Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young will present So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island, an interactive multimedia walk during the 2016 Hong Kong edition of Art Basel. The walk will take the visitors of the upcoming show out of the Convention Centre 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.
Thirty-seven-year-old Young studied music, philosophy and gender studies at the University of Sydney and holds a PhD in Music Composition from Princeton, where he was tutored by legendary computer-music composer Paul Lansky. He has presented his work at the Asia Triennial Manchester; Moscow Biennale of Young Art; Amos Anderson Museum, Helsinki; Kunsthalle Winterthur, Switzerland; Today Art Museum, Beijing; and the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Taipei. Young is the inaugural winner of the Art Basel-BMW Art Journey Award 2015.
What was the genesis for multimedia walk idea for Art Basel in Hong Kong 2016?
It came from a conversation between me and the artistic advisor for the BMW Art Journey project. And we talked about what to present at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2016 after the journey. I initially wanted to do something, but I was not very comfortable with the circumstances … because you know there’s going to be a lot of artwork, and a lot of people, so it’s not very conducive for reflection, and because of the subject matter, the bells, and stories which were very personal stories … and then we thought, why don’t we take audiences out of the fair? Once that idea came, I started to develop the idea of a walk, and taking people out of the fair to look for something. So that was the idea. I have done such walks before, so this is not my first, but I’ve never done one as elaborate as this.
What will people who do the walk be given?
They will get an iPod, playing both audio and video files, and then they will also have a map, and then some very small objects like a notebook, and a pencil, and all of these will be put together in a bag that they’ll be carrying around while they are walking. And at different places people will be watching different films, and will be asked to do certain things, or to look at certain things, and these actions they are performing in real time will interact with what they see in the film, in their iPod. There are also actually live actors and live actresses on the street who will be doing things that have to do with the narrative as well. There will also be a musician, so as you’re walking you will begin to wonder whether what you’re seeing is part of the art or whether they are just naturally occurring events on the street, and that might blur the boundaries between the two.
So the people become like detectives, documentarians or artist collaborators as they move around the ‘art work’?
They are definitely very interactive and yes they have a role to play, and as soon as they put on their headphones they are inhabiting a very specific world, and they are also told, or hinted at, what the role is they play in this world. They have a vested interest in this walk, this journey, that they are going to undertake.
A lot of these films are shown on location but all of them are shot between 3am in the morning to 6am in the morning, … that’s the story, it’s a part of the narrative as well. I really wanted there to be nobody. Because we are taking the audience through a really busy part of Hong Kong, and I wanted isolation, so in Hong Kong, of course you only get that at such time in the morning and … but there are also films which aren’t shot on location and they take you elsewhere too. It should be fun.
How many groups of people will go on this ‘journey’?
It’s not like a large group of people. This walk has to be experienced individually. It’s also not like you can do it with another person, and so it’s a pretty special experience and if people sign up they have like different time slots and I guess we are attempting to cater to as many people as possible on that day. It’s only going to happen on March 24. That has to do with the way the story is told as well.
How does one approach sound art as opposed to canvas, or sculpture?
It’s not so different with the sound sketches, or sound stories that I do, because they end up being visual artefacts … so the work I do is not so out of reach. There are words, images, pictures, writing too. It’s interesting because if anything, I’m trying to find a place which is even more abstract with my sounds sketches. Maybe now they are quite literal. Obviously I think the ‘strangeness’ you’re referring to would be the idea that you’re not usually walking into a gallery and interacting with art in this way, it’s not a visual experience. Listening to sound in a gallery is an unusual way of appreciating something, and then, one also has to make a decision about whether one wants to fight those particular circumstances. But then, I can think about in what other ways can I make people listen?
What do fellow local artists like Lee Kit, or Tsang Kin-wah think of your art?
I think people are really pretty supportive of each other, and I do have good colleagues and we have interesting exchanges, so it’s all very convivial. It’s a very small community but a pretty close community.
How conscious are you of the art world change in Hong Kong over the last decade and also the public’s reaction towards you?
The city has been really good to me I have to say. I’m able to realize work here, found outlets to make it, but I try not to think about it too much. Also, when you travel, you’re able to not think about it too much, so I travel quite a bit and that makes me able to forget.
Someone I know in Hong Kong says the city doesn’t get the art [and the artists] it deserves. That too many artists are hampered by self-pity. What do you think?
I think she’s hanging out with the wrong people. Tell her to come and hang out with me! [Laughter]
How many sound artists are there currently in Hong Kong?
Well. There’s a quite a few. There’s Cédric [Maridet], who doing something with Blindspot gallery at Art Basel. He’s a sound artist but I also know he’s going to exhibit photography this time, or predominantly camera work. But that’s the thing about contemporary art, right; I think in the music world things are a lot less malleable, it’s more open in the art world … there are quite a number and there are more and more younger ones too, more and more younger artists working in town.
Has the digital realm transformed the notion of sound art?
The electronic world has changed the software and hardware but I think it’s something more today. What’s happening now is that we have a different relationship to craftsmanship and how that is obtained. So that’s a small detail but it’s a very fundamental shift. Now maybe there’s more demand being placed on artists to do many different kinds of things and not just stick with one thing – because you always could in the past. Now it’s like you can do installation, or animation, you can do webpage programming work, nobody’s expecting you’ve got to put in 10 years of training now.
