In this post I’m going to be taking a closer look at the recent works of Miao Ying 苗颖, a young artist whose practice explores the intersections between digital imagery, net art and the co-existent yet often culturally distinct web cultures that have developed within China and beyond the so-called ‘Great Firewall’. In Miao’s work memes, viral images, videos and audio recordings often coalesce in unforeseen and imaginative ways in a process that comments upon both the limitations and the vibrancy of what has affectionately been labelled the ‘Chinternet. ’
Born in 1985, Miao graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the New Media Art Department 新媒体艺术系 of the China Academy of Art (CAA) 中国美术学院 in 2007 and an MFA in Electronic Integrated Arts from Alfred University’s School of Art and Design in 2009. She was among the first generation of new media students at CAA to be tutored by the artists Zhang Peili 张培力 and Geng Jianyi 耿建翌, who are widely regarded as pioneers in the field. Indeed CAA’s ‘Intermedia Art Institute’ 跨媒体艺术学院 features a number of prominent artists, curators and critics amongst its permanent teaching staff, from Yang Fudong 杨福东 to Qiu Zhijie 邱志杰, Gao Shiming 高世名 and Wu Meichun 吴美纯. The New Media Art Department encompasses a wide range of disciplines spanning computer programming to animation, photography and video, an interdisciplinarity that is reflected in Miao’s eclectic approach to her practice.
Miao’s graduation piece from CAA was entitled ‘Blind Spot’ 盲点 (2007) a reference to the specific conditions of the internet in China and its often nebulous system of censorship and content control. As Ophelia S. Chan comments: “In 2006 whilst reading a series of popular blog entries online, Miao discovered a post on the blog Boing Boing 无聊无聊博客 that specifically addressed The Great Firewall, 防火长城.” Often abbreviated to the GFW, ‘The Great Firewall‘ refers to China’s complex and sophisticated system of web filters and internet regulations, many of which are responsible for filtering keywords out of searches initiated from computers within the mainland. The thread that Miao discovered contained a list of terms of government-censored search results found on google.cn. These censored terms often fluctuate widely from day to day, and while some are often permanently censored (including references to sensitive events such as Tiananmen Square or religious or spiritual groups such as Falun Gong) at other times they appear completely arbitrary and often inexplicable. Many are references to current events and frequently correspond to politically or socially sensitive keywords, paradoxically at times even the homonyms and political euphemisms which netizens have created to bypass these restrictions in time themselves become restricted, leading to a cat and mouse game of internet censorship that frequently defies categorisation.
Fascinated by this constantly fluctuating stream of inaccessible terms, “Miao decided to devote her university graduation project to compiling a complete list of censored terms by searching for every entry in the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary 现代汉语词典—word by word—on google.cn.” Initiating what another commentator has referred to as: “the DIY version of Jason Q. Ng’s work documenting blocked words on the popular Chinese social network Sina Weibo.” Miao’s graduation piece represented an extremely laborious, time consuming and meditative exercise- the strenuous need to document, word by word, the constantly shifting boundaries of online speech. The work could be read as a commentary on the human labour required by the government to monitor and patrol the internet, what at first appears as a futile exercise in state control therefore testifies to a deeper reflection on the ideological control of language and the limits of online expression.
Miao’s list, which took three months to complete, was eventually transformed into a “Revised Edition” with scans of the censored words, which was first shown as an installation in the United States in 2010, ironically the year in which google itself became inaccessible and ceased operations from China, after it’s high profile and much publicised clash with the Chinese state following large scale cyber attacks on its corporate infrastructure and its refusal to continue granting concessions to the Chinese government after it initially offered a censored (and highly controversial) version of its search engine at Google.cn. The theme for the US exhibition ‘Beyond/In Western New York’ in which Miao participated was entitled ‘Alternating currents’ an apposite theme for exploring: “the undercurrent of utopian power, both literal and metaphorical; reclamation or use of natural assets, visions of the future and the past and technological progress or intrusion.”
