Zai Tang on Synaesthesia, Making Field Recordings and Listening to the Composition of Nature


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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Old-Growth

Zai Tang is an artist whose practice spans sound, drawing, animation, and performance. He creates immersive affecting experiences that explore notions of awareness and connectivity between human and nonhuman worlds. His process begins with field recordings from wildlife rich habitats under threat, which are then abstracted and visualised using both analogue and digital techniques. His recent works have been presented at the Busan Biennale (2020), NTT InterCommunication Centre (2020), London International Animation Festival (2020), Singapore Biennale (2019), SGIFF (2019), Yinchuan Biennale (2018), Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (2018), and the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, The O.P.E.N (2017).




Filed under: sound, drawing, installations



¹ The Quadruple Object, Graham Harman
2011

The Quadruple Object is Graham Harman’s magnum opus, and calls for us to expand upon our definition of what constitutes an object. An object might be a thing, a colour, a quality, or a sensation. What did you enjoy most about this particular book, and how did it sharpen, bring into focus, or expand the way in which you approached the intangible?


Prior to reading this book, I was thinking about the experience of encountering creatures – when conducting field recording – primarily through sound. Often, I wouldn’t be able to see them because they’d be in the dense forest. This unique encounter with their being through sound really resonated with me. I was thinking of how sound could be considered as an expression of a being, and for example, we will always recognize the voices of those we consider our nearest and dearest. Some of us might say that their voices carry characteristics of what we consider as being essential to them or their being.

Reading this book was, in some ways, probably how I started to grapple with some aspects of philosophy, or at least Western philosophy, and these ideas of metaphysics and phenomenology. With phenomenology, one of my points of reference was the French composer, Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer created musique concrète, and one of the methods he used to understand sound was called reduced listening. When practising reduced listening, one attempts to apprehend the sound whilst forgetting about the source that caused it. In the process, one attunes themselves to the sound’s intrinsic qualities. Instead of seeing an image of the drumstick hitting the snare, you’re thinking instead of the texture of the sound, its impact, and its materiality. In The Quadruple Object, Harman draws heavily upon the work of Edmund Husserl. What I understood in reading the book was that there was a link there between Husserl’s work and Schaeffer’s work. Both were nudging readers or listeners towards a sensitised consciousness – to tune into what we were perceiving.

The book gave me an opportunity to reconsider how I understood sound. Harman divides objects up into four main categories: sensual objects, sensual qualities, real objects, and real qualities. When we think of the call of a magpie robin, for example, we can analyse that call through scientific methods such as the use of spectrograms. We can map the call out, but the spectrogram doesn’t necessarily describe the sound’s texture. It also works on the assumption that time is linear and neat, whilst a sound can be coloured by an individual’s own interaction with it. There is this space that can’t be fully described by scientific understanding of sound as purely vibrational material. Often, we try to understand things in terms of its material make up or functionality. What object-oriented ontology tries to do is find a space in between these things. We might never know the true essence of things, but we might perhaps gesture towards it. That really inspired me, because I’ve always found this enigmatic quality about trying to understand sound – in and of itself. There are so many possibilities as to how things can integrate and overlap, which offers an open-minded gesture towards speculation.

There is this space that can’t be fully described by scientific understanding of sound as purely vibrational material.

² Metropolis, Adam F
1996

Metropolis by Adam F is a complex and layered sonic experience that incorporates, amongst many other things, discordant noises and energetic sounds. Tell us about how you connect with this piece, and why you picked it out for our interview.


This is a track I have in my record collection, and although it’s a rather old piece from 1996, it still speaks to me today. I think music is particularly good at affecting us both in terms of the bodily and the emotional – and in a different way to how the visual arts work.

Growing up, I was really into drum and bass. I still listen to it now, but it was a genre that was quite experimental. It constantly pushed the boundaries of technology to create these bizarre, almost dystopic, reflections of places and spaces. I love Metropolis for its aesthetic qualities, its characteristics, the samples used, and the groove. It reminds me of London, but I didn’t hear the track played in a club until many years later. When I did, I lost my shit – for want of a better phrase – in the best possible way. It’s that feeling of allowing your body take over, to flow with the music, and to feel some sense of freedom, joy and deep pleasure. It’s both solitary – in that you are in your own body – but collective at the same time. These dance tracks are able to still retain their edge even after a long time has passed.
³ Escape Velocity V, Zai Tang
2021, Installation View at the National Gallery Singapore

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

Escape Velocity V, Zai Tang
2021, Installation View at the National Gallery Singapore

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

In physics, escape velocity is defined as “the minimum speed needed for a free, non-propelled object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body”. Was this concept something you were thinking about when putting the project together? Tell us about how this project came to be.


