The dividing point between ‘zombie social activism’ and artistic mobilisation

In an article that appeared recently on artnet news, Daria Daniel asked Is a new artistic activism emerging via social media and forms of public protest? The article focuses on international art groups who have created works in response to recent social and political crises, from a collective of Mexican artists who posed naked in public spaces to demonstrate against recent student killings to Titus Kaphar and Hank Willis Thomas’ artistic reaction to the Ferguson protests as well as the outpouring of political cartoons and visual tributes which emerged following the Charlie Hebdo Attacks.

Titus Kaphar Yet Another Fight for Rememberance .  Photo: time.com

Titus Kaphar, ‘Yet Another Fight for Remembrance’
Photo: time.com

Illustration by graphic designer Lucille Clerc.  Photo: businessinsider.com

Illustration by graphic designer Lucille Clerc.
Photo: businessinsider.com

 

From the Poner el cuerpo: sacar la voz series (2014–15), by Édgar Olguín

From the Poner el cuerpo: sacar la voz series (2014–15), by Édgar Olguín

Examining the mediating role of digital technologies in enabling these artists to disseminate their works to new audiences and thus open up a communicative space to debate and protest these issues, one of the most interesting points the article raises centres on the longterm impact of these projects, and ultimately their ability to empower their audience to further action. The author writes: “Today, when we speak of social activism, it seems we are referring to a diluted version, one in which posting photographs in the name of a cause is sufficient action. With the accessibility of media and social networking outlets, our political consciences have never been more in tune, yet the ways in which we protest have been reduced to transient ‘likes’ on an Instagram account.”

She continues: “Perhaps….the reason these campaigns are able to reach such high volumes is because not much is actually being asked of people. To ‘post,’ ‘like,’ ‘share,’ or ‘hashtag’ takes seconds in time and involves little to no personal investment. These acts of solidarity may put our conscience at ease but they are creating a new breed of zombie social activism. What it does yield is easy social praise, so that even in its most generous form, this is social activism for the lazy.”

Daniel questions whether the instantaneous yet in her opinion politically redundant response which social media facilitates is adequate to the world events unfolding around us. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything the author claims, thinking about these questions in the Chinese context provides some interesting counterpoints from which to approach this issue.

I’ve written in previous posts about how many artists within China are increasingly coding their critiques of the government and discussion of pressing social issues in visual humour and satire, enabling them to bypass or evade online censorship.  This form of visual communication has become a ubiquitous and pervasive online language to the extent that it can be considered more than merely an expression of political and ideological resistance but also a vital mode of cultural expression. In this post I’m going to extend my analysis of these visual forms to focus specifically on projects that have sought to actively engage their audiences not just as passive spectators or ‘zombie social activists’ but as contributors with their own agency and creative input. From viral campaigns and memes that have galvanised and empowered citizens to collective action, this production of visual media highlights how citizens are increasingly exploiting the opportunities afforded by digital technologies to expand their cultural and political participation.

Many of these projects will already be well known to online readers, but it is worth reexamining their participatory and democratic character in light of their focus on the individual contribution to social change. Collectively they also illustrate how activists are using predominantly visual means to harness the power of online communities, exploring the potential for new visual technologies to bridge the online/offline divide.

Crazy Crab’s dark sunglasses campaign in support of Chen Guangcheng

Operating under the pseudonym of Fengxie 疯蟹 ‘Crazy Crab,’ the author of the online political cartoon Xie nongchang 蟹农场 ‘Hexie Farm’, (loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm)  pokes satirical fun at the Chinese government and the often corrupt, mendacious and disreputable activities of its officials. Emerging in 2010, the cartoon, with its combination of visual satire, subversive appropriation of government rhetoric and irreverent dark humour eventually caught the attention of online censors but remains widely accessible on weibo, wechat and other online platforms. Collections of Crazy Crab’s work can be viewed on his wordpress blog and on the China Digital Times website, who have also published a compilation of his work in digital book form.

