic coral reef—the Chernobyl of the ocean realm, if you will—proved to be a logistical impossibility. I am now on a waiting list for visiting for three hours next year. In any case, I do not think this Journey will adjourn after its formal conclusion. Ultimately, I am going to continue to organize institutional and laboratory contacts for the Marshall and Henderson Islands.

In preparation for all of this, I am becoming familiar with underwater videography and pursuing a scuba-diving certificate, not in the ocean but in the Chihuahuan Desert, at a place called the Blue Hole—or Agua Negra Chiquita—a deep artesian well that is part of the Santa Rosa Sink, in New Mexico.

AS: Such experiences can be life-changing. What are you learning about yourself as you go through these exercises, which to me sound like ordeals, though for you they might just be a thrill?

MHS: Scuba training is not terribly daunting. The one thing that is distressing about scuba courses is being among a gaggle of humans underwater. When I am underwater, I want to see invertebrates, not neoprene-corseted hominids using sign language.

I am learning to manage my expectations. There is more planning involved than I have ever done—e.g., shipping vitrines to the most remote maritime nether-regions of the world; getting protected-site permits, hiring boats and seafaring between atolls, lagoons, reefs; getting vaccinations; conceptualizing dioramas based on materials I find in the field; transporting camera, scuba, and video equipment, etc. For now, I’m still here sitting at my desk. Nothing has happened yet. All aspects of the Journey could change, and probably will. I am trying to abandon speculation. Yet the giddiness of fantasy is already setting in.

AS: Your work has long been concerned with natural habitats, self-contained systems, and a grave concern for the effects of human contacts with nature. How do these shape what you will be looking for in the coral reefs?

MHS: My motivating aesthetic interest is more accurately stated as less a ‘grave’ concern with the effects of humans on nature—a position that implies humans are not an integral part of nature—than with the ‘grave’ consequences of ignoring the mutually modificatory actions of human and non-human modes of nature on one another. My conceptualization of nature is monist and Spinozan (which later became the core of ecological tenets of the sixties): This perspective has implications for understanding what it means to produce a work of art—i.e., the artist alone is not the producer of the work, but the artist in interaction with materials, which are not conceived as passive matter being worked upon, but as an active agent in the productive process.

Art objects are not autonomous from a systems standpoint. Nor are their producers. So while I am certainly concerned with the destructive actions that humans have committed vis-à-vis planetary nature, my ‘base’ concern is with showing the ways in which human and non-human modes of nature interact to produce and reproduce the planet—and thus, art. This mutual morphogenesis—i.e., the transformative interactions between myself and the reef environments—is what I will be exploring throughout the journey. Some of these interactions will be quite obvious to the viewer. Many should be extremely subtle, perhaps even barely perceptible, although I do plan to document them. Together, the reef and I will produce the art works.

AS: Speak a bit more about how specifically you will interact with the sites, and specifically about what you will leave behind.

MHS: Once again, I would like to quote from the proposal, since I chose my words meticulously there. I suggested that the encounter with each reef system will consist of five closely related events:

  1. Preliminary Research. Relevant research will be undertaken on each reef before the journey begins. Libraries, the internet, and exchanges with appropriate experts will serve as primary and secondary sources.
  2. Exploration. Each coral holobiont, as contextualized by global environmental and local historical and geographical conditions, will be examined and documented. The explorations are aesthetic in the original sense of the word—i.e., they are concerned with bodies and how human and non-human bodies have engaged in the interactive work of creating, destroying, and transforming the coral holobiont over time and in complex ecological-cultural conditions which are themselves always changing. Exploration of the reef system will be conducted from both above and below water and will include, in addition, on-site material gathering; visits to local marine-research facilities, museums, resorts, corporate offices, etc.; and conversations with local residents, fishers, developers, and authorities.
  3. Documentation. This will occur as sculptural productions, dioramas, film, video, sound recordings, still photographs, material collections, and written texts.
  4. The Production of New Trans-Habitats. At the reef sites a sculptural event will be initiated as the burial at sea of an empty vitrine produced by the artist. The mutually morphogenic, generative/degenerative transformation of the vitrines into new Trans-Habitats co-created by artist, reef, and sea, by biota endemic to the reef as well as local travelers, will be monitored periodically and the data recorded.
  5. Exhibition. The journey continues after its formal conclusion as the exhibiting and archiving of the various documentary materials produced throughout the Journey—written texts, dioramas, films, still photography, sound recordings, collections of artifacts and ready-mades from the reef sites, the exhumed Trans-Habitats. With the exception of the exhumed sculptures these materials will be available for exhibition in 2017.

AS: What do you expect to be the major challenges of undertaking a Journey of this kind? Where do you hope to be surprised?

MHS: The entire Journey will consist of surprises and challenges. There is no way to anticipate in advance what I may discover, even if it has been thoroughly imagined and researched in advance. The challenge consists of what to make of these surprises. This is always the case when I am working with nature and natural materials, which have ideas and wills of their own and cannot be expected to exist in harmony with my own designs. There is an inherent fluidity to the project as well as entropic tendencies. It is absolutely necessary to cede control and dispense with preconceived ideas of success and failure.