So it’s less hierarchical?
I’m not sure it’s all that democratic.
How far do you track down artistic opportunity and to what extent do they appear to you?
I know what you mean - it’s always an improvisation. But you have certain standards, and then you have limitations, and they work against what you have in your mind, and that is not new. It’s more like - I might have something I want to do, but the circumstances, the budget or the weather might interfere with or compromise how much feeling I can get across, and whether it’s not going to work on that day, whether I’m having a fight with my boyfriend on that day; they all play a role in shaping the work. So I think that’s usually how it goes. It’s a mix of the two, and constantly evolving. But I’m always improvising.
Is sound easy to improvise with?
Being trained as a musician, I don’t really buy the idea that something crystallises into a pure form, or sound, because that is never the case with music. There’s always an element of improvisation involved even if you’re playing Bach or free jazz. No two pianists play Bach the same way. Whether you call that improvisation or artistic interpretation is up to you but there’s a level of desire, to put your personal stamp on a work, change the circumstances in which you’ve been given this thing, and from there to reach out, but from … music reminds me of you that fact.
Are you a Bach and free jazz fan?
I definitely like Bach, but I’m not sure if I’m so much into free jazz. I listen to all kinds of music but I listen to a lot of trash as well.
Good trash or bad trash?
I listen to all kinds of pop music. My music consumption is pretty normal, pretty ordinary.
Who is considered the world’s leading sound artist?
There are so many in the world but I can only talk about the people I like. There are also many different kinds of sound artist, but the people most interesting to me are like Janet Cardiff. She is doing something that I like. Actually, there has been quite an explosion in recent times.
What was the first piece of sound art? Can we trace its genesis?
No. That is not really possible. Even now in academic debate, there’s still a lot of discourse about this idea. It’s not really something that is institutionalized as a major art form, but perhaps what we’re seeing now is the beginnings of that institutionalization. It’s rare for artists to have the opportunity to encounter an art form that is still very much in formation – that doesn’t happen very often. Internet art has arrived very quickly, but I don’t really think it’s all that new; it’s a new aesthetic but it’s not really an art form. So, when was the last time something like this happened in art? It was probably performance art in general. But now that moment of course feels totally gone, and MOMA had a performance art department, but not one for sound. Sometimes things evolve and you can’t really see them happening. But like, two decades ago performance art was making its way into museums and galleries, nobody knew that was happening, but now, it’s like sound art has arrived, where did it come from? But in fact, it has always been there.
Perhaps Princeton should take you back and offer you a chair as head of its new Sound Art Department.
No. I don’t know if I want to do that. I mean, you know, I had a good time there, but …
I see you’ve just been nominated for the Container Artist Residency 01 project. [An artist in-residence programme that takes place on board commercial cargo ships in 2016, founded and directed by New York-based multidisciplinary artist Maayan Strauss]. Congratulations. What can you share with me of that?
Thank you. Nothing because I really have no idea, I haven’t made a decision yet. I don’t even know which route I will take yet. I found out a little while ago. I found out just after they had made the decision a few weeks ago.
In the realms of conventional art, which artist/art work fascinates you in a particular way and why?
The artists I’m drawn to are usually artists I aspire to be – they tend to be contemporary, people like John Cage, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, all of whom had musical training of course, or doubled as musicians. It’s probably clear to you why I’m drawn to such people. Their work is all very coherent.
Have you seen the exhibition – Electronic Superhighway – at Whitechapel Gallery London? It’s 50 years of digital and interactive work including artist/musicians like Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik?
Oh is that right? I have to check that out.
Do. It’s in the launch issue of #legend. It goes back to earliest sound and performance related work.
I really think that Nam June Paik’s position and influence is not talked about enough. I mean he actually made some really crazy 12-tone pieces in his early days; he was as straight-up a composer as you could get. A Korean composer making it in the West at that time. Everybody forgot he was a composer. And that to me is very interesting. And it also speaks to the way the contemporary art world operates, right? It draws its conclusions in ways most obviously understood by all. Now that people are talking there is the opportunity to rethink Nam June Paik as a musician. He’s known for his robotics, but you really need to –look at how he put objects together, his compositional work, and how his objects worked together, how he composed for different instruments in an orchestra; maybe I’m bias. I just think it’s helpful to think of him that way.
What’s your ‘desert island’ piece of music?
I would probably bring Bach and if it’s one piece, I’d bring something that is longer. One of the Brandenburg Concertos maybe. I mean, Bach is a perfect choice if you’re stranded on an island.
Is there anything else you’d like to convey about what you’re doing?
I hope people will come to the walk. It would be fun. It will be special. The journey from end to end is about 15 minutes but with the film and the other bits it’s about a 40-minute experience. We were hiring all these actors so we can’t afford to have all this time. But with that limitation I worked that into the story. After the walk you’ll be told about a performance which happens the day after which is related to and completes the walk. That happens on the 25th and we’re not going to publicise that. I want that to be a surprise. I’m very excited about this work.
So You Are Old by the Time You Reach the Island. 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-Registration at www.bmw-art-journey.com/events/samsonyoung or walk in 15 mins prior to each slot.