Yang
Li
&
Drew
McDowall

Interview:
Nico Jacobsen

Photographer:
Sami Barker

Fashion designer Yang Li has navigated himself into a rarified position amongst his contemporaries. Because of his relentless passion for industrial music — as well as the environment surrounding it — he has solidified a deep bond between his work and the culture he loves and admires with creation of his clothing line Samizdat, essentially a sub-label in the form of band merchandise. He has also put together events with some of the most legendary figures working within the genre, from Japanoise mainstay KK Null to Godflesh frontman JK Flesh.

Anyone interested in the audio and visual world of noise music will have been deeply influenced by two bands: Psychic TV and Coil. As a one time member of both those outfits as well as in his solo work, Drew McDowall has been shifting and shaping underground music for decades. A few of Drew’s projects are mentioned on the designer’s Samizdat Reference Tee, which names off Yang Li’s favorite things like a laundry list to the world’s baddest Santa. After Drew’s recent performance at London-based party KAOS, he and Li united with me on the other side of a very unhelpful Skype stream to discuss what keeps them buzzing in the void.

NICO:

Yang Li, as a fashion designer, is probably one of the few creative types that rivals farmers in how beholden they are to the changing seasons. As a member of Coil, Drew worked on the record Moon’s Milk (In Four Phases), which set out to chronicle the earth’s cycle sonically. Are the continual global shifts something that is present in everything you two do? Drew, were you thinking about the different seasons in the way your new record, Unnatural Channel, moves from start to finish? Do the different seasons inevitably also change how you two work within them?

DREW:

I am obsessed with anything cyclical, natural and otherwise. Especially asymmetrical cycles. I’m especially interested in asymmetrical cycles that change very slightly from peak to peak and over time, whether on a very short microsecond scale or a deep time span of billions of years. I am very much affected by the seasons, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and they do influence the way I work, even though I try to keep that influence just below the edge of consciousness. I make it a point to honor the equinoxes and solstices.

YANG:

If I think about it, in fashion, it’s like trying to release a record every three months, which is twofold... You can always say, “Oh, in three months we’re going to have something else.” That’s a good pressure, I think, to just go with it and trust your gut. Then the flip side of that is, we don’t have time to spend on our ideas, because the fashion industry is moving very, very fast. So you start to feel like there is no point in being precious because you need to just move on. I think that’s a good thing for creativity, you know, there needs to be a set meter, or else you may never finish your ideas. I feel like you need to cut from the gut; it’s literally a subconscious decision. You spend all this time refining something that is actually in your eye, and that is really what you should be using to create, that subconscious mind. Sometimes when you come back and look at the creation, you have an unease or an uncertainty, but the way it is in fashion, you don’t have enough time to ever really look back.

N:

I suppose every cycle that is evident in the natural world is one that eventually decays things. Do you feel like that cycle in fashion can be even more destructive than others? Do you ever feel physically or mentally withered as a result of its force? Or does it make your work even more potent because you’re recognizing it and fighting against it?

Y:

There is nothing more beautiful than being withered for something you love. I’m totally fine for it to be three days before a show, feeling like I’m going to war. That’s why you do it. Even when we’re doing launches of collections, or fittings or quite technical things, I love how that pressure puts you in a such a unique zone. You know, we all get withered, I think me and Drew are extremely lucky to be withered for something we believe in.

N:

I think it makes sense to address the work of 19th-century English occultist Austin Osman Spare early on in the interview. In my eyes, his writing provided the foundation for the types of artistic communities you both seem to thrive in. A few of his books were mentioned on the Samizdat Reference Tee that Li produced, and his teachings were heavily influential to the band Coil, of which Drew was a member. Can you tell me about each of your personal connections to Austin’s work, and how it may have shifted your creative process in any way?

