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Internet 5, China 1

Jason Ragsdale, written for Intro to Media Studies, The New School

During the course of our semester I became fascinated with a number of concepts, but two in particular really made an impression. I know that for the sake of this project we should narrow down to one concept, but as they each weave their way amongst each other, creating a larger media narrative, I find it difficult to separate these particulars. I’d like to take this chance to look at the interconnectedness of community and identity in media and that of contra/flows. In a complimentary course this semester called Interdisciplinary Media and Contemporary Society, I researched Chinese net.artists for a final project that heavily informed my readings on both of these class sections, and I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on some of the research I found on China and media, and how it, appropriately, wove its way into this class.

I’ll start by saying I previously endeavored to prove that Chinese artists were using the web to create and exhibit artworks to express either discontent with Chinese autocracy and/or to critique the encroaching global (read western) ideal of democracy. I felt confident I’d find plenty of content to support my claims. That wasn’t the case in terms of net.art, at least. On the other hand, I did find plenty of artists working in other traditional media, some with pointed political commentary. Although I hadn’t yet been introduced to the concepts in our class, I discovered a number of transnational artists who were creating diasporic art (ie themes of nationality, eastern mysticism, or simply painting Chinese script) from cities as distant as Paris, London and New York. But more importantly, I discovered a large population of common Internet users informally creating user-generated content, all of it supporting the notion of transnational identity and community building, all the while contributing to global informational flow.

I’m still struggling with the term contra-flow, as introduced in Thussu’s essay collection. I fully endorse the fact that the United States dominates the production and export of media, especially regarding the Internet’s predilection for English and the predominance of U.S.-based websites (as well as servers and hardware and software developers), but I’ve generally idealized the Internet as the last possibly democratic media frontier wherein any person, regardless of her global positioning, could be a part of a larger sphere of influence armed simply with a PC and web connection. I’ve always thought of flow—like the ocean tides—as being multidirectional. So as the moon rises or settles, we witness the inward and outward flow of water; likewise across multiple time zones as people globally connect and participate in the mobility of data on the web, they increase and decrease flow across the Internet. It’s an arguably cloying analogy, but I’ve yet to find a comparable term for ‘participatory’ that could ably improve upon the term ‘flow.’

Your Freedom

Your Freedom

Now I’d like to introduce a few of the things I found and how they relate to these concepts. First of all, China is connecting to the web rapidly! More and more people are moving into Chinese cities and connecting to the web via cable and DSL, and .CN domain name sites are registering at exponential rates. This alone demonstrates what Thussu and Rantanen might call flow on its way towards contra-flow; that is to say this boom in web development affords Chinese the opportunity to increase intra- and inter-national flows, and the former could be seen as increased national flow while the latter could be construed as global contra-flow. Either way, it cannot be divorced from what’s commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the web surveillance project that monitors and censors the Internet nationally. Metaphorically you could look at this censorship as a dam in the global flow of information.  As if to specifically counter this dam, or rather to circumvent blocked flow, I discovered a free downloaded web-app called Your Freedom. According to a Wikipedia entry titled Internet censorship in People’s Republic of China, “Your Freedom is confirmed to be working from China and also offers encryption features for the transmitted traffic.” Your Freedom is essentially a ghost IP provider that allows users to access censored websites by assigning the censored user’s IP address an unblocked IP. That Chinese users would be using the application would show a greater desire to be a part of the global flow. Indeed, you could even surmise that users invested membership in a global flow in forming their identities.

One of the significant players in China’s growing web industry is NetEase. Probably its greatest attraction is an online multiplayer game called Fantasy Westward Journey. It is a highly profitable, popular game where “gamers often [play] casual games to connect with friends and flirt with others” (Brightman 2008). This is important because it alone shows a national identity formed on a mediated, flowing network amongst Chinese nationals. In fact, there’s nothing to suggest that Chinese transnationals aren’t also joining games to reconnect either with old friends or to make new ones. Either way it’s making a statement that the Chinese government has noted. In 2005, a government office attempted to regulate the amount of time gamers could play online. Concerned that gamers were showing signs of addiction, an “anti-fatigue system” wherein scoring and/or playing itself ceased, was offered as an antidote to a growing social trend (Koo 2007).  One could look at this as a form of intra-national contra-flow in which China as a authority, observing free-flowing data amongst its populace, attempts to inhibit said practice. I would say that, in terms of actual semantics, this is the most appropriate use of the suffix ‘contra,’ if not the clearest example of an actual opposing force of media use.

