By Berit Fischer
Written for solo show Music While You Work. Published by Casino Luxembourg – Forum d'art contemporain, Luxembourg
“The art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.”-- Luigi Russolo, 1913

As silence is the relative or total absence of audible sound, it can have rhetorical functions in speech. In music it is one of the crucial elements of emphasizing and distinguishing rhythms, dynamics and melodies. Silence can be a state of abstaining from speech or the avoidance of mentioning or discussing something.

Silence and listening, paying attention and noticing aural stimuli are the points of departure for sound art. As Susan Sontag wrote, “in order to perceive fullness, one must retain an acute sense of the emptiness which marks it off; conversely, in order to perceive emptiness, one must apprehend other zones of the world as full.”i Analogously, silence can only be recognised with an awareness and acknowledgement of the surrounding environment of sound and language.

As John Cage established with his groundbreaking composition 4’33’’, "there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound."ii Sound as an artistic medium is able to transform the unheard into the heard, the discordant into the beautiful. It animates the void with resonance, makes it almost tangible, transcending its immateriality, highlighting the perception of the aural environment.

In one sense everything is made of sound -- vibrating and transient frequencies that behave in space and in our thoughts, changing our sense of the world. We cannot help but be affected by it. But living in a noisy world, we unlearn how to listen and become insensitive to the nuances of hearing and perception. In a way, we are becoming perceptually deaf, as “our culture becomes taciturn without being silent, moving towards a noisy muteness.”

Hong-Kai Wang’s practice is formed by a convergence of sound, language, place and social intervention. She considers her work an organisation of listening.iv While translating aural surroundings into foreign territory, her work goes beyond the limitation of visual art and activates one’s own modes of experience, personal memory and associations. It calls for a re-tuning and a sharpening of perspective and expectation.

Wang’s earlier works address cognition, heightening the aural perception via re-contextualising sounds, creating different meanings and synaesthetic experiences. In Elevator Music (2006), she dislocates the recordings of New York’s subway buskers into an elevator shaft. In Water Meditation (2005), she translocates various water sounds from rain to bubbles into a bathhouse, creating a live sound collage, a new aural experience that incorporates the environmental sounds of the locale. Similarly, in Listening with Dumplings (2005), Wang emphasises the present, momentary awareness of our daily audible environment while relocating the ordinary sounds produced in a dumpling house back into the restaurant.

Art critic Roberta Smith once mentioned that sound happens, in art and in life. The non-visual senses can easily be forgotten or discarded, as devoid of content serious enough for aesthetic examination.

Wang shares her own listening experience with her audience, encouraging us to pay attention to how we listen, altering our perception regarding the unnoticed or unheard. Through meticulously arranged and composed field recordings, which either reference their locales or are dislocated into unrelated settings, she creates new imaginary spaces. In her works, we experience two realities at once that simultaneously are physical and mental configurations of the space. These heterotopian spaces are capable of juxtaposing in one single real place several spaces, several sites that in themselves could even be incompatible.

Although a sound installation’s time base is mostly circumscribed by the accessibility of the space, rather than by the attention span of the viewer, it goes beyond the physicality of a spatial ensemble. Sound art is about perceiving, investigating the margins between sense and perception. It is directional and immersive. Sound work may be the environment itself that “addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space, presupposes an embodied viewer whose other senses are as heightened as their sense of vision.”vi Wang’s sound installations elicit an active participation rather than entertaining the viewer within a space that has no longer a practical function and that withdraws itself from commercialisation.

While Wang’s earlier works mostly investigate the permeable boundaries of perception, of art and life, her more recent work is increasingly complex and multilayered, retreating from socio-political examinations, and often find formal expression more in performative or interventional -- rather than pure installational -- formats. In Setting Up the Banquet (2008), a twelve-channel sound installation, she orchestrates a soundscape from recordings she made at Chinese-operated commercial stores in Madrid, a city that does not have, like many other major cities, a “Chinatown” (a geographically-bound immigrant Chinese community). While constructing and composing an imaginary social space sonically, she produces a space of contemplation on identity and belonging, of what it means to be an individual in a community, to be or not to be part of a community, what it means to be local or to be a foreigner.

