March 15th, 2015

Why China’s artists love (and hate) WeChat

By: Lisa Movius     Source: The Art Newspaper 15/3/2015

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More than 400 million people use WeChat, including almost all of China’s young professionals. Above, Leo Xu Project mocks pointless WeChat posts

Sometimes the fastest way to get a laugh—and a social media repost—is to be a bit mean. That was the WeChat strategy employed by Shanghai’s Leo Xu Projects in January to publicise a solo show by the artist Aaajiao. The post on China’s dominant social media platform made fun of the clichéd posts from businesses. Xu was “criticising the wrong way of doing WeChat posts, but in an implicit way”. He poked fun at how galleries post entire, obtuse press releases to their official WeChat accounts. “Why do it bilingual? It doesn’t fit into the media. ‘We are pleased to announce… blah, blah, blah’,” he says. “You have to customise what you say and how.” Xu is also underwhelmed by many galleries’ use of Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site. “They use it in a stupid way too—posting photos from openings without stories. Who are these people?” he says.

China’s more than 400 million users of WeChat (Weixin in Mandarin), share messages and images with friends and followers, like a hybrid of WhatsApp and Instagram, or a streamlined, mobile-focused Facebook. 

Now used by almost all of China’s young professionals, WeChat’s Moments photo-sharing platform has also become a dominant way art is viewed and shared in China, from artists posting works in progress to an enthusiastic public using art as selfie backdrops. Which, in fairness, the art world does too.

Businesses can also create accounts, which have become an important publicity tool of art museums and galleries. Additional functions allow financial transactions of up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600), usually used for booking taxis or, over Chinese New Year last month, sending hongbao (red envelopes) of virtual cash. This function has spawned a novelty of holding budget art auctions on WeChat, as well as sales via stores on the e-commerce site Taobao.

Platforms and podiums

“WeChat is very successful in China, more so than things like WhatsApp or Line,” says Pan Jing, who manages WeChat outreach for Guangzhou’s Times Museum. “It has achieved a monopoly position,” Jing says. “When everyone around you uses WeChat, you also only use WeChat. Also, WeChat is compatible with many [platforms], greatly expanding the application’s scope.”

Leo Xu agrees. “It is very Chinese. WeChat wins because it is easy, accessible and free. If Western products ever want to compete with it, they have to be all three,” Xu says. His gallery engages on most platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. China’s Twitter-like Weibo, “is very informative for news, stories, as an open platform—it is like speaking on a podium”, he says. The MySpace-modelled Douban is “underestimated; it doesn’t generate business, but brings white noise and web traffic”.

“Weibo’s problem is strangers,” says Aaajiao, the pseudonym of the artist Xu Wenkai, referring to bogus accounts. “WeChat is all real people.” From the rising generation of Chinese new media artists weaned on the internet, Aaajiao originally studied computer science. “[WeChat] is popular because it is easy to use. It is a small circle, all friends of friends, not public like Weibo. WeChat is very Chinese in style, you can do everything: pay, chat, post. Instagram is just pictures. WeChat’s contents are about guanxi [connections].”

Along with managing his studio through group chat, Aaajiao’s numerous WeChat Moments show his exhibitions and works in progress, as well as a compilation of exhibitions and articles. There is a downside, however. “It has become something terrible,” he says. “Everyday I open it. It’s like work, not play. I have to plan the contents of a post.”

The friends-only network of WeChat Moments and group conversations mean it is largely exempt from the worst of China’s censorship. Though some posts are removed, last autumn saw a deluge of posts about Hong Kong’s otherwise verboten Occupy movement. Aaajiao says: “There is always a censorship problem. But I’ve never heard of WeChat getting someone sent to jail, which Weibo has. WeChat is only open to friends. On the open internet, it is terrible what can happen [because of] what you say.” Aaajiao, who managed a website when at high school, recalls how the site attracted the attention of the police, and was blocked. In 2010 the artist created Gfwlist, a work about internet censorship by China’s “Great Firewall”, which features a machine printing the details of blocked websites.

Institutions also use WeChat to attract and interact with visitors. Pan Jing says: “WeChat provides audiences with a platform to registering for events. We also use WeChat as a way of interacting with audiences, such as Araki, a device that allowed visitors at an exhibition to upload their photos to appear immediately on a screen in the main exhibition hall. The screen showed a continual stream of images submitted by the audience, which was very popular,” he says. In the future he predicts that artists will use WeChat to create digitally interactive works.

However, WeChat’s ubiquity is double-edged. “We are the screen generation, and it is terrible sometimes, we forget how to interact without a screen,” Aaajiao says. “Our on- and offline lives cannot be separated, but we need to stop, to think about things.”

WeChat also generates a new form of peer pressure. Leo Xu says: “If you are at a gallery, WeChat is a diplomatic vehicle—who people know and ‘like’ delivers a message, including to clients.” He describes its freedom as self-indulgent. “People interact via selfies, event snapshots, by complimenting each other. It is full of ego. Sometimes you have to do it, for friendship—and ego,” he says. You cannot be silent on WeChat, he says, “or you get, ‘Are you OK?’ Yet people get annoyed or jealous if you post too much. In the end, you cannot leave.”