Getting round the Great Firewall of China

I’ve just written a short piece for Apollo on the potential impact of a recent series of online restrictions for the country’s thriving new media scene. The piece can be found online here and I’ve included a copy of the text below.

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A recent series of directives has sought to curtail the already fragile spaces for free expression in China. In June, a new cybersecurity law decreed that companies report the virtual activities of their employees. A month later came the news that Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) – a form of software that enables users to circumvent the restrictions of China’s ‘Great Firewall’ – will be outlawed by February 2018.

Currently only about one per cent of China’s estimated 731 million internet users employ a VPN, but many members of China’s creative community fear that these increased restrictions will have a profound impact on their work. Like their counterparts around the world, artists in China use social media to disseminate their work and connect with international audiences. China has a thriving net art and new media scene, supported by galleries and art centres, innovative online initiatives capitalising on the popularity of social media platforms, a major prize for net art, and a growing body of young artists graduating from the new media departments of China’s major art academies. These developments reflect China’s hyper-networked and mediatised art world and the increasingly mobile culture that has arisen alongside the country’s technological advances.

While many artists eschew overtly political themes, others have chosen to confront the complex and contradictory facets of China’s restricted web, producing provocative and challenging works which not only satirise the government’s cybersecurity initiatives, but also comment on the psychological effects of censorship. The artist Miao Ying, for example, refers to this as her ‘Stockholm syndrome’ approach to the internet in China. Other artists such as Xu Wenkai (Aaajiao) strive to make the mechanisms of the Great Firewall visible, exposing the fault lines between censorship and self-expression. One of the regime’s fiercest critics is obviously Ai Weiwei, who, earlier this year wrote a polemic about the perils of self-censorship, calling for others to reject the ‘China model’ of development, which has promoted economic ascendancy at the cost of political freedom.

Recent developments illustrate that we would do well to heed these criticisms. Cambridge University Press briefly decided to block access in China to over 300 articles from the China Quarterly, one of the world’s leading China Studies journals, at the behest of Chinese censors, before eventually reversing the decision. As China expands its global engagement, seeking to reinvent itself as a 21st-century superpower, the long arm of censorship doesn’t just affect artists and writers within the country itself, but also has serious ramifications beyond China’s borders.

August 9th, 2017

Michael Xufu Huang: Rising Art World Curator From Beijing

By: Alex Hawgood     Source: New York Times   Date: 9/8/2017

 

Michael Xufu Huang

Age 23

Hometown Beijing

Now Lives A recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Huang is relocating to a one-bedroom apartment in Gramercy Park in September.

Claim to Fame He is a founder of M Woods, a contemporary art museum in Beijing that focuses on internet-minded works from artists like He Xiangyu and Olafur Eliasson. With his penchant for bright suits and a flair for publicity, he could be considered something of a next-generation Jeffrey Deitch of China. “Everyone in Beijing is really hungry for culture,” he said. “We really see a lot of young people who are very engaged with us and learning about art and making it a part of their life.”

Big Break Last year, M Woods’s debut exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Contact,” received immediate international recognition. The wide-ranging retrospective of Warhol’s lesser-known film, photography and interactive installations shed new light on the pop icon’s reputation outside the United States. “A lot of people in China know him as a brand,” Mr. Huang said. “The show explains how he became who he is.” Four months after the show opened, Mr. Huang became a member of the board of trustees for the New Museum. Continue reading

June 22nd, 2017

In China, universities teach how to go viral online

By:  Albee Zhang      Source:   Taipei Times     Date: 21/6/2017

 

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A 21-year-old student walked around her campus in China using invaluable skills she learned in class: Holding a selfie stick aloft, she livestreamed her random thoughts and blew kisses at her phone.
Jiang Mengna is majoring in “modelling and etiquette” at Yiwu Industrial & Commercial College near Shanghai, aspiring to join the growing ranks of young Chinese cashing in on internet stardom.
Hordes of Chinese millennials are speaking directly to the country’s 700 million smartphone users, streaming their lives to lucrative effect, fronting brands and launching businesses.
They are known as wanghong (網紅) — literally hot on the web — and they now represent an industry worth billions and so big it even has its own university curriculum. Continue reading

