We spoke with Joanne Yang, Arts Manager in the Cultural and Education Section of the British Consulate-General in Chongqing, about the many programs connecting artists from the UK to opportunities in China. 

China Residencies: Tell us a little bit about the British Council’s Musicians in Residence program:

Joanne Yang: This is the third year of our music China Residencies. We mostly focused on independent musicians, sending four artists, Imogen Heap, Gareth Bonello, Jamie Woon and Matthew Bourne in the first year in 2012. For the second round in 2014, they sent 5 artists, Anna Meredith, Arun Ghosh, Oliver Coates, Sam Genders and Sid Peacock

CR: Where in China did these musicians spend time?

JY: There’s a focus on 2nd tier cities. The five British Councils in Wuhan, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing are all responsible for different regions of China, and each of them propose cities in their region that would be interesting places for musicians to spend time in, and where we have ties with local partners in the music scene. It’s a joint project between the PRS for Music Foundation and the British Council, with each office sending in information about possible city candidate. For the first round, the artists went to Hangzhou, Xi’an, Xiamen and Chengdu. On the second round, they went to Changsha, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, and Wuhan. This year, three artists are undertaking residencies: Bella Hardy in Kunming, Kerry Andrew in Zhengzhou, and Mira Calix in Nanjing.

CR: Who do you collaborate with in Chongqing and the Southwest China region?

JY: We’ve worked with Chengdu Arts Theatre in Chengdu, Elephant Art Center as well as TCG Nordica in Kunming, and with Nuts Livehouse, the Men Records, and the Sichuan Opera House here in Chongqing. We’re choosing to work with partners who have similar missions, rich in music resources, and are equally interested in capacity building.

CR: What kinds of artists are you looking to host?

JY: Artists that are still emerging and growing in their careers, and artists that are open to new cultures.

CR: What’s the selection process like?

JY: There are three rounds: first, a committee of music experts nominate candidates for the residencies. We narrow down the group to a long list, then to a short list, and follow up with a round of interviews to make the final selection.

CR: How long are the residencies?

JY: Four to six weeks, so we like to work with musicians who already have a concrete plan of what they would like to work on during their short time here.

CR: Do you require a certain outcome from these residencies?

JY: We strongly encourage some form of outcome, but it can really be anything. New inspirations, new works, new music -- in general we’ve been very happy with the outcomes and nearly everyone has produced something tangible. Gareth [Bonello] completed all the lyrics on site, but returned home to record the final output.

CR: How do you document these residencies?

JY: Some artists keep blogs, like Arun Ghosh in Wuhan, Sid Peacock in Chongqing and Sam Genders in Changsha (who also wrote a guest post for the Guardian on his experience.) Composer Anna Meredith contributed Postcards from China for the BBC Radio 3 program Music Matters. We’re also now creating a five minute photo film, based on images we commissioned from local photographers and original music from the participants. These videos will serve as archive for each of the projects.

CR: Tell us a bit about on of the most interesting projects you’ve facilitated:

JY: Sid Peacock’s works with the Sichuan Opera were fantastic, we took Sid to Sichuan Opera performances every week. It was a very open minded collaboration, Sid taught the local musicians how to improvise and freestyle. The final piece was a true collaboration, creating music together. That’s the kind of projects we’re looking to support, one that changes the perception of how music is played.

Sid performed at the Theater in 501 Space, they only rehearsed twice but played a great improvised show with an erhu, a guzheng, a dizi, a saxaphone, a piano, and drums.  We also held a few jam sessions at night in Ciqikou and held a music salon at Sisyphe Bookstore. The first week, we organized a talk and an improv workshop where we encouraged people to bring their own instruments. But no one did, so Sid asked the audience to take out their phones and led an improvisation session with just phone sounds.

CR: This year is the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. Tell us more about what you have in store:

JY: February through July is the UK cultural season in China, and August through December will be the China season in the UK. There are dozens of activities planned under the UK Now umbrella, a new web portal we launched for the occasion. We’re also starting a series of digital commissions of internet art, as most of our programmes are focused on the new generation.this year’s theme is Next Generation.

CR: How many more years of these musician China Residencies are planned?

JY: We’re confirmed for this year and hope to continue the program at least for several more years.

CR: Are there plans to expand these residency opportunities to other art forms?

JY: We’d like to do more in the performing arts, and this year we have many plans for the visual arts, including a photography exhibition in Chongqing and Wuhan about the Yangtze river. The artist, Yan Wang Preston, spent four years travelling along the river, documenting scenes with a large format camera. He is actually presenting part of the project at the Venice Biennale this year, and had previously completed residencies at Xu Space and at Swatch. We’re also working on a writer’s residency as part of the Bookworm Literary Festival where we’re inviting short story writers and commissioning new pieces from them during their one week stays. It’s almost like a micro residency, taking place in cities where the Bookworm has branches, in Suzhou, Chengdu and Beijing. Then we’ll also hold an online translation competition to translate these new short stories into Chinese and the literary magazine Dajia will publish them. They’re a great journal based in Kunming, they published the first works of Mo Yan, they’re very forward looking.

We’re also inviting writers to the Shanghai and Beijing book fairs who focus on writing for teenage audiences. We’re also thinking for a UK Film Week and creating more capacity building projects -- less showcasing, more in depth collaboration.

Mother River, Y25, 2010-2014 © Yan Wang Preston

CR: What are some other projects the British Council supported in Chongqing?

JY: A Brazilian-British choreographer spent time at Xu Space. He was already in China, but we helped arranged a one week residency which included a workshop and a seminar as well as two performances.

CR: Do you try to be aware of all British artists coming through China?

JY: Some artists get in touch with us directly, and we hear about others through our local partners.

CR: Does the British Council in China ever cooperate with other offices in the region?

JY: Well, China used to be its own region, but now it’s considered part of greater East Asia, along with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand, etc. Sometimes, for higher profile projects, we organize tours like Thomas Heatherwick’s East Asia Tour, and Martin Parr’s Chinese Photobook exhibition.

CR: Are there any professional development programs for arts administrators?

JY: Our Connections Through Culture program brings one person to visit their counterpart for one week, with 1200-1500 pounds budget per exchange. It’s run through an open call and based on joint proposals and has been running for ten years. We’re now in the process of reviewing this program and hope to expand it to a larger scale. We have also developed a summer a Museum Training School program the UK in partnership with the UCL, where we invite professionals and industry practitioners from the UK such as a museum director to talk about the creative industry and arts management to participants recruited from around the world.

CR: Anything else you’d like to add?

JY: Residencies are a great way to engage with both cultures, we’re hoping to help facilitate many more in the future.

This interview was conducted in Chongqing by Kira Simon-Kennedy & Yang Yiran for China Residencies.