AS: Three months from now, we will talk again. They say that such intense experiences change people. How do you expect things to be different then?

MHS: That is a bit difficult to answer in advance. The experience will be intense, and I will be changed—more than I will be changed by a trip to the grocery store, less than by the death of a loved one. I will learn a great deal—that is certain—about myself and my practice, about oceans and coral reefs, about people and machines, about the tensions between theory and practice, imagination and implementation. There will be sensory and experiential overload for years to come. All of these new knowledges and sensations will be integrated and carried forwards in ways that are more or less unpredictable but inevitably valuable. When the Journey is complete, I can perhaps provide a less speculative answer. The answer will continue to become more obvious as I accrete/secrete my subsequent bodies of work.

Los Angeles – New York, July 2017

A Conversation between Henning Fehr, Philipp Rühr and András Szántó

Let’s start at the beginning. What is a “cultural loop” and how did you become interested in the subject?

Initially, we became interested in the loop through Dub-Music. The loop is a defining characteristic of this music, which is produced with a mixer—unlike Reggae music, which is still an instrumental form of music. Another difference between these two kinds of music is a structural one: while Reggae songs consist of verses and a chorus, Dub music puts less emphasis on the vocals and works much more with disappearing and reappearing soundscapes and reverberating vocals.

Some historians say that Dub music broke up the linear form of Reggae music by using loops and other effects. This is exactly the aspect about which we did our first interview for the film, with the ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal. His theory is that Dub music helped people in Jamaica write a different, non-linear history for themselves. This idea was new and radical at the time, as older forms of music, like Rock-Steady, still told the history of the African diaspora in a linear form.

Of course these developments in Jamaican music were hugely influential to international popular music. So if you ask about cultural loops one could maybe answer your question by saying: if someone writes a book about something, there will probably be people reading it in ten years, and they will still be working with the ideas expressed in that book.

Some people like every-day routine and to meet the same people again and again—they like to revisit places. Others wake up in the morning and feel very different each day. A loop can be interpreted as something good or bad. If you look at works by Bruce Nauman, he probably saw a darker side. But a loop, according to one basic definition, means to experience the same thing over and over again, yet after a while to experience it differently. So, one could wonder, for example, what people think about when they take the train or their bicycle to work every morning.

You have decided to engage with two instances of cultural loops—two very different ones, which could not be any further in distance and form from each other. How does Rem Koolhaas’ iconic Beijing tower connect to Dub music?

One could joke that there are recording and studio devices in both “buildings.” But more seriously, Rem Koolhaas’ and his colleagues have a patent on the shape and structure of the CCTV building. They call it the “Looped Skyscraper.” It actually has the shape of a loop.

We intuitively made this connection and thought of a story that Rem once told a group of his students. After the building was finished, he flew to Beijing and visited every single room himself. This brings us back to the topic of cultural memory and the way it can be passed on orally. And this again loops back to Dub music, because it is a music that is part of an oral culture.

If I understand you, you are interested in culture’s potential to assert control over or at least somehow rebalance history. And it’s fair to say, this aspiration is true of much art.

Of course, if you seriously look into Dub music and all the different kinds of music that came out of it, you will at several points have to face the fact that Dancehall culture in Jamaica is largely a homophobic culture, however interesting and radical the dance-floor performances may be. In a few places, like Vancouver and New York, some people have begun to change this.

Take for example TYGAPAW, a musician from New York who has been organizing queer dancehall parties in New York for some years. By featuring her in the film, we want to show how Dancehall, which comes out of Dub Music and other, younger kinds of music, is able to change as long as people are willing to work on it. Of course there is a utopian side to this. By showing this utopian side as a hard fact in the film, we try to show what could actually be possible in terms of keeping a lineage of music politically valid today.

Film, your preferred medium, has a particularly strong power to shape people’s perceptions of the past. Many people have a mental image of history based on films they have seen. Is this something you think about?

There is broad cultural phalanx which influences our mental images of the history and the past and it’s not only films. But yes, there a many people coming from a time when film, television, and the movies were the most influential media producing the narrative. It’s always interesting to see if one sticks with the early influences—which are mainly gained in our youth—or if we are willing to add a second, third, and fourth layer to influence ourselves and to put those earlier influences into context.

Were there other examples of similar “loop” phenomena that came to your mind before you settled on these two cases?

We can’t really remember exactly right now, but we used to have lengthy discussions about what exactly a loop may be and what makes it different from a ring. We came to the conclusion that rings have the ability to drive people crazy.

If you really want to name an example of a ring—one which appears to have once been a ring and has now actuallly turned into loop—take a look at the new headquarters of Apple. Or, of course, there is the Pentagon. Another, more engaging example is that of Hakka-Architecture in China. These are round buildings that housed several families. Some of the Hakka people immigrated to Jamaica, but to our knowledge there are no examples of this Chinese kind of architecture in Jamaica.

When you first started thinking of this journey, how did you conceive of it? What did you set out to do? How did the idea even come to you?