Y:

The Book of Pleasure (1913), which he began writing at the age of twenty, describes how he used art and sex to explore the subconscious mind. In the text he describes his concept of “neither-neither,” “where the mind has passed beyond conception” into dream- sleep, or into the unknown. Using this principle, he created pictures that were conflicting. In other words, upon closer inspection, the art is not what it first appears to be. It is the principle of “neither-neither” that inspires us; there is a duality to our work. Humans crave contradiction and opposites. “Our aim is wakefulness. Our enemy is dreamless sleep.” That is printed in every Yang Li garment on the care label!

D:

Spare’s process of sigilization may be one of the most important methods to bypass this artificially intelligent language that has parasitized and colonized our brains. Sigils are a way to sneak something past language without it noticing and its importance in the artistic process cannot be underestimated. Also a point of connection for me with Spare is the aspect of hybridization — thinking of his animal/human hybrids here. Where the delineating line between entities dissolves. There are so many areas of influence: the aforementioned concept of “neither-neither,” which, among other things, will prevent the mind falling into false binary “either-or” traps. Also of great power is his method of eschewing the beautiful, and eroticizing what would be considered conventionally ugly.

N:

Austin Spare was so focused on blurring the lines between everything. I feel like you share that inclination, Yang, especially when it comes to blurring the lines between genders. Is this something you actively think about, or just something that comes naturally to you when designing?

Y:

Gender, it’s an attitude, I believe. I think the attitude of women has changed in the past few years. You know, for me, fashion is like commentary on the world, so it’s not like I woke up one morning and thought, “Oh, you know. A girl could wear an oversize men’s jacket.” It’s actually the attitude that’s on the streets.

N:

To continue on with writers... I had read that while Drew was in Glaswegian street gangs as a youth, he escaped the tumult by reading books by J.G. Ballard, another reference on the Samizdat shirt. I have also had an interest particularly in his book Crash, which seems to act a bit like a gateway drug for young readers exploring darkly futuristic or psychosexual themes for the first time. What do you think it is about the duality of that novel that makes it both so controversial and so intuitive?

D:

Definitely a gateway drug! And I was so fortunate to read it at a young age. I mean, they had weirdly had in the school library, so I read it at 13 or 14 or something.

Y:

That’s dangerous.

D:

I think at 13 or 14 you’re supposedly beyond this stage of polymorphous perversity, but that book just encapsulates that, the perversity of car crashes. It ties into what I was saying about Austin Spare. The eroticization of the non-conventional. That really kind of struck a nerve and stayed with me.

Y:

Yeah, I mean, I didn’t encounter it until a bit later, we didn’t study it in school, especially as I was coming from China. I love how it celebrates the perverse, but at the same time humanizes it. It’s okay to be human, everyone has a dungeon, and depending on what it is, you shouldn’t be scared to look at it and experience it.

N:

Yang’s most recent collections have been inspired by the villains of cinema, from serial killers to corrupt cops. Although I am far from a sadist, I have always found myself rooting for the bad guy for as long as I can remember, solely because they had the better outfits, a more complex personality, or a more captivating culture around them. What are both your thoughts on villainy? Do you think it’s possible to fully embody the aesthetic of one without also embracing the genuine evil meant to be present in the soul of the villain? Who are some of your favorite fictional villains and who do you feel are the genuine villains operating in the world right now?

Y:

I guess romanticizing villains is what I’m doing in my work right now, in a trilogy, three collections, each with its given characters. The first one being the horror B movie character, like people who take their obsessions with horror too far. Then you have the Bad Lieutenant type as the second, the corrupt cop. The third one is out in January. I guess on the most basic level, it’s me kind of adding romance to an often one-sided backstory of the antagonists. The gesture being, is there another side to the story?

N:

There always is, isn’t there...

Y:

Yes. That’s more of a type of creative mindset that I’m working through. I mean, I feel it’s important to me because they’re in the shadows. They’re not totally in the shadows right now, I guess — I mean, look at the American president. But behind people like that there are whole syndicates of people I want to round out. I don’t think the antagonist character is represented enough in fashion, this person that believes that there is no authority like themself.