In most existing written commentaries on Miao’s work, her age is usually given as a determining factor governing her internet focused practice. A child of the 1980s, part of what has commonly been referred to as China’s “Generation Y”, the demographic cohort born in the 1980s to mid 1990s are generally assumed to be reliant on new media and digital technology, have shorter attention spans, and demand entertaining and fast-paced information. The term (宅男/女) Zháinán/nǚ has also been used in connection with this generation to describe them somewhat disparagingly as China’s “Internet freaks” and there have been some interesting articles written recently about their susceptibility to what has been labelled by the Chinese press 网瘾 Wǎng yǐn or “internet addiction.”
Most interestingly, this demographic demarcation line has also been enthusiastically adopted by a younger generation of artists, perhaps eager to both distance and differentiate themselves from their artistic predecessors. While this age-specific categorisation may seem arbitrary in artistic terms, it does have the potential to provide some important insights into how these artists regard their own daily navigations between contemporary China and the wider world, both online and in their practice.
While the transformative power of the internet within China has frequently been subject to over-exaggerated claims that have sought to endow it with revolutionary potential, perhaps what this deliberate disavowal of the art practices of more established artists succinctly illustrates is that while this younger generation are not impervious to or ignorant of politically or socially engaged issues, some of them are certainly less ready to engage with it as subject matter in their art practice. Preferring instead to create art that more accurately reflects the changes wrought by an era of reform and opening and the socioeconomic transformations which characterised the decade in which they were predominantly born and raised, a China in which digital media and technological devices became increasingly accessible and almost ubiquitous amongst middle-class families. As this recent quote from Cao Fei attests: “When I started making art, I didn’t want to do political things. I was more interested in subcultures, in pop culture. Ideological art had been done, it’s all been expressed.”
While it might seem that we live in an era of global cultural convergence, in which cultural difference is being gradually eroded through the impact of the global cultural industries and multinational media, to many extents Miao’s practice is preoccupied with investigating the local conditions and vernacular variances which make the Chinese internet a unique online environment and which distinguish it from its global counterparts. Looking beyond superficial similarities her recent works centre on the recognisably different cultural patterns that emerge in this friction between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization. To this end her 2014 solo exhibition “.gif ISLAND,” 吉福岛 at V Art Center in Shanghai featured a series of works which explore the cultural hybrids that emerge when ‘Chinternet’ aesthetics encounter global consumer culture.
The works on display incorporated her “Meanwhile in China” series which has also been displayed online at netizenet. ‘Meanwhile in….’ is a meme that first circulated online in 2010. The term ‘meme’ was itself first coined by social theorist Richard Dawkins who used it to define a self-propagating cultural phenomenon. As An Xiao Mina notes: “In contemporary popular culture, the word ‘meme’ often refers to a viral internet phenomenon… But unlike say, a video that is simply shared repeatedly, memes encourage co-creation. Like a biological virus they morph and take on new forms as they pass through the hands of a networked community.”
Miao’s ‘Meanwhile in China’ series references the original Meanwhile in X meme – “an image macro series based on the participial phrase “Meanwhile in…,” a literary device that allows an easy segue between two concurrent events in different places. Although it is widely regarded as a narrative cliché, the macro series is used to illustrate ridiculous and absurd situations (usually in medias res) that are easily identified as stereotypical of a certain ethnicity, nationality, occupation or subculture.” More visual examples can be viewed here. Miao’s web based series consists of 8 works that examine how this original meme circulated online and found new visual representation within China, they therefore comment not just on the cultural clichés which are often primary fodder for internet memes, but also enfold these geographically discrete stereotypes within a series of absurd images.
“The first three pieces of Meanwhile in China are a series of gifs called “LAN Love Poem.gif”, LAN stands for local area network and is suggestive of the localised nature of the internet from which Miao draws inspiration. The background for each image comprises screenshots of censored websites (including Google, facebook and youtube) complete with the usual automated messages that appear when users seek to access them from the mainland- “safari can’t connect to the server”, “this webpage is not available”, casual yet silent reminders of the denial of access and circumscription of information enforced by state restrictions. These screenshots are framed by a background of 8 bit internet landscapes that depict a variety of deserted landscapes, from sand swept scenes scattered with the remains of classical ruins to brooding blood red skies replete with crows scavenging for carrion amongst the tumbleweed.