Fantasy Westward Journey

Fantasy Westward Journey

Similarly, I discovered that blogging is a popular web activity amongst the Chinese, and that, again, Chinese authorities are concerned with its proliferation as a means of undermining central authority. Furthermore, controlling the explosion of blogs—another possible expression of contra-flow—is a concern. “Officials are also bowing to the realization that the Internet is impossible to control fully. Weblogs offer myriad new outlets for experimental writing. Online bulletin boards allow budding authors and artists to show their work, access international cultural news and critique one another” (Liu 2004). Two women became national obsessions for posting about their sexuality, confronting China’s rules regarding censorship of any material deemed pornographic (Shangyao 2004). Their actions spoke about a shifting feminist identity emerging from a staunchly patriarchal society, an arguable contra-flow itself. But the interesting thing about Chinese citizens blogging is not so much the government’s attempts to regulate or interfere, but with the blogger’s goals. Many of them are creating or examining a personal or national identity by communicating with each other and by performing this communication globally via the web.

Finally, I came across the most fascinating item accidentally. Under a headline, “China 2008: Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity” on China Digital Times, I found the most compelling YouTube video; one that at once defies my assumptions about Chinese trans/national identity and supports the concepts of flow and contra-flow. The video is essentially a remix of available news footage of sensational moments in Chinese media history—the Tiananmen Square standoff, violent clashes with Tibetan protesters—that supports a defiantly pro-China stance. Aside from its obvious propagandistic techniques, it’s notable for the fact that it appears on YouTube, a famously censored website in China. Its existence at once supports a global flow—China the nation being supported on a website it censors—and condemns it—the comments are peppered with Chinese nationalists expressing outrage against China’s negative international reputation. The repartee between commenters is itself a representation of a community building identity based upon the precepts of (exchanged) flow. On top of that, the presentation is clearly influenced by propagandist cinema and art; a sign of (western) flow well received. The video seems to perfectly encapsulate everything about media, community, identity, flow and contra-flow. And as long as the video stays up, identities will continue shaping under the current of media flow.

Bibliography

Anonymous.  2008! China Stand Up Video. 6 min 16 sec. YouTube, April 17, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSTYhYkASsA.

Beach, Sophie. Dispatches from the Chinese Bloggers Conference. China Digital Times, November 19, 2008. http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2008/11/dispatches-from-the-chinese-bloggers-conference/.

China Internet Network Information Center. CNNIC Released the 19th Statistical Survey Report on Internet Development in China. China Internet Network Information Center. http://www.cnnic.net.cn/html/Dir/2007/02/05/4432.htm.

Koo, Shang. The China Angle: Rumors And Regulations. Gamasutra, April 17, 2007. http://gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=13523.

Leung, Jenny. China 2008: Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity. China Digital Times, December 4, 2008. http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2008/12/china-2008-nationalism-internet-culture-and-identity/.

Liu, Melinda. The avant-garde art goes too far? China Daily, August 2, 2004. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-08/02/content_356928.htm.

NetEase.com, Inc. Fantasy Westward Journey. NetEase. http://corp.163.com/eng/games/fantasy_westward.html.

Rantanen, Terhi. 2007. Flows and contra-flows in transitional societies. In Media on the Move: Global flow and contra-flow, ed. Daya Kishan Thussu, 165-181. New York: Routledge.

Shangyao, Cai. Nonconformism or debauchery? Shanghai Star, April 8, 2004. http://app1.chinadaily.com.cn/star/2004/0408/vo3-1.html.

Thussu, Daya Kishan. 2007. Mapping global media flow and contra-flow. In Media on the Move: Global flow and contra-flow, ed. Daya Kishan Thussu, 11-32. New York: Routledge.

Yang, Mayfair Mei-Hui. 2002. Mass Media and Transnational Subjectivity in Shanghai: Notes on (Re)Cosmopolitanism in a Chinese Metropolis. In Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, ed. Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod and Brian Larkin, 189-210. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Your Freedom. http://www.your-freedom.net/.

Wikipedia. Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China.

Wikipedia. Online gaming in China. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_gaming_in_China#cite_note-11.

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Where have all the Chinese net.artistes gone?

