Meanwhile, on the Chinternet… An Interview with the Curators of Chinternet Ugly at CFCCA

by Charlotte Robson

Lu Yang,  Electromagnetic Brainology , screenshot courtesy of the artist

Lu Yang, Electromagnetic Brainology, screenshot courtesy of the artist

‘Chinternet Ugly’, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA)’s new landmark exhibition of contemporary Chinese net art, promises to decode the messy vitality of online art-making within the country’s fiercely protected e-borders. Here, writer Charlotte Robson discusses internet creativity with co-curators Dr Ros Holmes (Presidential Academic Fellow in Art History at University of Manchester) and Marianna Tsionki (Research Curator, CFCCA and University of Salford) – and asks how an exhibition dedicated to new media art will translate into a physical gallery setting. Featuring screens, interactive installations, video pieces, wallpaper, photography and more, ‘Chinternet Ugly’ opens to the public on 8 February with new and recent works by artists aaajiao, Miao Ying, Lin Ke, Liu Xin, Lu Yang and Ye Funa.

At 802 million, China is home to the largest number of internet users – or ‘netizens’ – in the world and 788 million smartphone users (Forbes, August 2018).      

Charlotte Robson: We live in such an (ostensibly) ‘free’, globalised society in the West. But the situation is quite different in China, especially online. Could you explain what the ‘Chinternet’ is and what makes it unique? 

Ros Holmes: The neologism ‘Chinternet’ is a portmanteau of ‘China’ and ‘internet’, reflecting the idea of a so-called internet with Chinese ‘characteristics’. These characteristics encompass the unique cultural and linguistic features of websites like Taobao (the world’s biggest e-commerce website), but also extend to more pernicious aspects like strict online censorship, internet surveillance and the contingencies of political control.

 Such issues are certainly not confined to the Chinese internet, however. I think the idea that we operate within a ‘free’ online environment has been thoroughly debunked, while the heady optimism which accompanied the advent of the internet has long been replaced with a growing sense of unease.

Marianna Tsionki: Indeed, the widespread assumption that the internet in non-authoritarian Western democratic states is a free space of information sharing and ideas has been proven to be flawed even in the United Kingdom by recent web scandals like Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting. 

But the situation in China is nonetheless distinct: various systems and technologies filter, monitor and otherwise obstruct or manipulate the online sphere to defend against potential legal, economic, social, and security related threats. Chinese internet specific enterprises, such as Baidu (akin to Google) and Alibaba (similar to Amazon), have developed as a result – benefiting from the lack of market competition. Internet usage within the country is therefore rather mediated by local tech companies, while any interactions with the global online sphere beyond ‘the Great Firewall of China’ – as it’s known – can only be achieved via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

 Saying that, the Chinternet also has a rich and vibrant culture of satirical memes and online subcultures, just like anywhere else, and a plethora of subversive artistic responses have increasingly begun to dominate the space over recent years. Through ‘Chinternet Ugly’, we are interested in exploring these responses alongside the ways in which artists are operating within such conditions and potentially influencing them. The six artists included in the show all certainly address a complex range of political and cultural issues with humour, irreverence and wit.

Lin Ke,  Electronic music always makes people dance , image courtesy of the artist

Lin Ke, Electronic music always makes people dance, image courtesy of the artist

CR: Taking this further, then, how does the Great Firewall paradoxically manage to catalyse such creativity among its netizens? And why do you describe this creativity as manifesting in an ugly aesthetic?  (I read your article, ‘Meanwhile in China…Miao Ying and the Rise of Chinternet Ugly’, Ros.)   

 RH: Many of the works that we’ve selected for ‘Chinternet Ugly’ illustrate how the forces of censorship (like the Great Firewall) can actually stimulate a necessary kind of creativity as much as they curtail it. Infinite ingenuity is required of netizens wanting to evade state strictures as they navigate between China’s online and offline spaces, for example. By emphasising the heterogeneity of responses to censorship, which are frequently neither entirely countercultural nor unashamedly pro-system, the exhibition aims to present an inversion of the ostensibly unidirectional flow of online imagery from the West to ‘the rest’.