The synthesis of these two visuals could be interpreted as a rather wry commentary on the misconception that the internet in China is nothing but a barren wasteland, a space that has been censored to the point of sterility and is therefore devoid of any meaningful creative expression. It is against these visuals that Miao projects excerpts from internet poems, purposefully delineated in animated three-dimensional gif typography that accentuates their intrusion into the flat space of the foreground. The poems are displayed in both Chinese and English, although the intentionally poor translations appear as visual non sequiturs, humourous embodiments of the chinglish expressions that frequently circulate online:思念是别样的美丽 “to be missed is another kind of beauty”, 手拿菜刀砍网线， 一路火花带内电 “Holding a kitchen knife cut internet cable, a road with lightning sparks” and 香烟爱上火柴，就注定被伤害 “When cigarettes fall in love with matches the cigarette gets burned.” They blend non-sensical phrasing and high kitsch in an unexpected collision of appropriated visuals that appear simultaneously absurd, comical and deliberately unsophisticated, evincing the artist’s interest in aesthetics that celebrate the low-tech and whimsical nature of the Chinese internet.
These visuals are accompanied to the soundtrack of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Released in 1984, the now iconic music video which accompanied the song has become in many ways a cult classic, its narrative the apotheosis of 80s schmaltz. The video depicts an art teacher (played by Ritchie) and his seemingly unrequited love for a blind student, whom he discovers returns his affections only after he uncovers her sculpting an oversized clay likeness of his head, whose questionable resemblance to Ritchie provides unwitting comedic fodder. The video has inspired countless memes and endless online spoofs, making it rife for artistic appropriation. Indeed as Ophelia Chan remarks, “it was this scene which also inspired Miao’s work “Is it me you’re looking for?” (2014), a video in which the music video for “Hello” plays on YouTube in a subtle satire of the relationship between mainland internet users and the Great Firewall.” This desire to reach over the wall and access the inaccessible has been read as a metaphor for the blind student’s furtive aspirations to give form to something intangible and elusive.
The remaining works in Miao’s “Meanwhile in China” series include a piece entitled 爱疯垃圾 “iPhone garbage” (2014) which is composed of videos, gifs and still images. One video features a screenshot from the Chinese website Bilibili and is a remix of an original video made to promote a Chinese smart phone brand named Jin Li 金立. For the uninitiated, “Bilibili is is a video sharing website themed around anime, manga, and game fandom based in China, where users can submit, view, and add commentary subtitles on videos. This website uses Adobe Flash Video and HTML5 technology to display user submitted videos hosted by third-party sources, it also features a real-time overlaying subtitle system for interactive playback experience.” This from wikipedia: “Besides hosting video content, Bilibili’s core feature is a real-time commentary subtitle system that displays user comments as streams of moving subtitles overlaid on the video playback screen, visually resembling a danmaku shooter game. These subtitles are called 弹幕 Dàn mù (literally “bullets”). Such subtitles are simultaneously broadcast to all viewers in real-time, creating a chat room experience in which users watch and screen videos together.”
As Miao herself has commented: “Most of the time, a video becomes popular or trends on Bilibili not because it is good, but for the opposite reason. It is because these videos are extremely amateur and badly edited —it is not about the video anymore, it is about making fun of the video (吐槽, Tǔcáo: ridiculing or mocking it).” In turn Miao has appropriated these deliberately ‘bad’ videos using them as inspiration for her own form of visual satire. She comments further: “It was mind blowing for me to see these 弹幕/ bullet comments on Bilbili for the first time. As an artist, it is visually stimulating to see moving text floating in front of a moving picture. Also, since all the comments are live, it makes the video into a canvas. Leaving a comment is like drawing on the video. From a net artist’s point of view, it is a tangible “social hologram” of the video….. As a Chinese net artist whose VPN had expired just when I was feeling insecure and felt excluded, right in the corner there is this local internet carnival full of people. Despite its limitations, the Chinese internet is exuberant and full of highly creative netizens. To use a Chinese internet meme to sum this up: “Watching videos from Bilibili will make your brain hole/脑洞 (aka creativity) wildly open.”
