Pick the brains of artist and sound designer Zai Tang as he talks about his latest work, Spectres. This immersive audio-visual installation will be on display at 72-13 from 5 July to 9 July.
Chris Lewort: Your work Spectres describes itself as a dystopian vision of the future, where the wildlife of Singapore has become extinct. Why dystopia?
Zai Tang: Dystopias are often about embodying the underlying fears of the present. With global warming, for instance, I think there is a strange kind of cognitive dissonance that happens. We know it’s ‘there’ and we know it’s happening, but we can’t see it and validate it, empirically speaking, so it’s also easy to ignore.
If we take the perspective that Spectres is a kind of environmental dystopia, perhaps it is more about reflecting where we stand now, as we are facing our current ecological crisis. It’s a chance to look at the causes and re-examine our modes of thinking around it.
This reminds me of a line in Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism”: “...it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
Yes, and perhaps Spectres falls in line with this view! However, as the work has evolved, one of the central questions to emerge is: What does the spectre of extinction (and the onset of the Anthropocene) mean for our relationship to the non-human?
By non-human, I refer to both sentient things (like other living creatures) and non-sentient things (like global warming). To me, Spectres isn’t a lament, but rather a mapping of perspectives on this human and non-human relationship. I’m beginning to see the Anthropocene as a chance to deconstruct the problems of our current thinking towards the natural world.
With this work, you’ve been influenced a great deal by philosopher Timothy Morton, author of “The Ecological Thought” and “Ecology Without Nature”. What particular ideas in his writings have most inspired you?
One idea that really resonated with me was how the Anthropocene calls for us to rethink the notion that we are at the centre of the world, just because we happen to be the dominant species. Why? Because in facing something much greater and indeed more powerful than us (like, for instance, global warming), perhaps we can become more grounded, humbled even, as a single species who precariously inhabit the planet, amongst many other things. Morton describes this as ecological awareness, the growth of a sense of inter-relatedness among all entities.
However, Morton expresses (and I’m inclined to agree) that part of the reason we’ve become distanced from this ‘other’ we call nature, isn’t just because of capitalism and modernity, but rather because of the stories we’ve told ourselves about it.
He posits that we’ve had a tendency to understand nature as existing for us, as an external provider and as a surface to project our romantic ideas upon. With these modes of relation, there is always distance between us (over here) and nature (over there), and it is in this very gap that nature transforms into the receptacle of our human desire and idealisation (that is, Mother Nature as a perfect, self-balancing system, who will find her way back to equilibrium, even if we perish).
In adopting the view that we are one part of a gigantic assemblage of things that exist in relation to one another, we can perhaps imagine ourselves as a single node in a vast interconnected network of things (both sentient and non-sentient). In destabilising our anthropocentric view of what constitutes nature, the perceived boundary between the human and non-human begins to blur.
You have written before about field recording being one way to experience this sense of blurring the edges between things, that is, human and environment. Could you expand on this aspect of your practice?
For me, field recording can be a very intimate and immersive means of connecting with a place. The more time you spend in a single locale listening (and/or recording), the more you can get drawn deeper into the curious sensation of dissolving into a place. For example, by listening intently to the soundscape of, say, a forest, to the tiny details of insects and nuanced gestures of birds, you can experience a letting go of the self, whereby the perceived boundary separating you and the environment begins to disappear.
For me, this blurring happens precisely because I have to focus all my attention on the thing I’m recording, whilst remaining completely still with my microphone poised and headphones on. Just as my presence is trying to disappear, the presence of that thing becomes much more apparent and intense, overwhelming my own sense of being and where the edges lie.
In creating the immersive sensory experience of Spectres, I am attempting to reflect this same sense of intimacy in encountering nature. In enveloping the audience in an environment, my aim is to sensitise the individual, and open them up to the possibilities of connection beyond the human world.
Could you elaborate on how you created the visual element of Spectres and how it works towards the kind of experience you desire for the audience?
For Spectres, I have been experimenting with different ways of visualising my field recordings from Singapore’s natural environments. This has primarily been through using a variety of software to produce and animate spectrograms, that is, a detailed ‘visual imprint’ of sounds. These imprints have been transformed and distorted to embody different ideas about our shifting relationship with nature, during this time of ecological upheaval.
I see the process of working with my recordings as one of drawing out a kind of expressive essence of the creatures from which they originate. The visual forms within Spectres are imbued with a kind of phantasmagoric magnetism, further evoked by the otherworldly soundscape that accompanies them.
In tandem, all the elements seek to draw the audience into a vivid encounter with these entities and dissolve the border between self and other, inside and out, human and non-human.
Chris Lewort is an artist and film-maker based in Brighton, the UK. Zai Tang and Lewort met when they studied their MA in Digital Arts at Camberwell College of Arts, graduating in 2009. Since then, they have collaborated on a number of short films together.