Interview: Yen-Tzu Chang

Photo by Max Lee

Last week, I kicked off ATTN’s preview of the Taiwanese Experimental Music event, taking place at London’s Café Oto on 4th November. Artist and event organiser Lucia H Chung discussed the conception of the event and the boundaries of improvised performance. You can check out that thoroughly enjoyable conversation here.

For the next part of the preview, I spoke to media artist Yen-Tzu Chang: originally from Taiwan, now based in Linz, Austria. Much of her work involves the development of various interfaces and instruments, through which she generates a midpoint between light, sound, technology and personal experience. They look and sound incredible. I’ve embedded various videos throughout our conversation to give you a taste. Read on for our discussion on emotional privacy, her relationship with materials and characters, and her plans for the event at Café Oto.

Are there particular ideas that you’re working with in the live environment at the moment, and do you have any expectations of what you’ll be bringing to the event at Café Oto?

When I think about the title “Taiwan Experimental Music”…this music is a little bit about trying to figure out my background, my study and my creative stream. I think I will bring The Old Friends artwork. In this one I come by with my childhood toys. I didn’t buy any new ones – they are all from my collection of toys. It can present my view and my experiences of growing up in Taiwan. You can see that the toys are influenced by Japanese culture, American culture and the economic system. For example, people can collect stickers every time they buy something. In the end, they get cute toys which they only can exchange by stickers. That’s how I want to present the environment of Taiwan from my experience, and that’s why I’m bringing this artwork to Café Oto.

I saw a video of you performing The Old Friends, where you were holding this brightly coloured toy…I’m not sure what it was, but it was captivating to watch! 

[laughs] Yeah, I have a bunch of them. I collected stuffed toys when I was a kid. As I grew up I didn’t like this kind of style anymore, but I use them in The Old Friends because they were very important for my previous life. I want to do some reflection, and making instruments is currently the thing that is important for me now, so I built this instrument from these materials. It’s an instrument combined with an Arduino and connected to Pure Data. So it’s an instrument but it’s also an interface, which will help explain more things to the audience.

You seem to do a lot of repurposing of objects and technology that aren’t generally used within a musical context. For how long have you been working with technology in this way, and has your relationship with this process changed over the years?

Since starting my Master’s degree, I’ve become much braver about what I like to combine. On my website, you can probably see that my style of presenting artwork is changing. I add many elements of my daily life and search for a definition of my childhood and home using local sounds and so on. I’ve been developing instruments and interfaces since 2013, so you can see that the style of presenting used to be pretty cold, cool and in darkness and so on. When I started studying for my Master’s, it changed because of the new environment, and also because the way of understanding is different.

Only the music part is difficult for me let people to understand further meaning which I want to express, however, I really like sound, and what this element brings to my works. It expresses less, but it is so powerful. The sound is a pretty personal feeling, and the instrument provides a direction for the audience in terms of what I want to express. It’s not 100%, but the audience might get at least…60% of what I’m thinking about. [laughs]

Speaking of your Master’s degree – I understand that you also did a Bachelor’s degree at Taipei National University of Art. What were you studying there? 

I studied in the New Media Art department. They’d already had a Master’s degree for a few years, and I was in the first year of them having a Bachelor’s degree. I think it’s very new for them, as people in the Master’s degree come from a very professional background – maybe they come from Fine Art or Animation, and then they get into this hybrid, interdisciplinary study. Suddenly you ask for high school students to get into this hybrid area, without any experience of studying. They are also doing the experiments. They didn’t give me a lot, but they trained the overall view and gave us a chance to practise. So I did Media Art, but actually we did a lot of self-learning. For me, the university was more a community for discussion with colleagues and professors, and a way to get into the area of art in Taiwan.

How do they talk about sound in the academic context in Taiwan?

For my generation, this kind of style has become associated with computers and electronic music. Taiwanese sound art was also influenced by Japan, Europe, and America. Since the internet spreads information across the whole world, it’s not difficult to get information.

Since the 1990s, there was a student movement in Taiwan called Wild Lily student movement, and they present noise as a weapon to break the system. Since then, noise and sound is for dysfunction, and this is how it became popular in Taiwan. And people like my professor Fujui Wang, artists Dino and Noise Steve…most of these people performed noise with a laptop. I was influenced by my professor – in the academic area we use a lot of computers to generate these sounds, and that was the first time I got to know sound art.

I didn’t know about the Wild Lily movement. Do you think the same sentiments still exist in the Taiwan?

Yes, but it has changed somewhat. It really depends on the artist what she/he want to express. We still do some demonstrations, but I haven’t heard much about them using sound art. Maybe because I was absent from Taiwan for some years, so I miss some current development. I think sound art has become a much more personal way to reflect upon society. It’s still critical of society, but from a personal view.

Do you think that exists within your work as well?

It depends on the work. For my personal development, I want to bring the critical nature of sound art to this combination of art and science. For example, at the moment I’m working in the medical area and MRI images. The medical institution has helped me to transfer the images into a 3D model, so I’ve built this heart model which has become an instrument. This work is discussed the issue of machine learning. The performance brings out the question relating to the issue of the machine and human: “If machines can reason even better than humans, will we human losing some abilities and even not believing ourselves anymore?”.

Do you use sound as a way to explore areas outside of sound?