The title of the show relates to the phrase ‘Internet Ugly’, first coined by the academic Nick Douglas in his article ‘It’s Supposed to Look Like Shit: The Internet Ugly Aesthetic’ (2014), published in the Journal of Visual Culture. Here, we’ve looked at how it can be applied to the Chinese internet specifically.

The ‘ugliness’ relates to the artistic merit and value of mainstream user-generated content, visual manifestations of which frequently range from the banal to the kitsch to the ugly. By rejecting the homogenising tools of ‘advanced’ web design in favour of a lo-fi, 1996 Dirt Style aesthetic, and embracing the eclectic repurposing of the copy-and-paste imagery that proliferates throughout the creative recesses of the Chinternet, the artists in this exhibition emphasise a distinct anti-aesthetic. One that valorises amateur production, eschews technical mastery and celebrates humorous inaccuracies in reproduction, translation and dissemination as a means of satirising a society relentlessly concerned with image and ideal citizenship.

MT:  Censorship has always been one of the primary means of controlling societies and still continues in many forms and at different levels across the globe. Artistic production has historically addressed these issues, usually with artistic movements forming either a type of resistance or just reflecting on everyday life interactions.

One of our primary curatorial concerns was to present the various voices and aesthetics that are currently creating a space for discussion around the Chinese internet’s special characteristics. Some of the artists we’ve worked with for the exhibition highlight issues of censorship, while others are preoccupied with the effects of technology and the internet on contemporary subjectivity. As such, the notion of ugliness is rather a reflection of this interaction: a grotesque visual manifestation of current societal digital trends in a Chinese context.       

Ye Funa,  Exhibitionist , image courtesy of the artist

Ye Funa, Exhibitionist, image courtesy of the artist

CR: Miao Ying’s net art project, Chinternet Plus (2016), appears to have been especially influential in terms of how you both approached the show. What is it about her work, in particular, which most encapsulates the ‘Chinternet Ugly’ phenomenon?

RH: Throughout her practice, Miao offers an unapologetic reappraisal of the counterfeit and the contrived as a means of probing deeper socio-political and economic concerns, including: the consequences of neoliberal outsourcing, the psychological effects of censorship, and the politics of representation, class and nation. As such, she manages to counter much of the stigma and the many preconceptions surrounding China’s online realm by reassessing the value of the vernacular creativity emerging from the world’s largest online community.

MT: That being said, Chinternet Plus is actually quite an old work. For this exhibition, we have teamed up with the University of Salford Art Collection to co-commission two new works by Miao: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2019) and Love’s Little Wall (2019). Love’s Labour’s Lost takes its name from William Shakespeare’s early comedy and the film documents the artist’s recent experience in Paris, the ‘City of Love’, where she secretively unlatched love-locks as an allegory of employing a VPN server to ‘unlock’ the ‘free’ internet. Miao then attached these ‘love-locks’ to an idyllic image of the Great Wall of China (the country’s national symbol) positioned at the back of her sculpture Love’s Little Wall – the Great Wall serving as a metaphor for the Great Firewall to highlight issues of censorship and surveillance.

The Stockholm syndrome that the artist has (in her own words) developed in relation to her country forms the core of her recent work.[i] As a member of the first generation of citizens growing up with the internet in China, she reflects on the technological trends of our time with humour.

Miao Ying,  Love's Labour's Lost  (2019), video still courtesy of the artist

Miao Ying, Love's Labour's Lost (2019), video still courtesy of the artist

CR: How will visitors encounter contemporary internet art (art intended for and dependent on the digital domain) within the gallery space? Tell us a little bit about ‘Chinternet Ugly’s’ new commissions and site-specific installations. Will paper feature at all?  

RH: ‘Chinternet Ugly’ will include a broad range of works, from interactive installations to video pieces and photography. Not only did we want to showcase the diversity of these different artists’ practices, but also to highlight how they’re using online and offline formats to engage with digital culture and explore its wider impact on aesthetics, culture and society.

