In Western portrayals China’s relationship with the internet is often depicted as one of surveillance and control epitomised in the image of the ‘Great Firewall of China’, in opposition to digital creativity and freedom enjoyed by those in the West. In fact, just a day after the opening night of the group show Chinternet Ugly at CFCCA, The Wall Street Journal published an article stating that ‘the global internet is splitting in two’ where in China ‘the government is absolute, and it is watching’ and ‘on the other side…the internet is open to all.’
Chinternet Ugly doesn’t deny government-controlled aspects of China’s internet, but presents more complex engagements with it, moving past the dichotomy of Chinese constraint vs global (particularly Western) freedom. It encourages audiences to peer over ‘The Great Firewall’ and see examples of digital creativity arising from a culture of over 802 million internet users. The exhibition features pieces that not only speak to the unique digital culture in China, termed ‘Chinternet’, but also to global issues and ugliness.
One theme that speaks both to the Chinese digital landscape and global internet experiences is the glossy, pastel pink selfie wonderland of Ye Funa’s ‘Beauty Plus Save the World’ (2018). Funa’s piece invites viewers to take their own selfies in filter-inspired sets resembling the interfaces and results produced by popular appearance altering app Meitu, which has over 6 billion photos uploaded to it every month. The facades, dominated by millennial pink and populated by sheet mask motifs – a beauty staple associated with Eastern beauty regimes – are distorting, fun and enticing to interact with, reflecting the allure of these reality distorting apps. Although the focus is on Meitu, the themes present in Funa’s piece could easily apply to global variants such as Instagram and Snapchat filters, or Facetune which have sparked conversations of self-perception, representation and mediation of the self.
Turn away from the pastel section of the gallery however and you’ll find international connections of a different kind.
To produce ‘Can You Tear For Me?’ (2015), Liu Xin engaged with the often-unseen community of online freelancers through Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), an online task marketplace, asking them to cry for $0.20 and take strikingly personal photographs of the result. Here, a global community are united in emotion, but also the human labour that produced it. There is an uneasy relationship between the intimate portraits created and the detached online labour market that they’re derived from. With AMT boasting that job posters can access a ‘global, on-demand, 24×7 workforce’, Xin’s piece encourages the audience to consider the growth in digital work and commodification of arenas including emotional labour. This is not only prevalent in the rise of platforms such as AMT, TaskRabbit and many more, but also the monetisation of private lives through influencer advertising with personal moments providing opportunity for profit in the global digital landscape.
Viewing this artwork in context of an exhibition about Chinese experiences also prompts consideration of the changes in the Chinese labour market, at a time when China’s government is shifting focus from manufacturing often associated with the country, to innovation with initiatives such as a Roadmap for China to lead globally in AI.
A further piece illustrating the unity of Chinternet culture and the wider world in a literal and thematic sense is ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (2019) by Miao Ying. In this short film, Ying transports the act of using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to evade censorship and firewalls to the streets of Paris. After teaching herself lock-picking techniques, Ying covertly releases love-locks from bridges and films her efforts. These objects themselves stem from a love-lock tradition originating in China which has become popular throughout the world. By making them the focus of her work Ying places the crossing of cultural boundaries front and centre of her work.
Through the physical action of releasing locks, Ying opposes the restriction and stasis of the object, paralleling the freeing of information from a highly controlled and censored state in utilising a VPN. This metaphor is reiterated through the sculptural piece accompanying the film where love-locks taken from Paris are secured to a very literal representation of the Great Firewall. Ying’s piece equally captures a sense of rebellion that is nevertheless visible through covertly picking locks in areas that are also public and in a busy tourist destination. It’s a contradiction particularly salient in VPN usage: a method of accessing censored information that is not accepted by the Chinese government, yet is a popular method for accessing the wider internet realm, particularly among young people.
These points of friction and fusion between the specific Chinternet culture and global networks, control and creativity, the real world and altered representations are embedded throughout the works in Chinternet Ugly, which each provide a unique perspective on the rapidly evolving digital domain. Moreover, the exhibition does so in a way that avoids simplified dichotomies of Western creative freedom and Chinese adherence to restriction with pieces that are rebellious, thoughtful and playful.
Chinternet Ugly, CFCCA, Manchester.
8 February – 12 May 2019.
Beth Dawson is a writer and marketer based in Manchester.