The Uses of the Future: Contemporary Art in the Digital Domain


Earlier this year I was asked to contribute an essay for a publication commemorating 30 years of the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA). The Centre was formed in 1986 as the Chinese View Arts Association, a festival platform of art, music and dance whose purpose was to create an improved understanding of Chinese culture for UK audiences. Now in its third decade, the centre has become a well respected contemporary art gallery that regularly hosts exhibitions of emerging and established artists from Greater China, the UK and beyond, in addition to a lively and innovative programme of residencies, engagement projects, festivals and events.  As the only non-profit organisation in Europe to specialise in Chinese contemporary art and visual culture, the publication marks the important contribution the Centre has made to the evolution of Chinese contemporary art practice over the last 30 years.


The publication has been divided into five subsections, which tackle issues ranging from ‘Contextual Changes in China and Beyond’, ‘How Have Exhibitions of Chinese Contemporary Art Evolved?’, ‘Definitions of Chineseness’, ‘Talent Development’ and ‘The Future’ with each section including a series of essays and conversations that explore the work of the organization and its surrounding contexts. My essay features in the final section on ‘The Future’ and addresses how artists in China and beyond are responding to the changes wrought by the so-called ‘digital turn’, looking specifically at the impact of social media, the creative appropriation of pixelation and programming code and the role of internet art, online exhibitions and digital archives in the shaping of new spaces for art and its display in the twenty-first century. I have included a pdf of the essay, entitled ‘The Uses of the Future: Contemporary Art in the Digital Domain‘ in the publications section of this blog, which you can find here.


‘Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan’ (after Liu Chunhua, 1967), Giclee on Canvas/ 95 x 77cm, by Gordon Cheung (2016), featured in the essay by En Liang Khong on ‘The In-Betweeners: Identity, Politics, Hybridity and the Art of ‘Chineseness’



‘A Contemporary Art Centre, Taipei, a proposal’ by Jun Yang (2008) featured in the essay by Biljana Ciric on ‘Exhibiting Rituals- Potential and Traps: Exhibitions on China in China and Outside China’

With contributions from artists, writers and curators in the field including artists such as Xu Bing, Liu Ding and Gordon Cheung, and curators Hou Hanru, Biljana Ciric, Marko Daniel and many others, the publication has much to offer students, scholars and specialists of East Asian Art as well as those with a more general interest in contemporary art and visual culture. For anyone looking to purchase a copy, the book will be available to buy from Amazon from December onwards.


A detail from Xu Bing’s bellyband design for ‘Book from the Ground’


Stills from Susan Pui San Lok, including ‘Notes on Return’ (2003), ‘After Words’ (2005), and ‘Vistas'(2005), single channel digital videos and digital video triptych. 

The Art of the QR Code



This post is devoted to exploring a digital phenomenon that seems to have largely eluded audiences in Europe and America despite its pervasive presence within the art world in China: the QR (Quick Response) code 二维码.

QR codes are a ubiquitous feature of daily life in China. Plastered on newspaper adverts, restaurant flyers, giant billboards, subway posters, supermarket counters, buses and even business cards, the omnipresence of this seemingly mundane digital marker speaks volumes about the dominance of mobile networks, social media and communication technologies in contemporary China.


The functionality of QR codes within China has been significantly bolstered as a result of the majority of the country’s inhabitants accessing the internet via their mobile phones rather than through personal computers. According to recent statistics, 89% of China’s 700 million internet users go online using a mobile. Mobile online networks have therefore dovetailed with the convenience of QR codes, enabling a range of activities which might seem unthinkable to users outside of China. As this recently released video demonstrates, the simple scanning of a code can be used to make online payments, join social networks, access consumer discounts, attain online information, send digital money to friends and family, as well as countless other activities and services. In short, QR codes in China go far beyond the capabilities of their QR cousins in Europe or elsewhere, where they predominantly function as a means of digital ticketing including online boarding passes etc. Continue reading

UCL Press launches a series of free ebooks that explore the uses and consequences of social media around the world


UCL Press has just launched a great series of eleven free open access volumes of ethnographic research based on the ‘Why we Post’ project, a global anthropological research project on the uses and consequences of social media. Most of the books are available for download in pdf format, on epub or as paperback or hardback options.