We have been working on films about music for two or three years now. Over the course of this time, we became in interested in Dub music, which historically is immensely important for any kind of electronic music. And also we became interested in how music relates to architecture. Slowly, this came together in the project, which requires travels to China and Jamaica.

What do you think is going to be the most challenging thing about these trips?

Some of the topics we are interested in are very much connected to a history of imperialism and post-colonialism. We hope to be as sensitive and specific in our inquiries as these topics deserve. It is tempting to point one’s camera at interesting situations, and mistakes can be made very easily.

Can you describe your process of gathering information and filming? My sense of the work is that you shoot tons of material, then carefully edit until you arrive at a place that seems right. Is this true?

In many situations, there is only time for limited filming, because the musicians are not performing for a second time. The additional time we gain from that is usually spent on gathering some other material. In a way, it is a distanced process, because we collect a lot of footage—sometimes hundreds of hours—without actually knowing what we’re aiming for.

After that we spend days or weeks of just going through the material, reflecting on it and sorting it out, little by little. Ideally, we end up with something that seems representational of the depicted situations and that fits the bigger picture of the film. So it’s kind of a distanced, reductive process that involves a lot of time.

The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu famously said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” I believe your films similarly have this quality of being open to experience, of not wanting to bend reality to a preexisting narrative. How much can you plan such an experience. How much room do you leave for the unexpected?

The philosopher Lao-Tzu was a wise man, but we truly think having more than one mantra increases the possibility to have a full-blown trip. Here is another one, by Tennessee Williams: “All my life I have depended on the kindness of strangers.”

What do you see emerging from these encounters and how will the research Inform a new body of work? What forms will that take?

We are very much looking forward to meeting some of the musicians who were featured on the records of the German project Rhythm and Sound. They spent a lot of time making music during their life, and even though the Rhythm and Sound records are well known internationally, some of these musicians are not particularly recognized in Germany. We became very curious about finding out about them. We hope to share some of what they are going to tell us with whoever is interested.

Abigail Reynolds in Conversation with András Szántó

Books have figured prominently in your work as an artist. How so exactly?

I am aware that I am more interested in communities than in individual voices. I often work with books that have some sort of objective view—a guide to England, or London, or an overview of a place or a time period. Such books channel a sort of wider sense that is held by a community that the writer belongs to, rather than a very individualized reaction or research.

I am also interested in structures. I often work with images of architecture. I think of books as a kind of architecture. The architectures I am drawn to are colleges, motorways, theatres or libraries rather than private houses. In such buildings, society takes form.

So, I see books as individual voices in the manner of a choir: you are not so aware of the specific quality of the voice of the individual singer, but you are aware of the harmony of voices. That is how I approach the books I am drawn to in my work. Much the same with my subjects: I am often working with images with groups of people who are gathered together in a landscape to protest or celebrate something—the shape of a group identity. I am looking for moments when a person is speaking in a wider sense, away from themselves.

With such books, I can allow myself a personal voice, because I am not overriding the voice of another individual too strongly. Authorship is quite weak or wide in these books. That leaves me the opportunity to respond in a personal way; I don’t have to feel that I am impinging on that earlier voice that I am working with.

Your background is in literature. How has this influenced the way you look at images?

I learned to read images through reading books—because English culture is extremely logocentric. I came to reading images from reading poetry. I trained myself to read images with an intense focus and attention to formal detail, which is what you learn by reading poetry, by reading it often, and by paying attention to every detail. I find enormous pleasure in following someone’s train of thought. I bring that level of attention to a well-taken photograph.

I am sometimes asked what is my real skill, and I always say that it’s that I can look well and seriously. It is my pleasure to interrogate what I see on many different levels. Having done that, it will become obvious to me what aspects of that place are important to me. I look at an artifact (in the widest possible sense—a place, image, book) from my background in literature.

When you proposed your art journey, you decided to research what you call lost libraries—those lost to conflict or to the ravages of time. What appeal do these abandoned library sites hold for you? What promise do they hold?

In the center of my desire to go to these sites there is a conundrum, or an absurdity. I love to visit working living libraries on any scale, of course. But I am now making a journey to libraries which are no longer there. So there is an enigma in the middle of my desire. In fact, it is hard for me to articulate why exactly I have such a powerful desire to go to these places.

A library is a compendium of knowledge. It is a group identity. It is a meaningful collection. But I am going to places where all that meaning has been voided. I do not feel it is absurd to go to these blanks. Libraries point to our desire to encompass all knowledge and to draw things together in categories which are meaningful, and where we can find meaning and understanding of our human condition and the world in which we find ourselves living. Of course, that is an illusion, because we cannot know all. So, perhaps, it is more true to go to places that only retain a shadow of our human desire for mastery and knowledge.

I think what you are saying is that a library represents a kind of Platonic ideal: the promise of knowledge and understanding even when such knowing is impossible.

We have, as civilizations, built libraries for centuries—since well before the Common Era—and through all these attempts we have been groping at attempts to find meaning. Different civilizations have searched for meaning and categorized learning in different ways. So, in one sense, the order that libraries have imposed on the world is a symbol of our desire to master chaos. It is about our aspiration to slow time. And also to commune with the dead—after all, writers’ books survive past their lifetimes.

