Tone Glow 023.5: Li Yilei

An interview with Li Yilei for a special midweek issue

Li Yilei

Li Yilei is a London-based conceptual artist who works in the fields of sound art and performance art. Yilei’s works find them inquiring about power dynamics and the politics of sound and listening. Their latest album, Unabled Form, came out on LTR Records. Joshua Minsoo Kim and Yilei conversed via email about Yilei’s latest album, their childhood, being an artist with autism, and making art spaces more inclusive.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: What was your childhood like? Can you share for me a positive memory that comes to mind when reflecting on your adolescence? And why do you think that’s something that stands out for you?

Li Yilei: The most positive memory of my adolescence was that I had many experiences that other children would not have had. My childhood was very simple. I grew up with my mother alone and we were constantly moving. I was always changing schools, sometimes twice a year. In a conventional sense, I wouldn’t recall it as a good/positive period of time—there were a lot of hard times—though I can’t remember much anymore. However, I am glad that it all happened and became valuable lessons in my life later on.

How was your childhood different from others? And can you share any of the lessons you feel you learned from the hard times you went through?

It was different in a social and domestic sense, I did not experience the same, supposedly healthy socialisation that many children would have gone through, with little to no sense of stability and attachment to people or places. It’s taught me that people have many expectations on you that you don’t have to live up to. Also, as an undiagnosed child, I learned the hard way about what you’re supposed to and not supposed to do, say and behave. It has helped me a lot with assimilating and interacting with people, although it is a long process.

I think one of the most upsetting things that can happen to someone is for them to feel misunderstood by someone they love, or by a community of people they belong to (or want to belong to). It’s been really hard whenever that happens to me, especially from someone in my family—a lot of times I feel like there’s just a huge disconnect between the way my parents and I think. What’s something that you feel is often misunderstood about yourself?

I’ve had close friends from back home express that I was weird, too much to handle, insincere, and cut me off. Most recently, I was told by someone that I should stop “acting cool,” when I expressed that I had a phobia of phone calls due to my autism. My family members sometimes cannot comprehend the way I act in daily life, and I cannot tell the difference when someone is expressing romantic or platonic interests, which has landed me in sticky situations that are now funny in retrospect.

I have been misunderstood in every relationship I’ve ever had, even until today with loved ones. It is due to social masking, a common trait amongst AFABs with Asperger’s. As far as I could remember, I lived with anxiety, physically and mentally, due to the act of masking my behaviours, intentions, interests, speech, interactions, and so on. I was always trying to fit in, act normal, training how to smile, how to look into people’s eyes, how to laugh, and recognise jokes, taking mental notes of human behaviours. I felt like a deaf person in a nightclub, pretending to dance to the music by copying everyone else.

I got so good at it that a lot of the time, people around me (including my family), perceived me as someone who’s always living up to their expectations, an A-type personality overachiever. In the end, I had lost myself in all the learned behaviour. I had been hiding my true intentions and saying “yes” to things that I dislike. Mental illness is a taboo in China, I believe in most Asian countries as well. The queer community is, too, very underrepresented.  I have made peace with myself to accept my differences, stay true to myself, and not be scared of taking up spaces, as well as voicing out for those who share the same frustration as myself. It is continuous progress to learn to stop masking and allow myself to have an autistic meltdown and not be afraid to let others know of my discomfort.

Can you name someone in your life who has been there for you, who has been understanding? What sort of things do they do that make you feel loved and happy and seen.

There are few people that I would say have helped me a lot on my journey of self-exploration. I can’t narrow it down to one particular person because sometimes even a stranger could give me such feelings. Those who inspired me are the people who gave me correct guidance. Meaning that it sometimes can be harsh for one to accept because those guidances are anti-ego, but I appreciate those people, and encountering those situations has enlightened me. Not being seen or feeling love is due to my own rejection of receiving such emotions. Those people and encounters didn’t give me anything that I didn’t already have, but pointed out what I’ve already obtained internally. Even these interview questions are very valuable questions that I should ask myself and look back with.

Thank you so much for sharing all that. I’m really happy that you feel like you’re at a place now where you can be comfortable with who you are, that’s definitely not easy. Can you recall a time for me when a stranger made you feel understood? There have been interactions I’ve had with strangers that have made me feel understood too so I can definitely relate. I always remember having conversations with random people while in college and just enjoying the bond I’d have with them, even if it was completely ephemeral.

There have been a few instances like that and most of them have to do with brief virtual encounters where people who’ve heard my music reach out and express how much they identify with it. Especially during the pandemic, I’ve received more messages about the isolation, pain and anxieties that others can relate to through my music. It is how I am expressing myself and connecting with people, through non-verbal methods.

