Blog, TC 2018

A day with: Florian Geisseler, Mengying Li, Joel Schoch and Anbang Wang

For the third and last phase of this year’s programme, individual portraits of the current groups are published in order to give a glimpse into the day-to-day collaborations, convey the intensity of the work process and sketch the interplay between the individual and the collective. Today we present a day in the work of Florian Geisseler (film), Mengying Li (photography/graphic design), Joel Schoch (music composition) and Anbang Wang (drama) the result of which will be presented in the final group exhibition 说了/ 没说 : SPOKEN / UNSPOKEN on the 24th November 2018.

On Baptist University’s Kai Tak Campus. I’m waiting on the grass-covered lot below the steep steps leading up to the premises’ main building and overgrown by the roots and branches of an old Banyan. Just a stone’s throw away is an eight-lane highway but up here one can hear the little sparrow-like birds who look like punks with their cocked feather helmets pointing from the head upwards. Sometimes a squirrel rustles through the shrubs and there is a remarkable amount of butterflies as well as a terribly tiny kind of mosquito dwelling in the campus’ lush greenery. Musing over this, I suddenly hear laughter and soon after, five people appear on top of the stairs. They’re walking close to each other and are obviously engaged in some hilarious story told by whom, if not Joel Schoch. Surrounding him are photographer and graphic designer Mengying Li studying in Hangzhou, drama and theatre maker Anbang Wang currently living in Nanjing, film editor Florian Geisseler based in Zurich and Steph Lee who’s a US-born and raised Hong Kong local, TC alumna and this year’s programme assistant (regularly saving everyone’s behinds with equipment advice, material orderings and logistical proficiency). Lee and I join the four collaborators for lunch.

In one of our first conversations, when asked about his composition style, Schoch told me: „I’m rather the wild boar type of guy, you know.“ He likes his musical output to have a raw note, working with as much acoustic equipment as possible and recording as many instruments as he can himself. His youngest acquisition is a funny-looking and even funnier-sounding bass flute. He doesn’t miss a chance to joke about it as if the instrument was an actual person. Film editor Geisseler who shares a passion for music as well as an apartment with Schoch (and the bass flute) is of a more composed and calm but no less cheerful nature. He is someone to carefully choose and consider his words before talking. Together with Wang, they often stay up late watching Wong Kar-wai films (or well… soccer). Wang (whom you would instantly give a main role if you were the said Wong Kar-wai) is a good guy who claims to be a bad one pretending to be a good one. In programme gatherings, you would often see him somewhere in the background leaning against a wall, silently observing and smoking with a frown. If Wang is urged to comment on something it will be brief, faintly poetic and often of staggering sarcasm. Meanwhile, Li watches the exact same Wong Kar-wai movies but does so on her own as she is someone who next to (or because of) dedicated group effort takes personal time seriously. Therefore, her teammates teasingly call her “the grandma”. As to her work, already a short glance at Li’s designs suggests a deep sensitivity for spatial aesthetics and visual elegance.

Li often mentions just how much she appreciates working with the three down-to-earth chaps. She feels that there is a high level of trust in each other’s talent and power of judgment. No one is trying distinguish oneself, nor to lead or dominate. „Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes a bit hard to nail down a concrete concept.“, says Geisseler. „We have a lot of ideas and a great deal of readiness to go ahead and try them.“ This, I notice, is also a strategy to circumnavigate clash. Whenever a discussion seems to take the direction of disagreement there is an instant common understanding that things must be given a try before making any definite decisions. „Somehow—who knows why?— throughout the whole time we have managed not to get personally offended by one another despite being honest.“, mentions Schoch hinting at an important feature of their collaboration that has been going on since phase one in Zurich: sober practicality.

In the afternoon (and after having shared lunch in a gaudy restaurant that is highly frequented by wedding parties), I witness this put into action. While Geisseler and Wang sit on a bench outside to develop a character for the performance part of their current project Masks, Schoch—cross-legged and deeply bent over his laptop on the gallery’s floor—continues composing the installation’s soundtrack by playing around with a bird flute. Projected onto a framed curtain made out of white beauty masks, flicker some of the photographs that Li has taken during the past few days. Everyone seems to know exactly what their job is. As did the previous two, the group’s third work exudes a sinister atmosphere. On the level of content, the foursome always seems to be addressing something existential, even subconscious, as if they wanted to bust their way right into the thick of the human psyche through sound, image and imagination. Moreover, all of their work has so far had a socially concerned, if not alarmed undertone while being free of moralism. As I listen to Geisseler and Wang’s discussion about the role that the latter is going to perform in the final exhibition, I learn more about the topic for their third and (for the time being) last work.

They ponder how to show and embody the impossibility of escaping uniformed mass society’s dictate to create, sculpt and polish one’s own masks of identity. A phenomenon that they portray as being multiplied and exacerbated by the obsessed narcissism that comes along with social media profiles and a globalised selfie culture. Their take on the issue is a dark and disenchanted one with the only escape being depicted in the individual’s inner world and, perhaps, in music or creativity. Wang explains that the character is trying to leave a trace of his life in the lives of others. But that, because he is stuck in society’s rules of uniformity and desperate individualism, he finds himself unable to do so. Only by abandoning the space of the endless masks, which represents turning one’s back to uniformed mass society itself, does he manage to overcome it. The struggle of the character, they say, has no choice but to end in panic, exhaustion and, lastly, withdrawal. To display this fundamental structure-against-agency problem on the level of aesthetics, the group works with interplays between flash and darkness, mask and skin, water and paper, using a variety of frames, layers and dimensions and glueing it all together with sound.

One wouldn’t immediately expect that the people behind this grim art work are four rather light-hearted fellows with an excellent sense of humour. But it’s not light-heartedness that is most characteristic of them (and probably they wouldn’t describe themselves as such for they are no fans of ostentatious happiness) nor is it their pragmatism, nor even their wit. They share another trait that I believe has been crucial for their collaboration. What stands out most is quite the opposite of the „uniformed mass society“ that they condemn, namely an utter and consistent unpretentiousness.