Distant Dialogues

Chinese artists Shii, Sheng Jie/Gogoj and GOOOOOSE speak to Charlotte Algar about their projects for Distant Dialogues, a remote artistic residency born out of the realities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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During this global pandemic, where live music has died a tragic death, many creatives have taken to online collaboration and performance. Finding online spaces to create, in spite of the difficult circumstances which have forced artists into the digital sphere, has some upsides. New connections have been forged, independent of geographical proximity. New modes of online performance have flourished, with attention shifting from local scenes to global happenings. With musicians being unable to connect in the same way as before, with lockdowns, quarantines and cancelled gigs a-plenty, the notions of online collaboration from across the world seems that much less of a faff. With this situation in mind, Worldwide FM came together with the independent record label Merrie Records, Xintiandi and the British Council to create Distant Dialogues. From China, Wuhan’s Shii, Beijing artist Sheng Jie/Gogoj and Shanghai producer GOOOOOSE have procured contributions from UK audiences to include in their productions.

“It’s like something is lurking, it’s a visceral feeling.”

It’s an odd time to be creative. The limitations posed by lacking physical proximity and live gigs is just a small part of what artists are feeling right now. It seems like the lack of day-to-day interaction takes its own toll. Shii says: “I was staying in my home in Chengdu with my parents during [lockdown]. I see some energies missing — people are not seeing the outside world and communicating. But the biggest challenge is reading the bad news every day, while isolation is already making people think too much.” GOOOOOSE echoes this. Despite the fact his “life in general didn’t change much, because [he] was staying at home making music most of the time anyway”, he describes his creative mindset during COVID-19 as: “It’s like something is lurking, it’s a visceral feeling.”

This “lurking” feeling is apparent in many creatives at the moment, whether it be due to the discouraging state of the world or diminishing finances. As in other countries, Chinese independent artists find it hard to make a living at the best of times. Shii explains that there are always many artists “working on art without income, so many end up doing something else to make a living, leaving little time for their real creations. There are some [schemes to help artists financially], but not as many as in other countries. The government has projects every year, but the requirements are always a very high standard or some specific themes.” Sounds familiar. Sheng Jie adds: “If there is a project we can do, we do it soon. At the moment the future is unforeseeable… I feel art is weak in front of death” in accordance with Shii: “Every artistic event is delayed, it’s very apparent.” What with the indisputable importance of art in all of our lives, one can only hope that changes are made to assuage the struggles faced by the global artistic community.

“At the moment the future is unforeseeable… I feel art is weak in front of death”

Though paid gigs and projects have been dwindling, the online world has flourished. Sheng Jie says: “The past six months were totally unreal. But the virtual world has been redefined. It made me think about what ‘real’ means.” Whereas in the UK, and many other places across the world, the musical community has taken to Instagram and Facebook to live-stream, share their music and procure new collaborations, in China these applications are unavailable. I ask about this, my millennial brain struggling to contemplate a life without the ‘gram. Shii explains: “I stayed in France for 6 months so I was used to these platforms, but when I got back to China, everyone was using our own ones. I went back to our domestic social media applications like Wechat and Weibo. It’s not a big problem for me, but I’ll say it’s always better for an artist to see more from different perspectives, to maintain a vast mind.” In this way, despite the similar functionalities of Chinese applications (like Weibo or Wechat), the country-specific nature presents a challenge to the globalised artist. Shii continues: “I feel in China it’s a different world, we have our own social media systems and music players. It’s a dilemma for me as I’m more used to writing songs in English than in Chinese, but English songs are less easily accepted in China. I always hope to communicate with the rest of the world, but it’s hard.” GOOOOOSE takes an entirely different approach to social media: “I’m not a heavy user of any social media to be honest, they’re irrelevant to my art making. I check them from time to time, but mostly just for fun; I don’t actually care what’s happening there.”

The project created by Sheng Jie, which asked for videos to be submitted by WWFM listeners of staring, not at the camera, but at an unknown, out-of-shot object, is a comment on the effects of SNS (social networking sites). Sheng Jie says: “People’s attention spans under the impact of mass media have shifted from discovering truth of the information to exploring individualistic curiosity, continuously fulfilled. Meanwhile, SNS have sped up methods of perception of information, altering notions of value and ways of thinking. Once completed, the entire piece will be uploaded to SNS, thus audiences worldwide can express their perceived deception and understanding through images or text.” Sheng Jie hopes that the Distant Dialogues is representative of “the new way of cooperation… It is the only way we can choses be still together, connect, push thoughts and learn to accept a new world. I hope we can finally take a breath with music in this visual world exported by Worldwide FM listeners in the Distant Dialogues program.”

“Social networking sites have sped up methods of perception of information, altering notions of value and ways of thinking.”

Another factor contemplated by the Chinese participants of Distant Dialogues is the connections that have been made with UK artists and Worldwide FM listeners. Shii explains: “The interesting thing will be seeing how all the artists act in the process of the project. On our [artist] video call,the connection became so real. For me the most important thing I have gained so far is the flower photos [Shii’s project will be based around photographs of flowers submitted from Worldwide FM listeners], they are like digital post cards, very special and gentle.”

Something I am struck by is the fine balance between this global project, with submissions incoming from all over the world, and the very individual reactions the artists expect from their works. This speaks volumes about the fact that although the creative community has been united by the struggles COVID-19 poses, both personally and professionally, we are all experiencing this differently — and that’s ok. For many people, this has been the longest time spent alone with their thoughts in a lifetime. When so much of our identity is tied up in our social circles, the places we go and the way we look when we get there, our individual responses to art, at a time when these things don’t matter any more, are all the more profound. Sheng Jie says: “I think this is a very interesting project that speaks volumes in this special period. But the audience always has their thoughts and feelings — the result is private.”

In a similar way, GOOOOOSE takes what could be characterised as quite an ‘absolute’ approach to his music — allowing the audience to transpose their own feelings onto his work, rather than creating a mood or message to be understood. He explains: “I generally don’t like to add too much meaning to music, or to treat music as a vessel for too many messages. An abstract but substantial concept of one or two lines are just more than enough. Many people think there should be meaning in music, partly because of all the names of classical pieces, but what they might not know is that many of the names were added by distributors (not the composers) so the pieces would feel more accessible.” Shii has a similar outlook: “I think my art is simple and direct, people don’t need to learn from it, just enjoy it.”

“I think this is a very interesting project that speaks volumes in this special period. But the audience always has their thoughts and feelings — the result is private.”

During this pandemic there have been many artistic, political, environmental messages flying around, and it’s been a crucial time for interrogating our attitudes. But perhaps here, the Distant Dialogues artists will provide listeners with a space to breathe. Tune in to our Distant Dialogues radio documentary this weekend, and read more about all the artists involved here.

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