Emerging Taiwanese sound artist addresses environmental issues – interview with Hsu Yen-Ting

NEW MEDIA INSTALLATION DIGITAL ART

Art Radar recently interviewed Taiwanese sound artist Hsu Yen-Ting. Hsu discussed her latest project, inspired by the Cheng-Long wetlands of Taiwan, the importance of active listening and whether art can be used to raise awareness of pressing societal issues.

Taiwanese sound artist Hsu Yen-Ting. Image courtesy Jane Ingram Allen.

Hsu Yen-Ting was an artist in residence for the 2012 Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project in Taiwan. The theme of this year’s residency was “What’s for Dinner?” and chosen artists worked with those living in Cheng-Long, a tiny coastal village located in Taiwan’s Yunlin County, to produce site-specific artwork that responded to the environmental issues surrounding local food production. Taiwan-based American curator, artist and critic Jane Ingram Allen curated the exhibition, which is supported and administered by the Kuan-Shu Educational Foundation and Taiwan Forestry Bureau. In total, six projects were selected for the 2012 exhibition.

For her work Sounds Delicious, Hsu recorded sounds of the wetlands and intermixed them with local song-poetry to create a narrative history of the area, from its origins as a fishing village, its transition to an agricultural economy and then the return to seafood production, a cycle produced by shifting environmental conditions. Hsu presented her two sound pieces in separate rooms on an abandoned red-brick village home, bringing elements of mixed media installation into her sound art practice.

The name of your piece is Sounds Delicious, and contains a recording of a poem or chant. Is that poem in any way related to food?

Yes, my field recordings are mainly about food production, like seafood production and factories, or harvesting clamshells, any kind of working sounds. So sometimes I needed to wake up very, very early, 4:30 [am], because I needed to record those sounds. These sounds include not only production and working [sounds], but also [those related to] cooking. I think the wetlands are so very important for this village. I mean, before this village became a wetland, they were an agriculture village, so their economic income was mainly from agriculture.

Installation view of Hsu Yen-Ting's 'Sounds Delicious', a sound art installation created in 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

What kind of agricultural activities were conducted here? Rice farming?

Yes, but after a typhoon, [the area] became a wetland. And that’s why [the locals] needed to work in seafood again. Of course, in the past, they also worked in [seafood], but maybe not as much.

Have you recorded these food production sounds before? Have you ever worked in rural areas?

In 2008, I had one project in Chiayi, also a field recording project. That is a city just nearby, it is a bit south of here. I lived there for maybe a year and a half.… My collaborator, a French sound artist, and I worked together to record many, many sounds and many different kinds of sounds. In Chiayi [County] there are eighteen different villages and towns. So, we just rode motorcycles, scooters actually, to get around to every town and village to record all the sounds. When I say all the sounds,… we set up six, I think, six subjects. [Subjects] like oral history, natural sounds, also industry, events and religion.

A town in Chiayi County, Taiwan. Image courtesy the artist.

Are you particularly interested in capturing history, or are you interested in recording these kinds of sounds for another reason?

Originally, it was a project proposed by the Chiayi County government, a project by their cultural affairs bureau. They came up with the idea to make a sound archive. At that time, I worked for a music label called Trees, Music and Art. Actually, [the government] had no idea [how to create a] sound archive.

Did you create any sound art works from these recordings, or did it all go into the archive?

No, just for that archive, for that project. Actually, my friend, the sound artist Yannick Dauby, was my collaborator, and he really helped me a lot. He taught me a lot about sound art. He taught me many things about sounds and making field recordings, and even introduced some books and CDs to me. At that time I was [simply] interested in sound. Also, very early on in my childhood, I was interested in music. But I hadn’t created any sound art or music before [this archive project], I had just played some instruments. I didn’t have any experience.

So from that project you’ve moved on to other projects. I know you were at the Lacking Sound Festival in 2012, and you have shown your work overseas, too.

Yes. The Lacking Sound Festival is, I think, the only sound art festival in Taipei. … I know the founder, Yao Chung-Han. He is a sound artist, and he invited me to do a performance there. I said [to him], ‘Actually, my pieces are for exhibition or for radio, I don’t know how to perform live.…’ So at the Lacking Sound Festival, I just put a cloth of white fabric in front of the stage, so I didn’t perform because I was behind the fabric. I was inside. I hid myself and the stage. There was a projector, and before I played a sound I’d project a picture.

An image of fire was projected as part of Hsu Yen-Ting's work 'Mayasvi', exhibited as part of the Lacking Sound Festival 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Can you tell me a bit more about the pictures you projected?

