The Untapped Creativity of the Chinese Internet

<i>So in love, will never feel tired again</i>, an online exhibition by Chinese net artist Ying Miao, serves as a counterpoint to the West's view of the Chinese internet as bland and heavily censored.

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Nov 5 2014, 8:00am

Somewhere in mainland China, a kid in the grips of puppy love posts one of those raw, unmediated posts so saccharine it's both unbearably endearing and ridiculously funny. It's so completely melodramatic that other users stumble across the post and begin adding their own feelings and thoughts, remixing it to be even funnier. The words are skewed, images and music added, and finally uploaded to Bilibili.com, where users overlay their own comments onto the video in real-time.

The resulting GIFs, poems, videos, and comments spread through the Chinese internet on Sina Weibo and WeChat in a flurry of color and flashing animations. This is So in love, w​ill never feel tired again, an online exhibition of work by Chinese new media and net artist Yin​​g Miao, and it serves as a counterpoint to the West's view of the Chinese internet as bland and heavily censored. Despite all that I've been told in the West, the internet here looks incredibly fun and vibrant to me.

"The Chinese internet is really raw," Miao tells me. "It's so unlimited but also limited. It's really rich material." We are sitting in a café with our laptops open in downtown Beijing, a brief bike ride from Tiananmen Square. Miao is walking me through her artwork in preparation for the launch of the online exhibition series  Ne​tizenet. Miao impresses upon me the depth of creativity on the Chinese internet, showing how memes emerge and morph across platforms and ideologies and around censorship.

While I'm becoming accustomed to relying on my VPN or Tor to use boringly functional sites like Gmail, Miao is taking me on an unblocked tour of her inspirations, the wildest and weirdest of the Chinese internet from behind the so-called Great Firewall. Here, everything can be remixed and .GIFs are always welcomed. Conversations on WeChat (the most popular messaging platform here) are an endless stream of reaction .GIFs that put Tumblr to shame. 

In the series, LAN Love Poem, Miao explores her complicated feelings around the Chinese web. LAN stands for local area network and is suggestive of the localized nature of the internet, in both law and culture, that we in the West are rarely confronted with. Miao uses type inspired by Taobao.com (a site akin to eBay) and intentionally poor English translations of odes to her censored net. 

The extreme creativity and vibrancy on the Chinese internet is hard to grasp as a Westerner who is a devout defender of free speech. My ignorance of Miao's raw material, and the many other aspects of Chinese net culture that are difficult to grasp is what Netizienet (or 网友网 in Mandarin and Wǎngyǒuwǎng in Pinyin) is all about.

Using NewHive, a multimedia publishing platform, Netizenet will examine the internet as a medium from within China, an internet very different from what I grew up with in the States. Through an ongoing series of online exhibitions by Chinese and international artists--of which Miao is the first--Netizenet asks important questions about creativity, differing online aesthetics, and location-based web access. Is the Chinese internet uniquely different from the rest of the world's, or does every country's web have its own unique aesthetics and traits?

The curator behind Netizenet is Michelle Proksell, an independent curator, researcher, and artist currently based in Beijing. Proksell was born in Saudi Arabia to expatriate American parents, and moved to the United States when the Gulf War was starting. Proksell loved traveling through Asia as a kid and this is why she eventually returned and has lived in China for over two years.

Proksell sees a ton of potential in Beijing and Shanghai for the arts, especially net art, and wants to help cultivate the scene.  She was fascinated by how the Chinese internet influenced Miao's "artistic aesthetic, process and production," writing that Miao "has a bit of a love affair with the kitschy, low-tech aesthetic, and unreliable nature of this part of the [world wide web.]" ​

Miao is one of the few net artists in mainland China. She and Proksell have adopted the monumental task of helping to encourage a net art discourse in a country of over 620 million internet users as well as introducing that culture to the West. Proksell tells me, "I really wanted to set a tone for the project by working with an artist who had been intimate with this side of the web early in her art practice."

Miao has certainly been exploring the aesthetics and issues of access in the internet in her work for some time. In 2007, for her undergrad thesis exhibition at the China Academy of Fine Arts near Shanghai, Miao made The Blind Spot, which meticulously documented every word blocked from Google.cn. The piece took Miao three months to make and is a brilliant DIY version of Jason Q. Ng's work documenting blocked words on the popular Chinese social network Sina Weibo. But Miao has no interest in only focusing on the limitations of the Chinese internet, believing there are much more fascinating things underway.

For instance, iPhone Garbage is an incredible convergence of Chinese manufacturing, social media, and ​Shanzhai (slang for pirated and fake goods) culture. A heavily remixed video shows a young entrepreneur aggressively promoting his custom smartphone while continually calling the iPhone "garbage." In Miao's work we see a pushback on Western aesthetics and corporations in favor of a more local flavor.

Miao suggests that the emerging narrative of Shanzhai might be replicated in net art in China. At first Shanzhai referred only to cheap knockoffs that rarely worked and were an annoying thorn in "legitimate" companies' sides. Now, as Joi Ito has found, Shanzhai merchants are beginning to build entirely unique hardware, offering entirely different capabilities than their Western smartphone counterparts. Miao believes too that Chinese net culture should embrace their differences and push them as far as possible.

In an int​erv​iew between Miao and Proksell, Miao said, "I think there is a bright future for Chinese internet art." Proksell and Miao have an uphill battle proving that to the West, but just as I had never seen many of Miao's influences, this culture is emerging with or without the West's acknowledgement or support. Whether that appreciation comes or not, Netizenet is off to an amazing start and I for one will definitely keep my eyes open for the next show and on Miao.

Ben Valen​ti​ne writes on art, technology, and social practice. Follow him on Tw​itter.

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