© Lane Shi
© Lane Shi

The potential to be kind

Lane Shi is a multi-disciplinary artist from China operating under the moniker Otay:onii. Following the release of her latest album »夢之駭客 Dream Hacker«, skug had the chance to talk with her about dreams, 1,500 year-old music scores, and modern-day oppression.

Obsessively scouring the internet for music sometimes lets one discover exciting voices. In the case of Chinese artist Otay:onii, this is true in a two-fold sense: Not only did her experimental singing earn her a prize in Global Music Award’s »Best Female Vocalist« category. Otay:onii is also prolific underground musician, raising political questions through the lens of personal experiences. Having studied and lived in the USA, she wrote her latest album »夢之駭客 Dream Hacker« after returning to China in 2020. It’s an intense avant-pop journey that addresses the One-Child policy, the (im-)possibility of genuine connections, and joy in the face of it all. When we talked using Zoom, it was striking how committed Otay:onii was to answer openly. 

skug: First, I want to talk about your album, »夢之駭客 Dream Hacker«. As you its title suggests, dreams seem to be an important subject matter for you. How did this interest of yours develop?

Lane Shi: It all sparked because I had a dream of myself floating on the top of my ceiling. I watched myself lying on the bed. I saw a kid’s hand throwing rocks on the ground. There’s one rock, stocked upon other rocks. I heard a whispery voice, saying that what connects you and me is the overlapping part. In the dream, I felt vividly about this sentence and what it meant. After that, that sense started to faint. So, this album is trying to remember that feeling in musical form. Remembering that we all have overlapping parts.

The first song was very personal. It’s talking about my relationship with my dad. We are very similar. His temper and my temper – we’re alike. Mentally, this helped me to understand him as a person and to accept him. However, he’s a very traditional Chinese parent. He managed to create his own business and provide for his own family. However, through that he destroyed his personality. He’s very paranoid and has a lot of aggression towards the family. We always fight. In 2022, right before I headed back to the US, he told me that he really wanted a boy instead of a girl. So, I was writing this song to tell myself: Don’t give up on yourself!

Dreams really helped me to deviate myself when I felt defeated. To ground me when I went out of sync with myself. I think it’s important to gear myself to believe that, in a way, reality is nothing.

I’m interested in this motive of overlapping. On the one hand, overlaps can be very positive, a shared feeling of closeness. On the other hand, they can be negative. You mentioned a lot of things about your dad you don’t like.

There’s an overlapping part between dreams and reality, as well. Sometimes it’s great to talk to yourself in the dream. When we’re awake, we have so many things we distract ourselves with to avoid. In your dreams you can ask yourself: How much do I actually think about this thing? How much do I actually worry about this? It’s brutally honest a world you can open for yourself. And sometimes you might wake up shocked. But it’s good. I treat it as a therapist.

© Cough In Vain

On your website, you have this section called »Manifesto«. You write there that your art installations follow »a philosophical pursuit to the essence lost in historical saga while finding their juxtapositions in modernity«. Could you elaborate on that?

When I talk about »modernity«, I talk about right now. When we were around four to six, we sensed most of our surroundings and had a lot of magical moments. Gradually with age you lose the ability to sense the world like that. I like the spirit of a child. 

I speak in opposition to Confucius, who believed people are born kind. I don’t believe people are born kind. I believe people are born with the potential to be kind. What I was trying to say is: I always follow my instincts and believes – in the spirit of a child. And dreams help me with this.

To paraphrase: What you’re interested in is to re-gain an access to this position towards the world that a child has? This general openness?

Yes, general openness and the potential to be kind. Not believing that by default you are born kind. Cause I believe we’re born dead. Dead. And then we live.

In 2020, you did an art installation, »Who’s not broken?«. I’m wondering how the possibility of being broken relates to this child-like approach to the world.