They were related to my sound work, but not directly. For example, I made a sound piece called Mayasvi. The Tsou are an indigenous people in Taiwan, [they live] near Ali Shan, and Mayasvi is a ritual for them, [their] most important ritual…. I recorded [with] them for two years, and I made one fifteen-minute piece [from my recordings of] this ritual. For this work, I projected a picture of fire, because fire is a very important image for indigenous tribes [in Taiwan]. … Then, [when the image stopped projecting], I started to play my sounds. [The audience] would think that they could see something, a movie or a kind of video with sounds, but actually [I was] cheating.… I wanted to provide something like a black box. Actually, I wanted the audience to think, ‘When I am listening to sounds, do I really need the images?’

So you believe that sounds do not need to be accompanied my images?

When I was learning about sound art, … I was always thinking about this question, because people are very easily taken in by visual images. If we can see something and also listen to the sounds, we will focus more on what we see, not what we hear. Only if you close your eyes can you listen more. Also, we need to actively listen to the sounds, rather than just listening passively. Because when we walk on the road or when we are outside sitting at a table chatting, that, actually, is just passive listening. Sounds are passing by, but we really don’t pay attention to them. Only if you … become an active listener can you listen more.

Is this like another world, something that is missed by people who don’t pay attention to it? Why do you find it so important to cover these passive sounds?

In 2008, I needed to record sounds [for the archive in Chiayi]. I had actually never been to Chiayi before 2008, so I was completely new to the place. … I lived there alone. … Often, when you start to discover a place, maybe you read some information online, in books, or you just take pictures everywhere. But because of my job, I had to work [and didn’t have time to read], so I brought my recorders everywhere. I [discovered Chiayi through] sounds. I used sound as a kind of tool … to understand a place. Then I started to train myself as an active listener. … If I had only seen the landscapes in Chiayi, believe it or not,… I wouldn’t have stayed there, I wouldn’t have stayed there for one minute.

I found that there were many interesting sounds there. But actually, it was also because of their culture. Maybe … that place [could also have been discovered] in another way, but since I discovered it with sound, what was quite interesting and very impressive for me was the sounds. I can give you some examples, like in one small village, they used to make tatami. I went to one factory, my collaborator and I,… and [we] wanted to record the production process of making tatami. Then we found out that this is the last factory for making tatami in that village, maybe [even] in Taiwan.

In the past, the whole village [would make tatami]. So you can imagine that maybe thirty years ago, they … all [had] the machines, and the sounds would be very, very powerful.

At that time there was only one machine [left]. Because we were there, the owner let us listen to [it]. But, of course, he didn’t think that we were listening to [it], he just thought we were looking [at it]. We recorded the last machine for making tatami. … [The] old machine is very melodic. It can sing melodically.

A man makes incense in Chiayi County township that Hsu Yen-Ting visited during her research for a Taiwanese sound archive project. Image courtesy the artist.

It is true that a lot of your work is now about recording old sounds, or sounds that capture something of the past, and bringing those sounds back in to the present day?

It’s not my main interest, because my sound pieces are more narrative. I studied journalism at university, and I’m really interested in local culture, so when I’m doing field recordings, I care about many different perspectives.

I’m interested in local culture, so I also want to use sounds to edit them into one piece and teach people more about local culture…. Also, to remind people to think about this local culture from different perspectives. Not only through words or through visual things, but also through sounds. Like in Cheng-Long, … it’s very interesting because when I was recording, people always asked me, ‘Do you think this really makes an interesting sound?’ … Or they said, ‘It’s very noisy. Why do you want to record this?’ But it’s very interesting: if I edit [the sounds] into a piece, they could be enjoyable for [people] to listen to. When it becomes an art piece, it’s not only the sounds passing by in their daily life. Maybe they can appreciate [these sounds] more.

When you edit the sounds together, do you think of each art work as a piece of music?

When editing, of course I need to think of it like a music piece, not just sound. But I also care very much about the meaning of the sound behind it. So that’s why I said my piece is always a bit narrative. I think each sound already has a narrative.

Its own meaning or something associated with it?

Yes, I think each sound already has its own meaning. When I edit them together they can tell different kinds of stories, … maybe not stories, more like different scenes.

Installation view of Hsu Yen-Ting's 'Sounds Delicious', a sound art installation created in 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

What was the overarching plot or narrative in Sounds Delicious, the sound art piece that you produced for the Cheng-Long project?

For Cheng-Long, I created two pieces. One is in the big room [of an abandoned village house that] I shared with another Taiwanese artist, Yvonne Chiu. In a smaller room, there are two headphones, so the audience can listen through them. I put some furniture inside to make it look like an old kitchen, but [you could tell that] it really was a kitchen [in the past]. [I wanted] to give people an intimate feeling in that small room. When people are using headphones, they also feel more intimate and personal. The other room, the big room, is an open space. There are two loud speakers in there. Both of these sound pieces play continuously. … I didn’t want the audience to need to press a button.

A local child listens to Hsu Yen-Ting's 'Sounds Delicious', a site-specific sound art installation made in 2012 for the Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project. Image courtesy the artist.

