Hello guys! Have you ever tried to observe the world through your ears? Today, I would like to introduce a sound collector to you.
Colin Siyuan Chinnery is an artist of mixed Chinese-British heritage. He learned Chinese Kung Fu at the age of eight and went back to the UK for school at the age of twelve. In the 1990s, Chinnery was the singer for the band "Xuewei" in Bejing. Later, he served as a researcher at the British Library, Head of the International Dunhuang Project of the National Library of China, Arts Manager for the British Council in Beijing, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) and Director of ShContemporary art fair in Shanghai.
In previous interviews, Chinnery has said several times that pigeons in Beijing are different to other places, for there is the tradition of attaching whistles to their backs which generate a unique sound while they are flying. From his perspective, every city boasts its own sound properties. It is a sound history created by the people who are living at each moment.
Recording the History of a City Through Sound
Chinnery's family has a rich background in culture. His father John Chinnery (1924-2010) was a British sinologist, and his mother Hsiaoying Chinnery is the daughter of Chen Yuan (also known as Chen Xiying under the pen name) and Ling Shuhua. His grandmother Ling Shuhua, together with Lin Huiyin and Xie Wanying (Bing Xin), are acclaimed as the "Three Talented Women of the Republic of China," and his grandfather Chen Yuan was a major literary opponent to Lu Xun, one of the greatest writers in contemporary Chinese history.
His grandparents once lived in Beijing's Shijia Hutong, which was transformed into a museum in 2012 with funding from The Prince's Charities Foundation. As a descendant of the house's old owner and an artist with a unique perspective, Chinnery was selected as the consultant of the museum. Inspired by his curating experience for Sound and the City, Chinnery put forward the idea of presenting the unique sound culture of old Beijing.
In a room less than five square meters, there are hundreds of different sounds: the yelling of Shaobing hawkers in the early morning, clangs of grinders, the clatter of sewing machines, songs of girls skipping rubber bands and station broadcasting of ticket sellers in trams. Those sounds that have disappeared or are disappearing are parts of Beijing’shistory. Chinnery said: "Both sounds and smells are intuitive memories. And records in sounds can transform an objective history into our own personal histories."
Discovering the World with Our Ears
Constrained by a lack of funds, Chinnery had to stop collecting more sounds three years ago. He explained that many friends were willing to help, but this wasn't a sustainable way to develop the project. However, his idea had developed into a conceptual sound museum, which he has started to develop in earnest this year. His new project can be considered as two parts. Part one is to collect and record sounds of Beijing in 1930s-1990s under different of themes and timelines. This part will be guided by a professional team consisting of sound engineers, IT engineers, and historians, and will be joined in by antique collectors of Beijing and sound recorders from all sectors. The other part is an international contemporary art project called "Embodied Sound", a project open to all people across the world. Chinnery hopes that the public can join in the art project to record sounds around them and to discover the world with their ears.
"The phone was used for listening but now is for taking photos and videos. After sharing those photos and videos in WeChat, people forget them and then only care about those Likes," said Chinnery, "this is the symptom of the times and is also a demonstration of losing our first-hand experience of the world. If we put aside those daily routines and use our ears to interact with the world, we may find something exciting and unexpected."
Time Tunnel of Sound
Years ago in Beijing, the taximeter would play a jingle for the passengers. Every time the music starts, it would take Chinnery back to the beginning of the 21st century. "The memory is easily perceived and my whole body is taken back to the time of that sound." He wondered that if more duplicated sounds could be made, will they arouse other people with the same resonance? Will those sounds bring people into the past time as well? Actually, Chinnery understands that the reproduction of sounds is the weaving of a time tunnel.
Although Frenchman Leon Scott invented the Phonautograph in 1857, it only transcribes sound waves as undulations or other deviations in a line. It indicates that the history of the sound recording is not as long as 200 years. However, sounds as precious carriers have a far-reaching effect on the world. Chinnery said: "I am only able to find sounds dating back to the Republic of China. But these sounds still need the input and feedback of people still alive. If somebody could remember the voice of the child Puyi (the last Emperor of China) in the Forbidden City, he/she must be well over 100 years old by now."
Regarding the question whether there are such sounds that do not need recording, like noises. Chinnery answered without hesitation "No." He stressed that "Sounds cannot exist without sound sources. We can say that a car horn does not need to exist, but can you say that the car does not need to exist?" That is why social engagement projects like Embodied Sound are launched. By taking part in those projects, people can have the consciousness that while the world is changing, there are still more good sounds need to be recorded.