Watching artist Daniel Beban at work is like watching a chef cook with invisible ingredients.
I meet him at the Pyramid Club in Wellington in a room filled with eclectic – and eccentric – items.
Metal cooking bowls are being rhythmically struck, creating an eerie kind of music. The bowls are ordinary household objects, bought at a market place in Beijing, but it is what Beban chooses to do with them that turns them into art.
“I strung up 15 bowls from the ceiling, chopped plastic bottles upside down to make funnels and stuffed their necks with material then filled with water to create regulated drips.”
“ Technically it’s a “lo-fi - no-fi” acoustic thing, like a clock ticking but at different tempos.”
Beban is a musician, sound artist, broadcaster, producer, curator and sound engineer and is a pivotal figure in Wellington’s creative music industry. In 2009 he formed the Sound and Light Exploration Society, an organisation that produces sound art and music in the capital, and which also created the Pyramid Club.
Beban could be described as a sinophile, he is passionate about China, its people and its music. He was the recipient of the 2016 Red Gate Residency for artists in Beijing and at the Pyramid Club he’s sharing highlights and sound recording excerpts of the underground music scene and the more surreal moments of his time in China’s centre of power.
The residency in China was not Beban's first visit. In 2002 he travelled across the breadth of China with Pyramid co-founder and fellow musician Jonny Marks who was studying throat singing in Mongolia.
“I spent 3 months in very remote parts of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu provinces, and Beijing. On this trip I recorded many musicians and made many field recordings of China’s varied and rich sound worlds. These recordings were used in several radiophonic pieces.”
He was invited to the Chengdu Nu Art Festival in 2015, and toured his band Orchestra of Spheres across the country. The group performed concerts in Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, Dali, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Beijing, which is where he became aware of the Red Gate residency.
“I visited my friend Erica Sklenars at the Red Gate residency, collaborating on several events and exploring the area. I realised that I would really like to have the opportunity to develop my work there.”
The artist’s residency is based in an old factory in a village called Fei Jia Cun. Around 15 years ago a lot of artists moved out of the centre of the city and started artist-run spaces in unused industrial sites. The Red Gate space is an artist’s compound in what Beban describes as "a no-man’s land area of northeast Beijing, halfway from the centre to the airport."
“It’s a shanty town in a way – the little town where I stayed was full of migrants from rural China, little noodle houses, restaurants, people making ends meet. When I was there the roads were just full of mud, totally lively, buzzing place, little electric motorbikes, always people around, super busy. One of my ideas was to get [local] people’s voices. To interact in an artistic way with the people that live around there, interviewing people and combining with photography and making an installation.
“People are accepting of what you’re doing but they didn’t really want to share with a foreign person. Actually no one really cared; they didn’t really give a shit.”
During the residency he collaborated with local experimental musicians, sound artists and visual artists including; Zhu Wenbo, Li Jiahong, Li Weisi, Yan Jun, Vavabond, A Ke and others. They formed a band called [ ] or, “Nothing.” Performances occurred at a number of venues and galleries in Beijing, including places like Fruity Shop, SOS and I-Project Gallery as well as at Red Gate open studios. Daniel says the most fun was the impromptu performances in random subway underpasses in Beijing’s city centre.
“One of the cool things about this residency was having the time to explore things, so I bought a camera. I was walking around with another [resident artist] trying to find an abandoned space, a steel factory. Once we got there it had been walled off with these big blue steel barriers. I liked the look of the blue and was taking a shot and I heard someone yelling. A security guy, police person – yelling “No, no, no!” So we walked off but for the next hour there was another security person following us – every time we pulled out our cameras we got told “No, no, no!”
“Eventually we lost the guy but suddenly there was a spectacular light display and weird sound – a man on a [hovertrax] scooter zipped past and I remember thinking – this is surreal, like a scene out of Bladerunner ...”
Future plans? Beban intends to process his rich audio material recorded behind the red gates of his residency in Beijing to turn these collaborations into more playful works of art, so "watch/listen to this space ...!"