Yang Yeung is an independent curator and art writer. She founded the non-profit art organization soundpocket in 2008 to support artists working with sound and listening. She is also a member of the international research network Institute for Public Art and the Hong Kong-based art critics collective Art Appraisal Club. She is currently Lecturer at the General Education Foundation Programme of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She participated in the Walking Sonic Commons workshop in Venice, June 2017 organised by Finnish Society for Acoustic Ecology and the University of the Arts Helsinki.
In hindsight, I realized what made me feel safe this morning walking into the small lanes. Sunlight helped, but it was more the proximity of someone’s home, windows that would open at any minute as the sun rose higher. I have seen that act of opening the window a few times in the four days I have been here – a gesture out of practical purpose obviously, but also a ritual, speaking in a symbolic language: every day is a new day coming through the window. It is also social – to greet each other with one’s individuated day, to be there for those who may need it walking by, living the place.The sense of safety for me – a Hong Kong born-and-raised used to higher and higher-rises communicating apathy much more than care to pedestrians on the ground – came from trusting that someone would always be at the distance of my call.
There, between the lanes, I found the worker who had been sweeping since I don’t know when. He was much younger than the other two I encountered on the banks on my way toward the east. His moves were swifter, as if to energize himself for the hardship ahead. But they were as calm as those of his peers at the banks, which was why I was surprised by his sudden sigh just a little after I pressed the recording button five feet away. But only once, for a small pause, and he quickly returned to the rhythm.
I catch him at the moment when he just finishes one section of the street. He gathers the pile of dust and cigarette butts and dumps it into the trolley. A light moment where he takes a break to greet passers-by, with a morning voice that is energizing those around him. He begins sweeping again, slowly moving from the waterfront into a small alley, going deeper and deeper. I placed the recorder on the bank – its right microphone listening to the sea and the drone of motorboats bulging out in space, and the left microphone, to the lane. I could still hear his sweeping I thought, when the motorboats become too dominant that I lose the last trace of him. The boats win. Even the sea, however hard it tries, couldn’t brave the drone.
He has the same trolley and gear. His natural built is stronger than the previous sweeper. I first follow him from behind as he begins pushing the trolley, which is a little wobbly. I stay about six feet behind him. As he stops, I hold the recorder in the same direction as last time, right microphone facing the sea and the left one towards his sweeping. He goes up the bridge, touching the broom onto the marble steps, in more delicate movements. Unhurried strokes, one by one, as if sweeping the night of desolation away, with ease, care, and professionalism. I know he would return for the trolley. I imagine what it might be like to listen to him from the shop front. So, I move over and place the recorder at the fringe of the low shop window, still quiet and closed. He comes closer and closer. SWISH, SWISH, SWISH. Hearing the playback, the touch sounds much coarser than when he was on the bridge and when I was hearing it with my bare ears. Soon, the sweeping is overlaid, then drowned by other sounds arising – tolling bells from the opposite bank, drone from motorboats yet again. When this kind of productive labor is not seen as anything subordinate to the excessively exalted, there is a better chance we hear well of each other.
He is much younger. I hear him sigh after his much swifter strokes to sweep the fallen flower petals to the side. I wonder why. I place the recorder on top of an electricity box of some sort. A few people pass by, to whom he would say buon giorno. Birds are calling intensely near the courtyard of one house. I am quite ashamed not recognizing the kind of bird they are from their calling, except for the passing seagulls. Soon he finds me. Does he think I am loitering, or stalking him even? He points at the recorder and probably wants to know if it is mine and what I am doing. I nod and smile and point up to the sky. I gesture to lie. He nods, mumbles, and returns to sweeping.
I cannot help but think of the numerous aunties and uncles who clean the streets for us in Hong Kong – the webs of dense urban life entangled in human and vehicular traffic. There are also elders who pick cardboards every day to exchange some coins. With trolleys loaded with a pile much taller and bulkier than their bodies bent twice, they pushed their finds slowly through the city to their buyers. Hong Kong is not Venice in many ways. But the question of how we could live a more flourishing life is relevant both ways: if we don’t exalt particular occupations too much and subordinate others at their expense, if we could discard discriminatory thinking, would we have done better? Could something begin from ourselves so that the reality of human difference would not be misled to justify unequal social stratification?
At the fountain in Arsenale. I was thinking of how walking bodies needed to pause, and the fountain giving them a reason to, the flowing tap occasionally interrupted by those wanting relief from the heat and scorching sun. Pigeons came to drink, but it was impossible to pick up what it sounded like. She stops when she has had enough, like a beaver never picks up more than one branch to build a home for herself. How had we begun forgetting our need?
