Club Seen shines a light on the artists, VJs, and designers providing a visual dimension to after-hours underground culture in urban China.
Now running for just over three years, nomadic club night Asian Dope Boys has proven to be one of Beijing-born artist Chen Tianzhuo’s most consistent, and consistently interesting, projects. Initially trained in design, Chen’s work has snowballed over the years into the maximal, psychedelic, sensationally overstimulating music/performance/installation spectacles for which he’s best known today, such as the Ksana II performance he staged for the opening of this year’s Venice Biennale in May.
As Chen moved from design, to painting, to installation art, to video, and finally to performance in his personal career, he grew an entourage of regular collaborators like contemporary dancer Beio, self-taught performer China Yu, and Swiss-Nepalese music producer Aïsha Devi. This particular crew, who first performed together at Palais de Tokyo in Paris and legendary Berlin club Berghain, eventually morphed into Asian Dope Boys, a rotating party that Chen has thrown at multiple venues across Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, and a project that has spawned a series of mixes promoting emerging DJ talents within China.
Asian Dope Boys — named after Chen’s Instagram handle — officially launched in China with a party at Shanghai club Arkham in May 2016, followed by another at go-to Beijing house/techno dungeon Lantern the following month. At first, Chen took pains to distinguish this party series from his art-world work. As he told me in a 2016 interview ahead of the Asian Dope Boys Shanghai launch party:
“I felt that in addition to my work as an artist, I was also interested in doing a lot of other kinds of projects. Limiting myself to art is really boring, doing other kinds of projects would be more interesting. Plus the audience within the art world is quite lame and closed-minded. Outside of art itself, they don’t know much about anything else, and don’t even care to. So I wanted to do something for an audience with broader tastes and interests to enjoy. We also want to make a label that’s led by our own taste, not something that’s led by commercial concerns or going after a specific target audience or whatever.”
That said, performance — often in the vein of experimental theater and dance — was a key component of Asian Dope Boys parties for the first two years of the label’s existence. One of the most personally memorable was September 2016’s Mortuary event held at now-closed Beijing venue Modern Sky Lab, where Beio performed a barely-mobile butoh dance to a very loud, heavy psychedelic soundtrack from Vagus Nerve, and Australian performance artist Justin Shoulder put on what I can only describe as a blood-chilling performance as part of his CARRION series.
This early, multi-sensory period of Asian Dope Boys has largely been phased out. Chen spends most of his time in Shanghai, and the default venue for Asian Dope Boys shows is ALL, an underground dance club very squarely focused on developing a community around left-field, experimental music and art. (ALL is also a favorite venue of RADII’s.) I followed up with Chen a few days after Asian Dope Boys’ three-year anniversary party, held in May at ALL, and he’s changed his tune a bit about how the label interacts with his personal brand:
“In the beginning I was trying to explain that [Asian Dope Boys was a standalone party] to whoever wanted to invite my performance, and now I’m just like… whatever you want to call it. Also, this group of [regular collaborators like Beio and China Yu] can be called Asian Dope Boys, it’s kind of cool because it’s like a gang, you know. So I don’t so much care about whether people are inviting me or Asian Dope Boys, what is my art and what is an Asian Dope Boys thing. But I still like [for] the party just to be a party, nothing to do with my art… I don’t want to give the party a higher purpose or goal. It’s supposed to be a good party, and everything else is secondary.”
The most noticeable change in recent Asian Dope Boys parties has been an increased emphasis on local musicians. While many early events focused on a visiting international guest — often an artist Chen met while staging his performances in Europe — Asian Dope Boys bills from the last year tend to feature locals such as 33EMYBW, Gooooose, and Tzusing as headliners.
“It’s not like a party where you want to show one artist, and the next time it’s another artist, like a one-off,” Chen told me recently. “I want to see how they grow, how their paths go in different directions. I think this is a good way to build a whole community, like the label is growing together with the artists, instead of just being one [standalone] party.”
Most recently, Chen has also taken an active role in collaborating with some of the artists flying under the Asian Dope Boys banner. He’s currently midway through a China tour for Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi, who are about to release their debut album on Shanghai label SVBKVLT. The album cover, by Chen, is very Asian Dope Boys, and presumably the music video that the artist just shot with the band in the mountainous Chinese countryside will be as well.
Cover photo by Kaxiaoxi; All images courtesy Chen Tianzhuo/Asian Dope Boys
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