“The Art of Transculturality: New Frontiers in Postsocialist China’s Avant-garde and Urban Culture”


I’m currently in Switzerland for a 2 day conference hosted by the University of St. Gallen and organised by Prof. Daria Berg and Dr. Giorgio Strafella. I’ve included the original CFP below along with the detailed conference programme. The conference’s focus on the role of new media and the impact of the so-called ‘digital turn’ on art and literature should provide for some stimulating discussions and exchange and I look forward to sharing my findings from the conference in the coming days. For those interested in attending, general admission to the conference is free and you can register for tickets here.


This conference aims to explore innovative ways of looking at the dynamics of transculturality in postsocialist China’s avant-garde and urban culture by bringing together artists, writers, art curators and scholars. Avant-garde literature and art today exist at the margins of China’s officially ordained culture.

Transcultural trends transform China’s local culture in the age of globalisation. In twenty-first century China the new media — in particular Web 2.0 — offer an emerging public sphere that challenges the mechanisms of government censorship, allowing transcultural trends across China’s virtual frontiers. Web-based discourses traverse the borderlines between China’s officially ordained culture, the globalising world, and Chinese vernacular culture.

China’s new generation of avant-garde writers and artists push the boundaries of vernacular culture. They appropriate artistic and literary languages from the post/modern Western avant-garde movements to reflect on reform-era China’s transformation and the Maoist heritage.

The papers will investigate such forms of transculturality in avant-garde Chinese literature and art, focussing in particular on performance and conceptual art. Participants will look critically at the processes of appropriation of transcultural trends and the interpretation of avant-garde languages in contemporary China. During the workshop Chinese avant-garde artists will present and discuss their artistic production and methods. The workshop will shed new light on the transcultural trends and proactive interaction with non-Chinese communities and histories in China’s avant-garde literature and art.


Day 1 – 28 July 2016, 9:00-17:00

Opening Remarks


“Borderland, Minority Culture, and the Non-Han Other in Chinese Avant-gardists’ Fictions” – Liu Xi (The University of Hong Kong)

“Taiwan Sound Poetry” – Cosima Bruno (SOAS, University of London)

“Transcultural Encounters in Feminist Poetry from China: Zhai Yongming and the Unofficial Journal Yi” – Justyna Jaguscik (University of Zurich)

“Consuming ‘Boys Love’: Female Fantasy and the New Queer Discourse in China” – Xi Tian (Bucknell University)

“Transculturality in Hong Kong Artist Annie Wan’s Conceptual Ceramic Art” – Silvia Fok (The Hong Kong Polytechnic University)

“‘Words Divide, Pictures Unite’: Egalitarianism and Encryption in Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky(1987-1991) and Book from the Ground (2005-2014)” – Wenny Teo (The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London)

“Is That Leg Loaded? Ai Weiwei, Instagram and the Politics of Networked Images” – Ros Holmes (University of Oxford)

“Narrating and Critiquing the Avant-garde in Contemporary China: The Case of Body Art” – Daria Berg and Giorgio Strafella (University of St Gallen)

“Play into Art: Cao Fei” – Enhua Zhang (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Day 2 – 29 July 2016, 9:00 – 12:00

Keynote Speech: “Of Other Worlds to Come? The Avant-garde and the Politics of Chinese Transculturalism” – Andrea Riemenschnitter (University of Zurich)

Roundtable discussion with Katie Hill (Sotheby’s Institute), Rachel Marsden (The Temporary  / Birmingham City University), Achim Mittag (University of Tübingen) and Silvia Pozzi (University of Milano-Bicocca).

Closing Remarks 

July 23rd, 2016

America wants to believe China can’t innovate. Tech tells a different story

By: Emily Rauhala        Source: The Washington Post    Date: 19/7/2016

China_Innovation3SSBEHIND THE FIREWALL: How China tamed the Internet This is part of a series examining the impact of China’s Great Firewall, a mechanism of Internet censorship and surveillance that affects nearly 700 million users.

 Silicon Valley may be powered by organic kale, but when Chinese tech gurus gather at 3W, a coffee shop-slash-incubator in the Chinese capital, they want sunflower seeds. And they want them fast.

Ahead of a recent meeting, 3W’s co-founder, Xu Dandan, used WeChat, a Chinese platform with hundreds of millions of users, to place an order with Beequick, a local start-up that delivers supplies from mom-and-pop shops. Thirty minutes later: Crunch, crunch.