For more information on the project, visit For an overview, take a look at the comparative book ‘How the World Changed Social Media’. For those with a particular interest in social media and China, Xinyuan Wang’s ‘Social Media in Industrial China’ shown below, contains fascinating chapters on ‘Visual Material on Social Media’ and ‘The Social Media Landscape in China’. Tom McDonald’s ‘Social Media in Rural China’ also has a great section on ‘Visual postings: Idealising family- love, marriage and ‘little treasures’. A full list of the titles in the series is shown below.

Why We Post

Why do we post on social media? Is it true that we are replacing face-to-face relationships with on-screen life? Are we becoming more narcissistic with the rise of selfies? Does social media create or suppress political action, destroy privacy or become the only way to sell something? And are these claims equally true for a factory worker in China and an IT professional in India? With these questions in mind, nine anthropologists each spent 15 months living in communities in China, Brazil, Turkey, Chile, India, England, Italy and Trinidad. They studied not only platforms but the content of social media to understand both why we post and the consequences of social media on our lives. Their findings indicate that social media is more than communication – it is also a place where we now live.

This series explores and compares the results in a collection of ground-breaking and accessible ethnographic studies. As with all UCL Press titles, they will be available as free PDF downloads, and a in low-cost print.

Recently Published

How the World Changed Social Media

How the World Changed Social Media

 A summary of the findings of ethnographic research undertaken in eight countries around the world.

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Social Media in Industrial China

Groundbreaking ethnographic study that examines social media usage in a factory town in southeast China.

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Social Media in Rural China

Absorbing ethnographic study by Tom McDonald that examines social media use in a small rural Chinese community.

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Titles in the Why We Post series include:

Around the World in 8 Papers: Itineraries for a History of Photography Beyond the Western Canon

Tomorrow I’ll be taking part in a study day organised by Mirjam Brusius as part of the University of Oxford’s ‘Photography Seminar’. It promises to be a very lively day of discussion and exchange with  papers tackling everything from Egyptian Studio Photography to Colonial Photography in Central America. I’ve included the full progamme below.

New TORCH network on the #SocialHumanities


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I’m very excited to be part of a new TORCH network on the #SocialHumanities. TORCH sponsors up to ten new interdisciplinary networks each year, with current projects ranging from Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers to the Celebrity Research Network. You can learn more about all of these networks here. The #SocialHumanities network aims to bring together researchers working across the humanities to debate and discuss the impact of social media on the way we study, work, interact, live and learn. We will be organising a range of events, workshops and seminars over the coming year that bring a diverse body of students, non-academic partners, researchers and  enthusiasts together with the aim of fostering knowledge exchange and skills sharing. I will be organising several events next year which will pay particular attention to how visual imagery circulates online and the role of embeddable videos, photographs and digital media in social media networks. My co-convenors on the project are Yin Yin Lu of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and Dr. Kathryn Eccles also of the OII. I have included the network description below and more information (with details of upcoming events) can be found here.


“Social media never sleeps. Every minute of every day, 347,222 tweets are sent, 4,166,667 Facebook posts are liked, 300 hours of new YouTube videos are uploaded, 284,722 Snapchat images are shared, and 1,041,666 videos are played on Vine. These numbers have increased dramatically every year, and will only keep increasing. There is heightened demand for academics of all disciplines to develop methodologies and theories to make sense of this data explosion.

Nested in the ever-evolving and ever-expanding field of the digital humanities, the #SocialHumanities network explores the implications of social media for society, from platform design and usage to the volumes of data generated. How can we interpret such vast volumes of data, both quantitatively and qualitatively, while maintaining a humanistic perspective? How have social media platforms altered our language and behaviours? What are the methodological challenges and ethical issues that arise in the analysis of social media data? How do images (and other cultural objects) spread on social media, and how are they (re)appropriated? How can social media analytics help cultural institutions better understand their engagement with audiences? What is the value of social media for society? What are the dangers?

