UB artist's exhibit utilizes sound, songs to convey complex stories from Silk Road

UB art professor Millie Chen shares a still from a recording in Istanbul for her new audio-visual project SRS (Silk Road Songbook), which is currently on exhibit in Xi’an, China, through March 27.

Release Date: March 15, 2022

Portrait of UB art professor Millie Chen.
“My past projects contemplated landscapes in relation to atrocities; SRS tackles injustice with more optimism. ”
Millie Chen, professor of art
University at Buffalo

Mountains of white sand, vast desert landscapes, harsh climates and unknown dangers awaited those who traveled the Silk Road routes hundreds of years ago. Merchants, buyers and traders traversed these lands to acquire silk, teas, fruit, spices, precious metals and other highly sought-after goods to bring back to their respective countries, but they also encountered thieves, slave markets and venomous snakes. 

Over time, the land routes closed and business took place via the sea, but Millie Chen, a University at Buffalo professor of art and Humanities Institute faculty fellow, has devoted herself to studying the intangible history of landscapes and places that, due to many factors, remain erased.

Chen has spent many years making artwork about social injustice by focusing on invisible histories of the land and harnessing the power of the human voice through music.

In a new multimedia project, Chen and Arzu Ozkal, an artist and associate professor in the School of Art & Design at San Diego State University, worked together on an interdisciplinary exhibit called SRS, an audio-video project that weaves songs of dissent into the land, broadcasting women’s distinct, unruly voices on an ancient Eurasian migration route between Istanbul, Tehran, Parkent, Kashgar and Kangle.

SRS is on exhibit in Xi’an, China, through March 27. Four more “works-in-progress” are planned for other locations.

“My past projects contemplated landscapes in relation to atrocities; SRS tackles injustice with more optimism,” Chen says. “SRS germinated a decade ago while making other artwork about social injustice that focused on erased histories of the land; in a number of these works, I channeled the power of the human voice through music as a counteracting force. Sound is underrated in vision-dominant societies. Herein lies its potency as an interventionist tool.”

One of the questions Chen and Ozkal explored for the exhibit was how creative resiliency can thrive when there is limited freedom of expression. By conveying the complex stories emerging from each place and person they work with, they challenge Orientalist exoticism, cultural tourism and censorship, disrupting the grand, tidy narrative of the popular perception of the Silk Road.

“Effective songs of dissent provide a way out of feeling helpless, even spreading optimism. That’s why they’re dangerous,” Chen says. “SRS emerged from these ponderings, expanding on the relationship between land, mourning and dissent by using the persuasive power of songs.”

The full SRS project will consist of multiple interrelated parts: a single-channel video, an audio-video installation, a song album and a digital/print songbook publication.

UB faculty member Millie Chen and Arzu Ozkal, an artist and associate professor in the School of Art & Design at San Diego State University, worked together on SRS.

Chen explains that in SRS, the songs about land, sovereignty and cultural identity have been created in collaboration with musicians in communities along the route; it is they who control selection of landscapes, musical genres and lyrical content. For each place, their voices are the dynamic driving force, and the land is the visual anchor.

“The history of land becomes invisible over time, competing occupiers erase history, nature reclaims territory. Songs enable us to mourn, remember, protest and declare, turning sorrow and outrage into hope, fortitude and joy. Songs become a ready vehicle for voices that are not usually heard. Singing builds fortitude, singing together builds collective joy and defiance. These are songs of empowerment, channels for human agency,” Chen says.

“Arzu and I share a commitment to social justice in our individual art practices. We’ve each created numerous past performative works that tap into the potency of participatory action to generate social commentary. This is the most ambitious, challenging project that we have each undertaken.

“We harness our respective ancestries and migration stories to geographically tether the project route, forming an itinerary that is historically and personally significant,” she says. “Working on SRS, particularly during this pandemic, reinforces how porous and fragile our world is. What reverberates half a globe away unsettles us here, and vice versa. We are susceptible, even if we don’t travel, migrate or venture out of our comfort zone. We must confront our hubris in realizing how deeply and intimately we affect one another. An effective means is by sharing stories with people who live(d) far away or long ago.”

Chen and Ozkal are building a network of participants to work collaboratively across borders and disciplines, amplifying their ideas about land and song. Collaborators include musicians, artists and ethnomusicologists who are from diverse ethnic communities spanning Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan and China, and who speak multiple languages, including Turkish, Farsi, Uzbek, Crimean Tatar, Russian, Armenian, Uyghur, Hui and Mandarin.

“We’re folding traditional knowledge and practices into contemporary forms of expression, working to ensure that knowledgeable, respectful representation and acknowledgements are made regarding use of traditional musical genres, literary material and linguistic/cultural intellectual property,” Chen says. “Our collaborators have deep connections to the musical and literary traditions that they practice/research; they steer SRS regarding the selection and use of appropriate source material.”

Chen and Ozkal managed to use remote communication to complete the video production and rough-cut post-production for three of the five SRS locations. The first work-in-progress installation was recently mounted — by directing remotely — at OCAT Xi’an. Based on the material produced to date, they will create a work-in-progress single-channel video to be shown in Vancouver in late spring. They are now preparing to work on production for Tehran and Kashgar.

According to Chen, the completed SRS project will be presented internationally via multiple physical and digital communities and presenting institutions.

“We intend for SRS to be distributed in as many ways and forms as possible, including via video streaming and sharing of songs, and private screenings in remote places where public screening is impossible,” she says.

In order to serve multilingual audiences, written translations will be integrated into all final components of SRS.

“Our goal is to build a network of artists who can creatively, ethically and safely collaborate across difficult borders and together strategize for dissemination, circulation and distribution in order to maximize access and shareability of SRS for all project collaborators and their respective communities,” Chen says.

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