Now, if the library is symbolic of these desires, then a lost library is even more symbolic of those impossibilities. That is what draws me toward them.

That tell us why you find libraries compelling. But why lost libraries?

I feel intuitively that even an empty site retains a residue of its former life. Without wanting to sound extremely irrational, I feel that patterns on the land retain meaning beyond the moment when that meaning was present.

I am not overly concerned if I find nothing obvious at these sites. There will be something about the library that it is still there. It may be just the shapes left in the ground. In some cases, books may still be there, but they may be, like at the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, carbonized, no longer legible, but for the painstaking efforts of science.

For all these reasons, this will be a journey into the dark. And that is what really attracts me. And in the middle of my journey there is a darkness or a void. The center of the Silk Road is closed to me because of current conflict. I can’t do anything to change that. The conflicts that have destroyed many libraries over time still continue today, and this just happens to be smack in the middle of my journey. There will be a beginning and an end, but no middle. This is the order of things. Libraries are being destroyed right now. The line of the Silk Road is broken, but then, the whole of my journey is about things that are broken.

As we speak, soon you are soon to depart to China and you will eventually end up in Istanbul. You will make this journey in three stages. Why focus your research about libraries specifically along the Silk Road?

In my work, I am always looking for lines, formal lines. The Silk Road is among the most ancient of lines we have. It is an invisible line across the landscape. That is tantalizing to me. I knew that ancient library sites would be dotted along it because books have been a precious commodity since before the common era. Therefore, they would be traded and they would travel up and down the most important trade routes. The Silk Road is the most ancient and celebrated route.

I was aware that paper and books originate in China and came to Europe via the Middle East. So any thought about the materiality of books would draw me toward China. I also knew that the most famous lost library, at least for the European reader, is in Alexandria, in Egypt, and that this was destroyed by Julius Caesar, when it was taken by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire traded with the other extremely wealthy empire of the Chinese dynasties. Recently, China has been talking about reopening the Silk Road as a gesture to its past as an empire that was open to trade. So for all these reasons, some ancient and some contemporary, the Silk Road really called out to me.

I was certain the libraries were there. They had to be, because of what books have meant. In Europe we have celebrated ancient manuscripts, like the Lindesfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells, but they are not so ancient as the papyri and codices in the libraries along the Silk Road. There are many libraries that have been lost that I will not be visiting, because I wanted to keep along a meaningful line. Each lost library is then part of a longer narrative of Empire, structures of power. Since the proposition for the BMW Art Journey was to make a compelling journey, and because it could be anything, my mind allowed itself to think on the most epic scale.

There is, in addition, a reciprocity between the symbolism of the idea of lost libraries and the symbolism of the Silk Road. The Silk Road is a concept. It exists in the imagination today as an exotic image, not as a material fact. It’s dematerialized and exists culturally as an idea. I am making a journey along a path that exists as an idea to libraries that now exist as ideas.

Very soon after I was offered this possibility to make this proposal, I was in my studio listening to the radio. A group of academics had petitioned the Italian government, asking it to continue excavation on the site of the Villa of the Papyri, on the site of Vesuvius, at Herculaneum. It was brought to my notice that this library, which was lost so long ago, may still yet contain the lost Greek tragedies. We know these plays existed, but we have never read them. Now it turns out we may be able to reach them by reading the carbonized papyri with 3D scanners. This in part led to my thoughts about the Roman Empire, Italy and the connection to China. And in thinking about this partially-excavated library, the organizing concept of my journey fell almost fully formed in my head

I should add that there is, as far as I can tell, no library book titled The Lost Libraries, and it was difficult to find them. But Alberto Manguel, an Argentine scholar and librarian has written books on reading and on libraries. He references a number of the lost libraries that I will visit, and considers their significance. That’s an important source of inspiration for me.

How are you going to absorb all this experience? How will you process it?

I have broken the journey into three segments to allow myself time to reflect on each leg. I felt that if I made one continuous journey, I would lose sight of the earlier library sites. So I will come home in between these three sections, to reflect on my experience.

The first journey will take three weeks in late summer of 2016. After that I have a couple of months before the other two sections, which follow hard on one another. When I return from the first one, I will know a lot about how this journey has changed me, and how I can prepare for the other libraries. I want time to understand where I am.

Thinking about what it means to undertake this physical journey across the world, I feel a desire to clear away the extraneous and to be able to be in these silent places as simply as possible. This has an effect on how I will record the site. Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag wrote lucidly about the many issues surrounding photography. One of these is that the photographer can use to camera to, in a sense, ward off experience—almost as an amulet which protects you from experience.

I feel that it is very important for me to record these sites in some tangible way, so I will have a 16mm Bolex camera with me. Every image I take will be slow and considered, because the nature of 16mm is very slow. I’ll also write, but I won’t be distracted by recording my journey in other ways. I just realized as I was saying this, by the way, that I am visiting sixteen sites and I am using 16 mm film—nice coincidence.

