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Culinary as a Political Statement - Interview with Sijia Chen

A journey into the artistic world of Sijia Chen, where cultural heritage, cuisine, and identity converge, revealing new narratives that transcend borders and inspire profound conversations. Immerse yourself in this exclusive interview to witness the captivating power of her work and the transformative journey it unfolds.

2023-06-20

Joana Alarcão

Can you give us a brief overview of your practice? 

I am a media artist, architect, and pilot originally from Wuhan and currently based in London. I specialized in creating immersive spatial experiences through sound capture and multisensory performances, reconstructing sound and visual systems, and exploring the interactive relationship between people, sound, and dynamic spaces through motion and lighting. I graduated from Pathway 3 of the UCL Bartlett Interactive Architecture Lab and am currently active as a digital artist in various interdisciplinary fields such as theatre, animation, film, architecture, and aviation.


My individual and collaborative works have been exhibited and screened at prestigious venues and events including Tate Britain in the UK, Ars Electronica in Austria, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Media Architecture Biennale, Safehouse12 London, Migratory birds 300 at the Aranya Theater Festival, Canal Dream in London, the Flamenco Dance Museum in Spain, British Got Talent, and the UNESCO Paris Conference etc.


In our previous conversation, we talked at length about your project, Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles. What are the particularities of this project and the cultural importance of the final performance?

Wuhan Noodles is an immersive audiovisual performance that generates a multi-sensory experience that premiered at Safehouse London. With relationships between space and human characters, the work establishes the unseen energy through the culinary process. 

Also, the project reframed the audience’s perception of Wuhan, from their preconceived only notions as the origin of the pedantic. 


In Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles I aim to express the unseen energy or ‘Chi’ of cities through performance. Having studied as an architect, I am particularly interested in this energy of spaces, a characteristic which for cities I believe can be discovered through food. Light and sound operate together in the work to replicate the ‘Chi’ of cities through a multi-sensory experience of food.

 

I believe that the resonance of sound allows people to become connected to the inner ‘Chi’ of objects, and thus focusing on the sound of food seeks to expose the unseen ‘Chi’ of its origin cities. By using contact microphones I captured the sounds of the Chef’s gestures and cooking and visualised them through analysis of their various sonic qualities. The light in Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles is a result of this analysis. The dancer’s manipulation of light is an attempt to visualise these sonic qualities of cooking. Through this control of light and sound within the environment, I aim to express the central ‘Chi’ of food.

 

By expressing this ‘Chi’ of food I aim to reframe the audience’s perception of my hometown Wuhan, allowing them to experience a positive side to the city rather than their negative preconceived notions of it as the origin of the pandemic.


"Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles" is the offline version of my Son et Culinaire project that I created during the pandemic.

The idea behind this project is to capture the atmosphere of a city through its food and reflect the connection between food and people's personalities. To achieve this, I organized a live performance that was a multisensory experience. Before the performance, I prepared and served 100 portions of hot dry noodles on-site. This allowed the audience to witness the noodle-making process and experience the aroma and taste of the food. I also encouraged the audience to ask questions, triggering their associations with food and their hometowns. This led to a lot of memories and imaginations from artists from countries like Argentina, the UK, and Turkey, as they recalled street food from their childhood.


During the subsequent performance, I was fortunate to discover a window at the back of the venue, along with exposed wooden beams and weathered walls, reminiscent of the street-side food stalls from my childhood. I positioned the chef, played by Yiwen Li, behind the window to make the noodles, while the dancers used rings and light tubes to control the immersive sound and light spaces.


Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles by Sijia Chen. Image courtesy of Sijia Chen

Choosing Peckham Safehouse as the exhibition venue added a layer of authenticity and ruggedness to the overall experience. The contrast between the dilapidated environment and the vibrant sensory stimulation created by the performance immersed the audience in an environment where the boundaries between art and reality blurred. It's worth noting that I originally planned to use the projection equipment used in Son et Culinaire but couldn't achieve the visual effects due to the daylight hours during London's summer. Instead, we experimented with the light tubes used to illuminate the exhibition and found interesting results. The dancers, including the renowned Beijing Dance Academy's sword dance performer Chen Yining (although I was unaware of this fact at the time), manipulated the light and shadows with their synchronized gestures, creating a visually spectacular effect inspired by UVA at Studio 180. The collaboration between me and dancer Chen Yining, along with the use of the Bluetooth motion capture device Genkiinstruments, added dynamic and interactive elements to the exhibition. The dancers' movements not only controlled the spatialization and reverberation of the sound landscape but also manipulated the lighting and shadows, blurring the boundaries between physical space and artistic performance.


