“Yingxiang Today” – China and the Internet

I’ve been toying around with ideas for a paper on the theme of “Yingxiang Today” for the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) 5th annual conference at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing. It is taking place at the beginning of October this year…and again I’ll be there. “Yingxiang” is a Chinese word, literally meaning shadow (ying) and image (xiang), and there is no such a single English word that can comprehensively interpret its definition. Apart from its literal connotation, “yingxiang” can be referred to as photography, video, film, and digital images, either still or time-based. “Yingxiang Today” creates an opportunity to break the traditional boundaries between disciplines. I have decided to focus on the idea of “Yingxiang Online”…how the identity of “Yingxiang Today”, as part of contemporary Chinese art, “transculturally translates” across new artistic practices and curatorial sites online from a Chinese to Western context, through the increased use of and accessibility to the Internet, specifically social-networking and self-publishing websites. Here are a few notes from some recent discussions about it. The paper will aim to look at how the Internet is used as a pathway for the transportation of artworks, used as a particular vehicle for transporting rather than just translating artworks. It puts the artworks in a different context to produce different meaning…it is difficult to control rather than physical works on paper or site-specific installations. It is interesting that this is something going on as a kind of mass media (?). Of course, I will mention the governments struggle to control the Internet in China, versus the opportunity for artists to express whole ideas to the whole at large – this is “Yingxiang Online”. Primarily used for digital artworks, it is the artists front-line battle…don’t necessarily need to go to exhibition spaces, and there is a sense of loss of context within an exhibition catalogue…it needs to be behind the shine of a screen. This is the home of “yingxiang”, the venue of “yingxiang”…the space is just a space…the work is presented on a screen. I will cite artists (rather than exhibitions) who specifically use the Internet as a form of transportation, and as a translational strategy so the artworks can [successfully] be read in the West…and globally.

There are a couple of recent exhibitions in China and the UK that have tried to deal with the idea of digital censorship. These include ‘Liberation’ at the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, (25 June – 14 August 2010) co-curated by Carol Yinghua Lu and Liu Ding, with artists Brendan Fan, Yan Xing, Lin Yilin, Liu Ding. It proposed to take “a close look into the boundaries of the Internet world with its aspiration to become an open and free platform and its susceptibility to power and political manipulation as well as ideological controls.” Another is ‘You Are Not A Gadget’ at Pekin Fine Arts (15 January – 18 April 2011) again curated by Carol Yinghua Lu, with artists Chen Shaoxiong, Huang Ran, Jin Shan, Leng Wen, Lu Zhengyuan, Yan Xing, Zhuang Hui and Dan’er. She states “the Internet, generally seen as a channel or platform for receiving and sending out information, is far from a mere technological entity. Rather, the Internet influences and forms our judgment and world outlook without our awareness. Artists taking part in this exhibit keep a curious and critical attitude toward the fact that the Internet is already a part of their lives and work, and the works in this exhibit reveal some of their reflection and discussion about the nature of the Internet.” However, examining and presenting these notions in a curatorial sense is still very “new”…and as part of contemporary Chinese art practice. There are not many artists out there who explicitly use the Internet and social media as their main artistic medium. A couple of artists were suggested to me in relation to “Yingxiang Online”…both female…Ma Yongfeng and Li Wei. Any other suggestions would be helpful.

Yesterday, I came across Rebecca MacKinnon’s TED talk ‘Let’s take back the Internet’. She presented global cases of censorship on the Internet, including within China…

“We have a situation where private companies are applying censorship standards that are often quite arbitrary and generally more narrow than the free speech constitutional standards that we have in democracies, or they’re responding to censorship requests by authoritarian regimes that do not reflect consent of the governed, or they’re responding to requests and concerns by governments that have no jurisdiction over many or most of the users and viewers who are interacting with the content in question.”

She goes on to discuss sovereignty in the pre-Internet world where freedom was controlled by nation states, however now we have a layer of private sovereignty within cyberspace…all act as a law that shapes what we can and can’t do with our digital lives, and challenge the sovereignty of nation states.

“If you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet.” – Wael Ghonim

Rebecca talks of the blocks on Facebook and Twitter in different nations, and how to handle these kind of problems…how borders exist in nations where it is more troubling. The government and local social networking companies creates a constrained situation. “How do you decide who is in power to make these decisions? How do you make sure they don’t abuse their power?…even in a democracy, the reality is that even in democratic society today we do not have the answers as to how you balance security and law enforcement on the one hand, and protection of civil liberties and free speech on the other, in digital networks.” She references the “great firewall” in China, that only works with the help of Western technology. The Chinese government asks all companies for certain requirements if they are to be on the Chinese Internet known as a system of “self discipline”…in plain English that means censorship and surveillance of their users…”policing”. The relationship between citizens and the government is mediated through the Internet which is comprised primarily of privately owned services.

“The most urgent question is how do make sure the internet evolves in a citizen-centric manner? The only legitimate purpose of the government is to serve citizen, I would argue the legitimate purpose of technology is to improve our lives not to enslave us…If we want to have a more citizen-centric Internet in the future we need a broader and more sustained internet freedom movement.” – Rebecca MacKinnon

Alongside this, we are going to need political innovation…how do we build consent of the network? “Each and every one of us has a vital part to play in building the kind of world in which government and technology serve the worlds people and not the other way round.”

In my view, it all comes back to accountability and transparency (I’m not going to say democracy as I don’t think its an appropriate term in this context)…we want to be able to see and trust what’s going on in the world that surrounds us…right? It’s how we start to make this happen in nations such as China. They have the largest population by country…therefore the greatest potential to create change?

1 Comment

  1. Hi Rachel. I’ve been thinking about activism, the internet and censorship. I found this interesting in relation to my own experiences of online activism, I tend to be quite hesitant about it all (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/12/clicktivism-ruining-leftist-activism). Also I think there is a link to the marketing of ‘politics’ in contemporary art- not just Chinese, but prominent in this market as we’ve discussed. I came
    across this article ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience’ by critical art
    ensemble (http://www.disobediencearchive.com/texts/ecd.html)
    it’s quite old now but I think interesting regarding the promise
    of a new avant garde online- this was written in 1994, what has happend
    since to prove/disprove?

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