And if Xu and his friends were craving a different crispy snack like, say, crayfish? A business accelerator at nearby Peking University has a start-up just for that. Grab your China-made phone, open WeChat, and, just like that, your crustaceous needs are met.

For those who haven’t spent time in China’s thriving cities, it can be hard to imagine how digitally connected they are. This is no longer the China of the 1990s, a nation of shoe factories and fake bags, not cutting-edge apps.

Outsiders tend to know one thing about China’s Internet: It’s blocked — no Facebook, Twitter or Google. They imagine a country languishing behind a digital Iron Curtain, waiting, frozen in time, for the fall of the Web’s Berlin Wall.

The United States wants to believe that the scourge of censorship thwarts online innovation, but China is challenging the idea in ways that frighten and confound.

“There’s this strange belief that you can’t build a mobile app if you don’t know the truth about what happened in Tiananmen Square,” said Kaiser Kuo, who recently stepped down as head of international communications for Baidu, one of China’s leading tech companies, and hosts Sinica, a popular podcast. “Trouble is, it’s not true.”

The truth is that behind the Great Firewall — the system of censorship designed to block content that could challenge the Chinese Communist Party — China’s tech scene is flourishing in a parallel universe.

Most of the country’s nearly 700 million users don’t have unfettered access to information — including information about the 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square — and are often stuck with painfully slow Web speeds. They are nonetheless powering a Web boom that last year saw four Chinese firms among the world’s top 10 by market capitalization, according to data website Statista.

China is now the world leader in e-commerce. Morgan Stanley projectsthat by 2018 China will be conducting more online transactions than the rest of the world.

Buoyed by that cash, China’s tech start-ups are experimenting with new models that have the potential to make real money — and influence people around the globe.

“You go on Facebook and you can’t even buy anything, but on WeChat and Weibo you can buy anything you see,” said William Bao Bean, a Shanghai-based partner at SOS Ventures and the managing director of Chinaccelerator, a start-up accelerator.

“Facebook’s road map looks like a WeChat clone.”

Disproving the myth

Venture capitalist Terry Zhu understands how China earned a reputation for copying, but he can’t get his head around the fact that the “can’t innovate” myth persists.

When Zhu entered Beijing’s tech scene in the late 1990s, China was a different country, a place with huge ambition but a tiny middle class. Of course that emerging cohort looked to California, he said. Where else was there to look?

China’s initial tech offerings certainly felt familiar. Tencent copied ICQ, a 1990s-era chat service, creating the not-so-subtly named OICQ. Baidu looked a lot like Google. Alibaba resembled Amazon.

Zhu, who is now a partner at the Beijing office of Blue Run Ventures, says what’s more revealing is how Chinese firms have taken the best tech and adapted it.

Tencent’s WeChat, which is censored, is also hugely innovative. It combines some of the most useful parts of chat services, social networks, mobile payment, even online maps. You can use it to read news, send a real-time location to a friend or pay for a pancake at a streetside stall.

The rapid development of China’s mobile market is accelerating the trend toward local innovation, experts said.

Because mass retail is relatively new here, Chinese e-commerce faces less competition from brick-and-mortar shops. And the middle class is exploding, accounting for 4 percent of the population in 2000 and 68 percent in 2012, according to research by McKinsey. By 2022, it will be 75 percent.

While U.S. firms focus on ad revenue, Chinese companies have become pacesetters in e-commerce. A more recent trend: live-streaming sites where people pay real money to reward performers with virtual gifts. (You sang beautifully, here’s a digital Lamborghini, dear.)

Bean called the amount of money flowing through these apps “significant.” Like their peers in Palo Alto, Calif., however, Chinese start-ups need to show they can generate enough revenue to make the model work in the middle term.

Thinking about the state

They also need to think about the state. Americans imagined the Web as a utopia; China’s former Web czar, Lu Wei, once compared the Internet to a car with no brakes.

“It doesn’t matter how the car is capable of traveling. Once it gets on the highway, you can imagine what the end result will be,” he said.

The implication is that China’s government is happy to have companies build shiny, fast things as long as regulators can put up roadblocks as they please. So far, they’ve mostly targeted foreign firms. In April, the U.S. government officially named the Great Firewall a barrier to trade. The American Chamber of Commerce in China says 4 out of 5 of its member companies report that it hurts their business.

Chinese firms have generally been protected, but the government could very well turn on someone, or something, homegrown.