It’s notable, for instance, that many of the artists have chosen to explore how the most ‘immaterial’ of forms – digital information – has paradoxically led to a proliferation of material states. Liu Xin’s work, Can you tear for me? (2015), consists of a selection of 30 photographs submitted by ‘online workers’ in response to a HIT (Human Intelligence Task) that the artist posted on the Amazon Mechanical Turk (a crowdsourcing internet marketplace) on 19 March 2015, titled ‘can you ‘tear’ for me?’. Converting the digital images into physical prints displayed on the gallery wall plays an important role in the humanising aspect of the work, which taps into the sense of community that the internet can offer. Lu Yang’s two artist films Electromagnetic Brainology (2017) and God of the Brain (2017), meanwhile, both live on the internet and reference online music videos, computer graphics and gaming culture, yet will form part of a physical immersive installation featuring the artist’s own specially designed ‘wallpaper’ that replicates the imagery from both works.

MT: What’s most interesting with net art is the utilisation of the digital realm as an operating platform, its inherent opposition to the rules and models of the art market, and its engagement with the ongoing development of different subcultures. Net artists have always argued for process over object, while the structures, tools and ideologies of coding and programming overrule those of traditional museum and gallery spaces. Of the works included in ‘Chinternet Ugly’, however, many attempt a kind of materialisation of digital art in the physical exhibition space. While one could argue that this compromises the very nature of net art, we feel that it is an interesting way to present and discuss these ideas beyond the Great Firewall in a global contemporary context.

 RH: As for the site-specific commissions, we don’t want to give too much away but I would encourage everyone to visit the exhibition for themselves. There will be plenty to delight, stimulate and provoke debate!    

Lu Yang,  Electromagnetic Brainology  (2017), courtesy of the artist

Lu Yang, Electromagnetic Brainology (2017), courtesy of the artist

CR: You have exclusively selected works by artists from mainland China. Are there any stereotypes or presumptions about mainland China and its ‘Chinternet’ that you are keen to debunk through the show?

MT: We’ve only selected work by mainland Chinese artists as internet access in special administrative regions like Hong Kong, for example, follows the rules of Western countries.

RH: By re-contextualising visual elements usually upheld as emblematic signifiers of the Chinternet’s parochialism, insularity and state strictures, the artists presented in the show all refuse to reduce the history of China’s online culture to a simple story of resistance versus control or state versus society. As such, they directly challenge dichotomous and reductive ways of thinking about online culture within the country.

CR: What should we, as viewers, be looking out for as digital art continues to expand, both within China and in the global contemporary art sphere more broadly?

RH: The exhibition acknowledges the potential of the Chinternet to challenge and complicate over-determined readings of artistic production, both within China and beyond its borders. In the future, we can look forward to an ever-expanding range of works that engage with these issues of cross-cultural intelligibility and translatability, and it will be interesting to see how they eventually play out in the online public sphere of the global contemporary art world.

MT: I agree with Ros. Instead of creating dichotomies between ‘free’ and censored digital worlds, what would be interesting to see going forwards is an artistic dialogue that problematises our interaction with the internet in a global context.

‘Chinternet Ugly’ will show at CFCCA, Manchester, from 8 February to 12 May 2019

[i] In her article ‘Meanwhile in China…Miao Ying and the rise of “Chinternet Ugly”’, ARTMargins, Vol. 7, No. 1, (2018), Holmes writes: “Miao satirizes the bounded-ness of Internet searches in China, exploring the psychology of limitation in what she has referred to as her Stockholm syndrome approach to the Chinese Internet: “Censorship is like a bad lover you can’t get rid of, or a chronic case of Stockholm syndrome, in that you become dependent on the trauma. This type of love, which occurs in an isolated environment, sees the kidnapper, the person who makes the rules, become so powerful that the hostage gradually falls in love with them.” Miao’s work attests that a significant psychological price is paid for being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity can be monitored and tracked. In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia, a moral compromise that ensures that the state, constantly wary of any potential threats to its stability, secures many netizens’ continued complacency.”