On the eve of Good Friday, punks and salon types gathered in the deconsecrated chapel of the Singapore Art Museum. After passing through the curtained doors, previously a portal into the refracted red lasers of V, Li Hui's light installation, this congregation now found a Spanish woman, in a white slip, spinning and sliding around in a bathtub.
The 8-minute long video of her futile rotations looped as part of The Unifiedfield's Videoperformance 01 and Guggenheim. Once the videos found their end, the woman in the bathtub, Marta Moreno Muñoz, took to the stage sitting with the electronic musician Marc Chia. Co-founders of The Unifiedfield, a “never-for-profit” art space and collective, the duo – Spanish and Singaporean, female and androgynous – were united in black. After the obligatory artists' talk, Chia enlisted the small audience's help in folding the chairs and unfolded a table. His performance as One Man Nation was beginning.
Two weeks prior, Chia's short film with the director Vincent Moon had been released online. With the ghost of this film, shot over two rainy days, hanging over this night, it was Chia's turn to go through his random and rather mesmerising motions. Standing hunched over his equipment, he introduced lulling layers of found sounds and samples. Unlike sound artists who mostly work with computers, Chia has boiled down his set-up to the monome, a 64-button, open-source device, a MIDI controller, and the software Ableton Live. “The computer screen blocks communication in so many ways – with yourself and the people behind it,” Chia states.
His remote controlling built to a direct confrontation with sound. Somewhere in the increasingly harsher mix were bells and a trumpet, then screams. As the saturation collapsed in waves, Chia picked up the table and banged it down, moving forwards and outwards into the audience. He made a circle, breathing and muttering, as if being exorcised. When he returned to complete the piece, the walls of the former cathedral shivered with the summoned noise, particularly in their sudden absence. If Li Hui's exhibition focused on the magical nature of light, this married sound and vision in their respective, sheer intensity.
Chia's performance also left more than a few bemused, as did the haste with which the spell was broken. Approached as he was packing, a slightly frazzled Chia went, “I don’t know why we’re still standing around, let’s go for a beer or something.”
In the land of the blind
Chia's work began in 2003 as a punk rocker named Marcos Destructos. He has owned exactly one guitar in his life, a Fender he bought while studying in Anglo-Chinese School (Barker). He subsequently scrapped away its branding and repainted its body. “I am just concious of the fact that if you are a musician and have branding on stage, you tend to be a free advert for the brand you actually paid for,” he says.
Chia's incorporation of autonomous and boundless sounds was remarked upon by June Yap, the curator, in The Wire. In 2010, she wrote that Chia's One Man Nation “deploys the dissonance found in everyday sounds and those produced by gamelan, gong and Tibetan bowls...[making] this project a compelling study of tradition, culture and the contemporary, not merely as simplified tropes, but as fluid categories”.
X' Ho, the author/music-maker/pop-culture-observer, believes Chia “deserves attention for his artistic beliefs, sacrifice for security and bold spirit of both musical as well as real-life adventure”. Ho, who almost single-handedly re-started homegrown music with the band Transformer, calls Chia “a real maverick – he lives his art with little regard for artificial boundaries.”
In 2004, while Chia was serving his “Obligatory National Service” (as underlined in his CV), he released Requiem for a Government, a four-song cassette as One Man Nation. Recorded in an “undisclosed location”, these protest songs are surprisingly catchy. While they do feature the word “freedom” a lot, they are also surprisingly self-aware (“From the French Revolution communism justicism [sic] / Will there ever be a perfect government (No Way!)”, 'Cynicism Killed The Idealist'), and showcase Chia's excellent screaming voice.
In 2005, Chia began to make the move from his solitary guitar to electronics. From touring around Southeast Asia, Chia started to gig in Brussels, Paris, and even an Irish pub in Wittenberg, Germany. This outwards expansion is reflected in his twin releases of 2007: One Man Nation's Rained and It Rained, Bullets It Rained and Voluntary Human Extinction by Elekore, a collaboration with the artist C-drík Fermont and noise guitarist Mindfuckingboy.