Jason Ragsdale, written for Interdisciplinary Media and Society, The New School

After exhaustive research of websites including www.rhizome.org, www.turbulence.org, www.vdb.org, and www.lumeneclipse.com and specific Chinese art gallery sites such as www.longmarchspace.com and www.798avantgallery.com, I was unable to source any substantial works of art either designed for the purpose of Internet exhibition or distribution, or created using web tools. This is not to say that there are no Chinese net.artists, rather that the net.artists calling China home are incredibly off the radar. More than one news article or book makes reference to less than a handful of Chinese artists working with computer-based art, chief among them Xu Bing and Du Zhenjun , but they are now living in Brooklyn and Paris respectively. A typical search engine result yields no actual art for viewing or interaction. Further, it is evident that the numbers of Chinese artists still living and working in China are far more occupied by other media for expression, namely painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance art. Of the artists working in video, none that I found made their works wholly available to the public on the Internet What parts were viewable tended to be thirty second clips or small files used as example by an artist’s gallerist.

Wang Guangyi, Materialist Art, 2006

Wang Guangyi, Materialist Art, 2006

For the sake of research, it must be stated that my interest was in finding “artists” in the formal sense of the word; people not making their livings by creating commercial works for the profit of a larger entity (i.e. advertising, corporate web design, or commercial video game designers), but rather aesthetic motivations. This definition is admittedly tenuous as clearly any artist in a gallery or museum is selling their work for commercial gain, but said artist is also concerned with such artistic merits as concept and process, as much as financial gain, and that is what separates her from her commercial counterparts. It should also be noted that many Chinese artists—like the previously noted Bing and Zhenjun—are living and producing art as transnationals in cities as distant as Tokyo, London, Paris and New York, and because of their expatriate status were excepted from this survey. My aim was to find artists living and producing net.art from within China’s national boundaries, preferably using the web as a means of display. That task proved near impossible.

Feng Zhengjie, China Series No.3, 2006

Feng Zhengjie, China Series No.3, 2006

But if Chinese artists aren’t using the Internet to create new works, what are they using it for? According to numerous sources, Chinese nationals will soon outpace the number of United States citizens with Internet access. Clearly computer ownership and access and cable wiring are not a hindrance for artists. In fact, it should be noted that the presence of Chinese art galleries on the Internet is a clear indication of conscientious efforts to create a web presence, particularly in the case of Beijing’s booming Dashanzi Art District, that many Chinese and western fine art consumers and critics now find to be a tourist ghetto rather than a destination for truly avant-garde works (Cotter 2008). Indeed, in the halls of these galleries, there is no shortage of engaging works, much of it even, from the eyes of a westerner, notably politically critical or eroticized, two well-documented justifications for censorship under China’s authority. From the face of things it would appear that government censorship is not inhibiting the current crop of Chinese contemporary artists working in other media, but would that be the case of artists using the web?

One thing is clear, professional Chinese artists and art students alike, are aware of the power of the Internet to communicate across national boundaries. Now more than ever, Chinese artists are aware of the value of their works internationally. There are countless articles calculating the dollars spent on emerging and established Chinese artists in the global marketplace. Charles Saatchi, the London gallerist famous for launching the careers of the “Young British Artists” in the 1990s including Damien Hirst, just relocated his eponymous gallery in London to the Chelsea district this fall, and it’s inaugural exhibition was titled “The Revolution Continues: New Art From China.” While the show itself woefully underrepresented new media works, it certainly drove the point home that the art market was looking to China for its latest indulgences (Sillito 2008). In fact, just one year and a half prior in January of 2007, Saatchi launched a Chinese version of a feature on his original gallery’s site called Stuart (for Student Art) in an aggressively savvy move to make access to new artists easier with the benefit allowing artists to interact with each other. The site is designed to be interactive, including a chat feature and “a forum encouraging artists to debate current issues” (Vogel 2007). The cumulative effect is that Chinese students and artists are using this site, and others, to display their work from other medias, and to communicate with each other and prospective dealers and buyers. Rather than looking to the computer and Internet as a means of creation, they are using it as a marketing tool to increase awareness of their works, to communicate with each other and with their audience, and to spur eventual sales.