Accept Me For What I Am, If You Want Me
(2009), took place as a performative intervention within the city of Incheon, Korea, as part of the International Incheon Women Artists' Biennale. Here, Wang dislocates a commonplace electoral campaign situation from Taiwan to Korea. A prototypical electoral propaganda campaign is simulated with a truck -- covered with the candidate’s photo (the artist herself) and political slogans -- driving through the various neighbourhoods, attempting to reach the people. A speech, underlined with music, is broadcast to the public with megaphones. Looking closer at the whole scenario, it appears to be absurd: There was no election going at the time and the truck wanders aimlessly while the speech of the female electoral candidate, delivered in a heavy Taiwanese accent, attempts to translate a political message to the indistinct audience. Even the fact that the candidate is female is rather unusual in a country where women’s rights are still in early stages of development.

While creating this paradoxical situation, Wang opens up a space for reflection not only on formats of propaganda and electoral campaigning, but also on gender and immigrant equality politics specific to the Korean context. The slogan on the truck -- “We will make change together” -- and the speech addressing the individual directly become philosophically reverberant, asking questions about change: “What does it mean to want change? How do we make change? How do we conceive of change? Is our conception of change subject to the degree of our discontent? What is that constitutes our discontent? Do we take our desires for reality because we believe in the reality of our desires?”

Language defines both the self (identity) and the other (understanding other cultures). As a communication system, it expresses cultural identity and is foundation to learn and become part of or to demarcate oneself from culture. Language and speech -- the ability to express thoughts and feelings -- are prevalent aspects of Wang’s more recent work in particular. Biographical and personal references being only a subtext in her work, her personal experiences around issues of language have a strong impact on her artistic investigations. Growing up in Taiwan under the martial laws of the Chinese nationalist party regime, she was forbidden to speak her Taiwanese mother tongue in public until she was 17 years old. Later, when she emigrated to the United States, she again was challenged by social marginalisation via a foreign language and culture.

In Accept Me For What I Am, If You Want Me, the electoral candidate attempts to raise fundamental questions in a local idiom that is alien to her. The result is short repetitive sentences in a strong foreign accent. The speech was translated from English into Korean using Google Translator in order to keep the imperfection of translation; the distorted outcome was then only mildly corrected by Korean speakers. Did the questions raise change after having been translated? How can ideas and questions be “translated” into different cultures? Do they have the same relevance? Although the questions are universal -- in particular in countries like Korea or Taiwan, where the understanding of democracy is fairly new -- they become fundamental for political awareness and the understanding of the individual’s responsibility within its societal structure. Accept Me For What I Am, If You Want Me addresses language as a carrier of ideas and examines the nature of belonging on the level of both personal and national identity, asking, “What are people as a nation and what is an individual within it?”

Inspired by American experimental composer Robert Ashley, whose works are recognised as classics of language in a musical setting, Wang’s project Watching Dust (2010) is an adaptation of Ashley’s opera Dust (1998), and stages five people who live on the fringes of society gathering to talk to each other and to themselves about life-changing events, missed opportunities, memory, loss and regret. Wang conceived this interdisciplinary project for surviving Taiwanese “comfort women” and women who survived domestic violence and human trafficking. Here, Wang’s appreciation of the use of voice and words goes for more than their explicit denotation so that, similar to Ashley’s work, “their rhythm and inflection […] convey[s] meaning without being able to understand the actual phonemes”.

Sound work draws on a long history starting in the early 20th century. For example, Kandinsky’s root idea, published in his seminal book Klänge (1912), was to build up a grammar for abstraction in painting, to make colour audible and sound visible; to use colour not only as a visual, but also as an acoustic stimulus. Throughout art history, allegorical depictions of music have been replaced by translations and transpositions between various senses. In his futurist manifesto The Art of Noise (1913), Luigi Russolo pleads that new sounds, produced during the age of the industrial revolution and the introduction of machinery, open up new ways of hearing and that “by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure...the motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be consciously attuned, so that every factory will be transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises”.

