Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) Annual Conference, Agile Objects: The Art and Anthropology of Re-materialization

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On Saturday I attended the Royal Anthropological Institute’s (RAI) Annual Conference, which was held at the British Museum and SOAS and this year addressed the theme of ‘Art, Materiality and Representation‘. Along with Emilie Lefebvre, a post-doctoral researcher in visual anthropology, we convened a panel on ‘Agile Objects: The Art and Anthropology of Re-materialization‘. The aim of the panel was to examine the practices by which artists and media-makers from non-Western contexts are progressively re-materializing digital content in order to increase the exclusivity, cultural capital, and visibility of their aesthetic and cultural creations.

At a time in which our experience of cultural artefacts is often physically removed by digitization, this panel seeks papers that consider the practices, politics, and affects of re-materializing artworks from diverse geographical perspectives. The process of de- to re-materialization has been referred to by David Joselit as a ‘comedy of matter’; a situation in which the most ”immaterial” of formats—digital information—has paradoxically led to a proliferation of material states. This metastasizing of media formats can in effect render a quantum of data into a printed photograph, a 3-D print or an analogue sculpture, facilitating a variety of practices from bootlegging and creative appropriation to the return of cultural heritage. These processes of re-materialization have subsequently led to the formation of ‘agile objects’: cultural artefacts whose value may have originally resided in their authentic forms but today are revered for their capacity as digital files to take on several distinct forms simultaneously.

While these practices among artists, media-makers and museums have been the focus of increasing scholarly attention, their theorization and prevalence beyond Western contexts remains largely unexplored. Redressing this imbalance, we premise that art historical and anthropological examinations of re-materialization can provide unique perspectives about the politics of cultural capital from the Near East to East Asia, Australia to Latin America. This multi-disciplinary panel therefore invites papers that consider the transposition of digital content into objects of material, commercial and collectable value, exploring the capacity of these ‘agile objects’ to shape artistic and museum practices.

Our panel critically addressed re-materialization from an interdisciplinary perspective with papers exploring

* The value ascribe to digital models of Māori taonga

* The material loss and recreation of the Great Auk within the context of the Anthropocene

* The notion of noise and materalization of womanhood in South Africa

* The material configuration of nude bodies in modern Chinese art

* The re-materialization of endangered plants from around the world

With this vast scope, we had a very lively discussion on re-materialization and the capacity of ‘agile objects’ to shape artistic and museum practices in non-Western contexts.

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Jennifer Cattermole from the University of Otago discusses the implications of re-materialising taonga pūoro (traditional Māori musical instruments)

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Artist Darlene Farris-LaBar discussing how emerging technology brings greater opportunities for artists who are seeking new ways to communicate to larger and diverse audiences.

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Di Wang from the University of Oxford discusses the materiality of the body in modern Chinese art and visual culture, 1919-1949.

 

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Arnar Árnason (University of Aberdeen) and Gro Ween (University of Oslo) presented a paper on ‘Species extinction: art, materiality and the representation of material loss in the age of the Anthropocene’

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Some of Darlene Farris Labar’s amazing 3-D printed seed pods

 

Tate Modern: Gender in Chinese Contemporary Art now available to watch online

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In February I participated in in a symposium on ‘Gender in Chinese Contemporary Art’ at Tate Modern.  The symposium explored the role that gender has played in the development of Chinese contemporary art and alongside talks from Monica Merlin and myself, it was a fantastic opportunity to hear artists Ma Qiusha, Ye Funa and Nabuqi talk about their practice. The event is now available to watch in full online and I have included links to the videos below.

 

 

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.

Xi’s ‘Little Red App’ and the face of contemporary propaganda

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A contemporary oil painting of Xi Jinping surrounded by students at Beijing University. The image was released on the Ministry of Defence’s website in January, 2015.

There have been many articles written recently on what has been described as Xi Jinping’s ‘Cult of Personality’. In this post I would like to examine how this ‘cult’ is being manifested visually, the role of ‘image management’ in constructing Xi’s personal brand and the resultant intensification in propaganda and diversification of media- particularly digital media and new communications technologies that are being harnessed in this process.