And the desire I have to be as open as possible to this journey is why I have chosen to travel by motorcycle. On a bike you can hear and see and smell your surroundings; you are more aware of the contours of the road and the feel of the landscape than is possible in a car. The landscape is available to you and you are available to that journey in a way that is much more naked than any other way I have experienced. I am looking for something that is very physical.

What is the artistic process you envisage that will transform these vivid experiences into artworks?

I don’t generally make my own images. I work with existing images. Partly because I am parsimonious—the world is stuffed with images already. Why make new images when someone has already made them?

I have worked for many years with images of monuments in London, so I am extremely aware of the conventions through which monuments are recorded. This is the material of my work. However, this time I am journeying to these nothings, these blanks, where there may be no preexisting images to use. So I need to somehow record this. And I want to align the sites. They will be connected by my physical presence, and the material of the exposed film. I mean that the film has been exposed to the site, to the available light, in every place.

The Bolex camera has three lenses and takes one hundred feet of film, which plays out in three minutes. 16 mm film is fragile and ephemeral and hard to work with. Generally, it’s handheld. You really have to worry about the light levels. You have to load the camera in the dark, completely by touch. Any light would destroy the film. I expect I will be locking myself into the bathrooms of the hotels where I am staying, as the only spaces where there is no window. I will have to unload the film in the dark, and it will have to be preserved in my bag, which has to stay with me until I arrive home. Then I will have to send it to the lab. Three weeks after that, I will find out what I have done.

In other words, there will be this huge lag. I will be working blind. I will not be able to make creative decisions on the spot. I will have to work intuitively.

So you will be three-times removed from the material present: traveling along the entirely conceptual line of the Silk Road, observing lost libraries which exist only as ideas and not in any practical sense, capturing them in a medium that renders your subject in the most indirect, filtered, transfiguring way.

Yes, the medium of 16mm, in its materiality, mirrors the idea in many ways, although I would not say that it’s indirect. I’d say it’s very direct, because the dust motes, the light of the actual place will fall onto the film. So it’s very much like a thumbprint, very physical. That attracts me.

The darkness, this fragility, this impossibility of knowing all associated with 16mm is perfect for the libraries. In my working practice I often work extremely slowly. I have an encounter with an image, and then it takes me a long time to process, I have a lot of gaps. I like to return a lot. Using 16mm places a space, a gap, a distance between my experience of the site and the final work, which also feel right to me.

You are putting distance between you and your subject, making it less specific. The process seems almost as daunting as the journey itself. Hopefully it is a good way to extract meaning out of the reality you encounter.

Yes, this is really challenging on so many levels. The world is full of things we don’t know. The only way to deal with this is to just go. To go to these challenging places. Who knows what work I will make. But for me, I will move forward, feeling my way from one thought to the next, and keep it close to my hand. Even though 16 mm is not a medium I have used before, I have looked at thousands of images. So I feel these challenges are not insurmountable. And even if the film I put together may be literally dark, then that will only result in a journey for the viewer to challenge herself.

I will be asking people who contemplate my journey along with me to reach into those places, to think about what we mean by knowledge. I am asking them to think about enormous questions. The journey itself is challenging and huge, encompassing three quarters of the globe, and the ideas that are propelling the journey are also huge and longstanding.

I want this journey to take me to places I don’t know already. I am sure things will unfold, and continue to unfold for me in the studio, shaping my original experience into something that can have a form that is able convey some of these big ideas.

Are there any other journeys, other artists, other thinkers who have influenced you as you were mapping out this trip? I know T.S. Eliot has been a big influence on you. Are you thinking of others who have made important journeys and reflected upon them?

One of my favourite accounts of a journey is The Whitsun Weddings by Larkin, which describes a single train ride from Hull to London, but there is so much travel writing I don’t read. There are many accounts from travellers anciently and recently who’ve been along that famous and exotic road, and I have read some of these accounts in preparation to leave. I am planning to take with me books by Marco Polo and his contemporary Ibn Battuta, who traveled along the Silk Road (Battuta writing from an Islamic tradition, Polo from the Christian perspective).

In terms of contemporary writers, I am fixated at the moment with an American writer named Annie Dillard. Her best-known book is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s very aware of Walden Pond and Thoreau. I’ve just read an incredible short story she wrote about journeying to watch a solar eclipse, of being made painfully, terrifyingly aware of herself thrown up against a cosmic scale. She writes so lucidly in a crystalline way. She wears her erudition lightly, and I’m a great fan of the way she describes her journeys.

A year from now we will make a book together. Whatever you say now is a message in a bottle.

I already touched on the fact that I often work with images which conform to certain conventions about how you represent a place photographically. I am also keenly aware of the conventions that determine how a travel book looks and feels. I collect books designed for use in travel—a guide to London, or a guide to England and various historic sites. I am most extremely aware of existing conventions about books and journeys and guides. I like to play with these conventions, but I leave them intact. Working with bookplates I often leave the plate number and the caption intact with the image, so the viewer has a feeling of contact with source from which this image was plucked. For the book we will make together, it will be extremely enjoyable to me to interrogate those conventions and the things I am taking as my bread and butter. I can imagine turning those conventions on their head.