The piece in the big room is a twenty minute piece. It’s quite long, so people will maybe just listen to ten minutes and then go. That’s okay for me. But in these twenty minutes, I have included a structure that travels … from the distant past to now. Fifty years ago [the Cheng-Long villagers] went to the sea, they were fisherman, then it became an agriculture village, and now it’s a fishing village, but just for packing and selecting fish and clams. These are different styles of living, so it’s chronological, but not so obvious.

I also included some poems in [both pieces]. I asked two villagers to read and sing the poems for me…. I asked a teacher, a literature teacher, [who] was already an old man, to read for me, and another villager, he read some poems about agriculture and fishermen. Some of the poems were written by [the teacher].

Listen to Hsu Yen-Ting’s Sounds Delicious online at the Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project website.

Are the poems or chants read in Taiwanese or Chinese?

Taiwanese. All [of the recordings] were in Taiwanese. I understand Taiwanese, so I could do that. I think [using Taiwanese is] meaningful for the villagers. Maybe [each poem is] only two minutes long in total, and I have [used it in a twenty minute art piece]…. [The words] are clues for listeners to understand the sounds, and this [helps to] construct a storyline.

Is it important to you that the local village residents and any other visitors to Cheng-Long pick up on the narrative?

I don’t mind so much, actually, because I think the sound itself already sounds good! I don’t mind if they [don’t] really understand.… For me, in this twenty minute piece, the beginning and the end connect. You [can start listening to it at any point in the recording] because it’s chronological. So you can start from the present and then [return to] the past. You can also start from the distant past and [listen up to] now. It’s a circle.

Can you talk about the poem or chant that you can hear in the recording that is exhibited in the smaller kitchen-like room of the house?

The other piece … is not a poem, it’s more like a song…. The literature teacher, that elderly man, he wrote it. He wrote a song about this village. He told me that [the story in] the song was about the village, from the Japanese colonial period until now.

Was he alive when Taiwan was under Japanese rule?

No, he’s not that old, but close.… He must have heard many stories from his parents…. [The chant is] eight minutes long, but I didn’t use the whole piece. I just cut some words and some phrases [from it], and also added in some sounds that I recorded here [in Cheng-Long]. You can even hear [a few] very strange sounds coming from nowhere. They’re not field recordings, they’re very obviously a sound I recorded from here but [altered through] processing. For other sounds, I wanted to keep them original, as close as possible. … Sometimes when you are doing sound pieces, you can also add processing to make [sounds that are more like a] noise or something incomprehensible. But I chose not to do it like that.

Local villagers listen to Hsu Yen-Ting's 'Sounds Delicious', a sound art installation created in 2012. Taiwanese sound artist Hsu Yen-Ting. Image courtesy Jane Ingram Allen.

Is this something that you do for most of your sound art works, or is it unique to Sounds Delicious?

Yes, for this piece, especially for these two pieces. I thought the main audience would be the villagers, so I really needed to consider my audience. I hope that my audience will pay more attention to the sounds of their environment because of this piece, and that they will appreciate the sounds in their life [or work] more because of it. So, of course, I couldn’t do too much processing or it would have been meaningless to them.

Why did you apply to be a part of the 2012 Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project?

Because it’s an environmental art residency, and I really care about environmental issues. Even in Taipei, I often participate in protests and other things. … I really hate how people [today don’t], and the government doesn’t, care about our environment. I hope [that I will always have the opportunity to] create pieces based on [subjects that] I care about. I’m really interested in local culture, indigenous culture, so I want to make work based on that. I also care about environmental issues, so I hope I can do something for our environment.

Do you think that sound art is a useful medium through which to address or expose environmental concerns and issues?

In Cheng-Long, I recorded some wetland sounds, and I took [local children with me] to listen to wetland sounds. When you listen to these sounds closely, you will try to understand this environment, and … you won’t try to destroy it. Also if you see an art piece or you listen to an art piece, whether sound art or another kind of art, and you appreciate this work, you will try to [find out what’s behind it], why this artist wanted to do this. [While in Cheng-Long], I hoped that I could create something [through which] people could appreciate the work itself and then try to understand the background. Then they would [understand] my whole idea…. I think for this part, I’m still learning.

This is also a question that I ask myself: How to connect sound art and environmental issues, as well as other issues I care about? … At the Lacking Sound Festival [in 2012], I played Mayasvi, that [indigenous] ritual, so that the audience would ask me what Mayasvi is, and [so that] they would try to understand why they could hear the screaming of a pig…, or the sounds of fire, or sounds of the local songs, chants. Because they were interested in that piece, I had a chance to tell them the story [behind it]. This is what I’m trying to do, but I hope that I can figure out better ways to do it.

Hsu Yen-Ting’s project Sounds Delicious was a part of the 2012 edition of the Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project. For the exhibition, six international artists were selected to produce work inspired by the environmental sustainability issues of the food production industry in Cheng-Long, Taiwan.

KN/PR/HH

Related Topics: sound art, Taiwanese artists, interviews, environmental themes

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