The sound design of the piece is also noteworthy. While Son et Culinaire generated real-time sounds, the sound design for Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles was created by Bitlo, a sound designer and DJ who previously worked at London's Ministry of Sound. By using mixing effects, four different sounds were transformed into ten channels, accompanied by layered background ambient sounds, adding a sense of storytelling and enriching the layers of the piece.


The interactive aspect of the work with the audience was also more thematic and layered. Prior to the performance, we prepared and distributed 100 portions of hot dry noodles, initiating conversations and evoking associations related to food, impressions of their hometowns, and interviews about their own impressions of Wuhan. During the exhibition, we provided the audience with disposable paper cups, creating a sense of everyone holding bowls of noodles on the streets of Wuhan. We also filled the exhibition space with the aroma of sesame sauce, creating a multisensory immersive experience. After the exhibition, we once again asked the audience about their feelings during the performance and prompted them to speculate on the perception of Wuhan. This provided more food for thought and garnered further responses.


Chinese cuisine is renowned worldwide for its diverse flavours and regional specialities. How do you think the culinary scene in China reflects the country's cultural values and traditions? How do you see these ideas rooted in the fabric of your practice?

In global culture, we can observe the connection between food, cities, and people. Behind each type of food, there are numerous links to urban supply chains, climate, geography, history, and human characteristics. Wuhan's hot dry noodles, for example, originated from Wuhan, a bustling port city at the center of China's Yangtze River Basin, where workers were busy with cargo transportation and didn't have time to sit down for a proper meal. This led to the creation of "hot dry noodles," which involve pouring hot water over the noodles, adding various seasonings and sesame sauce, and being able to complete it within ten seconds. It can be eaten while running on the street and held in a paper bowl. It is economical, convenient, and high in energy, and when eating, everyone squats on the steps of the dock, creating a great social atmosphere. Workers from all over the country gather together, holding their noodles, chatting, and sharing stories. This also reflects the inclusiveness and straightforwardness of Wuhan as a city, as well as the bold and generous nature of its people. Personally, I want to convey the openness and generosity of the people in Wuhan, who are surrounded by the geographical environment of the Yangtze River Basin and the diverse cultures of people from all over the country, including their sense of brotherhood and loyalty.


I believe that the energy of this food and its underlying story can be embodied through the process of cooking. The sounds produced during the food preparation process not only capture the texture of the food but also reflect the actions of the person preparing it. The texture of the food is closely related to the urban environment, climate, cultural history, and other factors, and by magnifying the details, it can evoke many associations. The actions of the food preparer are also influenced by their personality, emotions, and the atmosphere of the space. I simplify the process of making hot dry noodles into five steps: boiling the noodles, shaking off the excess water to prevent scalding the customer, chopping the green onions, adding the sauce, and mixing the noodles. Each step reveals the dynamic interaction and atmosphere between the noodles, the person, and the space. It also showcases the rising steam in the air, the chef's graceful movements when shaking off the excess water using a bamboo container, and the magnificent energy transformation as the noodles follow the chef's steps. Even the process of chopping the onions involves the chef swiftly wielding a Chinese-style cleaver and creating a crisp sound as the onions are cut into segments. I capture the intensity and acceleration of these food materials and human actions and analyze the connections between them.