Li Wei, Liwei falls to 2007.12.27, 2007

Li Wei, Liwei falls to 2007.12.27, 2007

The Beijing Olympics this past summer allowed for a precursory international cultural event at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) that spoke directly to new media art and China, an exhibition titled “Synthetic Times—Media Art 2008.” The international roster of artists, unfortunately, leaned heavily toward the west. But it’s presence no doubt made an important impact on Chinese artists visiting the heavily trafficked show. It should have introduced them to a variety of media art being produced elsewhere, likely inspiring them to employ the new media they’d just witnessed. In a review of the show in China Today, Dan Edwards writes, “Curator Zhang Ga hopes the comprehensive survey of international media art practice will have an impact on local artists… ‘Everybody’s making so much money, without really reflecting on what they actually contribute to the language of art. And I think Synthetic Times will probably act as a wakeup call — to let people realize there are works that are very sincere, very serious, and require a lot of dedication and research and experimentation.’” Ga’s comment almost sounds like a rebuke to Chinese artists—like those on Saatchi’s website—who use the web for marketing, rather than creation. My research cannot decisively conclude whether commerce is the sole or even primary force motivating these artists in their web applications—my suspicion is contrary—but as if to mock the implication, I did come across a Chinese blog centered on contemporary art with a sizable number of posts on “art from china (sic)” aptly named “we need money not art (sic).” It is worth mentioning here that blog technology in general is proliferating in China. While it is not the lone instrument of artists (journalists and writers are also employing it, often to the chagrin of the government), artists are indeed using the technology as another means of communicating with each other, critiquing on other artist’s works, and showcasing their art (Liu 2004). Artists blogging are parallel to their other Internet usage.

Zhang Haiying, Anti-Vice Campaign Series 001, 2005

Zhang Haiying, Anti-Vice Campaign Series 001, 2005

When I began this research project, I was intent on revealing Chinese net.artists using the web to subvert or resist China’s autocracy. I was determined that the “democratic” characteristics of the Internet would appeal to Chinese artists to explore and display a kind of aesthetic revolution. That very western presumption was naïve; what I found was quite different. Indeed, there are plenty of Chinese artists creating works in opposition to China’s government, but they are not employing the web in their creative process. Rather, they are keen to use the traditional media that have already been made available to them. Instead, their usage of the web has been one of communication, for the greatest part concerned with sharing images of their work, critiquing and communicating with other artists, and promoting themselves to dealers and art buyers. As China continues growing as an art epicenter and these artists are exposed to more new.media art from across the globe—either via the Internet or from gallery and museum shows like “Synthetic Times”—it should be interesting to see whether greater exposure leads to an acquisition and co-optation of new media tools in their art making.

Bibliography

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Bonami, Francesco. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda. The New York Times, February 25, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/25/magazine/25Style.China.t.html (accessed November 25, 2008).

Cotter, Holland. China’s Female Artists Quietly Emerge. The New York Times, July 30, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/30/arts/design/30arti.html (accessed November 25, 2008).

Debatty, Regine. The Digital Dragon: Synthetic times in Beijing. Art Review:, AR: Live Blogs, August 30, 2008. http://www.artreview.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1474022:BlogPost:431402&page=1 (accessed November 25, 2008).

Eckholm, Erik. Celebrating a Decade of Chinese Artists’ Experiments. The New York Times, November 25, 2002. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C00E3DA1139F936A15752C1A9649C8B63 (accessed November 25, 2008).

Edwards, Dan. Media Art Comes to Beijing. China Today. http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/e2008/e200810/p58.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

Genocchio, Benjamin. Art Review: Sampling the Diverse Output of Artists From China. The New York Times, October 15, 2006. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F01E4D81030F936A25753C1A9609C8B63 (accessed November 25, 2008).

Guangyi, Wang. Materialist’s Art, 2006. Oil on canvas, 300 x 400cm. The Saatchi Gallery. http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/wang_guangyi_materialists.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

Haiying, Zhang. Anti-Vice Campaign Series 001, 2005. Oil on canvas, 300 x 400cm. The Saatchi Gallery. http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/zhang_haiying_antivice001.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

Liu, Melinda. The avant-garde art goes too far? China Daily, August 2, 2004. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-08/02/content_356928.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

Olesen, Alexa. China Tightens Internet Controls. USA Today, October 12, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/world/2007-10-12-china-net-controls_N.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

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The Saatchi Gallery. http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/index.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

Sillito, David. Saatchi leads Chinese revolution. BBC News, October 7, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/7656812.stm (accessed November 23, 2008).

Vogel, Carol. Let 10,000 Young Artists Bloom. The New York Times, March 11, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/arts/design/11voge.html?emc=eta1 (accessed November 25, 2008).

Wei, Li. 085-02, Liwei falls to 2007.12.27, 2007. Photo print, Size A: 176 x 197cm, Edition: 8, Size B: 89 x 100cm, Edition: 10. The Paris-Beijing Gallery. http://www.parisbeijingphotogallery.com/main/liweiworks.asp (accessed November 25, 2008).

Yongfeng, Ma. Ma Yongfeng’s Studio. http://myfstudio.blogspot.com/ (accessed November 23, 2008).

Zhengjie, Feng. China Series No.3, 2006. Oil on canvas, 210 x 300cm. The Saatchi Gallery. http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/artpages/feng_zhengjie_3.htm (accessed November 25, 2008).

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