Rained... is the more complex of the two. While Elekore's 'Raped In Ways No Other Man Can', for one, rages against the history of capitalism with screamo and a seeming drum and bass iteration of the Amen break, Rained... moves past the digital punk template entirely. Overcoming its emo-tinged title and artwork, the 31-minute album borrows the brevity of punk and packs within it expansive soundscapes, sadly and sinisterly evoking war. Voice has largely been reduced to self-referential snippets like “Can you talk about / The resistance”, from 'Lies Lie Between the Lines', and the beats clang and crash. Its forceful ambience is a format improvised with live on 2012's One Man Nation & Machinefabriek and fully realised on Suspended In A Vortex... from 2010.
That same year, Chia tried to move into a collapsed cave. From The Unifiedfield's base in a Yogyakarta house, where Chia embarked on The Future Sounds of Folk, an international project to explore the post-folk of Indonesia, Singapore, and The Netherlands, Chia relocated The Unifiedfield to Granada, Spain. “The idea for the cave was because we wanted to be based in the hills, Granada's most marginalised area where the gypsies lived nearby. At the same time for its absolute beauty. It all comes down to 'what can we do with so little money?'”
On the third day after they moved in, City Hall came with a letter of eviction for The Unifiedfield and 54 other cave-dwellers, not recognising their title deeds. Chia then moved from the city's periphery to its centre, into an old house.
Today, the obvious remnants of Chia's punk past are in his image. The tattoos, shaved head (now grown out), and piercings (since removed) inevitably become part of the performance. But it is in his musical movement towards inarticulate expression – or what he calls “gibberish without meaning” – that true rage is released. His records, available from Ujikaji and Straits Records, delay anger for flash bombs of primal fury even as they are unafraid to reveal vulnerability. The further tensions of his practice – melding acoustics with electronics, bringing vestiges of visceral punk into the colder realm of sound art, being a One Man Nation sometimes reliant on state funding – put forth obfuscation and being nebulous as forms of escape.
“The man who hasn’t signed anything, who has left no picture / Who was not there, who said nothing: / How can they catch him?” one poem in Bertolt Brecht's Ten Poems From a Reader for Those who Live in Cities goes. Another advices, “Do not say loudly that the world is bad / Say it softly”.
A few weeks after we meet, before Against Me!'s Tom Gabel made the news, Chia sends me an email:
I am currently going through a conceptual/initial phase of a new life project ... There isn't a project title, but the premise is pretty simple, I'm going to start living, or have already been living as a transgenderist, that's a bit of the iceberg for now, let me know if it is relevant to your article.
Chia is next in town, still as One Man Nation, with the composer Pierre Bastien in November at The Arts House, in a showcase supported by the Asia-Europe Foundation and Institut Français. After the Singapore Art Museum gig, this is what went down over two beers:
You mentioned that you felt really far away from the audience at the gig. Is that why you usually enter the crowd? Some thought the performance had ended.
With my work I've always tried to create a collective experience with everyone that’s there. I cannot determine the experience for them. I was hoping people would come as close as possible to the table so we would be like one collective body experiencing the process, but that's just an ideal. The room was also very big, and most audiences like to distance themselves if possible to remain purely spectators.
I was quite surprised you didn’t tell your friends you were back in town performing.
I don’t have many friends in Singapore. Even when I used to play at punk shows, I never felt I belonged to the scene because it seemed to be very Malay-dominated. Based on language alone, I felt somewhat excluded. But it’s understandable. Maybe because they feel discriminated against for a long time, they've got their own comfort zone and don’t want too many Chinese people there?
Let’s break your performance name down, starting with ‘Nation’. What made you decide to migrate from Singapore?
It’s a very strange thing, my father is Hakka you see, and when I was just in Taipei two weeks ago, I discovered that the Hakka people were from two regions in China originally. Now they’re all over the world. But even in Taiwan, they’re known as guests. Because they’ve been known as people who go everywhere – no homeland, no roots, something like that [laughs]. Maybe it runs in the blood.