#SocialHumanities Datahack: Self-(Re)presentations on Social Media

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As one of the convenors of the TORCH network on the #SocialHumanities, I’m pleased to announce that tomorrow on the 14th January we will be holding our second major event: a Datahack on Self-(Re)presentations on Social Media. The event will be held at the Oxford Launchpad in the Saïd Business School and is being organised by Yin Yin Lu and Kathryn Eccles of the Oxford Internet Institute.

Details of the event including tomorrow’s programme are as follows:

How do people represent themselves on social media, and how are they represented by others? Which qualities and virtues are emphasized (or ignored)? How polarised are these (re)presentations?

The TORCH #SocialHumanities network will explore answers to these questions at our day-long datahack on 14 January, by examining content from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia, Reddit, and other social media platforms. We welcome participants from all disciplines, including the humanities and both social and computational sciences.

In the morning we will have four expert-led workshops, where specific approaches to social media data analysis will be taught, followed by lunch and the datahack proper. During lunch, participants will split into interdisciplinary teams (of two to four people) and decide upon which dataset to explore and which research question to answer. Datasets and questions will be provided, but you are more than welcome to bring your own (we’re both BYOD and BYOQ)!

At the end of the day each group will present their findings; the team with the most interesting and creative analysis will be awarded a prize. Afterwards, we’ll celebrate our achievements and continue the discussion over drinks.

We welcome participants from any and all backgrounds. If you have no programming skills and/or have not analysed social media data before, don’t worry—there will be plenty of opportunities for you to contribute, and data experts will be on hand to help.

If you have any questions please email us at socialhumanities@torch.ox.ac.uk. There is limited space so we recommend that you RSVP as early as possible!

PROGRAMME

09.30-10.00: Registration

10.00-10.30: Introduction and overview of the day

10.30-12.30: Workshops led by Mike Thelwall (SentiStrength), Taha Yasseri (topic modelling), Jason Nurse (identity manifestation), Peter Fairfax (Brandwatch)

12.30-13.30: Team formation and working lunch

13.30-17.00: Data analysis (tea and coffee provided at 15.00)

17.00-18.00: Presentation of findings and group discussion

18.00-19.00: Prizes and drinks reception

November 3rd, 2016

Report: China Censorship Machine Not the Monolith It Appears to Be

By: Josh Chin      Source: The Wall Street Journal      Date: 2/11/2016

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On China’s popular streaming video app YY, you can chat about the Dalai Lama or the party drug ecstasy, but if you want to talk about people from Henan province stealing manhole covers, you’ll have to switch to a different app.

A group of internet researchers based in North America spent more than a year tracking how some of China’s better known social video apps censor their users. Their latest findings, released in a report this week after they culled through a huge trove of banned keywords, suggest China’s censorship regime is not the well-coordinated machine it’s often assumed to be.

(The full report, entitled ‘Harmonised Histories’ can be found here at Net Alert)

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October 31st, 2016

Fan Yang on fakes, pirates and shanzhai culture

By: Fan Yang, Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo    Source: Sinica Podcast      Date: 22/9/2016

 

Fakes, knockoffs, pirate goods, counterfeits: China is notorious as the global manufacturing center of all things ersatz. But in the first decade after the People’s Republic joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, a particular kind of knockoff began to capture the public imagination: products that imitate but do not completely replicate the designs, functions, technology, logos and names of existing branded products. An old Chinese word meaning “mountain fortress” — shanzhai — was repurposed to describe this type of knockoff.

Chinese internet users began to use the word shanzhai with a degree of approval. This was partly because shanzhai products, though aping the designs and names of established brands, often add innovations that the originals lack. This is particularly notable with mobile phones, the shanzhai versions of which were among the first to feature more than one camera lens and the capacity to use two SIM cards from different networks. Starting around 2008, the creativity and speed of release of such knockoff products began to be discussed as a type of innovation with Chinese characteristics and a creative approach suited to a poor country developing at breakneck speed.

