IN MY EARS 入耳 #21：The Sound of Sinofuturism
Selected track: Jason Hou - “Peking 2045”
Starting with today’s column, we’re going to begin wading into the deep, weird, wide world of Wetware, Douban’s upcoming festival positioned at the intersection between music, technology, and science fiction. Wetware refers to a concept, originally popularized by cyberpunk writers like William Gibson, in which the human brain (the “wet”) directly connects with computers and code (the “ware”). Though the idea of wetware has until now been mostly restricted to fiction, it’s on a fast track to becoming reality: entrepreneurial titan Elon Musk launched a “neural lace” (another cyberpunk synonym for wetware) company called Neuralink just two weeks ago, entering a race among Silicon Valley startups trying to crack the same code.
Today, I want to talk about a separate but semi-related concept: Sinofuturism. This term has been popularized by UK artist Lawrence Lek, who used it as the title of a 2016 video essay that addresses topics like artificial intelligence, post-humanism, and the relationship between humans and machines in the context of 21st-century China, which Lek suggests is at the vanguard of a future dominated by self-aware software. “Because the physical components of high technology are literally made in China,” the robot narrator of Sinofuturism explains, “it makes no sense to produce visions of the future. It’s already here.” Elsewhere, Sinofuturism is described as “a science fiction that already exists.”
You can read more about Lek and his Sinofuturism video in an article I recently wrote for Time Out Beijing. Here I want to talk a bit about how the idea of Sinofuturism crosses over into the creative sphere, and specifically how it’s expressed in music.
Duck Fight Goose CLVB ZVKVNFT layout
This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while. In an article I wrote last year for Sixth Tone I described Duck Fight Goose’s 2016 album CLVB ZVKVNFT as “a work of Sinofuturism”, because it’s packaged like a video game and comes with a map, an instruction manual, and a cyberpunk narrative populated by AI cyborgs and nanotech invaders. The story behind CLVB ZVKVNFT — written by Duck Fight Goose’s singer, Han Han — contains multiple references to wetware, including humans becoming machine, machines becoming human, and other strange nodes in between. The album itself even sounds like the disintegration of the human (in the rare instances where a non-digital voice or musical instrument can be heard) into the mechanized, quantized sound world of the the machine.
Jason Hou - Sheng
Another piece of sonic Sinofuturism I’ve recently enjoyed is “Peking 2045 (北平2045)”, my favorite track on Jason Hou’s 2017 album Sheng 生. The album’s liner notes say that this song “depicts a cyber-punk futuristic city of Beijing.” When interviewing Hou for a recent article I wrote for Bandcamp about his label Do Hits, I asked him to elaborate on this. He replied:
“I’m a big fan of cyberpunk aesthetics. I got the inspiration from Ray Kurzweil’s idea that man and machine will merge and reach immortality in 2045 and the ‘2045 Initiative’ by Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov, who is working towards that goal with leading scientists. I always wonder what my home city will look like in 2045. […] Mixing Chinese sounds with different forms of modern music is like constructing the cyberpunk world with music. We’re eager to explore our past and inherit our culture, yet new technology keeps shaping our lives rapidly. We’re witnessing the starting of the cyberpunk world, you can feel it especially in China. I want my music to reflect the world I live in.”
Lawrence Lek, who works primarily as a visual artist, has also applied his concept of Sinofuturism to music. One of his recent works is The Nøtel, which sets Hyperdub label founder Kode9’s 2015 album Nothing in a 3D-rendered hotel in a future version of China. No humans seem to live in this virtual world; only drones and holograms. An “advertisement” created by Lek explains that “Nøtel Cørpøratiøn is a state-owned hospitality enterprise based in Shanghai” and that its flagship Nøtel chain is adapted from the concept of “the singularity in service to the people.”
(Side note: CLVB ZVKVNFT is also set in future-Shanghai. With its LED-flashing Pudong skyline and electronics-oriented cultural underground, Shanghai is probably the city in China closest to classical Gibsonian cyberpunk.)
I’ll talk more about Lek and Kode9’s Nøtel collaboration and how Sinofuturism (and wetware) connect to music in an upcoming column. Until then, pencil May 18-21 at Tango/School Bar into your calendar, and watch Douban Music for more info on the Wetare festival.
Associated Douban Pages:
Lawrence Lek - “Sinofuturism”:
Jason Hou - “生 (Sheng)”:
Duck Fight Goose:
Kode9 - “Nothing”:
Lawrence Lek - “Nøtel Cørpøratiøn Advertisement”:
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.