There are many unanswered questions, and more will emerge as the network grows. The establishment of #SocialHumanities allows humanities scholars to more actively join in the conversations that social and computational scientists have initiated around these concerns. There is strong need for a more qualitative interpretation of social media data (especially data that is non-textual, such as images and videos), and for the integration of qualitative and quantitative approaches. This network allows humanities scholars to engage with not only a vast range of other disciplines in Oxford, from Cybersecurity to Physics, but also with many non-academic partners, both internal and external to the University. Its aims are to foster highly interdisciplinary knowledge exchange and skills sharing, promote and improve mixed methods research, stimulate interaction between academics and non-academics (in particular, companies that work with social media data), develop methodologies for the analysis of social media data, and enhance theoretical frameworks used for such analysis.”

If you have any questions about #SocialHumanities, event ideas, speaker suggestions, or are interested in becoming a member, please contact one of the convenors: Yin Yin Lu (, Kathryn Eccles (, Ros Holmes (


November 4th, 2015

Today in Chinese Soft-Power Surreality: The 十三五 !

By: James Fallows      Source: The Atlantic      Date: 27/10/2015

(For more on this story please see my earlier post on ‘The face of contemporary propaganda‘)

Last night the online China-watcher world was erupting in delight over the video you can watch below. It raises questions that are the Chinese state-run media version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

That is: could this hokey masterpiece possibly have been meant in earnest? Or is it an Onion-style winking joke, in which we’re the rubes for being lured into thinking that it was serious? Or — the Heisenberg angle! — through the very process of noticing and making fun of it, do we bring about its conversion from one category to the other, earnest to Onion?

We will never know. (Although, based on past evidence, I am betting: earnest.) Meanwhile, I give you The Shi San Wu, or 十三五 or 13-5, the meaning of which will become evident:

After I saw this last night, via a Tweet from the NYT’s Michael Forsythe, I asked online if anyone knew the background of the (apparently) foreign production talent behind this remarkable piece of work.

Ask and it shall be answered!

Forsythe himself has an item on the Times’s site now, and our own sister site Quartz has one by Zheping Huang as well. Here is another by Erik Crouch at Techinasia. They all give credit/responsibility to an organization calling itself the Fuxing Road Studio,  复兴路上工作室. This group has produced some other … remarkable videos. For instance, this one on how the dream of growing up to be president/prime minister plays out in the U.S., China, and other places:

No larger theme here. But hey, you native speakers of American English who are evidently working at Fuxing Road: get in touch some time! I’d love to hear the back story on these videos.


Update Thanks to Ben Wang of the Eurasia Group for the embeddable link to another notable work from Fuxing Road. It’s called “The Communist Party of China Is With You.” See for yourself!


Update-bonus No sane person has ever sought my advice on pronouncing words in Chinese, or for that matter in any other language (except sometimes English). But I’ve gotten a number of notes to this effect:

Did you catch the pronunciation of “五”?  It sounded much more like “oo” than “wu.”  It seemed like an odd mistake.

If you listen to the song, you’ll hear a zillion repetitions of shi-san-ooo, where I would have expected shi-san-wu. Yet another question to ask at Fuxing Road.

Continue reading

Ai Weiwei, Social Media and Online Activism

Tomorrow I’ll be delivering a public lecture at the Royal Academy on Ai Weiwei, Social Media and Online Activism. For anyone that’s interested in learning more, here is a description and a link to the event:

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Art historian Dr Ros Holmes discusses Ai Weiwei’s prolific use of social media and explores the artist’s creative, humorous – but also socially and politically critical – presence online.

Since 2005, Ai Weiwei has employed an array of digital media platforms as the primary means to communicate and interact with his followers, both within China and worldwide. From his extensive blogging activities to his prolific use of Twitter and Instagram, as well as his creation of satirical memes and online videos, audio recordings and photos, Ai has harnessed the power of the Internet as a creative tool for public expression and discussion.

In this talk, Dr Ros Holmes addresses the intertwining of Ai Weiwei’s online communications with his own practice to craft an artistic mode of expression that very cleverly exposes the (often incredulous) contradictions of contemporary China, and the absurdities of institutional power. She also explores how the above methodologies have affected his artistic impact, with young artists both celebrating and contesting his practice.

Doors open at 2.30pm, no admittance will be granted for latecomers after 3pm. If you do not arrive before 3pm, your ticket will be released at that time to those waiting for returned tickets.