I’ve wanted to leave since probably secondary school. I never felt I belonged here, or anywhere for that matter, in any way. I never wanted to go in line with the single option way of living. Educationally, your whole life is planned out for you, whether you are a gifted child or not. You are judged from then, or maybe even long before.
It’s a very determined way of life and I think it was through a lot of punk music and ideas that I was really into back then that got me thinking as to whether this was really the way, whether this was really the only way. I don’t think everybody is satisfied with this one-track life. You see so much dissatisfaction – why does it still have to be accepted? Why do we not try a different approach to the way we want to live?
So has Spain turned out to be a better way?
They have large parts of their society that've been trying to progress in a sort of genuine, social way towards human liberation. Trying to rethink how society should be and not just this industrialised way of functioning. So to me, in many ways, it was a very progressive place for a very long time.
Isn’t ‘was’ the key word? The unemployment rate’s over 20%.
Exactly. It’s a failure of the system. It’s a failure of a lot of things. We have seen in the last few decades the global seduction by neo-liberal economics, and much of what the working or middle classes have fought for in Europe in terms of a more social system, where the populace is not viewed as cogs in a machine, is very quickly being erased.
The fortunate thing there is many people see it now. To see so many people that are so genuinely unhappy and are really trying to change things at the foundation level – everything – I want to be there. To me it’s one of the last places where there is still a very strong resistance. There is still a way of having a say in the larger picture.
Having said that, I don't exactly believe in solutions to the larger picture but it’s hard for me to just stand by and watch this race to the bottom. And anyway the idea of a nation-state is just an imaginary man-made line to carve out, expand, and display power. It has little meaning to me.
Let’s talk about the ‘man’ in One Man Nation. Does the concept of gender ever play a part in your work, whether it be sound art or electronic?
A lot of the sound art I come into contact that tries to give the impression of being highbrow and experimental is boring to me. As much as it is a sonic experience, I find it holds too much of the baggage of a patriarchal lineage. It’s very male, this whole sound art thing. With exceptions, it’s very much like – you all just fucking sit down and listen to me while I blow you away with the most powerful sounds I can find on my laptop. It’s got no real softness to it.
So with the computer as one of my main musical instruments, I’m trying to instill the sense of accident and uncertainty back into an object that is supposed to epitomise stability. I’m searching for something more carthatic, something less about forcing others to listen to ego-infused sonic bombs but inviting them to just be together in a certain moment.
So is your new transgender project part of that reaction against hyper-masculinity? Do you see it as performance art?
It’s an absolute upheaval, of everything, of the question of gender, the relation of gender to identity, of identity to the environment, of my thoughts and processes in relation to all this. It is fair if you want to say that many people are absolutely comfortable with the body they were given, but there also exists a large majority of people who do not relate to any side of the gender binary, it is not 1 or 0 for them, and it's neither anything in between.
Basically I’m living now as a transgender person, gender undefined. If you want to approach it as performance art, then yes you can call it a performance piece, but without a duration, without a defined space, as living art somewhat.
When you perform, where do you go? You seem completely alone when you reach that state, though you do enter the crowd.
I think I’m trying to reach a state of trance. And I've managed to find it sometimes through the process of me playing this music, improvising with myself. I’m able to experience this dissolution where…how do I explain dissolution?
Well what goes through your mind?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Are you even aware of the audience then? That they’re watching you and perhaps even joining in?
When you dissolve you don’t desire anything anymore. You don’t exist anymore. Nothing matters. It’s a state of pure nothingness, pure emptiness. The sound that comes out is an urge, a collateral product. It escapes and goes. Sometimes it’s good.
Words Dan Koh
Images Marta Moreno Muñoz
Music One Man Nation
Video Vincent Moon
Special thanks to Azharuddin Amin, David Ee, and Iliyas Ong.