This episode of Sinica is a conversation about shanzhai and the whole universe of Chinese knockoff culture with Fan Yang, an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of the book Faked in China: Nation Branding, Counterfeit Culture, and Globalization. You can read the SupChina backgrounder here.

Oxford Seminar on Visual Culture in Modern and Contemporary China

This year the University of Oxford China Centre will be hosting a seminar series that focuses on visual culture in modern and contemporary China. Convened by Prof. Margaret Hillenbrand, the seminars will bring together a diverse range of scholars to discuss topics including visual culture in Maoist China, the films of Jia Zhangke, Photography and Privacy in China and Contemporary Chinese Performance (to name but a few). The full list of speakers and topics is listed below and the seminars are open to the public. I will be presenting some new research next May in a talk entitled ‘Modelling Marx: Technologies of Engagement and Automation in Contemporary Art’.

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October 13th, 2016

Getting digi with it: why new media art still hasn’t fully gone mainstream

As new technology is increasingly adopted by artists, can curators and collectors keep up?

By: Jane Morris           Source: The Art Newspaper    Date: 7/10/2016

Getting digi with it: why new media art still hasn't fully gone mainstream

James Bridle’s Cloud Index (2016) uses satellite weather data to predict polling outcomes. Courtest the artist and booktwo.org
Artists working in “new” media have never been so widely admired—a generation of artists in their 20s and 30s, including Amalia Ulman, Neil Beloufa, Ian Cheng, Jon Rafman and Cécile B. Evans, are now shown internationally. Exhibitions have also moved beyond specialist kunsthallen such as ZKM in Karlsruhe, V2 in Rotterdam and YCam in Yamaguchi, Japan. Digital art was the subject of a major show, Electronic Superhighway, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this spring, and the focus of this summer’s Berlin Biennale. Meanwhile, the New Museum in New York, which has digital art specialists Rhizome in residence, is working with the Hong Kong-based K11 Art Foundation on an exhibition on art and technology, due to be shown in China next year.

Yet a quarter of a century after the emergence of digital art, it continues to raise challenges for museums, galleries and collectors. As the Serpentine Galleries in London reveal their third digital commission, James Bridle’s Cloud Index, we look at some of the reasons why digital art is still not fully in the mainstream.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

The artist: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer believes that artists must professionalise their practice. Collectors worry about how to value a work that can be copied multiple times, and how to deal with works built using software that effectively disappears subsequently because of rapid updating. Lozano-Hemmer has become a powerful advocate for addressing these issues before a work is sold. “When you acquire one of my works you get a bill of materials, and it says this work is made out of this screen, this motor, this software and so on, and it tells you if this is replaceable, and if yes, what are the constraints.” He regularly attends conservation conferences, has drafted best-practice guidelines for artists, and is developing business models to encourage studios to offer conservation support for their own work.

Benjamin Weil. Photo: Sergio Redruello

Benjamin Weil. Photo: Sergio Redruello

The museum director: Benjamin Weil

Benjamin Weil, the artistic director at the Botín Centre in Santander, Spain, argues that the issues surrounding new media art are not fundamentally different from the problems of conceptual art. Museums have been left with problems because they acquired works in the past without establishing with artists how to deal with decay and obsolescence—combined with institutions’ ingrained resistance “to accepting sometimes you have to let a work die”. The crucial issue now, Weil says, is that contemporary artists do not compound the situation. “Artists using technology can’t say, ‘It’s not our responsibility to take care of the work, it’s yours.’ We in museums have to say, ‘We can’t look after the work without you: we want to be sure that whatever decision we are going to make will not betray you.’”