You said that there have been moments that are funny in retrospect with regards to interpreting platonic and romantic love—do you mind sharing a particular memory? It’s okay if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Haha, all I can say is that I would think twice now if someone asked if I wanted to pop by to “listen to some records.”

Art spaces—be they music venues or galleries or whatever else—can always do more to be more inclusive. What would you personally like to see happen such that spaces can be more inclusive for those who aren’t cisgender heterosexual men, for people of color, for those with autism or sensory processing disorders?

For existing organisations, they could always expand their programming to a less Euro-centric and more diverse, less stereotypical direction. They can be more appropriate in terms of curation as well—I have seen a lot of events/exhibitions trying to diversify their content but end up appropriating different cultures. Most artistic and cultural venues do not have special opening times that are meant for those who need more space and less of a crowd. To my knowledge, only the science museum here has such a provision. More trigger warnings would be helpful too, I have experienced distressing situations in art spaces that have been hard to get out of, like gigs, plays or installations.

Creating a safe space where job opportunities and opportunities to showcase works is very important. Which is what I have been doing with my partner who’s a moving image and performance artist from Singapore. I founded Non Dual collective in early 2017, with the aims of promoting BAME, LGBTQ+ artists in London and to form a local community. We are now planning a relaunch and will come back to London in 2021, working full time on creating a safe and sustainable artistic platform for minorities. Because as someone who has a disability when it comes to social activities such as taking phone calls and meeting people, as well as anxiety sensory processing disorders, it is impossible to find jobs that are suitable. Providing a safe and comfortable work space for the community is very crucial, and requires a lot of understanding and empathy.

I’m really happy that you’re working to create such a space for people. Can you share a positive memory that you have of your work with Non Dual collective? And with that, can you also share the specific things you keep in mind to ensure it is a safe space? How does that differ from what you’ve seen in other spaces?

Every time we put on a show it is a challenge and we are always trying to step out of our comfort zone, to help talented artists and performers reach a larger audience. It is always a rewarding experience to have our audiences give positive feedback.

Some things that we always try to keep in mind have been what I have experienced myself as an artist and in working with different spaces. This includes gender pronouns, consent, and copyright of documentation. It is also important to constantly check ourselves and bounce our ideas off other POCs, as we do not speak for the entire community. Where I’m based, in London, most organisations are relatively careful with the treatment of audiences and artists. That said, I have experienced racism, misgendering, sexism and ableism in the industry. This is something we want to keep working on to create the most ideal and comfortable space.

What sort of stuff do you have planned for Non Dual’s relaunch in 2021?

This pandemic has exposed the volatility of our incomes and we want to provide solutions to that. One of the ways is through a virtual shop we will be launching that will support independent makers and creators, providing a sustainable platform for them to sell their creations.

We are also looking at securing a physical location and bringing a more consistent stream of exciting programs. If you are reading this and want to work with us on any of these initiatives, do reach out to us!

Li Yilei and their mother; 2000.

You’ve said in a previous interview that your mother was a Buddhist nun, and that Buddhism and meditation have helped you overcome certain struggles that you experience. What exactly does that look like?

With Buddhism, I see it more like a teaching or a philosophy of which one could apply practically. The teaching of the concept of emptiness is the one that influenced me the most. The idea of emptiness is that the phenomena we normally see don’t exist inherently; what we see normally are mere names and labels, nothing but our own perception. It is a simple concept when we glance at it, but it helps with many different situations, such as death, toxic attachment, discontentment, and so forth. In general, I don’t like the construct of religion or the dogmatic hierarchical system that humans formed later on, but I do think it is very beneficial for people to occasionally look back to themselves and seek internal peace/happiness/realisations in this busy life time.

Do you feel like it’s proving helpful right now during COVID and everything else right now? And also, do you mind sharing an internal realisation that you had recently?

Personally, the pandemic did not have a huge impact on my spiritual journey. There have been a lot of horrible things happening, from disease to natural disasters and unjust deaths tied to institutional and political structures. It is a good opportunity for us to contemplate the idea of a common destiny, to stop thinking about individual journeys or gains. For most who are less in touch with their spirituality, it is a chance to think about our lives, climate and race, and to improve our surroundings, first beginning with ourselves.

An internal realisation I’ve had recently is about resistance. Trying not to resist whatever situation you’ve been placed in, or not to have too much resistance to things that are happening outside of your control.

