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B-Side China: Autotuning AlphaGo with Shanghai Restoration Project’s Sun Yunfan

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B-Side China is a podcast monitoring the flip side of cultural stories in the PRC, initiated by Josh Feola for RADII.

Designer, painter, writer, and (most recently) musician Sun Yunfan invokes Marshall McLuhan’s classic line “the medium is the message” when discussing how technology is changing art. Since 2011, Sun has worked with New York-based Shanghai Restoration Project, an undertaking initially launched by Dave Liang to funnel his love of ’30s Shanghai jazz into the format of Western-leaning beat music. (She’s now a fully fledged member of the band.) Shanghai Restoration Project’s latest album, R.U.R., is decidedly less nostalgic and more electronic in tone, and appropriately so, given that its title is taken from the Czech play that gave us the word “robot.”

“Technology has already greatly impacted creativity in all fields,” Sun told me when we sat down at the Concrete & Grass festival earlier this month, where her band performed during a brief two-festival tour of China. “The way we consume culture is actually determining the content of the culture itself.”

Sun Yunfan at Concrete & Grass 2018 (photo by RADII visual editor Thana Gu)

Growing up in China, Sun displayed an early aptitude for painting and drawing, but was pushed in a more lucrative professional direction by her family as a college student in the Shenzhen of the booming ’90s. After earning an undergraduate degree in finance and working as an auditor for a while, Sun relocated to the United States to pursue a Master’s in accounting, but soon seized the opportunity to pursue her first passion, eventually earning a BFA from the School of Visual Arts and an MFA from the Pratt Institute in New York.

Sun ultimately became disenchanted with the art world — “I’m only allowed to be Chinese in this art world,” she says of the New York scene. “Identity politics is the only game I’m allowed to play.” She switched fields briefly to journalism, building the early culture section of Asia Society publication ChinaFile, and now has found a creative niche with Shanghai Restoration Project, where she contributes both sounds and visuals.

On this episode of B-Side China, Sun and I discuss some of the themes buried in R.U.R. — an album set in a post-human landscape dominated by AI’s and robots — touching on technology’s impact on creativity, and how music allows artists to connect with fans more directly than visual art.

Find more episodes of B-Side China here, and more RADII podcasts here.

Opening/closing track: “AlphaGo” by Shanghai Restoration Project

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.

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