The Strength of Free Speech, by Crazy Crab of Hexie Farm for CDT

The Strength of Free Speech, by Crazy Crab of Hexie Farm for CDT

Crazy Crab was the initiator of one project which is particularly pertinent to this discussion, especially in its employment of a specifically visual means of communication- the Mojing Xiaoxiang 墨镜.肖像 Dark Glasses: Portrait campaign. Initiated in October 2011 the campaign was designed to raise awareness of the plight of Chen Guangcheng 陈光诚, the lawyer and activist who campaigned for many years against social injustice, most notably the forced abortions and sterilisations of the One Child policy. Chen was subsequently held under an excessively severe form of house arrest in Shandong with his family after already having served a four year prison sentence.

The Dark Glasses Campaign urged Chinese internet users to post pictures of themselves wearing Chen’s signature sunglasses to show their support for the blind activist. Curated by Crazy Crab and subsequently uploaded to Chen’s blog, these digital photographs range from the conventional, in which users pose somewhat self-consciously in a variety of dark glasses, to the comic: portraits of babies in oversized shades; participants in ski goggles, to the more strident: portraits of internet users wearing blindfolds holding up signs which riff on the two characters of Chen’s name to demand yao you guang 要有光 ‘greater light’ and yao you cheng 要有诚 ‘greater honesty’. Placing your cursor over each portrait also causes the photograph to virtually flip over, revealing a number and the date which the photograph was received and posted online, thus providing an online visual record of support, a digital archive of dissent.

The Dark Glasses: Portrait campaign initiated by Crazy Crab to raise awareness of the plight of Chen Guangcheng

The Dark Glasses: Portrait campaign initiated by Crazy Crab to raise awareness of the plight of Chen Guangcheng

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In addition to resembling a work of online performance art, Dark Glasses: portrait provided a level of anonymity, a collective form of camouflage for those who might otherwise be constrained by a fear of reprisal. More importantly, it represented a powerful collective expression of solidarity and an outlet for the expressive desires of online communities. As individual portraits, these photos appear innocuous, but when exhibited online, the discrete variations produced a powerful visual statement of collective dissent. By visually appropriating the symbolism of Chen’s physical impairment the hundreds of online portraits also formed a commentary on collective blindness. In censoring any discussion of Chen’s plight and placing both him and subsequently his entire family under house arrest prior to their escape and asylum in the US, the project offered a searing critique of the deliberate obfuscation of information and free expression which the government enacted upon its citizens.

Ai Weiwei’s Nian

Type ‘art’,  ‘social activism’ and ‘China’ into most search engines and Ai Weiwei is inevitably the first name that will emerge, in fact not only will it appear prominently on the first page but you may have to scroll down through a considerable amount of links before you arrive in an area of the internet that may be AWW free. Whether that is just a reflection of the prolific output of the artist, his international celebrity status enhanced by what has been referred to as “a simultaneous Chinese and global identity […] that is self-consciously narrated and performed through global communication media” as much as for the inexorable intertwining of his art and activism (or more prosaically the result of the specific google algorithm that ranks results in relation to previously searched for terms) there is no denying the ubiquitous presence of the artist in online discussions.

While there’s no doubt that Ai is a firm believer in the emancipatory capacity of social media and digital technologies, some commentators have argued that relatively few projects from his overall output actively engage his audience in collective action. As Daria Berg and Giorgio Strafella argue in a recent article “Web 2.0 offers not only a platform to spread one’s ideology – as another artist describes Ai Weiwei’s use of social networks – but also a space to organise grassroots activism and awareness campaigns. Ai Weiwei has made limited use of the latter dimension, relying more on online communication than off-line mobilisation. In this effort to spread his ideals, he has defied the limitations of censorship and repression while gaining fame and perhaps influence by turning his clashes with these boundaries into media spectacles.”