This technique of information overload is a source of inspiration for Miao’s practice; her use of the term 脑洞 naodong, internet slang for the somewhat unsettling term “brain hole,” derives from 脑补 naobu, or “brain supplement.” The latter term, which originated in Japanese anime subculture, once referred to using the power of will to make fantastic things occur in real life, but has taken on a more general meaning in Chinese—pure imagination. Naodong, on the other hand, indicates a gap in the mind for which imagination must compensate and has therefore been used to refer to a type of humour and temperament specific to the Chinese internet.
The bilibili video that Miao appropriated for this work depicts two men dressed in police uniforms aggressively promoting their domestic Jin Li custom smart phone whilst live comments float continuously in a steady stream over their faces. The pseudo police officers continually denounce the iphone 6 as part of their advertising strategy, labelling it laji 垃圾 ‘a piece of garbage’ and fulminating against the consumers who would spend so much money on a phone that is easily damaged, tacky and badly designed (the price of an iPhone 6+ in China is roughly 2 months’ average salary). Comments read: “OMG, this video is so bad it brain-washed me.” “I have to watch this bad video every day.” and “I just threw my iPhone into the garbage can”.
In Miao’s ‘iPhone garbage” she places this video squarely in the centre of the screen as an embedded meta-image, while directly under the video player a gif animation of an Apple logo floats serenely above its own reflection in the pool of water beneath it. The other video in the background is a remix of the official iPhone 6 commercial now stripped of it’s original soundtrack. In the video there are close ups seen on the screen of the iPhone illustrating how “joyful” people are to use this phone, presenting a critique of happy consumerism made real and the fetishistic appeal of overt materialism.
On the right top hand side of the page, there is a gif animation of water pouring from a bottle through the video player, into the Apple logo pond and finally onto the still image of a real apple already being splashed by water. As Miao commented: 水货苹果 Shuǐhuò píngguǒ or “Water Apple” in Chinese, literally means parallel imported Apple products. These are products that are smuggled by strapping them to the bodies of people entering mainland China so that import taxes can be avoided and the products can then be sold on Taobao or in electronic markets for a more affordable price than buying them in a legitimate Chinese Apple store.”
‘Iphone garbage’ can be interpreted as both commentary and critique on the saturation of the Chinese market with new forms of communications technology, precipitating the insatiable desire to own the latest model of smartphone. It also examines the impact of globalised corporate consumerism, especially Apple’s extremely successful marketing strategies and dominance within the Chinese market, where iphones and other devices are considered the ultimate status symbol of a burgeoning middle class with the disposable incomes and purchasing power to bolster the country’s continued economic expansion. Ironically, China remains the largest supplier and manufacturer of Apple components, fuelled by a ready supply of cheap human labour and low production costs. Most of the products manufactured in China are then exported to an international market, only to later re-enter China, where despite their local production they retail at prices comparable to or often exceeding that of apple products worldwide, an irony that cannot be lost on the artist. Most apple products are manufactured in the south of the country in large factory complexes located in Shenzhen such as China Foxconn, a company that has come under much criticism for the extremely poor and exploitative working conditions of its factories and its consistent violations of labour practices.
As Ben Valentine comments, iPhone garbage represents the visual convergence of social media, Chinese manufacturing, consumerism and 山寨 shanzhai (fake or pirated goods) culture. Miao’s video in many ways could also be read as a commentary on the evolution and development of shanzhai culture itself, from its original lowly position, characterised as illegitimate goods that represented derivative takes on authentic merchandise, including cheap knockoffs that rarely worked or that deliberately sought to deceive consumers with imitation products to its current reappraisal as an example of technological innovation. In many ways shanzhai’s status has been transformed as shanzhai merchants seek to build unique hardware that responds to the specific demands of the Chinese market and its unquenchable desire for new products, offering entirely different capabilities from their global smartphone counterparts.
In Miao’s solo exhibition, ‘iPhone garbage’ was shown twice in succession, the first version was made using only Youtube embedded videos, which are censored in China, while the second version was made using embedded videos from the popular Chinese streaming site, Youku.com, the largest and most accessible video sharing website in China. By showing these pieces consecutively using different sources, Miao emphasises the superficial divide of the Chinese internet and the rest of the World Wide Web. Like the shanzhai phone advertised by pseudo policemen, Miao explores the possibility that while youku, baidu or even weibo may originally erroneously have been considered pirated or derivative versions of their more famous global counterparts, they have not only creatively evolved but in many ways surpassed their international equivalents.
