Distributing Agency
on the work of Hong-Kai Wang,
published in White Fungus, Taichung City, 2013

Tuesday 26th March 2013, open house at Iaspis, Stockholm.

A recording of Bach's Ave Maria that was made in Taiwan in 1984 by artist Hong-Kai and her brother when they were 11 and 8 years old is played to 6 Stockholm based musicians and an audience. The recording is fragile and delicate and you can hear the sounds of people around the room. You can also hear some people talking in the recording but none of the musicians or the audience can understand them except for Hong-Kai herself. After a few minutes when the recording stops and, following Hong-Kai's instructions, the musicians discuss among themselves how can they reproduce what they have heard. Within five minutes of discussion they have reached some conclusions. It is decided that the piano player should reproduce quite exactly Bach's piece, while other players can try to reproduce the other ambient sounds. They start playing and after a while they leave the recording behind and go into a more improvised set until they end. The audience clap and Hong-Kai invites everybody to have a discussion about what has just happened. The discussion is animated and the musicians make a point of how strange it is for them to talk about their work in this way and that in their usual context this rarely happens. In contrast, critical discourse is very much present in the art world. Hong-Kai has told them beforehand that the Leonardo Music Journal will have a special issue on Sound Art, and the recording of this work (including the discussions) will be presented on an accompanying CD.

The Swedish artist Petra Bauer asks about the political implications of the work, and what does it mean to present a recording made in Taiwan a long time ago, which is then today played by Swedish musicians? Hong-Kai's reply addresses the importance of generating situations of collective listening as a form of political engagement. The work of Hong-Kai takes displacement as a starting point in order to then generate acts of active listening. Often using discussions as mode of production, she tries to destabilize established forms of easy categorization: is this music? sound art? relational art? Her own role is also problematised. In fact, for the last two years she no longer claims authorship of her projects but describes herself as an initiator. The notion of displacement is not only crucial to understanding Hong-Kai’s work but also her life. She left Taiwan in 1998 to study Media Studies at the New School in New York. There she met Chris Mann who, as she herself mentions, has been her mentor ever since. She often collaborates with him in different ways. It was in New York where she developed an acute interest in listening, as her English was not good enough to understand everything that was being said. She began to focus on the textures of sounds and all those extra-linguistic elements that constitute social relations.

It was through Chris Mann that Hong-Kai learned about avant-garde composers such as Herbert Brün and Robert Ashley. For Hong-Kai this inspiration can often turn into different forms of collaboration or an integration of their work into her activities. In 2010, she staged an adaptation

in taiwanese of Robert Ashley’s 'Dust' in Taipei, in collaboration with the political activist and composer Chen Bo-Wei, sound artist Wang Fujui and theatre director Keng Yi-Wei.

Her practice walks a fine line between reproducing contemporary forms of work (i.e. outsourcing and management) and generating something that exceeds its own parameters. She often works with musicians and composers, and while she makes room for their contributions she also enforces some rules so they are not totally in their comfort zone. We could say that she uses people as instruments for a music-to-come where reflection is incorporated into its production, as well as the social relations that it generates.

If we understand agency as acting due to a rule or principle (i.e. being motivated by the rule rather than any desire or inclination), then Hong-Kai proposes certain rules in her work in order for participants to challenge themselves and experience their own sense of displacement.

Often her work has different layers and stages but all the elements are part of a conceptualization in progress that questions its own parameters. She is on the boundary between a very clear awareness of what she is doing and not being able to conceive of how far the situations have gone. Sometimes the expectations of the collaborators are not met. For example, in her recent project What's the musical consequence of change? at the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, she invited 12 composers from 11 different countries to have a conversation about their status as expatriates. After that each of the composers was asked to produce a 2-minute score based on the discussion that they had. Finally the audience was invited to an open rehearsal of the scores. The composers in the Schoenberg project were not happy that there would not be a final proper concert with their scores at the end of the project. However her interest does not lie in satisfying their personal interest but rather aims to encounter the gaps between different roles and different contexts, like herself when she was in New York. Through distributing small doses of displacement, Hong-Kai generates an agency that goes beyond individual artistic production.