Ben Vickers. Photo: courtesy of Serpentine Gallery

Ben Vickers. Photo: courtesy of Serpentine Gallery

The digital commissioner: Ben Vickers

Ben Vickers is the curator of digital at the Serpentine Galleries in London, which has just launched its latest commission, a complex work on the nature of the cloud and voting patterns by the journalist, writer and artist James Bridle. Vickers says that digital commissions present particular challenges. Curators with “a comprehensive understanding” of technology are rare, which can add extra risk to projects. “This gallery has years of experience of making exhibitions. But when you are working with an artist and they need someone who knows about epigenetics and can also write code, that’s not something that most art museums know how to deal with. Digital curators have to build their own networks with the tech world and universities to find the help they need.”

Steven Sacks © Michael Clinard Photography 2015.

Steven Sacks © Michael Clinard Photography 2015.

The commercial gallery: Steven Sacks

Steven Sacks is the founder of bitforms gallery, one of the earliest to specialise in new media. He says that although work by top digital artists still fetches lower prices than pieces by equivalent painters in traditional media (“which are exponentially more expensive”), it can also represent an opportunity. “Computational, screen-based, interactive media is the most exciting development in the past five to ten years,” he says. “It is still a challenge because the market for this work is smaller than for traditional work: but it is the next big leap forward in the way artists can present their ideas.” He also says the emergence of high quality yet more affordable 4K screens is proving attractive to collectors.

Lisa Schiff, art advisor, Schiff Fine Art

Lisa Schiff, art advisor, Schiff Fine Art

The art adviser: Lisa Schiff

Lisa Schiff is a New York- and Los Angeles-based art adviser with a strong interest in digital art. She is sanguine about looking after the work, as long as artists provide good documentation. “It’s not like scraping a painting, which—although you have to repair it—is forever tarnished. If there is a glitch with a digital work, working on the mechanics doesn’t affect the value.” She says that there is a strong primary market for Cory Arcangel, Ian Cheng and others, but she has only two collectors acquiring this kind of work in depth. The issue, she says, is that “there isn’t really a secondary market”. But, she says, “It took 150 years for there to be a market for photography. It might be hard for us to get our heads around it now, but it won’t always be this way.”

Anita Zabludowicz with artwork by Kelley Walker. London. Picture: David Bebber

Anita Zabludowicz with artwork by Kelley Walker. London. Picture: David Bebber

The collector: Anita Zabludowicz

The British collector Anita Zabludowicz (who calls the dedicated German collector Julia Stoschek her “digital sister”) has mounted a number of digital shows, including this year’s Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection in London. She began collecting the work of Pipilotti Rist in the 1990s and more recently has focused on artists such as Jon Rafman, Cécile B. Evans, Ed Atkins and Rachel Maclean. Museums have not, she believes, paid enough attention to digital “because not all curators have recognised the full potential of the virtual world as an art form”. She supports Daata Editions, which commissions digital works and then sells them in larger editions than the art gallery norm, meaning prices start at as little as $100. “We hope to change the mentality of the art lover,” she says, “encouraging people to use their smart electronic devices to seek out digital art in the same way they would seek out new music or TV.”

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Art and China after 1989: New Perspectives

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This Friday I will be presenting a talk at a symposium organised by the Guggenheim Museum NY, and the NYU Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. Unfortunately I won’t be able to deliver the talk in person but Dr. Wenny Teo, of the Courtauld Institute of Art, has kindly agreed to read the paper on my behalf. The symposium is part of a larger programme of events which will coincide with a major exhibition of contemporary art from China which is slated to open next Autumn at the Guggenheim.

The symposium features an impressive lineup of emerging scholars, curators and museum professionals and tackles issues ranging from public art in the 1990s to consumer culture in Shanghai, institutional critique to contemporary Chinese art history in a global age. My talk will focus on a series of photographic works by the artist Liu Gang 刘刚 (b. 1983) entitled ‘Paper Dreams.’ I have a chapter devoted to these works in my book manuscript, but in this talk I will be focusing specifically on their portrayal of new consumer identities and increasingly globalised patterns of consumption, examining how these developments are amplifying the exchange of visual aesthetics across national and cultural boundaries.

I have included the full symposium programme below, apparently the event is currently sold out, although it may be possible to gain entrance on the day.


 

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