Everybody had a lot of things gone wrong in their life. Some you might want to speak about, some you don’t. The installation was a tribute to the things people don’t want to talk about, touch upon.

I have been living in the US for 14 years now, seen the media gearing towards certain narratives. It’s a power structure that always tends to tell a story that they believe to be the truth and the only truth. I wondered, what is truth? And why is history constantly being tempered and re-rendered? Currently, a certain type of history runs the risk of being lost forever. Because it’s only going to be told through the mainstream. It depends on us to elongate this history that has been abandoned, but it requires strength to do that, and perhaps, the loss of lives.

Some of my installations can be visceral to go through. That’s something I always try to tackle as an artist. People might describe it as naïve art. Because in the end, it’s not art that’s sellable. It’s not art that’s safe. It’s not art that cheers people up. It’s without results, it’s something a child will do, without calculation of the future.

© Cough In Vain

You spoke of a certain political dimension of your art. On Facebook, you recently started talking about the Taiwanese Peace Day, the anniversary of the killing of thousands of civilians by the Kuomintang-led government in the February 28 Massacre. What’s your relationship with that?

My song »Subhuman Sings« was selected by a Taiwanese artist to be included in a memorial activity for this massacre that happened in 1947. The origin of my song is very different. But they share the same wish and hope to break out of oppression. The artist didn’t ask me, he just put it there. But I was ok with it. Because I support such a voice.

Taiwan has a really complicated history, concerning the aboriginals, the latecomer from China, as well as the war between Japan and the aboriginals. All of that is intertwined. And it’s very complicated. But somehow everybody claims that this land belongs to them. I feel like this is unjust – and terrifying for the people living there, trying to establish their own history and move forward. 

But if you read through the comments under the Facebook post, many Taiwanese people were angry about this event. And they said: »Why don’t you talk about aboriginals and the conflict between the aboriginals and the latecomers from China? Why don’t you pick some aboriginal artist to be presented?« I think those things were spoken for a certain reason. And I respect that quite a lot.

Your work has been chosen to be presented by someone else. It’s not something you can control – or might want to control.

I’m not Taiwanese. I do not share the same kind of trajectory. But being Chinese, I have experienced the same kind of overarching things, like, there’s no access to many websites, visa hellscape because of the global trade laws, cheap labor, pollution from industrial facilities, being a trash dump for other countries until 2021. The Chinese people have been under this power non-stop. And now they are maybe getting used to it. The visa problem had, for me personally, an unrepairable psychological impact. For wherever I go, I need to pay visa fees, arrange interviews and bear a chance of rejection. I wish people could talk about this.

A few visas over some years of traveling © Lane Shi

I really appreciate Chinese culture. What’s interesting to me is that China only became China, united as a nation, in 1949. It’s a young country. Before that, it was all tribes, trying to take over land and people. I really wish people could touch upon that as well. In America, all of this is simplified, due to a political interest in this narrative they constructed. You see the impact put upon Chinese people living there. That’s also the reason why I left New York when the pandemic hit. It was quite a time…

I can imagine. Well, probably I can’t imagine.

(laughs) Well, there was also my mother’s sickness. I felt it would be good to go back and to be with them.

You mentioned in another interview that your mum has cirrhosis.

Yeah, it’s irreversible. What we’re really trying to do is to elongate her time. The last stroll… is going to come. So far, my mum’s good. All we can do is to keep her happy. It was a tough time.

However, I’m glad I went back. I’m an only child, born in the 1990s. The One-child policy affected my generation. There is a certain kind of isolation. In retrospect, I have a lot of friends who I can call brothers and sisters, siblings from another world. And that’s alright. It’s a coping mechanism that this generation had to develop.

However, my parents really wanted another child, I can tell. And if they had another child… maybe they would be happier.

It sounds like during the last couple of years you really were confronted with your heritage. I’m wondering how that relates to your artistic perspective. Usually, you sing in English or Mandarin. But I’ve noticed that, often, in the visuals that accompany your music, you use archaic scripts. Please correct me: In your recent video for »W.C. 公共廁所«, you used the Seal script. Is that correct?