D:

A childhood obsession of mine was Bonnie and Clyde, everything about them was so charged, even their demise. It’s important to keep a little villainy in your heart. Not just aesthetically — embrace it and ask yourself, whose rules? Whose laws? Who is responsible for more actual harm in the world, criminals or the people that are responsible for or benefit from economic disparity and racial and gender inequality? The tiny percentage of people that own most of the wealth in the world are responsible for more death and misery than all the historical criminals and serial killers combined.

N:

Yang Li’s Samizdat Reference shirt mentions quite a few big-name artists that are synonymous with the more thematically aggressive or controversial side of the art world, such as Hermann Nitsch, Hans Bellmer, Eva Hesse, and Marlene Dumas — but I was surprised to find the young artist Darja Bajagic included. I personally think she is one of the select few that represents the second coming of industrial themes in the art world (and not just because she has worked on noise records with Vereker). Li, what is it about her work that made you feel she should be included with those other names? What is it about the current global climate that you two feel is allowing artists like herself to gain so much visibility so quickly? Do you agree that the rise of this style of art has had an impact on the relatively new surge of popularity of industrial and noise music and vice versa?

Y:

I first came across Darja's work on Oliver Vereker’s artwork for his Endangered Species record label sleeves (Restraint's A Time With No Hands and Skander's Steel Talon). On further exploration of her work, beyond the surface subject matter, a sense of humor and play emerged that resonated with us. She also references the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in that her images "rest on the belief that they will mean something else than — or in addition to — what they appear to mean: pure, profane, free.” We were struck with the parallels between some industrial and noise culture imagery and performance, or at least the layers of meaning we take from it. Darja is also fascinated with the fastidious search and collection of images and objects, a type of hunting, she says — something definitely mirrored in the noise and industrial culture, where a deep pleasure is derived from collection, repurposing, juxtaposing and collaging new works that create a truth of their own.

D:

The flattening effect of contemporary culture had given artists like that new meaning. Someone going out on a limb cuts through the careerist miasma in a way that makes people sit up and pay attention.

N:

William Burroughs once told Genesis P-Orridge, “Your job is to short-circuit control.” Drew was a member of the group Psychic TV, which Genesis co-founded and remains a part of until this day, and Li collaborated with P-Orridge for an exhibit at Selfridges called So Destroy the Expected. Do you two feel like you share the profession that Burroughs tasked her with? Are you constantly trying to subvert all the systems you work within, or have you found peace with aspects of the creative world?

D:

Burroughs’ edict is one of the most important things that any artist should keep in mind. To free ourselves form the crushingly, algorithmically dystopian nature of where we are right now is more important than ever. Embracing chaos within my methodology is just a small part of it. Also, it’s important to ask — whose chaos is this?

Y:

When I met Genesis, you immediately know this is an individual, a real individual here, and I think individualism in any creative field or in life is extremely important. That’s kind of what Burroughs was getting at. He was doing things that nobody was doing, going places few were going, and participating in the most obscure possible activities.

D:

Someone like Genesis, you know, her whole life’s been about becoming a person who doesn’t worry about boundaries. I don’t think that she separates any part of her life, you know — she is her art, she lives her art.

N:

Yeah, so when you are talking about how you both look up to Genesis in that way — for living those Fluxus ideals of becoming your art, is that something that you two kind of hope for yourselves as well? Do you like to be separated from your work or do you also want to embody it in every way?

Y:

I mean, I think as a fashion designer, it’s similar to a film director. One step back from your work. Unlike Drew, I don’t have to perform my work, really. I use things like the references that are on the Reference shirt as tools to represent myself. You know, I do use music, but it’s assumed positions within my work rather than my physical self.

D:

Even though I have the performance element, there is still a separation between my life and my work. I don’t think that I truly live artistically. I create art, but Genesis’ life is the art itself.