Several headlines this morning featured the news that the authorities in China have begun to block access to overseas based VPN services. VPNs (or virtual private networks) allow internet users within the country to effectively circumvent the usual censorship strictures and access online content using proxy servers- which serve to protect the user’s online identity and location. In effect they are used to vault over what has perhaps misleadingly been labelled “the Great Firewall of China” (more about this in a later post.)
Some of the most popular VPN service providers within China, such as Astrill, StrongVPN and Golden Frog have all been affected by the recent crackdown, with GreatFire.org reporting that Astrill’s site has been 88 percent blocked in the past 90 days. Censorship instructions regarding the restriction of VPNs were recently issued to the media by government authorities, who accused VPN service providers of disregarding China’s cyber sovereignty.
While the move could be read as a reaction against the increased number of domestic users employing VPN services within China, as other commentators have pointed out the actual percentage of China’s estimated 600+ million internet users who want to gain access to blocked overseas sites still remains marginal. So who exactly is going to be affected by this sudden escalation of online control?
One group who may feel the repercussions of these restrictions more acutely is artists, especially a younger generation who were born in the 1970s and 80s and have grown up in a digitally saturated age where the internet constitutes the primary source of information regarding exhibitions, art events and the day to day developments of a globalised art world. This is a point which was recognised in a 2013 exhibition, entitled ON ￨ OFF: 中国年轻艺术家的观念与实践 ‘ON l OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice‘ which was held at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing and co-curated by Bao Dong 鲍栋 and Sun Dongdong 孙冬冬.
The exhibition’s title ON|OFF made explicit reference to “the graphical interface of a common VPN software used to scale China’s Internet firewall” namely the aforementioned Astrill VPN, whose log in interface is pictured below. Chosen to reflect the reality of a generation of younger, predominantly urban artists, the majority of whom are extremely adept social media users who came of age learning to use a VPN, the exhibition sought to showcase the work of 50 artists from this ultra-connected generation.
The curators of the exhibition acknowledged the importance of this VPN software by employing it as a metaphor for the ‘binary’ condition experienced by this generation: “Chinese artists born after 1975 have grown up, toggling between extremes, in a rising society and globalized culture. The title ON | OFF….represents this binary condition at its simplest and most direct.“ Whilst the use of the word toggling may elicit a few raised eyebrows ( the Chinese text actually reads 切换和游走于坐标两极 Qiēhuàn hé yóu zǒu yú zuòbiāo liǎngjí “switching and migrating between these poles” and the Chinese is also more explicit when it talks about 当下日趋复杂的社会环境 “today’s increasingly complex social environment” rather than the restrained English translation of “a rising society”, however, the text from the exhibition statement is worth quoting in more depth:
“Representing a striking diversity of practices and positions, this generation is the first to come of age in a post-Opening, post-Reform China, a group with instant access to information about artistic developments around the world and ample opportunities to travel abroad. Occupying all four exhibition spaces at the UCCA, ON | OFF is a large-scale group exhibition featuring the work of fifty young Chinese artists who together offer a collective portrait of this important generation.”
“The exhibition is rooted in a series of such tensions that intensified in 1999, just as the Internet was becoming implicated into everyday life. Since then, it is precisely this generation of artists that has surfaced and begun to attract attention, as Chinese contemporary art has moved away from the underground scene of the 1990s and a new commercial market and institutional infrastructure have come to replace it. Today’s most notable young artists are the recipients of formal art educations, and many are gradually fitting into a rising gallery system. They exhibit a strong tendency toward self-organization and collective practice, yet represent a wider diversity of individual subjectivities and styles than ever before seen in China. They actively participate in the emergence of new art institutions even as they question and mediate these developments. Unlike previous generations, they stay informed of international developments in real time, even as they continue to run up against a distinct and specific set of constraints and challenges.”
So exactly what sort of artworks are this post-Opening, internet-reared generation of new artists producing? I wasn’t able to see the exhibition in person as I wasn’t in Beijing at the time but here are a selection of installation shots and photographs of individual works. You can see more of these at the exhibition website.
While it’s difficult to comment on the merits (or otherwise) of an exhibition which I didn’t see in person, you can read reviews of ON ￨ OFF in Chinese here and here and a review in English here. One point perhaps worthy of more comment is that whilst the exhibition takes its title from and is apparently inspired by the realities and bi-products of contemporary censorship, commentators have remarked on the participating artists’ apparent disaffection for overtly political messages: “Hints at critique are vague at best; tame irony or perfunctory theatrics are used to elicit the contemporary technologies of social control and soft power, as in Xin Yunpeng’s No Problem (2013), a mechanical rodeo bull stationed in the lobby that deflates as visitors attempt to ride it, while Tang Dixin’s Reverse (2013), in the adjacent long nave, presents viewers with a bicycle-powered propeller set in front of a towering industrial fan they are invited to race against. Other works sublimate such conflicting forces, such as Huang Ran’s Maybe We Just Care About the Feeling of Caring (2013), in which soap bubbles collide with high-voltage screens, or Zhang Ding’s Control Club (2013), a massive tower of noise-emitting speakers, which creates a tension between mediated experience and entropic space. Some works expose their political messages via performative interventions, as does Li Liao’s Consumption (2012), for which he worked on the assembly line at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen for 45 days – as long as it took to purchase the iPad Mini that the factory produces. Liao presents the device alongside documents and material evidence of his labour.” (Beatrice Leanza at Frieze).
Despite what has been criticised as the exhibition’s lack of curatorial and structural cohesiveness, exploring this generation of artists through the perspective of their engagement with the internet and the transformations that it has wrought on Chinese society (both good and bad) had the potential to provide some important insights into how these artists navigate between contemporary China and the wider world, both online and in their practice. While the transformative power of the internet and the role of VPNs within China has frequently been subject to over-exaggerated claims that have sought to endow them with revolutionary potential, perhaps what this exhibition more succinctly illustrates is that a younger generation of artists are producing work that eschews the ideological and political pressures of representation that was such a defining characteristic of their predecessors.