China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), formerly known as “the New Silk Road,” was announced in 2013 as an international trade, energy, and technology superhighway. It originally extended from the ancient Chinese city of Xi’an through Central Asia and the Middle East to maritime ports in Western Europe. China’s infrastructure investments, such as a coal plant in Serbia, a highway in Montenegro, and a port in Greece, are all a grand strategy to shift into an internationally influential role and realize its new global imperial power. However, even simple collaborations, like a road, have resulted in conflicts over land rights or alternative agendas regarding issues such as intelligence gathering. Dr. Min Ye, an international relations professor at Boston University, documented in a 2020 study how the BRI enabled China’s policing of cross-border ethnic communities, including Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs. China gifted CCTV cameras to Kyrgyzstan to help crack down on crime, but the footage remained available to Chinese officials, “posing serious risks to activists, lawyers, and others working on human rights issues in the border area,” according to Dr. Ye.

Surveillance and censorship are not always visible or tangible within art institutions, but they are implicitly acknowledged as social conditions in artworks such as the Silk Road Songbook by artists Millie Chen and Arzu Ozkal. The audiovisual project, on view at OCAT: Xi’an, presents music by a network of local artists in Uzbekistan, Turkey, China, and Iran. Chen and Ozkal have contended with surveillance issues since they set out to document stories and melodies along the ancient (and new) Silk Road in 2017. Contacts in each country expressed a preferred platform for communication, which would frequently pivot from telegrams to Signal to email. Chen notes that when a song choice could be interpreted as protest, any words in question would not be emphasized in correspondences, in order to keep all parties safe. Because of this the Songbook is still in development, missing music from Kashgar and Tehran. COVID-19 has prohibited some recent travel, but two previous visits to the city of Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uyghur region ended with local connections falling through, and the requirement to travel with a tour group in Tehran made accomplishing anything difficult.  

Millie Chen and Arzu Ozkal, Silk Road Songbook (2022), film stills (images courtesy Deniz Bankal, Istanbul, Turkey; Umida Akhmedova, Parkent, Uzbekistan; and Tong Niu, Kangle County, Gansu Province, China)

Despite these obstacles, the Songbook’s polyvocal strategies to share diasporic experiences are a radical reversal of what expressions of resistance and persistence are expected to look like: instead of a crowded street of waving flags, the landscape is the visual anchor; the solitary voice sings in metaphors instead of easy-to-remember chants called from a bullhorn. “I knew I wanted to see the water, especially the Bosphorus,” musician and collaborator Deniz Tasar said of her filming location in Istanbul. Tasar wrote an original song for the project tiled “Yeni ‘Iyi’” or “The New ‘Fine,’” which she performed in a place where Asia and Europe meet in a single frame, connected by a bridge synonymous with the Gezi Park protests while ruins of the Ottoman empire rest under her feet. Her scene appears continuous with the others in the project by horizon lines that meet across screens organized in a circle, participants at each location waiting their turn to serenade. 

Musicians are set deeply in the landscape at each Songbook site; as a result, the faces and spaces feel isolated even when urban. “Let me tell you a fact,” goes a Hua’er folk song that rings through a pasture in China’s Gansu province, “the sun will scorch people to death.” Hua’er tradition dictates that each verse of a song is composed of seven syllables and can run up to six lines, but lyrics are improvised, and often address recent social developments. A pipa plucks sporadically while a second voice joins the first to fill the sky with their concerns. 

Istanbul film clip from Silk Road Songbook (2022) (image courtesy Deniz Bankal)

Chen and Ozkal established the geographical parameters and an aesthetically cohesive vision for the Songbook, but they also granted collaborators enough leeway to truly participate. They did not dictate the music’s style or subject, resulting in a blend of modern and traditional, and often regionally specific melodies and lyrics. Though of Chinese and Turkish descent, respectively, both Chen and Ozkal work for American universities, and recognize the power imbalance that exists between them and their partners in the project. By prioritizing the needs of the musicians, the Songbook resists the contemporary potential to use subjects for some advantage and instead creates a guide for ethical art collaboration. When artists leverage the oppression of others in culture production for personal benefit the result is not only a spectacle, but a flattening of complex relationships, as witnessed in such artworks and acts as Ai Weiwei posing as Alan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian refugee, Christoph Büchel’s “Barca Nostra” (2019), or Renzo Marten’s film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2014).

“An artwork under different conditions does different things,” argues Nato Thompson in his 2013 essay “Ethical Considerations in Public Art.” The audience is one of those conditions. The medium of music arguably lends considerable agency for interpretation and broader accessibility if you consider the musical signifiers of soundtracks or how specific instruments, like a trumpet, are a language. After all, a melody is less likely to be accused of provocation than an image or word. But is that enough to understand the layers of history, language, and contemporary sociopolitical events at work here? If museums reflect national identities, often from a colonizer perspective (which applies to China), is OCAT: Xi’an, one of a number of OCAT museums across China, an ideal or ill-advised venue? Either way, it is difficult to imagine a museum bold enough to show the completed Songbook once the Kashgar component is added. As the list of institutions and individuals blocked from trade in China (i.e., John Cena, NBA, and The Gap) for acknowledging the sovereignty of disputed Chinese territories continues to grow, it seems that any content from Kashgar, regardless of its subject, may encounter challenges. The significance of Silk Road Songbook may amount to more than its music archive and ethical production; it may be a record of institutions too afraid to show it.

Songs of a Futile Journey: Silk Road Songbook Songmingyan continues at OCAT: Xi’an (Xixian Fengdong Cultural Center, Feng River East Road, Xi’an, China) through March 27. The exhibition was curated by Wang Mengmeng.

The Latest

Required Reading

Required Reading

This week: Why does the internet hate Amber Heard? Will Congress recognize the Palestinian Nakba? And other urgent questions.

Kealey Boyd

Kealey Boyd is an art historian and writer based in Denver.