Soundscape has always been an element that contains a wealth of information. Behind the tone of a sound lies the story of its material. I use contact microphones to capture real-time sounds and arrange them in a 3D soundscape using speakers in the space. The audience will feel as if they are being placed on a chopping board, immersed in water being stirred, or tossed in the air. The dancer holds a Genki instrument sensor connected to Ableton via Bluetooth, controlling the volume of the sound (vertical direction of the sound field), the soundtrack (horizontal direction of the sound field), and the reverberation (distance and overall size of the sound field) with different gestures through four channels. Additionally, the single-directional light tube in the dancer's hand redefines the directionality of the space. Due to the visibility in the darkness, when the chef stirs the noodles in the water, the dancer's light tube controls a fluorescent cuboid space that sways in the two layers of darkness, simultaneously affecting the reverberation of the sound, immersing the audience in the world of noodles in water. The dancer starts from the second floor and dances down to the first floor, creating a sense of walking through the city while holding a bowl of noodles, and engaging in immersive interaction with all the audience members.


Son et culinaire by Sijia Chen. Image courtesy of Sijia Chen

You mentioned that you don't call yourself, or your art, political. Instead, you want to define the space and create an atmosphere where the audience can absorb a specific vibe that is connected with your own view of your childhood. Why did you choose to delve into this type of work? And how do you define that atmosphere?

This is a very profound topic. As someone who is nostalgic and desires to make friends with people from different countries who still possess innocence, I hope that people can transcend the overwhelming "politics" and the biased language guided by each country's media. I hope they can return to a pure perspective and embrace the different lifestyles and the shared sense of nostalgia for their hometowns and childhoods. It may sound commonplace and childish, but I hope for less hatred and strive to build a utopia of freedom and a gentle atmosphere without the boundaries of "nation" through art. By seeking commonalities in human nature, we can pursue mutual understanding and reduce political biases implanted by the media due to a lack of understanding. Just like the American soldiers in World War II who, after landing in Normandy, discovered that the German soldiers on the other side were not the fierce and evil creatures they had imagined, but young people forced onto the battlefield, just like themselves. In this era of information, I hope that everyone has more opportunities to approach the truth and make independent judgments, rather than being guided by any media or organization.

What I create is a scene reminiscent of the 1990s to 2000s when every country in the world had its own street food culture. In every old town in a city, there would be a small shop selling a local specialty that evokes childhood memories for everyone. The aunties or uncles in these shops may have different personalities, but they are all warm-hearted and diligently prepare the snacks they loved in their childhood. Perhaps with the development of urbanization and commercialization, these small shops will disappear, but when the sounds of food preparation and the aroma of the food permeate the air, I hope they can take us all back to our childhoods. Those innocent and familiar streets from the past, may not be modern but carry a warm feeling. And by seeing others rediscover their own childhoods, they are willing to temporarily set aside the conflicts of the adult world and peacefully contemplate the many power struggles imposed upon them.


How does your personal experience as a person born in Wuhan, China influence your practice? What Western misconceptions are you trying to change about your hometown? 

Overall, I want to have a gentle conversation with the audience in London, using food and associations with space to convey my feelings and introduce the true vibe of Wuhan and its people. With the arrival of the pandemic, suddenly everyone became aware of my hometown, and the question "Where are you from in China?" became an embarrassing topic. How I wish to shout out and tell everyone that my hometown is not defined solely by that one event, and I hope they won't immediately label me as an individual pursuing dreams. However, imposing these shouts and explanations onto those who harbor hatred towards Wuhan and blame it for the European pandemic is unreasonable. In the midst of these complex and intense emotions—confusion, grievance, anger, and helplessness—I ultimately transform them into a gentle display of food and sound and light performances. We don't discuss politics, we don't discuss Wuhan and the pandemic; we only discuss food and hometowns, art and experiences, and individual emotions. Through my work, I hope to transform scenes of confrontation into gentle dialogues and use food to evoke empathy and communication about the atmosphere of one's hometown.

As for changing others' perceptions, I find it contradictory and believe it to be an overly ambitious decision. As someone with Chinese culture, we tend to "do more" rather than "say more," and it is more commendable in our values to remain low-key and let others discover our strengths. Generally, when encountering misunderstandings from others, our approach is to let them be. However, since coming to the UK to study, I've realized the need to present myself more to the outside world, to speak up and promote myself in order to have more opportunities for people to see the truth. Because everyone's perspective is limited, and energy is finite. Even if gold shines, others may not have the time and opportunity to see it, let alone hide it, remaining misunderstood, and waiting for others to understand oneself, which is too introverted of a behavior.