Asked about the Communist Party’s vision for a “sovereign” Internet — one that is managed and secured by the government — some here expressed concern that edgy ideas would be ignored, that bright minds might go elsewhere, that China could lose out. Some Chinese scientists and scholars have complained that blocking foreign sites hurts their research. But many Beijing-based entrepreneurs and analysts said they are confident that mobile tech will continue to flourish behind the Great Firewall.

First, because the state needs it. Xi Jinping’s government may be wildly skeptical about the Web, but it is also struggling to shore up China’s economy. Beijing recognizes the commercial power of the Internet and wants to get on board.

Premier Li Keqiang last year visited Xu Dandan’s 3W cafe. In May, Xi vowed increased support for start-ups and tech. “Our biggest advantage is that we, as a socialist country, can pool resources in a major mission,” he said.

Second, because of innovation itself. Zhu, the venture capitalist, said he knows that Chinese companies will find a way to operate under ever-changing rules. China’s entrepreneurs have never known a truly “open” Web — who has? — and yet Internet use has grown by leaps and bounds.

Politics, like innovation, goes around, he said. And comes around.

“There will be a new cycle.”

Xu Yangjingjing reported from Beijing.

July 21st, 2016

China’s WeChat takes on WhatsApp in Africa

By:  TIISETSO MOTSOENENG  Source: Reuters    Date: 21/7/2016

A picture illustration shows a WeChat app icon in Beijing

A picture illustration shows a WeChat app icon in Beijing, December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic


Late to the party, WeChat, China’s biggest Internet-based mobile messaging platform, is scrambling to get a piece of the action in the booming African market.

The move is leading the South Africa-China joint venture down a fiercely competitive path as Facebook’s WhatsApp is already part of the social media fabric in most African countries.

Africa is not often the scene of battles between tech giants, but the outcome could help determine who can turn the exponential growth in online messaging services into profits.

WeChat stands at a major disadvantage as WhatsApp is used far more widely, making users naturally reluctant to choose a rival service.

But WeChat is betting an array of services that include money transfers, prepaid electricity and airtime purchases and its experience in selling products to lower income users in the villages of China will loosen the Silicon Valley grip.

“That’s at the heart of the story for us because we knew that we were late to the market compared to other instant messaging apps and so we realized that focusing on chat services was not the most practical way to get to market,” WeChat Africa head Brett Loubser told Reuters.

Launched in Africa in 2013 by China’s Internet giant Tencent and its 34 percent shareholder South African e-commerce and media group Naspers, WeChat Africa is a rare south-south corporate partnership to expand on the continent.

The joint venture is facing an uphill battle in taking on WhatsApp, which offers free text, picture and video messages and whose adoption in big African markets such as South Africa was lightening-fast because texts over a phone network are still expensive.

A 2015 study by World Wide Worx, a Johannesburg consultancy, showed WhatsApp had just over 10 million users in South Africa compared with just over 5 million for WeChat.

But WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion and which has a long-standing promise to keep the platform ad-free, has no immediate plans to make money out of the service in Africa, Facebook Africa head Nunu Ntshingila said.

“At this point in time, we are not at the stage where we are looking at monetizing WhatsApp,” Ntshingila told Reuters. “That’s in a three-year time frame because right now the focus is on two big apps which are Facebook and Messenger.”

With Facebook’s deep pockets, analysts believe WhatsApp can easily leverage its popularity on the continent as and when it turns on the monetization tap. Ntshingila said WhatsApp is the No.1 messaging platform in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

“You could argue that WeChat is pulling ahead in monetization efforts but WhatsApp guys can do anything using their numbers. It’s all about who’s got numbers,” ICT analyst Sibonginkosi Nyanga at fund manager Momentum SP Reid said.

WhatsApp is testing making restaurants, airlines and credit card firms pay to contact consumers, its Chief Executive Jan Koum said in January, when the company announced it is dropping its token $1 fee levied on some of its users.


Although there are no reliable statistics on the number of mobile phone owners who use either WhatsApp or WeChat on the rest of the continent, there are parts of Africa where WeChat is almost unknown whereas WhatsApp is everywhere from Namibia to Niger.

“I used to have a WeChat account but I deleted it because you will find virtually nobody to chat. With WhatsApp, there are no complications, it’s simple and all my friends use it,” Nkululeko Mabuza, a 24-year-old social worker in Tzaneen, a large town 400 km (250 miles) north of Johannesburg.