I was doing a residency at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art when I started the Escape Velocity series, and I made two works during my residency there. These works are Escape Velocity I and Escape Velocity II respectively. I might have borrowed the term from the book by Timothy Morton titled Being Ecological. He was using the term “escape velocity” as an analogy for escaping our human-centered understanding of the world, and indeed, nature as well. I tend to work with the sounds of nature, particularly the ones from Singapore. I found that term a useful way to frame different aspects of what I was thinking about.

There are also birds such as the greater racket-tailed drongo that communicate at such incredible speeds, at least to our human ears, that we must edit these sounds by slowing them down in order to hear them clearly. That’s the only way we can hear and unpack the details and gestures of these sounds on a human scale. You can also think about this series in relation to the fact that we’re constantly keeping up with a certain momentum for urban change and growth. Working with recordings that have been slowed down is also my way of responding to the speed and the tempo of the urban.

Field recording is an integral part of your practice, and this can be seen throughout all the works presented in the Escape Velocity series. Could you tell us about how field recording came to occupy such a central position within your practice?


I remember being a cliché backpacker, going to Thailand as a teenager, and recording my experience of being in the forest just through sound. When I was at university doing a degree in music technology, I had the chance to work with the material more. That was when I discovered that I could feel or remember places quite vividly just by relistening to some of the field recordings I made. Not only that, I could play through images in my mind’s eye of what was happening at the point in time that recording was made. That’s where my fascination with field recordings and sound started.

I began by working with a lot of urban sounds. When I did my masters, I recorded my walks by the river and made a sound-centric installation out of these recordings. As I began spending more time in Singapore, the feeling of not being able to escape the urban became more pronounced. As a result, I spent more time in natural habitats such as Bukit Brown. I started going to these places for a relief from the city, and after a few trips, began to realise that these were amazing places. Every trip I made uncovered new sounds to listen to and connect with. That’s when I began recording my experiences there. When we learnt about the plans for building a highway that would cut through Bukit Brown, we began to think of this as a chance to document the place before these changes happened.

Going back to field recording itself, it became a way for me to get to know a place through its soundscape. Some might use video cameras or photography to do so, but field recording extends your ear and how you listen. It became a way for me to practice listening and being in the moment with these encounters. As I began conducting field recordings in various locations, it also became a means of engaging with the sort of changes that were happening in these places. Sound has an interesting angle when it comes to capturing the feeling and experience of a place. I do want to continue keeping it quite central, and I hope that I’ll be able to translate something of the experience of being in a space – something that audiences will resonate with when they listen to the work.

As I began conducting field recordings in various locations, it also became a means of engaging with the sort of changes that were happening in these places. Sound has an interesting angle when it comes to capturing the feeling and experience of a place.

Escape Velocity V (Detail), Zai Tang
2021, Installation View at the National Gallery Singapore

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

Escape Velocity V, Zai Tang
2021, Installation View at the National Gallery Singapore

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

Some of the sites that you’ve done field recordings at include Bukit Brown, parts of the Rail Corridor, and the Macritchie Reservoir. The experience is intense, immersive, and often time-consuming as well. Could you walk us through how you go about picking your sites, sitting within them to record, and how these extended stretches of time deepen the contours of the final work?


In a way, I guess I’m quite atypical in how I like to field record. What I know of some field recorders is that they often choose to sit in one location, and to stay put for an extended period. I prefer walking through a place. Most of the time I’m walking without my headphones on, and just keeping my ears open to what’s around me. When I catch something that I’d like to tune into, I get my parabolic microphone out, and start trying to locate it. In that moment, time condenses. It’s just me listening to this creature, sitting with it, and focusing all my energy on just tuning in. In doing so, I do feel like I begin to disappear into the environment a bit. The boundaries blur. Even though field recording can be thought of as quite a solitary activity, I think it is quite the opposite because you’re building all these connections over the course of a journey in listening to a place.

