Wellington photographer John Lake has been shooting his own self-directed documentary art projects for 15 years, using both photography and video to explore particular social groups and the community activities they participate in. The longest-running example is his exhaustive Up The Punks project, in which he has been building an archive of the underground punk scene in Wellington through the decades, comprising photos, recordings, interviews, and various other artefacts of interest.
Recently Lake was afforded the opportunity to take the project international via a three-month residency in Beijing, where he immersed himself in China’s punk subculture despite not having any contacts of grasp of the language. The photographer chats to D-Photo about the similarities and differences in documenting the radical scenes at either end of the Asia-Pacific region:
D-Photo: How did your trip to China come about?
John Lake: The trip to China was funded through a partnership between Asia New Zealand and Wellington City Council. They offer an exchange programme between Beijing and Wellington for one artist from each country once a year. I submitted a proposal that sought to extend the Up The Punks project into a cross-cultural context. To take the same DIY archive methodology and apply it to a different social environment. I was surprised that the proposal was selected.
What sort of goals did you set out to achieve with the Beijing-based project?
I was interested in using the three months in Beijing to document my impressions of the local punk scene, making connections and interacting with the local punks as opposed to simply being a ‘fly on the wall’ observer. The Up The Punks project is very much based around participant observation and I wanted to see how far I could take things in Beijing with no initial connections and no mandarin.
What sort of research and preparation needed to be put in before you left for China?
I read a few books about Beijing punk from the 1990s and watched some more recent documentaries such as 2008’s Beijing Punk by Shaun Jefford, which is cool but I didn’t really see the point in going over there and repeating the same script i.e; ‘Wow, isn’t it crazy that there’s punk in China’. Anyone who’s familiar with underground music knows there’s been active punk scenes across Asia for over a decade now.
What was your first impression of China in general, and the local punk scene in particular, when you first arrived – was it as you expected?
First impressions were, of course, all the clichés about numbers of people, pollution, scale of the city, etc. The biggest shock to the system I suppose is the size of China’s new wealth explosion. In New Zealand I don’t think we have a very clear idea in public consciousness about their new money society as our news media tends to focus a lot on impoverished workers, degradation of the environment, and political oppression. Of course those things exist but it’s only one side of the picture about a country going through an unprecedented level of social transformation.
My first impression of the Beijing punk scene was that it was very small in relation to the population. It’s about the same size as Wellington’s in terms of bands, fans, and venues. Very much still on the outer in terms of popular culture, most young people are listening to saccharine pop and soft rock.
How did you approach inserting yourself into the subculture of a different country, which speaks a different language?
I found out where the local venues were when I got over there and started going along to gigs. There are a lot more expats in Beijing now than 20 years ago so you can find gig listings in English on various websites. Not being able to speak mandarin made things interesting at gigs but everyone was really friendly and I’d usually find someone who had a little bit of English. They found the fact that I was from New Zealand funny, as all they knew about here was this is where the milk powder comes from. So me telling them about a punk scene in Wellington was perhaps as weird as some people may find there being punk in China.
By the end of my three months there I’d interviewed old punks, new punks, tour promoters, and venue owners. As a part of my interactive documentary approach to participatory documentary I put in a proposal to a shopping mall in Changying, to build and run an information kiosk about Wellington punk. This ran for six weeks as a kind of absurd art project aimed at confusing shoppers with images from the Wellington and Beijing punk scenes. I was handing out translated flyers on Wellington punk involvement in the 1981 Springbok tour protests, etc. – an alternative image of New Zealand than most of them had been exposed to. On the last weekend of the mall kiosk I convinced management to let a local punk band, Shochu Legion, play on a Saturday evening . This was a major mission for me to organise but somehow it all came together and Changying got its first ever live punk performance.
I also held a photographic exhibition at a local punk club in Tongzhou called Dirty Monsters Club. The photos were all cheap lasers of the Wellington and Beijing punk scene. Seven months later the photos were still on the walls. It’s cool to think of maybe some other New Zealander stumbling into this tiny punk dive-bar on the outskirts of Beijing and finding a whole room full of photos from the Wellington punk scene 1980-2013.
What were the biggest differences between the New Zealand and the Chinese punk scenes?
The biggest difference would have to be the suppression of openly political themes in Chinese punk. There’s quite a lot of apathy across society towards a political system that doesn’t offer direct representation, and the CPC’s history of repressing political dissent has an obvious chilling effect on how issues are discussed. You’re not going to get songs that criticise President Xi Jinping in the same way that kiwi punks may do John Key. That said there are a lot of social issues in the music to do with the downside of China’s economic boom – urban development, alienation, environmental degradation.
What sort of photography gear did you use on the Beijing project?
I’m really not that big on gear: a Nikon D600 with 50mm, 28mm and 24mm primes; an SB700 flash, a cheap lapel mic for interviews, a tripod.
The images have been featured in your Up the Punks! zine, do you have any further plans for them?
There was a small exhibition earlier this year at a local punk café in Wellington and the material has been going online across various sites. I’ll be going back to China at some point so there will probably be another exhibition/zine, etc. that will rework some of the new and old material. If I thought I had enough material in a few years’ time a photographic book would be cool.
If you had to pick a favourite image from the trip, what would it be and why?
Probably this picture of The Diders (a new generation Beijing punk band) lead singer grabbing the mic and singing a song with old school first generation punk band Dead Johnnys Pistols [below]. I just like the energy in it.
What do you hope viewers get from these images?
I guess a sense of Chinese society on the move, embracing elements from Western culture and making them their own. China feels like the centre of the world when you’re over there and New Zealand really needs to get its head around where Chinese society is going beyond simply seeing them as a market for the dairy industry and a threat to Auckland real estate.
What was the most valuable thing you got out of the experience?
It’s definitely made me view the Up The Punks project and my other work in a wider global context.
What’s next for you?
Probably focussing on getting Up The Punks as complete an archive as I can. I’ll be presenting work on DIY community archive projects at the National Digital Forum in late November. I’ve been developing new formats for the project like Up The Punks TV, short 5- to 6-minute YouTube clips on things to do with Wellington punk. There’s a second issue of Up The Punks zine in production. Definitely trying to get back over to China later this year.
So, I heard punk was dead, care to comment?
‘Punk is dead’ has been a part of punk’s origin mythology since 1977 – both alive and dead at the same time, it is pop culture’s original Schrodinger’s cat. A lot of what punk is about now follows a DIY create-to-destroy ethos- a global network of music, publishing, production, ideas, and activism that operates underneath/outside mainstream channels of cultural production. Up The Punks is just one small part of that.
You can download the China Syndrome edition of the Up The Punks zine, as well as experience the archive in full, at the project’s website