Miao’s strategy of employing parallel videos from two sources is also evident in her next work- another remixed video from bilibili entitled 当杀马特遇上洗剪吹遇上哔哩哔哩, “When SMART and wash-cut-blow dry meet bilibili” which skilfully remixes the most popular Bilibili video of all time: “When smart meets wash-cut-blow dry“. SMART 杀马特 or shamate refers to a specific subculture within contemporary China and is named after a deliberately nonsensical transliteration of the English word “smart.” Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia, describes a shamate as a “young urban migrant from one of the tens of thousands of small insignificant towns scattered across China. These men and women are in their late teens or early 20s, often with middle-school educations and few marketable skills, working low-paying jobs in the big cities, like a barber, security guard, deliveryman, or waitress.
As this profile on tealeafnation further elaborates: “A shamate’s single most distinguishing (and derided) feature is his or her exaggerated hairstyle: curly perms, shaggy blow-outs, or spiky do’s, all held together with considerable abuse of hair coloring or wax. Clothing bought from a street market, some body piercing, and an off-brand cell phone often completes the look. Shamates usually linger in the social purgatory of small hair salons, smoky Internet cafes, or street market stalls in China’s big cities, not quite fitting into the world of shiny office buildings and expensive department stores that surrounds them.”
A recent photo series featured on China File also explores this subculture in more depth, highlighting how Shamate’s outré fashion choices reflect something much deeper: collective alienation, a byproduct of China’s massive urban migration push and the country’s widening class divide. While roughly half of China’s 1.4 billion people live in cities, the consultancy McKinsey projects the number of urban residents to grow by more than 350 million in 2025; more than 240 million of those new additions will be migrants. As the tealeafnation profile highlights: “The shamate fashion sense is not considered avant-garde or hipster, but rather cheap and kitsch, a sartorial representation of the group’s awkward lives on the fringes of China’s cities.”
The video that Miao remixed for this work is in many ways considered a shanzhai music video. It was originally created by a K pop (Korean Pop) band, but was later remixed by a Chinese netizen into a love song about the story of a SMART boy who falls in love with a girl, but is worried her family will reject him given his low economic background and social status. He decides to become a ‘salon boy’ or hairdresser in the vain hope that acquiring the requisite tonsorial skills needed to ply his trade will enable him to improve his social situation and thus convince the object of his affections that he can ensure their prospective lives together will be comfortable. This material happiness is equated with the ability to drink Coke, Fanta and Wanglaoji (a popular canned tea) every day, which are positioned as gifs and still images in the bottom left hand corner of Miao’s video parody.
In the opposite corner is a fashion model attired in the latest haute couture, her eyes hidden from view behind designer sunglasses, she stares vacantly across the video to the background image, which once again depicts a seemingly chaotic and interminable line of customers eagerly queuing outside an apple store, their ghostly images reflected in the opaque glass front of the store window, creating spectral bodily doubles who also worship at this mecca of contemporary consumerism. Meanwhile the official music video for Dizzy Wright’s “Fashion” plays in the upper left hand corner, a sly reference to the rise of ‘bling culture’; the fervour for luxury brands and conspicuous consumption that has found increasing visual representation within China.
Miao was interested in the original bilibili video because at times the torrent of user generated content and comments (which appear in five different languages) obscure the original video entirely. Creating a palimpsest of popular culture in which the original video serves as a canvas onto which viewers project their thoughts, the video assumes constantly new forms as it passes through the hands of this networked community. The artist celebrates this vibrant indigenous form of internet interaction and localised fashion by highlighting the sense of pride found in this creative rejection of the byproducts of global consumerism.
