No Sex, No Drugs, But Closer to Rock 'n Roll Than Anything Else

Su Yu-Hsien and the Outsider Sound Artist

Yu Wei

The protagonist in the video Drummer No. 10 is a drummer, or shall we say, was a drummer.

Born in Zuoying, Kaohsiung to a working class background, our protagonist started learning the drums as a youth. Later he earned a living as a musician in a dance hall orchestra, but then quit because he felt a career in music was unrealistic. That was twenty years ago. Today he is listed as a vagrant with Kaohsiung County, receiving his meals from the Social Affairs Bureau, and lives in a shack made of discarded materials under the Renwu interchange along National Highway No. 10.

In the video, we see our drummer causally beating out a rhythm on the drums for the first time since he abandoned his music career some twenty years ago. As no other musicians are present, drumming, which is usually an accompaniment, becomes a solo performance. The stage is no longer in a dance hall, but now temporarily located in the empty space under a highway viaduct, which also serves as our drummer's home, and the performance is backed up by the sound of car engines as they whizz past. This may seem like an unimaginable venue for a musical performance, but really isn't that unfamiliar—in music videos we always see singers wailing out in open fields, guitarists playing solos atop high cliffs and pianos miraculously appearing on a beach.

Although drummer #10's skills have faded somewhat, he is still featured in this music video, has invited a professional jazz drum teacher to interpret his rhythms, and also published sheet music for the drum—an honor usually reserved for master musicians. In its very essence,Drummer No. 10 presents the pure sound of an amateur, yet juxtaposes this sound's naivety with the production values of the professional music industry.

Described above is Su Yu-Hsien and his recently established independent label indi-indirepresenting outsider sound artists. While it leaves out sex and drugs, his project is still closer to rock 'n roll than anything else.

In Su Yu-Hsien's hands the canonical authenticity of the rock aesthetic is directly transformed into the kind of realism we are accustomed to seeing in contemporary visual art. In this process, all sound is inscribed with a performer's plight, as it is directly produced from his or her living environment. This renders sound production as a combining of various soundscapes from the social sphere: the soundscape in Drummer No. 10 is a shack under a viaduct, in Su'sGroup Java it is the deck of a Taiwanese fishing boat manned by Indonesian fishermen, and inPlastic Man it is the site of a recycling operation managed by gleaners of discarded plastic. Su films them as they move about and tap on the items they have collected, simultaneously making plastic into a material for musical instruments, a source of income and an object of artistic interpretation.

Most likely, the first time they used their plastic recyclables expressly to produce sound was for Su Yu-Hsien's video, and while their percussion skills were barely passable compared with drummer #10, this did not dampen their self expression in the least. As complete musical outsiders, they demonstrated the aesthetic distance between amateur and professional in addition to producing expressive sound.

In these three projects entitled Sounds of Nothing, Su Yu-Hsien represents amateur sound practices, promoting those without a voice through his independent label. To a certain extant, this echoes the rise of Taiwan's independent music scene from the late 1990s to today, as well as the current popularity of amateurism in globalized domains. Su Yu-Hsien's ideas about sound, however, have come from ordinary experiences right from the beginning.

The setting is Tainan where the artist currently lives. Su usually brings friends who visit him to a practice space in a store selling musical instruments so they can play music. Even though many of these friends know nothing about music, they still fake it and play along, making the same moves that all professional band members do. There is a heady, joking atmosphere in the practice room during these sessions that only comes with a group of amateurs, and while they go all out to try and make it art, the result is invariably utter carnage.

Willing to risk defending what might have been the most egregious of music scenes, Su Yu-Hsien offers his philosophical perspective:

After two or three hours of practice and listening to our band perform, I realized our band lacked any standards from which it could be judged, yet its scattered harmonies, which had no melody or rhythm to speak of, were nonetheless quite fresh and pure. More importantly, the inexplicable feeling of happiness that this sound produced arose from the positive joy of being powerless. This kind of joy is fleeting, because we cannot imagine having a band over the long run that dreads improving. This also made me think this kind of sound is equivalent to the universality of non-existence (the reason for non-existence is that its universality is built on the fact the we are all nobodies who are not represented) which creates an opportunity to make a difference by presenting oneself. (1)

According to Su Yu-Hsien powerlessness is the artistic language of nobodies and is rarely established in the cultural domain. The difference between producing and receiving sound makes it so outsider art practices create a distinct awareness of where the limits of the cultural domain lie. In his project Sounds of Nothing, Su stands at this limit and observes the outsiders and their admirable powerlessness.