Son et culinaire by Sijia Chen. Image courtesy of Sijia Chen.

As a young person from China, I greatly appreciate the independence and freedom of the West, as well as the attitude of respecting individual lives, including the ability for each person to think independently. However, with the arrival of the pandemic, I found that the media has implanted too much preconceived hatred, and the so-called "democracy," "equality," and "truth" are also guided by hidden forces to incite others to hate and prejudiced. Even Western media mentioning "China" or "Wuhan" carries an unfriendly tone and demeanor. However, in my view, every country has its good and trustworthy enterprises and individuals, as well as some bad ones; there is no such thing as a complete "heaven" or "hell." The media exaggerates and interprets too many things, even affecting the attractiveness of Western "freedom and equality," making me prefer to create an environment where I can simply be "myself." Even many of the internal "protests" and "demonstrations" in the UK, in my opinion, are a result of the decayed policies of the ruling class, leading to such exaggerated "verbal violence," while observing the oppressed class being "ignored" and "denied facts." This includes witnessing the lingering influence of preconceptions in places that were once thought to be completely free from racial discrimination, which is astonishing after 200 years. However, as reserved Chinese people, most people are unwilling to engage in conflicts and put themselves in the line of fire.


That's why I hope to make my voice heard and tell people that Wuhan, apart from sensitive issues, has many wonderful aspects such as universities, lakes, trade, and many talented individuals who have no connection to those events. They should be given a chance to remove the labels. Or rather, we should remove the labels of race and background for every individual and view them based on their abilities and pursuits.



At the end of our conversation, I asked you about the whys of your practice. Were you able to critically analyze them? Can you share some of them? 

Through my artistic practice, my main goal is to escape from constrained and limited perspectives, challenge existing rigid lifestyles and customs, and communicate with different people on an equal footing. Additionally, I hope to have more profound connections with others on a spiritual level and encourage sincere and critical ways of viewing the world.

Engaging in new media art allows me to explore various technologies and critically select the ways in which I utilize them, avoiding the traps of consumerism and showcasing technology for its own sake.


What do you hope your art will look like in the future? What do you see when you envision your future self? 

I hope to be braver in expressing my true thoughts and create sincere and possibly thought-provoking art, while still maintaining a friendly approach as an artist. I don't have a specific vision for the future; I simply feel that I don't want to confine myself to a particular artistic framework or conceptual framework. I'm willing to continue exploring various fields such as theater, film, painting, architecture, and even enriching my knowledge in the realm of technology. I aim to create more experimental works and expand my creative horizons.


If you are interested in accessing a critical review of Sijia Chen's work, you can find it here.


See more of Chen's work here.



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Sijia Chen Dinsky is a new media artist, architect, and pilot originally from Wuhan and currently based in London. She specialize in creating immersive spatial experiences through sound capture and multisensory performances, reconstructing sound and visual systems, and exploring the interactive relationship between people, sound, and dynamic spaces through motion and lighting. Sijiachendinsky graduated from Pathway 3 of the UCL Bartlett Interactive Architecture Lab and is currently active as a digital artist in various interdisciplinary fields such as theater, animation, film, architecture, and aviation.

Her individual and collaborative works have been exhibited and screened at prestigious venues and events including Tate Britain in the UK, Ars Electronica in Austria, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Media Architecture Biennale, Safehouse12 London, Birdman 300 at the Anaya Theater Festival, Canal Dream in London, the Flamenco Dance Museum in Spain, British Got Talent, and the UNESCO Paris Conference.


Team


Director & Interactive Design: Siijia Chen

Art Director: Chaney Diao

Dancer: Tingning Wen, Yining Chen

Chef Dancer: Fei Han, Erin Guan, Yiwen Li

Graphic Sketches:  Jiaona Hu, Sijia Chen, Tianyun Li

Film storyboard : Jiacun Li, Tianyun Li

Sound Design: Milo (DJ Bitlo), Ziheng Qian

Film editing: MaxHeinlein

Special thanks: Weichen Tang, Maria Jaranko, Panpan Wang, Ran Yan, Wenxuan Chen

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