Overlaying fashion, pop culture and sub culture references with examinations of societal tensions; the realities of urbanisation and the increasing economic disparities which determine social mobility, in Miao’s video the semiotic surface of internationalisation usually employed to gloss over these economic and social disparities is both parodied and rejected. The celebration of shamate culture and ‘iPhone garbage’ could be read as ciphers of resistance against the unadulterated veneration of material wealth and economic prosperity that has been lauded as the panacea of contemporary China. Highlighting the glaring inconsistencies between state fiction and social reality, these shamate may be the young migrants lost in China’s great urbanization push, but they are also responsible for producing some of China’s most diverse and unexpected cultural products. Miao acknowledges and celebrates this diversity, not just as an object of parody and ridicule but as a vibrant subculture whose strong online presence illustrates how the boundary between what has been labelled the ‘Chinternet’ and everything else often appears to be little more than an ‘optical illusion’.
While Miao’s video works share many visual signifiers with the corporate consumer cultures that she both parodies and critiques they also examine the friction that results from aspects of international online culture encountering more localised, indigenous subcultures, investigating the unforeseen digital progeny of these clashes between vernacular and mainstream aesthetics.
Exploding the notion that the Chinternet and the ’emancipated’ global internet exist as a set of binary oppositions, characterised by the dichotomies of avant-garde artist versus the state and repression versus emancipation, a much exercised stereotype in writings on contemporary Chinese art, Miao’s work highlights that the internet in China is rich with humour, subversive strategies for evading censorship and often playful critiques on the predominantly inane and banal content which the GFW actually ends up restricting. Her works illustrate that in many ways China’s internet is in fact fertile ground for creative expression and a humourous and playful outlet for critical discussion that blends satire with popular cultural and social commentary.
In many ways, however, Miao’s work could also be considered deliberately visually unappealing. As the artist herself has commented: “This generation is very different from the first single-child generation, (the post-80’s), who are more nostalgic. They have experienced China’s “Great Leap” into material life, and are more unconsciously “inauthentic,” favouring facade over content; the post-90’s generation grew up with many material objects in their lives and tend to focus on content over form. Bilibili is very blunt— the comments flying around make it almost ugly to the visual taste of the post 80’s generation— but that is exactly why it is so lovely.” Embracing the tacky, low-tech and deliberately kitsch aspects of the web platforms and sites where she spends most of her time online, her work both embodies the “essence of ‘Chinternet’” aesthetics and narrates its significance in a culture in which user driven content and context, rather than the image itself, becomes paramount, a shift which has in many ways been bolstered by the communications revolution. The availability of the tools to make this content has therefore proven a happy corollary of the artist’s natural inclination toward assimilating pre-existing material.
In a world in which our retinas are often permanently imprinted with mass-mediated images, Miao has stressed that: “We have to remind ourselves of our responsibilities as artists, and the fact that the most successful things might not necessarily be the best. Internet art does not yet have a firm place in the history of Chinese contemporary art; in some ways, it remains separate from the umbrella of contemporary art. Even though more senior artists like Cao Fei and emerging figures like Aspartime have started to explore this field, there has been a delay in its popularization, lagging behind the development of global internet art. Miao Ying believes that the future of internet art in China is however, promising: whereas the nostalgia of Generation Y often conveys a sense of negativity, the next generation—artists born into comfortable and carefree lives in the late-1990s and 2000s—will be able to cultivate the genre because, counterintuitively, they lack the experiences and memories of a time when internet technologies were inaccessible.”
Perhaps some recognition has already arrived as Miao’s works are currently featured in the third exhibition of a series of parallel online projects under the theme of ‘Folklore of the Cyber World’ organized by Chronus Art Center, the new media art partner institution of the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2015. As the press release states: “Folklore of the Cyber World extends the Other Future envisioned by the Chinese Pavilion to cyberspace, revealing the vigor and brio of the younger generation of Chinese artists in their critical engagement with the pervasive media society and creative use of new technologies.” In a time of extreme technological proliferation, Miao’s practice offers a critical (and often humorous) perspective on social issues, the media, economics, gender, consumerism, culture and the environment. Her remixes should be thought of as a method of quotation, citation and commentary; as a form of pastiche, parody or homage; and also as a means of picking our way through the media-saturated labyrinth in which we find ourselves; a vital expression of China’s vibrant online culture in a confused and confusing time.