Hong-Kai Wang

Hong-Kai Wang discusses her recent sound works

Hong-Kai Wang, The Musical Condition of Reasonable Conspiracy, 2012. Performance view, Museo Pietro Canonica, Rome, May 24, 2012. From left: Michael Fitzpatrick, Matteo Nasini, Daniele Del Monaco, Gaby Ford, Fabio Rizzi, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi. 

Hong-Kai Wang is a Taiwanese artist primarily working with sound. Two of her projects are concurrently on view in New York this August. For “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” MoMA’s first major exhibition of sound art, which is curated by Barbara London, Wang is presenting Music While We Work, 2011, a two-channel video and multichannel audio installation that will be on view from August 10 to November 3, 2013. For “The String and the Mirror,” a group show organized by Justin Luke and Lawrence Kumpf at Lisa Cooley, Wang is contributing the performance The Musical Condition of Reasonable Conspiracy on Saturday, August 10, at 5 PM.

FOR MUSIC WHILE WE WORK, I invited five couples—retired men who had worked in a sugar factory and their wives—to return to the century-old plant where they were once employed and make audio recordings. The factory is in Huwei, a small town in central Taiwan where I was born. My parents still live there and my father’s former colleague introduced me to this particular group of people. The factory played a key role in my life: We lived a few minutes away from it; I went to the schools associated with it; I even had my first tooth pulled at a dental clinic managed by it. Sugar used to be one of Taiwan’s most important exports—there were fifty factories, but now there are only two, and the goods Huwei produces are only for local supply.

Before making the recordings, I organized a series of workshops where the group discussed how they understood and related to the sounds in the factory, while Bo-Wei Chen, a Taiwanese activist and composer, moderated and coached them on how to use the microphones and recorders. They listened to the industrial sounds in so many ways that were different from what I would or could access myself; for instance, they knew what a particular sound meant, whereas I needed a visual reference to identify it. They said they could close their eyes but never shut their ears. The factory seemed to encompass so much sonic information, or codes, that these workers knew by heart. It helped me further understand how sound can dictate or inform our relationships and vice versa, and how specific social, political, and even economic meanings are inscribed in our listening.

The piece debuted in Venice and has traveled to Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. It means a lot to me that it’s going to New York, now since it’s the city where I established my creative identity. Music While We Work was also one of my first attempts at collaborating and investigating how listening can be shared, and how people listen together. It helped me think more critically about nonlinguistic sound, and how language can provide a different form of agency and can be a tool to explore the process and conditions of how we listen. This, in turn, prompted me to develop a series of performances that largely use speech as a medium.

From our two-year-long conversation about sound and art, Justin Luke invited me to do a performance at Lisa Cooley, which is actually a restaging of a project I produced last year in Rome. The Musical Condition of Reasonable Conspiracy began with a phone interview I conducted with my mentor Chris Mann. He is an Australian composer and poet based in New York, and our conversation focused on what it means to be a composer—culturally, politically, and even ideologically. In the performance, two seated actors reenact the transcription while local composers intervene and contribute. For this specific performance, Jim Fletcher and Rosie Goldensohn will dialogue in real time, while Marina Rosenfeld and C. Spencer Yeh will pretty much have to fill in the gaps. They will listen to the two actors performing the transcription and wait for a moment to intervene, while the two actors have to try to respond to all the unexpected inputs.

My academic training was in political science. I think my interest in sound actually stems from my own social alienation in New York as a foreigner, while trying to learn English. To try to understand, or even speculate about, all of the confusing sound and information around me became very important to me. It became a form of agency, a daily existence. This is why the idea of listening as a form of organization is pivotal to me. We all understand that listening is a very private and personal thing, but I’m actually interested in how it can be shared, and how we relate to one another and negotiate understandings and misunderstandings—and also how we don’t.