Loubser said WeChat is all about making it easier for users with a suite of features to order food takeouts, shop online, search for jobs and transfer money without having to leave the interface.

“We looked very carefully at what the platform can achieve beyond just messaging because people use products when there’s value for them,” he said.

Late last year WeChat launched mobile money services, or WeChat Wallet, which allows users to store bank cards and withdraw cash at the automated teller machines (ATM) of a partner, Standard Bank.

The service might be alluring for Africans. The success of telecoms operator Safaricom’s mobile money service M-Pesa in Kenya has convinced investors and executives that the convergence of financial services and mobile phones offers growth opportunities.

The logic of using mobile phones to access financial services in sub-Saharan Africa is obvious: For every 100,000 people there are at least four bank branches and five ATMs but more than 700 mobile phones.

Earlier this month WeChat partnered with Stuff, the word’s best-selling gadget and technology magazine, and a unit of household goods retailer Steinhoff to launch a payment feature that allows WeChat Wallet users to scan a barcode along side a product in the magazine.

Riding on Naspers’ pay-television monopoly across Africa WeChat can also be used to cast votes for popular reality shows such as Idols and Big Brother.

“I’m a big Idols fan and for me to vote on Idols I have to have a WeChat account. But I still have WhatsApp, which is for chatting with my friends,” said Nkosinathi Sibanyoni, 28-year old a human resource practitioner.

Naspers Chief Executive Bob van Dyk admits that the number of WeChat users has not reached a level that would make the platform’s collection of features mainstream.

“Something that we’ve been confronted with is that because there is so much competition for the chat product you need a certain audience engagement before any of those other products can become mainstream,” van Dyk told Reuters last month.

(Addtional reporting by TJ Strydom; Editing by Susan Thomas)

July 11th, 2016

Miao Ying: Chinternet Plus

By: Lauren Cornell         Source: Rhizome    Date: 21/6/2016

For my previous post on Miao Ying click here


Miao Ying: Chinternet Plus” is copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online. It is now on view on the front page of Rhizome.org.


“Internet Plus” is a strategy that was proposed by China’s Premier of the State Council, Li Keqiang, in 2015; its goal is to apply cloud computing and big data to traditional industries with an aim of rebooting them. Introduced shortly after China’s economy began to falter, it yokes progress to digital technology in a way that some, including the artist Miao Ying, see as grandiose. Miao’s new project Chinternet Plus (2016) is what she describes as the official unveiling of a “counterfeit ideology,” a parodic take on the original strategy of Internet Plus. The work is essentially a guide for how to brand an insubstantial idea, suggesting that, in the case of political branding in particular, media can easily stand in for the message.

Miao describes her place of residence as “the Internet, the Chinese Internet (Great Firewall) and her smartphone.” Her works inhabit multiple forms (the browser, apps, print, and installation), are all meticulously cataloged on her website, titled “the dead pixel of my eye,” and focus on the online culture behind the so-called Great Firewall, specifically its strange and original GIFs and viral media. In 2007, Miao spent three months looking up every word in the Chinese dictionary that was blocked by google.cn. The resulting work—The Blind Spot (2007), which became its own index of blocked words—marked the beginning of her long-term focus on censorship in China. Miao recounts seeing censorship as “the enemy” and wanting to change it with this work. More recently, she has become fascinated with what she calls the “Stockholm Syndrome” that Chinese citizens experience toward the Great Firewall and the “Chinternet” (the Chinese internet). In a 2015 interview on Rhizome, Miao reflected on her new perspective:

From one side of the wall, the Chinese internet appears to be a barren wasteland, yet despite its limitations, it has been evolving and growing—even faster than the net outside the wall. New memes are created rapidly, depending on what underground culture decides to make pertaining to mainstream culture and internet with Chinese characteristics, which is self-censorship. If you know something will be censored, you can go around it, using homophones, making up new words, etc., which all involve a sense of humor and intelligence. You will be shocked by how creative netizens are. The limit of the Chinese internet is what sets it free.

