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.

Miao Ying, Net Art and the cultural hybridity of the ‘Chinternet’

Landscape, 2013, GIF installation, reclining chairs, touchpad devices, welcome mat, sheets, crumpled paper

Landscape, 2013, GIF installation, reclining chairs, touchpad devices, welcome mat, sheets, crumpled paper

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. 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

Let’s sing along now: a little musical number from the censorship choir

On the 10th February at a televised event hosted by the Beijing Internet Association to celebrate the imminent Lunar New Year festivities, the assembled audience of leading internet executives and media figures was treated to a special performance of a new song entitled 网信精神 “Cyberspace Spirit” by staff from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the government agency in charge of Internet policies, and increasingly, censorship. Continue reading