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Making and Unmaking Freedom: Sound, Affect and Beijing

Edition: Ph.D. Dissertation, School of Interdisciplinary Arts, College of Fine Arts, Ohio University, 244p.

Date: 2012

Region: CHINA


Type of media: Grey

Language: English

Editor: M.B.


In this dissertation, I investigate the practice of sound art in the post-Tiananmen era in China. I define sound art as creative practices that use sound (including silence) as a major means of creation and expression. It is a genre that both connects and disturbs categories of visual arts and music. The driving question of this project is how the sign of freedom translated into a socio-cultural ideology, a value, and an impulse shapes and is shaped by a socio-cultural milieu that is itself changing under the influence of globalization. In other words, the project examines how freedom affects the social and the personal. At the same time, the project "unmakes" the sign to investigate the affect of freedom--the thing that slips away in the process of signification. Drawing from sound art practice, the project suggests that to be free is to be sensitive and open in everyday life, to sense beyond security, to place one's self in crisis, and to become the body without organs (BwO).

China's sound art provides one of the best sites to examine how freedom (with its referents of neoliberalism, consumerism, and human rights, as well as zi zai [spontaneous becoming or self-existing]) is used, interpreted, felt, expressed and lived. In China's sound art culture, there are activists who consider sound art a social tool to fight for democracy and social justice, avant-garde artists who criticize consumerism and capitalism in Chinese society, as well as musicians and artists who advocate anarchism and alternative lifestyles. There are also artists who are less interested in making claims about political or social issues, but are more concerned with the practice of self through making good sound art works. The project argues that different kinds of freedom-searching acts have different political and social significances; even making good experimental artwork is a kind of social intervention by resisting existing political or social ideologies.

In the dissertation, I discuss two spatial references of freedom in Beijing, Tiananmen Square and 798 Art District in chapter one. In chapter two, I outline the field of sound art culture in China during the post-Tiananmen era. Then, in chapter three, I analyze two collective affects, anxiety and powerlessness, related to a series of freedom-searching events in the sound art culture. In chapter four, I depict and analyze the characteristics of a utopian collective that practices experimental and free improvisational music in suburban Beijing. I further examine in chapter five how Beijing-based sound art scene connects to music subcultures in other cities, while reflecting on disconnections between sound art and China's contemporary arts. Finally, in the conclusion, I propose how sound art practice might cultivate affective listening.