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Art and technology in the Year of the Dragon
 
Reflections on the Chinese New Year Arts Festival at Cabot hall, London. Feb 2000
Cyber Teahouse

And so it was that I found myself for the second consecutive year at the Yan Huang Festival, this time ushering in the year of the dragon. Over the course of two days I donned three hats, those of Project Adorno, OpenHaus Communications and the Narrating Beggars. I was there primarily to represent OpenHaus, presiding over the Cyber Teahouse, an Internet workshop (cum teahouse) attempting to build virtual "poetry trees" and also to present the OpenHaus lecture on the grandiose and somewhat pretentious notion of "Art and new technologies".

In a physical sense the Cyber Teahouse was located within a room containing various art exhibits satirising and lampooning stereotypical perceptions of Chinese culture. These included a map of the UK laid out like a battle plan complete with little pins, strategically placed to represent the location of Chinese take-aways across the country; "bricks" cast from empty Chinese take-away aluminium containers; and most bizarrely, a strange illuminated tower draped with a cloth and covered in broken eggshells (any ideas on this one?!). Huddled in one corner of this make-shift art gallery and surrounded by our IT equipment and video screens showing Project Adorno super 8 shorts ("Fickle" and "Satie") one could easily be forgiven for thinking we were just another exhibit! (There was a touch of "Rentaghost" to the proceedings). But whereas all the other exhibits were static installations, we were a totally organic and interactive piece engaging our audience on such themes as poetry, art and the Internet. Furthermore, linked up to the Internet we had the capacity, virtually at least, to go far beyond the physical realms of the room.

Disparate discussions

During my two day "appearance" I found myself debating with "anti-technologists", a young couple who wondered "Why is everyone in such a hurry?" and blew holes in the Internet's "virtual" capabilities thus: "Why experience art virtually when you can go to a gallery and experience if for real?" And I quite agreed, whilst at the same time maintaining my stance for all things digital with the notion that the Internet and all its trimmings isn't necessarily meant to replace, but rather to provide an additional means of experiencing/communicating/creating. Alas it seems that, although there are various established methods and mediums for communicating art - be it painting, sculpture, film, song, dance, the written word etc - the introduction of computers, the Internet and websites to this sphere is one medium too many for some! However, in my world the development of a website is just as much a creative process as writing a book or painting a picture....

Elsewhere a woman argued the case for more Internet training for the "older person" - a definite gap in the market, and a possible future direction for OpenHaus? Later on, an elderly gentlemen questioned the ethics of OpenHaus, viewing it as a business and wondering what we sought to gain form it. I ensured him that we weren't "in it for the money", that it was all tied in to our love of the arts and that, furthermore, we were essentially an online community. With one of the "gallery" attendants I attempted to demonstrate the use and application of soundfiles on the Internet. Finding common ground we got into a "teccie" discussion about sequencing software, "streaming" audio and MP3.

Meanwhile, fellow Narrating Beggar, Li Yan enticed passers-by  to contribute writings to his online "poetry tree" website. The tree grows as people "water" it with their writings, stories, poems, thoughts and other such contributions.

Thus through these and other discussions and dialogues, I found myself surreptitiously delivering the OpenHaus lecture, not as a one way, traditional linear piece to a large and captive audience, but instead in bytesize chunks, to disparate groups of two or three people, over a much longer period of time. Hence not everyone heard the whole lecture, but each  "component" was analysed and discussed in a much more detailed, interactive and frank way.

Performance! 

In addition to all this dialogue and digital "hi-techery pokery", there were performances! Project Adorno provided impromptu readings in the Cyber Teahouse to what seemed like an ever changing audience of curious bystanders and bemused onlookers. At one point our audience included a group of hyperactive children who likened the Adorno sound to the music of their favourite Playstation games! Foiled gain, and I would have got away with it if not for those pesky kids!!

Whereas the Cyber Teahouse was very much the "B" stage (albeit a very hi-tech one!) we were  also invited to perform a special Adorno/Beggars "unplugged" set on the main stage. At the allotted hour, Li Yan invited Teahouse participants and whoever else happened to be around at that particular moment to join him for readings. This had originally been against my better judgement, taking the line "with music, or nothing". However, at the last minute I had a sudden change of heart and the subsequent acappella reading of "Barrage" - all spiky and highly charged - still resonates. In the Cabot Hall's cavernous arena the audience were up there with me - their journey was mine - for the duration of the piece at least, whilst I wouldn't say worlds collided as such, wavelengths certainly coincided!

And of course, the Yan Huang Festival wouldn't have been complete without the "inter-creativity" of the Narrating Beggars who took to the stage as part of the "Chinatrash Club" night. This proved to be one of our most powerful and enduring performances to date, with a line up, generally revolving around an  axis of Li Yan (poet extraordinaire) and myself (sounds, sequencers etc), on this occasion also including Paul Chi (guitarist and vocalist) and Liu Quing (guitar). We were  a well balanced foursome, like some other-worldly version of the Beatles, oozing an air of completeness and implicit understanding as we ran through a confident "Sandbird" complete with fluid interplay of voice between Li Yan and Paul Chi, followed by a truly amazing improvised piece fashioned from thin air by Paul and Liu, before ending with the climactic "Water currents" part the Cure, part Project Adorno, but always unmistakably Li Yan! A post performance "meeting" confirmed that we had all felt that same indescribable spark of adrenalin and connectivity. In truth the performance had been very much a spontaneous affair, the set list itself was only decided upon once we were up there on stage!

Still roaming and interconnecting 

And with the year of the dragon safely ushered in, we were free to roam again in both real and virtual space and time. As an experiment in re-inventing traditional communal poetry readings, composition and performance it was, to my mind, a great success. 

Mar 2000

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