Frugality came to mind earlier in this Venice sojourn. The first day I arrived I went straight from the airport to the Venice Biennale in Arsenale. Taking a rest next to a public water fountain, just to massage my ears a bit, I watched pigeons, two or three of them, sipping water. They were in a state of calm quite different from how they usually were when trying to find food in the human world. Small beaks, little mouthfuls. The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi from the China of two thousand three-hundred years ago, in his discussion on “free and easy wandering” (in Mandarin Chinese, xiao yao; in Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong, siu1 jiu4) conjured the reality and metaphor of a mole that would never drink more than a belly-full, the beaver that would never take more branches than she needs for a shelter. Could frugality be sonically construed? Can frugality as a virtue be heard without didacticism?
I want to pay attention to this unfamiliar sound – pigeons pricking at a plastic-bag-full of garbage. It is roughly a quarter past six in the morning. The sky is overcast except for a layer of pastel delights coloring the far eastern end of the horizon, where the sun must have been trying to climb through. I gingerly walk towards the pigeons and put the recorder one foot away from the back. The three or four of them stop and turn slightly away. A few others fly off. Then I slowly walk ten steps away. One pigeon returns, and then another. They start pricking again, not seeming to have gotten anything mouthy or substantial out of the bag. The drone of huge boats comes along, but the pricking of their sharp, fast, beaks are still discreetly audible, just as the flapping of wings.
And then there were the other morning pigeons on another day pricking into garbage in a plastic bag – a recurrent sight. It was two days after I saw a sea gull catching a cuttlefish from the canal three feet away from me, almost shooting its dying ink on my clothes. The pigeons were feeding like the sea gulls, but in a different way. Would their beaks evolve to accommodate us or to defend themselves against us? I listened to myself and them, but not for long, for the thick drone of motorboats came drowning their efforts (and perhaps ours, too) of survival. I went to see the arts, so much of it that is gathering in this city year after year. In the beginning, I brought a question of how art may sound like (not specifically art with sound as material, but sound and listening as concept), but gradually, after the art, my question becomes how art makes its own listening space.
So many texts. So much to read. At last, a corner, is the story of Mr K and his grandmother. It’s so intimate and personal that I feel the urge to read the words out loud, as if telling someone else the story. This is the recording of my voice in the gallery. Some art makes you quiet; some makes you want to whisper or speak. Others make you want to shout, even scream.
In the Korean pavilion was one voice telling the history of political oppression in Korea. I was digesting the load of texts visualized and spatialized in the gallery when I found a small corner of an intimate fictional story of a family the artist was telling. I decided to read some of the written wall texts randomly to be with the moment. Li Mingwei’s When Beauty Visits and Geoffrey Farmer at the Canadian national pavilion approached the sensuality of water in their own ways, the former more to listen to, the latter more to be touched and challenged. Neither is lesser.
My walk in Li Ming-wei’s garden, specifically noticing the way water flows, how goldfish reach for food.
What can be made of all of the above in conversation with the current ecology and history of the commons? (Wall 2014) I am not sure yet, but in the way that ordinary lives keep coming back as essential for understanding ourselves, each other, and the world, for being a realm in which we flourish in a life well lived (despite not being well-off), Venice offers much more than a nativism endangered by mass, packaged tourism. Sensuous experiences that conjured as everyday spontaneity prepare us for deliberating with each other the common good based on compelling moral grounds. Far, but always already close.
The keys are in my hand. The first solid door opens from the apartment into the stairwell. It was 6am. I don’t want to move the peace but I know I will have to. The rubber soles of my sneakers hardly make any sound as I walk down the marble steps. The second solid door unlocks with a light touch of my thumb. CLUCK. Solid and short. Echoes also ended earlier in the recording than in the memory just formed in my mind, which says, “What an announcement filling all the way to the two ends of the corridor.” I blow some air out of my mouth – for having no talent for whistling, I try. I also snap my thumb and middle finger. Then, feeling ready, I move on to the last door, the front door, into which the morning of Venice will come. KLACK. I leave the house behind, only to be immediately greeted by the wheeled luggage of two men chatting and walking by.
Wall, Derek 2014. “Commons Ecology”. The Commons in History, ed. Derek Wall. Cambridge: MIT Press.
All photos by Yang Yeung.