Some of the libraries I will visit contain parchment scrolls and tablets. The materiality of the books in these ancient libraries took wildly divergent forms. At this point I am just really open to experiencing all these forms and thinking about what is enjoyable about them in their specificity. I know some of this will come through in the work. I am just not yet sure in what form.

Some parts of this journey will be solitary. It will be quite different from your frequent motorcycle rides in Cornwall. All journeys are by their nature spiritual to some degree. Do you have any anticipation of how this experience will affect you in larger ways?

In Cornwall, I travel around on my motorbike. From my motorbike I am always intensely aware of every changing detail, because I know the landscape intimately. Same for London, where I lived for ten years and went around on a pushbike. I make images that describe the verticality of time in both these places. In both Penwith in Cornwall, and in central London, my work comes from a place of daily familiarity. It is rather like being at home with your family. You read everything intensely, in a nuanced way, because you know it so well. By extreme contrast, I have never visited the Silk Road countries save Italy and Turkey. I will not speak the local language, nor understand the social norms. Rather like with the lost libraries, I will be brought to the edges of my knowing. I will have to guess at everything.

In June I made a work in Cornwall that was as an all-night walk, from the west-facing cliff near Mullion to the eastern strand. When the sun went down on the shortest night of the year we turned and walked in the direction of the earth’s rotation, toward the dawn on the eastern coast. We walked all night long in the dark, and lit a beacon fire on the beach by Dean Quarry as we waited for the sunrise.

Somehow, this experience is linked to my desire to go to the lost libraries. Although there was a full moon, the heavy cloud cover never broke open, and it rained continuously during the entire night. Everything became a shadow. We didn’t use torches. It was a strange experience that I have not been able to fully articulate to myself: this blindness, this going into a situation where you can’t read the way you normally would.
Somehow, for me, that walk was a preparation for my journey. I will be at the edges of my senses, because I do not know much. Will this journey be an obliteration of myself, or will it grant me more space to be myself? I don’t know. I will just have to go.

Samson Young to premiere multi-media walk at Art Basel in Hong Kong

March 24, 2016
1.15—7.30 pm (in hourly rotations)

Starting point: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, BMW Lounge, Level 3 Concourse

Pre-Register or walk in 15 mins prior to each slot

Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young will present So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island, an interactive multi-media walk during the 2016 Hong Kong edition of Art Basel. The artist’s practice is largely performance-based and informed by his training as a music composer. Extensive research into the cultural and historic contexts of his subjects characterize his work. Young (b. 1979) has been exhibited widely in group and solo exhibitions across Asia, Europe, and the United States.

So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island is a “multi-media walk” which will take the visitors of the upcoming Art Basel show in Hong Kong out of the Convention Center and onto the streets of the Wanchai and Admiralty districts of Hong Kong on a time- and site-specific journey that weaves together institutional histories of place with fictions and personal narratives. Reference point for this journey is the lost “golden bell” that once adorned the Rodney Block of the (now demolished) Victoria Barracks in Admiralty. This bell gave the Admiralty district its Chinese name.

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 24, over the course of six hours, small groups of people will depart the Convention Center on the walk. Each participant will receive a portable media player and headphones along with a bag holding various small objects, maps and instructions necessary to complete the journey. Walking individually or in groups, over the course of the next hour the participants will be led to a series of iconic and obscure locations in Hong Kong, where they will experience pre-recorded films and sounds, live actions and performances that had been painstakingly orchestrated by Samson Young and his performers and collaborators, including jazz vocalist Michael Schiefel, who contributed many of his original songs and plays one of the many mysterious characters that the audience will encounter during this walk.

The work adds a new chapter to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an ongoing project which won Samson Young the inaugural BMW Art Journey in 2015. The BMW Art Journey is a global art initiative by BMW and Art Basel that sends artists on worldwide travels of creative discovery. Young’s journey centered on bells, both as sonorous objects and as ideological, political, and religious emblems of their respective communities. The artist researched and recorded numerous bells on a sixty-day-long trip around the globe. In the course of his travels, he compiled an extensive archive of bell recordings and a series of bell sound sketches on paper. He is currently working on a musical composition that will incorporate and manipulate some of the captured bell sounds. “During my 2015 BMW Art Journey I traveled to eleven countries on five continents, frequently alone,” said the artist. “So now it is all the more exciting to add this new dimension to the journey, in the city I call my home, surrounded by friends, artistic collaborators, and visitors. In the past year I have developed a deeper appreciation for the cultural and psychological meanings of travel, and I hope that though this experience participants in the sound walk will share in this understanding.”

The recordings and interviews collected in the course of the 2015 journey will be a major aspect of the media walk in Hong Kong. These elements will be juxtaposed with personal narratives and local histories which the participants of the walk will experience through films, audio tracks, on-site FM radio broadcasts, live actions, and installation elements dispersed along the route. So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island is not the conclusion of the artist’s research conducted on the BMW Art Journey, but rather, a meditation on the notion of the journey itself – the notion that the remembered or anticipated version of a place constitutes the place in its purest, most ideal and uncompromised form.
Altogether some hundred participants will have an opportunity to take part in the performance, which is made possible through a collaboration between Art Basel and BMW. Due to the limited number of slots available, prior registration is requested. For press inquiries, please contact Benedict Tsang, benedict@suttonpr.com.