Many of Ai’s projects intertwine his online communications with his artistic practice to craft an artistic mode of expression that very cleverly exposes the ridiculous and often incredulous contradictions of contemporary China and the absurdities of institutional power through the skillful remixing of popular culture. Producing works that are frequently confrontational yet imbued with social and cultural significance, he exemplifies how activists are challenging and reframing what it means to be political through the deployment of visual humour, irony, satire, parody and lampooning. His artistic appropriation of images and objects already invested with significant cultural value, frequently modified and distorted until their original function has been vitiated and the objects themselves made curiously unproductive, in addition to his cultural reversals, subverted language, re-appropriated visuals and hi-jacked rhetoric explore how meaning is created and contested, both through the official government narrative but also by China’s increasingly media-savvy public. His use of social media and his prolific online presence thus signify his desire to interrupt the flow of information controlled and regulated not just by the government, but also by media corporations, the advertising industry, art institutions and any powerful figures in society (or the art world) whom Ai deems worthy of censure.

Ai is certainly no stranger to the paradox surrounding activism’s encounter with digital media, and from the interactive opportunities created by the internet and other forms of participatory media. Berg and Strafella make the valid point that his coverage and prominence in a celebrity-centred mediasphere appear as co-essential to his activism, bolstering the efficacy and exposure of his intended message. At times, however, this message is often deliberately ambiguous.

In June 2014 Ai posted a photograph of himself to his instagram account in which he was shown clad only in shorts, socks and a straw hat, clutching his raised right calf in a pose which transformed his extended leg into a pointed gun. The popularity of his Leg Gun Meme, with its comic rehashing of Maoist inspired propaganda imagery (even in more recent reiterations) created a viral storm that inspired countless imitations and reenactments, both within China and amongst Ai’s 89 thousand instagram followers worldwide. It also provoked endless debates on its potential political undertones, whether as a veiled reference to the violence of the state ( the caption that initially accompanied the original image was entitled Beijing anti-terrorism series) or a visual commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen square massacre, or merely as a comic and irreverent gesture, the interpretation of Ai’s act was left squarely in the eye (or leg) of the beholder.

Ai Weiwei's initial Leg Gun photograph, posted on his instagram account June 2014

Ai Weiwei’s initial Leg Gun photograph, posted on his instagram account June 2014

The image quickly went viral provoking a range of creative reenactments, both within China and amongst Ai’s 89 thousand instagram followers worldwide.

The image quickly went viral provoking a range of creative reenactments, both within China and amongst Ai’s 89 thousand instagram followers worldwide.

While many would regard the leg-gun meme as well as Ai’s recurrent employment of the river crab and caonima imagery as  juvenile or impish protests against the power of the State, a growing body of literature, in addition to the Chinese government’s often disproportionate response to these visual provocations would seem to suggest otherwise. Of course to say that there is frequently a disconnect between how the artist’s works are interpreted within China and by an international audience would be a gross understatement, and the divide in meaning production and intent is a subject that has been explored very eloquently in an article by Zheng Bo, whom I mentioned in a previous post. In an article entitled  “From Gongren to Gongmin,” originally published in the Journal of Visual Art Practice, Vol. 11, No. 2/3 (2012) Zheng examines two works by Ai that exemplify this divide, arguing that Ai Weiwei’s project “Sunflower Seeds” for Tate Modern in 2010 segregated object production (in Jingdezhen, China) and meaning production (in western media), whereas the artist’s sound project “Nian” created a genuine public through collective production. Examining whether art externalises intrinsic meaning or whether political contexts construct its identity is obviously a very salient point and one which is worth examining in more depth in relation to the efficacy and longterm impact of socially engaged art projects.

Like Fairytale, Ai’s project for Documenta 12, which involved the transportation of 1001 Chinese citizens to Kassel for the duration of the exhibition (albeit in staggered groups), Nian invited participants to become individual contributors in the production of the final work. Designed to commemorate the two year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, in 2010 Ai posted a call on his blog and via twitter asking people to read out a name from the list of 5,205 children who had been killed in the earthquake as a result of the shoddy construction of school buildings. In what became known as tofu dreg projects 豆腐渣工程, outrage at the use of improper materials and the contravention of civil engineering laws responsible for the wholesale destruction of school buildings had already led many activists to launch campaigns and searing critiques of state negligence. Nian 念, which means both to read and to commemorate, provided a subdued yet powerful work of remembrance and protest, as individual recordings were sent by over two thousand participants to Ai Weiwei’s studio, where he had a team of assistants edit and aggregate the files into a 7 hour long sound recording.