For sure, our art world never lacks outsiders, but traditionally, before they are met with approval, outsider artists successfully make their aesthetic distinctions known with a measure of theatricality, which is possible due to their extraordinary, if not stereotypical talent. More recently over the last ten years, new outsider figures have been rapidly emerging on a wave of subculture fanaticism, and introduced by agents and curatorial mechanisms into the international art world, raising them to the status of cultural icons.

Su Yu-Hsien is mostly concerned with a hoi polloi made up of nobodies lacking family connections,which are different from those outsiders in the two categories above. If the so called voice of the multitude is a typical formulaic metaphor used to describe the object of realism in art, then Su Yu-Hsien insists that this metaphor serve as a ready made, dragging it directly into the contemporary art production line, and this time the masses really will make their voices heard—through CDs, music videos and even tie-in merchandising.

This mass of common folk also includes the artist himself. Su Yu-Hsien speaks for a collectivized we, coolly writing about “my people” with grave sentimentality:

No one I know, and this includes myself, has ever had their land expropriated by the government, been adversely affected by a factory's heavy metal pollution, or, with the exception of having to expose his or her head and ears against a plain white background for a passport photo, faced difficulties due to foreign relations predicaments. Many situations that are worth following have not really affected us. (2)

Although the people of Taiwan regained their voice when martial law ended in 1987, there began a surveying, labeling and assigning of social space to individuals with respect to status, ethnicity, gender identity and political ideology. In this kind of context, the masses, when depicted in art, speak for society's minority fringe. If this phenomenon has formed some aspect of the politics of representation in the Taiwanese art world of today, then Su Yu-Hsien's project tries to reveal a different kind of impoverishment, namely that most of us rarely face real tragedy, but rather dwell to varying degrees in the mediocrity of everyday life. In the art world, this sort of hoi polloi is either habitually absent from the genealogy of the margins, or all too briskly swept into the camp of the marginalized, a move which neglects the disparate perceptions, experiences and technologies of living that each person may offer individually. 

Su Yu-Hsien attempts to rewrite the way in which this hoi polloi has been represented, using practices of amateur artists to supplant the label of minority fringe. His strategy entails using his independent recording label to provide the masses with a means of marching one by one on account of their amateurism into the art world. Su imports the productive power of art into the art world while strategically and with deliberate bias representing amateurs. In Su’s project, these amateurs voice their perceptions and predicaments while undertaking what seem like failed simulations aimed at the art world. (3) Su uses precisely this significance to bring together two discursive trajectories on the politics of sound introduced by this year's Taiwan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale; as Su says, “Social-political significance of sound and social-political movements using sound are the same thing.”

Besides the object of representation, the masses here are also agents actively criticizing the politics of representation. In Su's Sounds of Nothing, the loose professional relationship between the aesthetics of sound and experiences of performers draw us nearer to the various realities in which the masses have been located by the cultural domain. We cannot ignore that sheet music entitled 20 Years in the video Drummer No. 10, for it is not the culmination of twenty years experience drumming, but rather twenty years of silence. For this period of time, sound was no longer drummer #10's mode of expression, and his identity was transformed into 'vagrant' by the bureaucracy. In addition to rhythms, drummer #10's sheet music records a suspended subjectivity and the politics behind sound.

Su Yu-Hsien's Sounds of Nothing indicates that a greater portion of the masses do not regularly experience tragedy in their lives. Actually, being the fringe for the art world's politics of representation, it is likely that their amateur sound will never be listened to closely enough. Because of this, Su Yu-Hsien attempts to make amateurism into a means of resisting the politics of representation, and continually reminds us that silence, deferment, and fatigue are all as important as having a voice. This is the melancholy state of sound, as well as the positions of radical politics that reveals both the sign and bottom line of the contemporary cultural domain. 

1. These extracts are taken from Su Yu-Hsien earliest, currently unpublished, project proposal for this year's Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

2. ibid.

3. Traces of the strategy known as errorism, emphasizing the significance of deliberate failure, could already be seen in the group Wonder Boyz which Su Yu-Hsien started with artists Chiang Chung-Lun and Huang Yen-Ying. It seems Wonder Boyz was the first art group in Taiwan using dance and the variety show format to emphasize errorism. Their creative project deliberately pointed our failure, parodying the phenomenon in the art world. The name for their group was an allusion to the Korean girl band called Wonder Girls who became popular with their hit song Nobody. This song, which was propelled to the status of a global pop-culture phenomenon with the help of the Internet, was parodied in many countries. In the early days after being established, Wonder Boyz seemed to take as its primary mission the imitation of this Korean pop band.