Later this year, BMW, in collaboration with Art Basel and German publishing house Hatje Cantz, will publish a book featuring Samson Young’s Art Journey, including documentary materials from the Hong Kong walk.

Samson Young in Conversation with András Szántó

As we speak, you are just about to set out on the first phase of your journey, which will take you to Burma, various European cities, then Morocco, Kenya, and Australia – all in search of bells. What is it about bells that fascinates you?

There are really many things. I actually hit upon the topic of bells quite naturally following on from my last project. I was thinking about how, before industrialization, the only manmade items able to make a sound louder than the sounds of nature would have been weapons, such as cannons, and bells. Before the dawn of machines, we had only these two classes of objects able to make loud noises.

This is common across cultures – it’s the same for Europe, China, Japan, all kinds of places. Each culture has its own use and form for bells. China has ritual bells, and of course, bells are very important in Buddhism. In Europe, bells call to prayer. There are secular bells used to mark time. And bells also spread through missionaries and via conquest. Different cultures have adopted bells for different purposes. In Buddhist temples, bells are rung in a certain way, while the British came up with their own form of bellringing.

Despite this diversity, as a physical object, bells retain a common form. They all look somewhat similar, and that has to do with acoustic science. There is a good way to make a bell draw out the nuance in the object. I find this very interesting.

What does a bell, as a metaphor, mean to you personally?

For me, a bell creates a kind of “information overload.” There are certain sounds that our ears cannot fully comprehend in the moment. An explosion is another example of that kind of sound. The sound of a bell is so complex that you can listen to it several times and each time it means something else to you.

If you get a recording of a bell, put it through the computer and look at the spectrogram of the sound, it has so many complex harmonics. Your ear cannot help but draw information from it while you are listening . You’ll hear something different every time. Which is remarkable, as the sound of a bell lasts for only a few seconds, but by listening repeatedly, you discover more. The other interesting thing about the sound of a bell is that, in your mind, you can delay the reverberation – you imagine it carries on for longer than it actually does. It is a perfect metaphor for the fact that something immensely physical is, in fact, psychological. It is a physical vibration, but really it is a kind of hallucination if you think about it.

*You are a composer as well as an artist, and the way you talk about all this is clearly informed by your professional study of sound and its cultural history. How do these two things connect?**

I don’t know whether I am really conscious of that split creative personality, as it were. What I am interested in is how my musical training structured my world and allows me to see and hear the world in a certain way. By being conscious of this, I try to work against it but also use it as a springboard.

The duality of the bell as a sound and also an object is clearly a fascination of yours.

Bells are such beautiful physical objects that sometimes that’s what we focus on. But what my musical training has given me is this enhanced attention to the way the sound actually spreads, and how the sounds that bells produce become this network of relations. I really think of bells both as stationary physical objects and something fluid and dynamic that draws communities in – something that spreads out and gathers, calling together individuals in a community, just by virtue of the sound being heard in its vicinity.

Describe your process when you come in direct contact with a bell.

So, for example, when I listen to a bell, I will try to listen to its color, and I’ll listen to the volume. Then I’ll try to translate those qualities into shapes and notations. Some things can only be dealt with in shapes, such as the color of the sound and the shape of its reverberation – these cannot be notated accurately, you have to use your imagination and invent a system. Then with things like the pitch of the sound itself, I can record the sound and feed it through a computer analysis program to look at the pitch content, which I note more accurately.

I also like to break things down into phases. For instance, there is a first phase when the bell rings, then a second when it resonates. So it is a combination of metaphorical and inaccurate shapes, plus metaphorical representation.

How did the project “For Whom the Bell Tolls” take shape in your mind?

The initial point of departure was this idea, this connection between bells and cannons. Then, as I was drafting my proposal for the Art Journey, I started to become very aware of the appropriateness of bells as a way to make a journey, as a point of focus for a journey. As I mentioned before, bells cross cultures and history. They have a long history across many religions and are mentioned a lot in literature. There are numerous references to bells in poetry and works of fiction, which I also refer to on this journey. And the sound of bells, of course, has a history in music, spanning Western classical orchestral music to ancient court music in China.

So it really gives me this incredible opportunity to go from fiction to reality, history to current affairs. When I was thinking of travel, I wasn‘t just thinking of travel to distant places, but I was thinking of traveling, really, in time, through stories and in ideologies. That, to me, is very fruitful.

Then I had to narrow down the topic somewhat. What I have been focusing on over the past few years has been the idea of conflict. So I started with one thing that blew up into this huge project, almost too big to manage, which I then narrowed down into one personal fascination that I have been working with.

Where will this journey lead?

A lot of the bells are in places outside of Asia. I did this deliberately because I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to go to places which would not otherwise be accessible to me – either because it would be too costly or because the bells are in collections hard for individual artists to negotiate access to. After this art journey, I will be in a position to see bells in China myself. This process is just the beginning. I will probably work on this for years and years. The bells have to do with conflict and they have to be far away or inaccessible – these are the criteria that shape my choices.