Yes, it’s called »zhuànshū«. It’s from the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Qín Shǐhuáng, the emperor who built the Great Wall, commissioned one of his fellas to unite the writing system of his territory at the time. I really love the font because I think it contains a lot of wisdom. It’s still Traditional Chinese. Right now, everybody writes in Simplified Chinese. But when looking at old scripts, you can decipher how the people using it viewed the universe. I found that inspiring.

© Cough In Vain

For Western readers, do you maybe have an example of a sign where there’s a shift in meaning between this font and modern Simplified Chinese?

Let’s take: »love«, »ài«. In Simplified Chinese it’s »爱«, in Traditional its »愛«. You see the middle part, »心«? That’s »xīn«, and it means »heart«. In Simplified Chinese, that part is gone. There are a lot of things to be said about taking out your heart from love. (laughs)

With different fonts, people had different kinds of philosophies elongated into their writing. You speak German, right? Every language contains cultural references. There’s a social construction behind it.

I completely agree.

Recently, I researched Gǔqín music scores. The Gǔqín, a plucked seven-string instrument, is the only purely Chinese instrument. Gǔzhēng (plucked zither) and Xiāo (bamboo flute) are all based on western instruments that came into China later and were combined with local instruments. For the Gǔqín, instead of writing scores, they drew pictures of the environments it was played in. The Gǔqín is an instrument to connect with the universe, to connect with your surroundings. I found that very inspiring.

Could you elaborate on how it relates to your own work?

I found the Gǔqín scores very comforting. They don’t rely on strict notation. You don’t play what the composers wrote. There are certain notes on display. But it’s the things around it that are important. Not the note itself. The way you play it, the mentality and attitude, with which you play it, is important. Gǔqín scores really express that intention. People will bring their instrument, sit somewhere, listen to the surroundings, and start to play their instrument. Really jamming with the mountains, with the trees, with the wind, with the water, and birds, and animals, together. Not just humans, masterfully skilled in their instruments, doing a show. There’s no show. (chuckles)

I did a music piece deciphering my thoughts which will be coming out in a compilation album at Bié Records, along with other musicians such as Yùn Dù, Howie Lee, Gooooose, 33 EMYBW, Yoann Pisterman and more.

In your recent art installation, »Unwrap«, as well as in your albums, the body frequently appears. Sometimes it’s distorted, non-human bodies. I’m wondering how this interest of yours came to be.

I’m a vocalist. I am working with the body as an instrument. The voice is an instrument. Whether people want to admit it or not. The voice is a bio-instrument that you bring to talk, to construct a conversation. You can sing, you can construct metaphorical conversations. It’s also a texture.

So, extending this idea of bio-instruments, I have thought of many bodily instruments. Let me touch a little bit upon »Unwrap«: There are a total of five performers. For example, one of the characters has a huge butt. But the butt is constructed with a harp. So, when he scratched the butt, the harp was played.

Oh… (chuckles)

With humor, I tried to shine a spotlight on uncomfortable and anxiety triggering qualities. Each character has such a quality. My premise is that through your shadow, you break it. Through your imperfections, you break it. Through your weakness, you break it. The stage moved, through construction plates. They created shadows that overlapped with each other. And when they overlap, the performers would cross the stage to another session.

There seems to be a certain similarity to »夢之駭客 Dream Hacker« in this idea of overlapping of negative qualities. The »shadow« as something to break through and regain some humanity.

Once an idea, a belief, a concept is established, you live to experiment with it. You live to know if it’s true or not. You’re either in a process of proving it to be true or you’re in a process of proving it to be wrong. It’s not going to disappear after I release an album. Like I said: We’re born dead, and we’ll only get better from there.

Link: https://www.laneshiotayonii.com/

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