Nini Sum is a co-founder of IdleBeats, China's most active and visible screen printing studio. Under the IdleBeats banner, Nini and her partner Gregor Koerting have churned out dozens upon dozens of classic concert posters, drawing from their shared affinity for surrealist imagery, affective palettes, and mystical iconography. For the duo, screen printing is not only a visually appealing and democratizing medium, but also a tool enabling cultural exchange. Nini and Gregor have conducted many silk screening workshops in China to introduce novices to the process, and have taken their work abroad to represent China at major international events, such as the annual Flatstock screen printing festival.
Nini will be in Beijing tomorrow to lead a free afternoon silk screening workshop at The Other Place (that's a Beijing Design Week joint). She'll have two brand new screens featuring art specially designed for vinyl label Genjing and bedroom lo-fi pop duo Dear Eloise, which you can screen onto a tote bag for 30rmb on site, or just BYO t-shirt/piece of cloth/body part and screen on that. Check the designs below.
I caught up with Nini for a quick email chat in the middle of her preparations for Flatstock 42, which is currently going down in Hamburg:
Dear Eloise poster by Nini Sum/IdleBeats
SmartBeijing: You started IdleBeats in November 2009 with your partner Gregor. What was your initial goal or motivation?
Nini Sum: Back in 2009 I was a designer working in an office. I had learned a little bit about screen printing before and wanted to play with it to make some prints of my own drawings, so I got some simple facilities and started printing in my bedroom. Later on I met Gregor, who was also interested in posters and print making. So we just stared pulling prints. Since then, little by little we've had bigger studio spaces and worked on IdleBeats full time. So there was never a plan, just having fun I guess.
SmBJ: From the beginning, IdleBeats has been very focused on music-related design, most often concert posters. How much of your work is in this field? Besides screening posters, what other commissioned, corporate, or personal work do you and Gregor do in the studio?
NS: I'd say half music posters and half art prints, also with some other cultural event posters, like movie festivals and art shows. Besides prints, Gregor has been working on a series of children's book illustrations and I make oil paintings.
a colorful print by IdleBeats co-founder Gregor Koerting; find more of IdleBeats' greatest hits here
SmBJ: It seems that most of your work exists well outside of a traditional gallery context. What do you think of the contemporary Chinese art world, and where do you sit in relation to it?
NS: I have to say I don't know much about the contemporary Chinese art world. IdleBeats has been living in a new way, [and a] referable case is hard to find in the local art world that I know of. However, it fits the [present day] Shanghai and China, who are also living in a brand new way.
SmBJ: One of your longest-running collaborations has been with Sub-Culture, a veteran promoter of electronic music in Shanghai. How did this working relationship begin?
NS: Our collaboration with Sub-Culture started at the very beginning stage of the studio. Gaz, the guy who runs Sub-Culture, saw a little article about IdleBeats in a city magazine and asked if we could print some posters for his crew. We were like, "Yeah, why not?" So it started like that and we are still working together now.
Sub-Culture poster by Nini Sum; check our SmSH gallery for more
SmBJ: In an interview with Shanghaiist, you compared your visual aesthetic to the famously opaque Swedish electronic music duo The Knife, and to the films of David Lynch. How do you translate inspiration from other, more temporal media into the static form of a silk-screened image?
NS: I think for artists, their work is a reflection of their life. So what you listen to, watch, eat, and experience somehow will be found in your pieces (if you are honest to your art, of course). So for me, it's quite natural to find connections with certain influences and be influenced by them, but not in a literal way that I can describe.
SmBJ: You were sponsored by Vans to host an open silk-screening workshop during this year's Beijing Midi Festival, which you've said is "the first time ever there was a screen printing presence at a music festival in China." How did it go? What was the audience reaction?
NS: It went great. Most of the people tried screen printing for the first time and got interested. There's naturally a connection between this kind of art and music activity, so the vibe was really great.
SmBJ: In addition to your poster design and corporate work, IdleBeats also actively engages in what you call "cultural exchange activities" in China and abroad. In your view, how is visual art, and specifically screen printing, a possible conduit of cultural exchange?
NS: Print art is about making duplications, an image printed in an edition of a dozen to a couple hundred copies. However, it fits the vibe and style of modern society, especially if you try to deliver messages with your print art and offer people to own it with an affordable price. I think it's an exchange, not only art-wise, but [in terms of] how people value and define art. It's quite interesting.
SmBJ: IdleBeats is currently working on a project in Germany. What are you doing there?
NS: We were invited to participate in a poster convention called Flatstock in Hamburg, where screen print makers come from different countries to show and sell their art together alongside the 4-day-long Reeperbahn Music Festival. It was a long way to drag all the heavy posters across half of the earth, but we are all set now. I'm heading to the venue after this email to you, let's see what happens.
SmBJ: You're back in Beijing tomorrow for a free silk screening workshop in collaboration with Genjing Records, for whom you've recently screened a vinyl 7" cover and limited-edition poster. What will your setup be at this event? What will people that are interested in screen-printing, but who have no experience, take away from it?
NS: Screen printing is quite a long process, from making the screen, to exposing the image, to finally printing. But for this workshop, we simplified all the steps by preparing everything up front. So on Saturday there will be two stations with already-made screens and people don't need to go through all the complex processes, but just have fun pulling the print. It will be a good opportunity for people to try it out for the first time. By the way, the two screen artworks were also made by us, one for Dear Eloise and one for Genjing Records.
Go DIY with IdleBeats and Genjing tomorrow at The Other Place. The IdleBeats screen printing workshop begins at 3pm. Come by to screen your own tote bag and cop a limited-edition Dear Eloise poster, plus the new Genjing 7" for good measure. From 8pm there will be a (still free) DJ event, wherein local scene stars Zhang Shouwang (Carsick Cars), Zhou Nairen (Skip Skip Ben Ben), Wang Ge (VICE), and more will spin shoegaze/lo-fi classix til the wee hours.