With Chinternet Plus, Miao returns to a sharp critique in her work—this time of political branding. As viewers scroll through Chinternet Plus, they encounter the five pillars of the Chinternet Plus “counterfeit” philosophy: “Our Story,” “Our Mystery,” “Our Goal,” “Our Vision,” and “Our Experience.” The “Our Story” section focuses on the construction of a logo for Chinternet Plus, which features an image of a white male professional, his hands gripping the sides of his head as if racking his brains for an idea. “Our Mystery” features a motley crew of animals, celebrities, and regular people clapping in sync, showing how rapidly a group can be formed immediately following the creation of a logo. “Our Goal” describes how Chinternet Plus will overwhelm people with dramatic imagery so as to deter them from analyzing its philosophy and recognizing its lack of substance. In one telling image, the words “Chinternet Plus” burst forth from the side of a glacier like a superhero breaking out of a trap. “Our Vision” promises that the Chinternet Plus philosophy will scrub away problems in a way analogous to the famous MeituPic filter that removes pollution from photographs of the sky—noting that, while it will not address deeper structural issues, Chinternet Plus will improve the representation of these problems. “Reality Should Not Hold You Back” reads a text in the “Our Vision” section, as if to imply that change can be generated by simply dreaming up a new present—a sentiment that is confirmed in the final section, “Our Experience,” which begins with a short chapter on how to “cultivate an emerging reality.” Nowhere in Chinternet Plus are any actual plans or precise policies mentioned; the substance is subterfuge, consisting of doctored images, logos, and meaningless terms.

Like many of Miao’s works, Chinternet Plus lends humor to complex political and cultural issues, and yet, with the rise of international politicians who advance opinions that are untethered to the complexities of real issues, it is almost as though these figures were following the guide provided in her project.

Top image: Miao Ying, Chinternet Plus, 2016. Website. Courtesy the artist



A Beautiful Disorder: CASS Sculpture Foundation’s major exhibition of art from contemporary China, Hong Kong and Taiwan


Cui Jie 崔洁, ‘Pigeon’s House’《鸽子的房子》(2016), Stainless Steel 不锈钢, 4.5 x 2.6 x 2.45m


This weekend I travelled to the South Coast (near Chichester) for the opening of CASS Sculpture Foundation’s latest exhibition 无序之美 A Beautiful Disorder. The exhibition features the work of eighteen artists from Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan including: Bi Rongrong 毕蓉蓉, Cao Dan  曹丹, Cao Fei  曹斐, Cheng Ran 程然, Cui Jie 崔洁, Jennifer Wen Ma   马文, Li Jinghu 李景湖, Lu Pingyuan 陆平原, Rania Ho   何颖宜, Song Ta 宋拓, Tu Wei-Cheng 涂维政, Wang Sishun王思顺, Wang Wei王卫, Wang Yuyang 王郁洋 Xu Zhen (Produced by MadeIn Company) 徐震(没顶公司出品), Zhang Ruyi 张如怡, Zhao Yao 赵要 and Zheng Bo 郑波 and is the largest (and arguably first) showcase of outdoor contemporary sculpture by these artists to be held in the UK.

The exhibition takes its name from a letter penned by the French missionary and Qing court painter Jean-Denis Attiret in 1743. Writing to a friend in Paris, Attiret described details of the garden and architecture of the ‘Garden of Perfection and Light’ 圆明园 in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. Praising the garden for its unpredictability, diversity and adherence to naturalism, Attiret wrote: “[the Chinese] rather chose a beautiful disorder, and a wandering as far as possible from all the rules of art. They go entirely on this principle, that what they are to represent there, is a natural and wild view of the country; a rural retirement, and not a palace formed according to all the rules of art.”

Attiret’s ideas were to have a profound impact on English landscape aesthetics, particularly the naturalistic, free-flowing forms that have characterised English garden culture from the 18th century onwards. Ushering in what was then considered a stylistic revolution,  famous figures such as the architect Sir William Chambers, designer of Somerset House (home of the Courtauld Institute of Art) and the famous Chinese Pagoda at Kew Gardens were similarly keen to adopt the Chinese garden’s ability to provoke ‘violent or opposing sensations’ through a series of theatrical framing devices that allowed the viewer to look out onto a wider panorama.  Taking the historical relationship between Chinese and English landscape aesthetics as a point of departure, the exhibition curators Wenny Teo, Ella Liao and Claire Shea therefore conceived of the exhibition as a series of unexpected scenes and sensory experiences situated throughout the grounds of the foundation. As viewers navigate their way around the woodland typography of tree-lined pathways, sheltered groves and pastoral vistas, gradually encountering the works on display, they are invited to reflect on ‘China’s past, present and future relationship with the world at large.’ Continue reading