Wang’s work Music While You Work (2010), developed during her residency at Casino Luxembourg’s “Project Room @ Aquarium”, manifests itself as a complex 20-channel sound installation that brings back to life those industrial noises that one time had been well known in Luxembourg, a country that was once called the “land of the red earth” due to its high concentrations of iron ore. Until the 1980s, Luxembourg was one of Europe’s leading steel industries. In the 1950s, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established its domicile as the first European institution in Luxembourg. But during these years there was also conscious political decision-making against monolithic economies, encouraging foreign industries (chemical, plastic, tires, etc.) to settle. Luxembourg became one of the founding members of all important multilateral bodies like the UN, Benelux, OEEC and NATO, and the nation gained its still lasting socio-economic stability. At the end of the 20th century, profitable legislations fostered the country’s development in the finance and service industries, bringing the era of steel to an end. But the nation’s present-day affluence is strongly rooted in the heritage of its steel industry.

Today, Luxembourg has turned into a prototypical global post-industrial society, in which production has been outsourced to low-cost areas, a manufacturing-based economy has transitioned to a service-based economy and blue-collar work has declined while professional and technical work predominate. Foreigners make up 60% of the country’s workforce.

Music While You Work on one side has again a biographical reference, a nostalgic reflection on the background of Wang’s family as sugar factory workers. On the other side, it not only becomes an homage to Luxembourg’s cultural and economic heritage, but also reveals the nation’s remaining and quite varied industrial manufacturing sector. During her residency, she spent extensive time in eight different factories, ranging from the food to metal industries, and accompanied workers throughout their workdays. She recorded low droning ambient sounds, punctuated by the high peak and rhythmic sounds of machinery and human speech, which she later carefully timed and orchestrated into the annexed glass architecture of Casino’s “Aquarium”.

On rubber mats that are typical to industrial workplaces, viewers find themselves on a sonic walkway of Luxembourg’s present day manufacturing industry. Devoid of any visual stimulant other than the space itself and the 180º view onto the city of Luxembourg, the space that Wang creates is in-between, see-sawing between the permeable boundaries of the inside and the outside. A fine-tuned discrepancy between what you see and what you hear produces a moment of disorientation that leaves a precious gap between the here and there, the present and the past, allowing for contemplation on the positioning of the self between the disembodied imaginary space and reality.

As time goes by, the relationship between the sounds drifts apart, inviting the site’s ambient sounds into the ephemeral moment. The familiar and the unknown are infinitely juxtaposed. Like a false soundtrack, the industrial soundscape accompanies the outside scenery of the city’s everyday life, animating re-orientation and perceptive re-configuration. A sound narrative takes form, relating to the past and present, a regeneration and transition.

The title Music While You Work refers to a BBC Muzak radio station of the 1940s that was played in factories to stimulate the workers and increase their productivity. The title also refers to the human dimension in the work while incorporating sound textures of the vernacular language of the conversations of and with the factory employees -- coined by Luxembourg’s dominant multilingualism -- about their everyday working existence and conditions. For the duration of the show, the manual manufacturing world of the seemingly ordinary blue collar worker is quietly given voice at the Casino, the place that once was reserved for the capital world, the social meeting point of the bourgeoisie.

Music While You Work also investigates and accentuates the processes of production of goods that have become backdrop in post-industrial societies. As post-modern political geographer and urban planner Edward Soja argues, a post-industrial society is still highly connected to the outsourced industrial economies, “that the importance of space, its production and its organisation, in the reproduction of social relations, and of capitalism itself” is underestimated.ix Poetically, Wang evokes an imaginary mental space of production and an aural experience of modern day factory work.

Inspired by American artist Martha Rosler, Wang sees herself in the role of “artist-as-social-agent,” helping to re-activate questions that are embedded in society, yet may not have not been asked. While constructing an imaginary industrial setting, she brings this particular space back into the public’s mind, creating a consciousness to pay attention to what is there and to make the unheard heard. She states: “I believe catharsis can often be found in learning others’ stories.” Understanding and learning about the self and the other starts with listening. Silence is, if no one is listening. While animating the void of silence with attention, Hong-Kai Wang creates a language that transcends silence.