Like Joseph Beuys’ 1982 work for documenta 7, entitled 7000 Oaks, Nian and Fairytale could be considered as a grass roots form of social activism which, although initiated by the artist, placed the responsibility for social change and individual contribution solely in the hands of the participants. By enlisting thousands of people across China to join together in a solemn act of participation and remembrance which was dramatically different from the official commemorations broadcast across government media and propaganda platforms on the same day, Nian provided a counter discourse to the overtly sanitised version of events promulgated by the state. It thus stands as an oppositional interpretation to the monolithic socio-political narrative that prevailed in official media, challenging how this event will be recorded for posterity.

As Zheng Bo comments: “Nian constituted a challenge to the state not only because it refused to forget about the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake; it mounted this refusal by creating a public of strangers to mourn for the students. It was not a single artist’s defiant gesture, but a concatenation of discrete oral performances that foregrounded stranger-relationality. The public nature of its production is central to its contestation against state power.”

The role of the internet in facilitating this public expression can obviously not be downplayed, as it was critical both for its creation and its subsequent dissemination. As Zheng notes: “The internet as a platform was strategic for the creation of Nian because, among existing media, it offers the highest possibility to evade state censorship, to engage strangers, and to mobilize a critical discourse. Furthermore, unlike traditional media, the internet allows different formats – text, image, sound, video – to be carried on the same platform. In particular, it has greatly reduced the cost of transmitting and circulating non-textual materials, thus benefitting counterpublic forms of expression.”

Circulating online and collectively amplifying the expressive energy of online participants, this subtle sound recording challenged the public to rethink art, the self, and the society in which they live, As Zheng concludes in his article “…it is works like Nian that pose a more serious challenge to the party-state, as they engage people living in China not as workers silently producing objects for export, but as citizens with rights to speak, to mourn, to ask, and to criticize.”

Wen Yunchao’s De-Maoification Campaign

Like Ai and Crazy Crab, the activist Wen Yunchao 温云超, more commonly known by his online alias “Bei Feng,” 北风 also considers digital technologies and humour to be vital weapons in mobilising citizens to collective action. He has initiated a number of campaigns which have exploited the potential of social media to spread awareness of social issues and open up a discursive space for citizens to discuss pressing contemporary problems.

In 2009 Wen initiated what became known as the Qù máo huódòng 去毛活动 ‘De-Maoification campaign’. Exploiting the punning potential of the first character of Mao’s name (毛 Máo: meaning hair; feather; down), Wen urged his online followers to post before and after shots of depilated body parts. Unleashing a satirical spree of body performance art, submissions ranged from photographs of waxed legs and shaved faces to plucked eyebrows and most famously Wen’s own contribution- a photograph of his groin with the ‘t’ of the twitter logo delineated with the aid of some creative pubic topiary.

Wen Yunchao's de-maoficiation campaign asked users to post before and after shots of depilated body parts.

Wen Yunchao’s de-maoficiation campaign asked users to post before and after shots of depilated body parts.

Wen's contribution- the 't' of the twitter logo spelled out in body hair.

Wen’s contribution- the ‘t’ of the twitter logo spelled out in body hair.

While Wen’s suggestive form of subversion probably won’t win any prizes for subtlety it did initiate a debate on the perpetuation of Mao’s legacy in the 21st century and the potential transformation of that legacy into a tool of state critique and resistance. This is a point which assumes added import in light of the current government’s search for a useable past, a past which must come to terms both with the complexity of Mao’s legacy, and the uses (and abuses) of that legacy in shaping the country’s future. If anyone is in any doubt as to how contentious this issue still remains then the spirited debate which took place recently amongst China scholars on the issue of Is Mao still dead? is worth further reading.