Give me some examples of an iconic bell that you plan to investigate, and the complexity and meanings surrounding it?

The focus of this project is to think about “for whom these bells toll .” In Australia, I found a bell in Darlington Point, a very small town in New South Wales. In 1880, an English pastor set up a Christian mission there, intended to serve the Aboriginal community as a way of raising their standard of living, and to provide them with necessities and an education. Unlike many other missionaries at that time, who despite their good intentions were actually implicated in a lot of violence and aggression toward the Aboriginal community, this particular pastor – at least according to archival documents – really did a lot to improve the life of the local indigenous people. But then the Australian government of the time forcefully disbanded the mission, as it was thought the mission was encouraging Aboriginal Australians to get together on a regular basis, which the government saw as a threat.

That mission had a bell, which was then put into storage. Afterward, the Australian government moved in and had the children forcibly adopted by white Australians as part of the White Australia policy at the time. The mission bell was reinstalled in another church in Old Arlington Point – now quite a suburban area – where it remains in use today. So this bell now rings for a very different community, and this is not a history that is mentioned that often.

I got in touch with the reverend of the church, and am going to record the bell and interview the reverend. She is also going to put me in touch with descendants of individuals whose lives were touched by that English pastor. This is in a town located six hours by car from Sydney. It’s a good example of the kind of research I can do on this journey.

Your process involves extensive research. Tell me a bit more about how you actually go about analyzing these bells.

I will visit foundries and learn about casting. I have also been learning about bells from Eastern Europe which were stored in Germany after the war and subsequently returned to Eastern Europe. Just today, I received a note from a museum home to a bell archive. They have a very extensive record of where bells had been returned to, and their archives also contain fragments of some of the bells that were destroyed. I am hoping they might allow me to do either a cast or a 3D scan of these fragments. I am not yet sure what I will do with them. You can now do 3D scans with your iPad, so I will scan the fragments.

There is another bell in Kenya, the slave-trading bell in Mombasa. I got in touch with the National Museum and they have a cast of this bell, which, again, I hope to scan when I am there. I can produce many different things from 3D scans, but they lend themselves to the production of objects. I am not sure how I will then present it.

One of the things you have in mind for after you complete this journey is to create a musical work with the bell sounds. Can you tell me more about that?

For that project, I want the orchestra to become an extension of the very complex reverberation of these bells. I am going to have all these recordings of bells and produce a multi-channel electronic sound piece with these recordings. But the ring of a bell only lasts for a couple of seconds, so I want the orchestra to draw out the bells’ reverberation and decay. It goes back to what I was talking about, the idea of hearing as a form of hallucination.

When you listen to a concert of, say, piano music, at the end of the piece, the musician often holds the last reverberation of sounds, and holds their posture, with the sustaining pedal down. And as long as the pianist holds their posture, you can almost here that decay going on forever, on and on and on, until they stand up to receive the applause. And that is a beautiful moment, because you can never tell when that musical moment will recede. Your imagination has become engaged. That is very interesting to me, and bells have that same quality. That is what I will seek to capture in this piece. I want to use the orchestra as a canvas to extend the sound. It will probably be quite minimal, but also lush and complex.

Has travel always been part of your artistic practice? What has it meant for you, and what do you think travel brings, in general, to the story of art?

Going to different places for a singular purpose has always been a part of my work. I did a piece earlier where I walked the border between Hong Kong and China. This idea of going to places as a way of collecting material and to complete a line or a system is something I have always been interested in. I see this project as an extension of that. Of course, I have never traveled this far and wide.

Another thing that interests me in terms of travel is that there is always the idea of the traveling landscape artist who goes to different places and does sketches of the landscape. There is a history in that. I was thinking to myself: What is the equivalent of that for a sound artist? I guess that is what I am doing: Going to different places and producing sketches of the aural landscape. I am sort of sketching the sound of landscape, in a way.

As an Asian artist who trained in the US, how do you expect this journey will change your perception of the world and of your work as an artist?

This is really very important for me as a project – the scale of it is something I have never attempted before. Although it is a big step up for me in terms of size, it is also quite organic. I am extending the themes and concerns I have been working with previously. This is the most international and the largest scale project I have ever attempted.

The projects I have worked on before have been very geographically specific. Many of them focused on Hong Kong, or wherever I was living at the time. This is the first where I have taken a more global view. Of course, each location has its own micro-narrative. But the scope is universal. That is something new to me, and I’m really enjoying the challenge. It also allows me to enter into a conversation with the works of many artists who have explored related themes before.

If there were a single overarching question that you are trying to answer though this journey, what would it be?

I want to find out how sound draws people in and draws the world in, and, at the same time, how it manages to keep the world at arm’s length.

By looking at issues which are common but universally important, I am able to take a stance that is both intimate and has a certain objectivity. That’s why I need to look at these issues through sound, and that’s what makes my work unique. Now all these ideas can come together.
Who is using these bells? Why are they still being made? As soon as you ask these questions, they become very intimate. You can almost hear the histories.

New York – Hong Kong, July 2015