On Sound Negotiation, you have the composition “Words” which saw you “chanting out 100 words that describe emotions.” It’s hard to make out what you’re saying—what were some of the things you were saying? What inspired you to do a piece like this?

I have a habit of Googling and researching emotions that I don’t understand. I started this because I printed out a “feelings chart” as a point of reference, and found myself reciting all the different descriptors of emotions.

When these emotionally-charged words are said in a monotone manner, it gives me an objective way of perceiving these emotions. I hoped for the audience to also have an objective consideration of what “terrified” means, sans the actual feeling of it.

Your album Compilation 2017-2019 features recordings taken in different countries and events. What was your favorite country to visit and why? What stood out about it?

My favourite country would have to be Morocco. I had many endearing encounters there with people that did not share a common language with myself. With little to no language, we talked about things outside of the personal—astronomy, religion, history and geography.

The notes for Compilation 2017-2019 state that there were different performances and acts that accompanied the recordings—can you share what some of those were? 

There was this track called “Deep Throat,” a collaboration between myself and a performance artist. It began with free improvisational vocal dubbing sessions, alongside an aerial performer. There are tracks which are collages from the conversations of strangers I recorded on buses, and of people on the streets hawking their wares, shouting out rhythmically.

I was really into your album from earlier this year, Unabled Form. Did you have any particular goals driving that album? And what was the process like for making its songs?

My research and experiments with text, sound and the environment led to this album. I didn’t mean for it to be a full-length album, but it became the vehicle that best carried what I was exploring. It all started with the phrase ‘Unabled Form’. It was the title of a poem that I was writing at the time, and I was considering translating those writings into sound fragments. By the time I had produced enough demos, I came across the label LTR Records, and started to work with them on the making of this album.

My writing process always starts with a story, or a piece of text I wrote. From there, I will start to ‘translate’ them into sonic language.

This album could come across as overly ambitious for someone who listens to this album for the first time. Much like my person, the album’s style and genre are difficult to grasp, being a combination of both quiet ambience and abrasive noise, masculine and feminine qualities and it can appear contradictory. That said, this album was a very raw expression of my work.

What does it look like for you to translate text into sound? How do you go about doing that?

I don’t think too much of how the ‘translation’ process goes, it sort of just happens. It is more about capturing a suggestion, an implication, an atmosphere or simply a feeling. I will sculpt the sound until I think it is the most accurate to the general vibe of the object that I am ‘translating’ from.

Can you give an example of a story or text that you had written that led to one of the pieces on the album?

“A Field of Social Tension” was a special one for me because it was, to me, the most raw piece I’ve ever made. Be it the recording process or the final outcome. 

It all started from: “I made myself deaf, to listen.” 

Very simple.

If you could give advice to younger artists, particularly those who are from the same underrepresented groups as you, what would it be?

I’m still figuring a lot of things out and I don’t think I could give much useful advice, so I can only speak from my own experiences and the lessons I have learned and found helpful:

  • Be assertive. Don’t be afraid to speak up, voice out and take up spaces.

  • Sometimes saying ‘no’ is more beneficial for both yourself and others than saying ‘yes’.

  • However, do try to say ‘yes’ first when it comes to challenges for your own work or personal wellbeing. It is nice to give new challenges a try and step out of your comfort zone instead of rejecting changes.

  • Try not to think too much about the outcome.

  • Be clear of where you are heading and enjoy the scenery alone the journey.

  • Always, always help the underrepresented, the unheard, the discriminated groups to take up spaces and help them be heard.

Thank you for your time, do you have any final things you’d like to say?

Thank you for this interview! It is so different from what I have done before, it is nice to share my story, and thank you for giving me this opportunity.

Tone Glow Mix

Every now and then, artists will provide a mix personally made for Tone Glow. Mixes will always be available for streaming and download.

Li Yilei’s mix is a collection of experimental music from Chinese artists. The tracklist is as follows:

1. Alice Hui-Sheng Chang - There she is, standing and walking on her own
2. D!O!D!O!D! / Li Jianhong + Huangjin - A dark knife
3. Bai Tian - Wet
4. Li Yilei - Yes, where, what?
5. Dead J aka Shao Yanpeng - Untitled
6. Me:Mo - Pro.a
7. Li Yilei - Moans of 23 birch trees
8. Li Chin Sung aka Dickson Dee - Somewhere
9. Yan Jun - Its more than enough
10. Li Yilei - Secondary self (Unreleased)
11. Li Jianhong - Sod
12. Dancing Stone - Two (Nelson Hui: flute + Ling Lee: voice)

Download: FLAC | MP3
Stream: YouTube
Still from Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1986)

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