Most of the time I’m walking without my headphones on, and just keeping my ears open to what’s around me. When I catch something that I’d like to tune into, I get my parabolic microphone out, and start trying to locate it. In that moment, time condenses.

The field recordings you make are sometimes remixed, manipulated, distorted, and other times, left relatively untouched. In this concert between the non-human (the recorded sounds of nature) and the human (yourself), how would you describe the structure or form of your compositional process?


After the process of recording in a place, I then like to create a compositional frame to work with. This frame can vary quite a bit, and will inevitably change how I decide to approach the materials. The first work I did about Bukit Brown, titled Respect (Bukit Brown Cemetery I), I wasn’t very heavy-handed in terms of the composition. I selected particular recordings, didn’t change their speed, and found a way to connect the materials. That process was intuitive. I was asking myself questions such as, what are the sounds that speak to one another? With this work, I wanted to explore the approach of leaving nature alone.

For Escape Velocity V, some of the sounds used in the installation are heavily augmented. For some of these sounds, they have been augmented beyond the point of being recognisable as sounds of nature. I wanted to build a response to the momentum of the city, and how we’ve composed nature around that. I do try my best to be respectful to the creatures I encounter whilst recording, but when it comes to telling a story or creating meaning, I let the compositional framework drive what I then do with the materials. When I was at university, I was quite influenced by acoustic ecology and I learnt a lot from that school of thought. A lot of the writers I read or lectures I attended at the time shared this ethos: in handling a material such as nature, we should gesture towards it, as if it is the thing itself. I get that point of view, and I adopted it for works such as Respect (Bukit Brown Cemetery I). However, the reality is that we don’t interact with nature that way now. To some degree, you could say that it is by destroying an image or nature or abstracting it beyond recognition that we can gesture towards breaking down our human-centered conception of it.

It’s important for me to think about and through a medium as well. With installations such as Respect (Bukit Brown Cemetery I) or Escape Velocity III, I’ve used dubplate records. I considered the use of the dubplate because it’s a slightly different medium to the mass-produced record – it’s a one-off piece. If you don’t take good care of it, the record will wear down quite quickly. When I use these records within the installations, the soundscapes on the records gradually wear down. Over time, you’ll begin to hear the surface hissing, cracking, and popping. This will then overtake the sounds of nature on the record itself. I thought that that would be an interesting way to reflect the degradation and deterioration of these places and their soundscapes.

In thinking about alternative mediums, such as animation, time becomes central. It’s different from the process of drawing or mark making, for example. With animation, there’s an opportunity to explore a choreography that is both spatial and temporal. Animation affords us a different means with which to dive into a sound and its life. It allows it to feel very much like an encounter.  

After the process of recording in a place, I then like to create a compositional frame to work with. This frame can vary quite a bit, and will inevitably change how I decide to approach the materials.

You spoke about certain sounds that resist human listening in an earlier response. The only way we can hear these sounds is through editing or manipulating them, and these can be high frequency sounds, for example, that we aren’t able to otherwise process. When it comes to these imperceptible sounds, how have you approached thinking about recording them or working with them?


In terms of recording, there are many different approaches that one can take and types of microphones that one can deploy to capture these sounds. There are hydrophones for recording underwater or you could use contact microphones. Even by just using a normal shotgun microphone, you can draw a very close perspective, say, to an insect, which you wouldn’t otherwise be able to listen to in the same amount of detail. By slowing down and recording, things do come into view in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

I often use contact microphones and a turntable during live performances, sometimes resampling things on the fly, but mostly with working with dubplates and my old records. I might attach the contact microphone onto various implements, such as a Stanley knife, which can be used in place of a needle. You can still hear the sounds on the record, but that is affected by the quality of the metal that is pressed onto its surface. It gets ripped apart, in a way, and destroyed. In those moments, we get to hear an articulation of those sounds through a more abrasive material.