Wen has in fact launched a series of online campaigns designed to raise awareness of human rights infringements and challenges to freedom of expression. One of the most famous acts of mobilisation occurred in 2009 following the detention of the young blogger Guo Baofeng 郭宝锋, who was detained by local police in Fujian province after he posted information online regarding the gang rape and murder by local officials of a young woman named Yan Xiaoling 严晓玲. After Guo managed to furtively tweet his location to his followers before the police confiscated his phone, Wen initiated a postcard writing campaign on Guo’s behalf that employed a viral phrase that had been circulating online- Jiǎ Jūnpéng, nǐ māmā hǎn nǐ huí jiā chīfàn 贾君鹏,你妈妈喊你回家吃饭 ‘Jia Junpeng, your mother is calling you home for dinner.’ This seemingly innocuous statement was born out of collective sentiments of frustration in Baidu’s WoW (World of Warcraft) online community after the temporary suspension of access to the game. Yet very shortly afterwards, Wen transformed the phrase into a slogan for political mobilisation, encouraging citizens to send hundreds of postcards with Guo’s name transposed into the phrase to the police station where he had been detained, thus pressurising the local authorities into releasing him 16 days after he was arrested.

The postcard campaign initiated by Wen to shame local officials into releasing Guo Baofeng.

The postcard campaign initiated by Wen to shame local officials into releasing Guo Baofeng.

Similarly when the phrase kōng yǐzi 空椅子 ‘empty chair’ was banned by online censors following Liu Xiaobo’s 刘晓波 absence at the Nobel Ceremony, Wen once again resorted to visual means of communication to pay tribute to the imprisoned activist. Calling on his followers to post seemingly banal photographs of empty chairs online, the resulting proliferation of visual imagery- ranging from a magazine ad for an Ikea lounger, to beaten up office chairs, Van Gogh paintings to stylised graphic depictions, as well as a visually ambiguous 南方都市报 Southern Metropolis Daily cover, illustrated that through collective mobilisation, images could also become potent visual symbols of activism and dissent.

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Some images prompted by Wen’s ’empty chair’ campaign as well as the controversial Southern Metropolis Daily Cover in 2010.

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These examples illustrate that the collective character and freedom of association that are defining attributes of these online projects simultaneously enhance their impact whilst also guaranteeing that they frequently attract the condemnation and suppression of the state.

These are issues which have been addressed quite extensively by Yang Guobin, whom I was fortunate to meet last week in London with Wenny Teo. In his 2011 work The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online and more recently in the articles such as “The networked practice of online political satire in China: Between ritual and resistance” (co-authored with Jiang Min) Yang explores the role of the internet in facilitating popular expression and collective action. In the later article he writes:  “These performative acts blend resistance and play, idea and action, online and offline, the shocking and the mundane. Artists and participants engage in playful manipulations of meaning that baffle authorities and expand the universe of alternate meanings.”

The ability of these online participatory projects to mediate between the personal and broader political issues has given other writers and scholars pause for concern, especially those who are wary of the unchecked evangelism surrounding the emancipatory capacities of the internet. Evgeney Morozov’s The Net Delusion offers a plangent critique of what the author classifies as cyber utopianism and internet-centrism. The belief that the internet will ultimately lead to the democratisation of authoritarian societies Morozov decries as both naive and ignorant, informed by a Cold-War era mentality that refuses to acknowledge the increasingly sophisticated means by which these same authoritarian governments are harnessing the power of the internet for the entrenchment of their own agendas. Aided by increasingly sophisticated online forms of entertainment and distraction Morozov argues that the internet is being employed not as a vehicle for liberation but as one securing continued complacency.

These are issues which most artists and activists within China are already chronically aware of, Ai Weiwei himself has stated that the reason the government tolerates his prolific twitter output is because “twitter is the window of surveillance” (2011). In the context of contemporary China, where the interactions between technology and society are constantly mutating, the question is perhaps not whether twitter, wechat or weibo can liberate the nation, but what liberation itself means more broadly in the context of a networked culture. While the artists and activists analysed in this post certainly do believe that words and more importantly images will sow the seeds of change they hope for, debates surrounding the technological empowerment and emancipatory capacity of web based communication strategies illustrate that visual media have an important role to play in expanding cultural and political participation.