It’s more like the other way round. Sound is a response to the other area. It’s a way to describe, but it’s not a way to understand. First I study the area and do research and collection, and then I reflect it and remake it through sound art.

So what was your reason for moving Taipei to Linz, if you don’t mind me asking?

Firstly, I wanted to break out of my comfort zone. Also, at the university, everyone knows about Ars Electronica, which is a pioneering festival over in Austria. I also heard about the Master’s degree, so I came to try out and they accepted me. The tuition fees also aren’t as high as in Taiwan or other countries. In Austria, they are taking care of education and have a nice idea that everyone can have the right to study. I appreciate that I have a chance to study in Austria.

On your website, you talk about how your life and study have changed dramatically, and that this has affected how you approach installations. I’m guessing this refers, at least in part, to your move from Taipei to Linz and your progression from your Bachelor’s degree to your Master’s. How has this move affected the way you think about your work?

Firstly, the culture shock between the environments. In Taiwan, most of people are so busy and feel heavy because of their work, and the time is always so tight. It’s really difficult to have time to think about your life and so on. When I came to Austria, I didn’t have a lot of friends to begin with. The way of life over here is very different – European people are much more independent. In my community in Taiwan, people have very strong connections together. I think people (in Taiwan) rely on each other much more. So even though I’ve got to know people and made some friends later in Austria, I learned how to get along with myself, and it’s important for my creating process as well.

The second is the material. In Taiwan, plastic materials are super-easy to get. You can find people who are working especially with plastic – you design the graphic and they can make it for you, and the price isn’t so expensive. In Austria, that’s much more difficult and expensive. So I changed the way I think about the material in my artwork. I went to the second-hand shop, or got some trash from the street…or at university they abandoned some technology stuff, so that all becomes part of my artwork. If the idea fits, this material is quite useful. It’s also good for the environment I think. [laughs]

Looking back, do you see there to have been a period of adjustment, where you were trying to identify the best way to approach your artworks in your new environment of Austria?

I think I’m much braver about releasing my true emotion. You can see that, in 2013, I used a lot of plastic and LED lights and tried to be cool. I’m also trying to express my childhood memories. When I lived in Taipei, every year I needed to go back to my hometown in the south of Taiwan for Chinese New Year. We had to travel at night to avoid the traffic jam. When I sat in the car, I could see the lights passing by and it was so fascinating. It happened every year, so I wanted to bring this to my artwork. That’s why I called one of my works Time Travel.

If I wanted to represent this idea today, I wouldn’t do it in this way. Now I’m getting much closer to the audience – I bring objects of daily life, so that people can reflect on what I think much more closely. I’ve also changed with age. I’m not so embarrassed about showing my emotion.

Why do you think that is?

There’s the sense that you are not allowed to reveal your emotional privacy to society. People don’t know you – maybe they will think you are an emotional person. It’s not proper. I learnt this idea when I was young, but I found that you can release it on the stage. Whatever you do on the stage, it is a performance, and so this creates the sense that people can change what they think about you and the artwork. The stage creates an environment that is so special for thinking.

I’ve seen you talk about “characters” coming out in performance.

Basically, you can describe it from two views. I’ve already explained that there are some characters that you are not allowed to show to society. On the stage, you have a formal reason to present these characters. It’s really good and healthy somehow. I know some friends that really crumble on stage and go crazy, and really attack the audience and so on. It’s scary when I see these performances, but when you look at their lives…they are vegetarian and so healthy. You couldn’t connect these two people together. I have different styles to do performances, but I also get some response from audiences via talking. They think I’m a completely different person when I’m doing the performance, compared to when I’m talking with them.

In the new artwork, I’ve been trying to see if I can develop a character that has characteristics that I don’t have, and then try and imagine what this character would be like. In a new performance called Whose Scalpel, I become a surgeon in the future. I try to imagine that I’m doing an operation on the stage: what I should look like, what I should dress like, what they might act like. This part of it is very new for me, so I can’t explain too much about it.

So is that what you’re currently working on?

Yes. I presented Whose Scalpel at Ars Electronica festival, as part of the residency hosted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Medical Image Computing (MEVIS) and Ars Electronica. I’m still developing it, and I was unsatisfied with the first artistic outcome and I will keep developing this works. But this project has brought me a lot of new ideas about co-operations between science and art. I used to think that my work in media art was so close to the area of science, because I bring the technology and knowledge of programming and so on. But when we worked together I found that we’re very different. The logic is different. It’s been really great to make these first steps, and I would like to keep working on it. If I get the chance to work with a science institution more, I’d like to do so in more areas of science too.

One final question for you. Do you have any thoughts on how the Taiwan experimental music scene has developed over the past few years? I appreciate that this largely depends on how much interaction you’ve had with it since you left…

As far as I know, most of the sound art institutions and supporters are basically privately run. They can apply for government funding, but it’s very tough as the budget is still very tight. It’s not a very good situation for sound art, but I can see that people are trying to find the solution to survive, and people still have a strong motivation. The art area has somehow developed a way to be independent. It’s still a very small group of people working together, and they’re working in a different direction – like synthesiser, sound art events, or in the academic area. I hope in the future, they can be very strong, and that people can see Taiwanese sound art, and that it becomes a very significant area.

If the government doesn’t give more support to it, it becomes difficult for international institution to connect and find out about the good artwork happening in Taiwan. If you are local, you can see that so many things are developing. It’s still so small, but there are a lot of them! [laughs]