In many ways, Xi has been described as the model of a modern multimedia leader. Over the last two years, he has made numerous appearances across a broad spectrum of digital platforms. His image has been rendered in cartoon form, visual tributes in the more traditional medium of oil painting have been plastered across government websites, songs have been written (and parodied) in his honour, there is a dedicated weibo account that provides daily updates on his activities and his writings have now been translated into at least nine languages. A recently released app combining many of these features is now available for download via the iTunes store (more about this later in the post). Clearly the importance of Xi’s image and the prominence of digital platforms in disseminating it cannot be underestimated, prompting an examination of why Xi’s leadership has chosen to prioritise visual media on a scale previously unprecedented in recent government history. Continue reading

Ai Weiwei, amnesty and digital tributes

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Earlier this week it was announced that Ai Weiwei and Joan Baez have been named as co-recipients of Amnesty International’s 2015  “良心大使” ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ award, the highest honour from the international human rights organisation which is bestowed upon figures “who have shown exceptional leadership in the fight for human rights, through their life and work.”

In a press release issued by Amnesty, Salil Shetty, Secretary General of the organisation is quoted as saying: “The Ambassador of Conscience Award is a celebration of those unique individuals who have used their talents to inspire many others to take injustice personally. That is why both Joan Baez and Ai Weiwei make such worthy recipients; they are an inspiration to thousands more human rights activists, from across Asia to America and beyond.” Adding specifically in relation to Ai’s nomination that: “through his work Ai Weiwei reminds us that the right of every individual to express their self must be protected, not just for the sake of society, but also for art and humanity.” Continue reading

Before ‘duang’: character creation, art and ideology in the digital age

duang1eIn the last week there has been much media coverage devoted to an invented character whose viral dissemination amongst internet users earned it the dubious distinction of being labelled ‘The word that broke the Chinese internet.’ The character in question? an onomatopoeiac utterance issued by Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong born action star and movie veteran. Like many celebrities Chan maintains a lucrative side career endorsing commercial products, his prolific and many would argue indiscriminate advertising career has seen him endorse everything from electric bicycles to anti-virus software, auto-repair schools to frozen dumplings. One of his most famous commercial roles is as the herbal shampoo ambassador for Bawang 霸王, the fourth most popular shampoo manufacturer in China. Chan has served as the company’s spokesperson for over a decade, appearing prominently in its visual ads as well as featuring in numerous TV campaigns in which he invariable attributes his glossy, flowing mane to the rejuvenating effects of the herbal remedy. This commercial alliance has not been without its setbacks, in 2010 controversy arose after the company was accused of replacing the supposed traditional Chinese medicine ingredients in its darkening and hair loss-fighting products with carcinogenic chemicals after the Hong Kong based Next Magazine reported that samples of its anti hair-loss formula had 10 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane.

Jackie Chan features prominently in an ad for Bawang, China's largest herbal shampoo manufacturer.

Jackie Chan features prominently in an ad for Bawang, China’s largest herbal shampoo manufacturer.

On February 24th of this year, what many believed to be a new advert for Bawang starring Jackie Chan was released on Youku, the video, however, was a parody created from splicing together old footage from a 2004 TV advertisement. In the original ad, Chan pokes fun at the digitally enhanced images that have become a ubiquitous feature of contemporary commercials, these misleading ‘special effects’ according to Chan, “can make hair go “‘duaaang!’ Very black! Very shiny! Very soft!” whereas Chan’s tonsorial youthfulness is of course naturally credited to his continued use of Bawang. When the original advertisement was first aired over a decade ago, it attracted the attention of Chinese censorship officials who interpreted the company’s exaggerated claims as a misleading promotion of the shampoo’s effects. Continue reading

The dividing point between ‘zombie social activism’ and artistic mobilisation

In an article that appeared recently on artnet news, Daria Daniel asked Is a new artistic activism emerging via social media and forms of public protest? The article focuses on international art groups who have created works in response to recent social and political crises, from a collective of Mexican artists who posed naked in public spaces to demonstrate against recent student killings to Titus Kaphar and Hank Willis Thomas’ artistic reaction to the Ferguson protests as well as the outpouring of political cartoons and visual tributes which emerged following the Charlie Hebdo Attacks.

Titus Kaphar Yet Another Fight for Rememberance .  Photo: time.com

Titus Kaphar, ‘Yet Another Fight for Remembrance’
Photo: time.com

Illustration by graphic designer Lucille Clerc.  Photo: businessinsider.com

Illustration by graphic designer Lucille Clerc.
Photo: businessinsider.com

 

Continue reading