I also use contact microphones with rubber bands quite often. When we create tension with rubber bands and pluck them, we can hear the raw sounds acoustically without any processing. In performances, I might stretch the rubber band taut across the central spindle of the turntable with one hand. With the other hand, I hold the contact microphone close to the taut rubber band as it brushes against the vinyl. It creates these vibrations and harmonics that, with a bit of processing, can become quite intense. This is an example of drawing out the sonic qualities of something that would have otherwise remained quite hidden. It’s very enjoyable to do live. Improvisation is a particularly exploratory practice, and being able to have such a hands-on approach to exploring the sounds of objects is always enhanced by things such as contact microphones.
Escape Velocity II, Zai Tang 
2018


Escape Velocity III, Zai Tang
2019


Impression III (Concert), Wassily Kandinsky
The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, 1911


¹⁰ An Optical Poem, Oskar Fischinger
1938

Synaesthesia or synaesthetic encounters feature prominently across all the works in the Escape Velocity series, including this recent iteration. The importance of this also surfaces in some of the works you picked out for our conversation, Wassily Kandinsky's Impression III (Concert) and Oskar Fischinger's An Optical Poem. When articulating how a sound or a piece of music looks, what do you work towards — accuracy, precision, emotion, affect, something else, or something in between?


I try to oscillate between being analytical and being more intuitive or free with how I approach this. We talked about reduced listening earlier, and I think it’s really about tuning into the textures of a sound. Is it a pointillistic sound, or a prickly one? Is it a smooth sound, or are its contours curved? Are its rhythms quite staccato, or does its melody flow easily? All these questions help me when I’m tuning into a sound and making marks in response to that.

I’m not trying to replicate what a computer can do in terms of creating an image with pinpoint accuracy or depicting things in a linear fashion. I prefer playing around with it, finding my own rhythm, and being a little more intuitive when I draw. I do try to flow with the sound, and to allow the feeling of it to push me towards something. The way I draw is not a very precise science, but I would say that I try to find some kind of middle ground between the two.

I’m not trying to replicate what a computer can do in terms of creating an image with pinpoint accuracy or depicting things in a linear fashion. I prefer playing around with it, finding my own rhythm, and being a little more intuitive when I draw.

Often within conversations about the ecological, the term the “Anthropocene” is used in the same breath. The term itself is centred around the human. On the other hand, your approach with the Escape Velocity series has been to amplify the non-human. How would you describe your relationship with the term “Anthropocene” or the wider vocabularies we have in speaking to or about our current ecological crisis? Has this relationship morphed, shifted or developed since embarking on this project?


In thinking about what nature means and how we understand this point of time, the term the “Anthropocene” is important in understanding our geological situation and this moment of mass extinction. But perhaps it falls short of understanding the source of the problem. Whilst I do think the onus is on us to understand and find means to tackle this ecological crisis, the “Anthropocene” focuses on the human aspect quite a bit.

This is where a term such as the “Capitalocene” becomes very useful. In the writings of Jason Moore and Raj Patel, they speak about how humans haven’t caused us to arrive at this situation – we’re here because of capitalism. Capitalism, of course, has shaped nature. As a process of capital accumulation, it has completely transformed the world. It’s also divided the world up as well. Their perspective on this is that the human side – so to speak, is caught up in the roots of a colonial mindset. The modern white man is on one side, and everything else is on the other. The natural world, and the rest of us who make up the global population, are also embedded in this otherness. I think this term is useful in understanding, from a historical and social point of view, how nature has been politicised over time. There is a lot to unpack in this understanding of where we are at, and we can’t really do it without understanding how capitalism has worked, is working, and clearly, how it is failing as well. In order to find a path towards a more cohesive and equitable future, we need to find strategies to disrupt – maybe even within ourselves – the capitalist mindset, which simple cannot sustain itself on this finite planet with its finite resources.

Considering listening in relation to this time, I think of it as a gesture towards an Other. In my work, it is a gesture towards the other-than-human creatures we share this world with. Listening offers a space of possibility for both connection and imagination. For me, it’s a gentler gesture towards opening up possible ecological realities. In the broader sense, listening enables us to understand and access the Other. No matter where we arrive at, being able to listen, converse, and understand other perspectives will always be useful. There will always be a way forward if we are able to listen to, try to understand, and feel for another person or another being.
¹¹ Escape Velocity III, Zai Tang
2019, Installation View at the Singapore Biennale  

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

¹² Escape Velocity IV, Zai Tang
2019, Installation View at the Singapore Biennale

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

'Escape Velocity V' by Zai Tang is now open.
The exhibition is organised by the Singapore Art Museum and will run at the National Gallery Singapore until 14 March 2021.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.




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