Contextualizing the digital collages by Miao Ying 苗颖 in relation to China’s online culture and media spheres, my ARTMargins Print article situates the contemporary art world’s engagement with Internet art in relation to anti-aesthetics and the rise of what has been termed "Internet ugly." Demonstrating a distinctly self-conscious celebration of what has often disparagingly been labeled The Chinternet, my article argues that Miao Ying's LAN Love Poem and iPhone Garbage can be seen to emerge out of the broader contradictions of Internet art practices that parody the relationships between the "Chinternet" and the World Wide Web; global capitalism and Shanzhai 山寨 [fake or pirated] aesthetics; online propaganda and media democracy; and the art market’s relationship to the virtual economies of an art world online.
The primary aim of this online gallery is to enable viewers to see these works as the artist intended, as well as providing links to many of the websites introduced in my article. The gallery is accompanied by short excerpts from the article that contextualize Miao’s practice and examine how she confronts the often complex and contradictory facets of China’s online culture. Through close readings of LAN Love Poem局域网情诗 (2014) and iPhone Garbage 爱疯垃圾 (2014), I argue that Miao offers an unapologetic reappraisal of the counterfeit and the contrived as a means to probe deeper socio-political and economic concerns, from the consequences of neo-liberal outsourcing to the psychological effects of censorship; the politics of representation, class, and nation to the human impact of "The China Model" that has promoted economic ascendancy at the cost of political freedom.
LAN Love Poem (2014)
In this series of works, Miao addresses the country’s quest for “cyber sovereignty.” Each image features a screenshot of censored websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, complete with the usual automated messages that appear when users seek to access them from Mainland China without using a Virtual Private Network (VPN): “Safari can’t connect to the server,” “This webpage is not available,” or “This page can’t be displayed,” visual reminders of the circumscriptions enforced by the Great Firewall of China. These screenshots are framed by a background of 8-bit Internet landscapes that depict a variety of deserted environments, including sand-swept scenes scattered with the remains of classical ruins; brooding, blood-red skies replete with crows scavenging for carrion amidst tumbleweeds; and wintry landscapes shrouded in snow.
The synthesis of these two visuals could be interpreted as a wry commentary on the misconception that the Internet in China is nothing but a barren wasteland, a space censored to the point of sterility, and therefore devoid of any meaningful creative expression. However, against these visuals, Miao projects excerpts from “Internet poems,” purposefully delineated in animated three-dimensional GIF typography that accentuates their intrusion into the flat space of the foreground. Miao in fact appropriated these “poems” from the QQ signatures of other Wangmin 网民 [netizens]. Displayed in both Chinese and English, the intentionally poor translations of these texts appear as humorous embodiments of Chinglish expressions that frequently circulate online.
Throughout this series, Miao employs Taobao 3-D font, a visually eye-catching red-and-gold typeface inspired by the gimmicky aesthetics of China’s largest online retail portal, ensuring that the dialect of the text in many ways mimics the visual aesthetic of the surrounding images. By isolating and replicating this distinct form of Internet idiolect, Miao celebrates the text’s original absurdity and the ephemeral nature of its creation and replication, as well as the often low-tech and whimsical nature of China’s online platforms.
China is currently home to 731 million Internet users, 297 million micro-bloggers, 695 million Internet mobile phone users, and four of the top ten Internet companies in the world, including e-commerce giant Alibaba 阿里巴巴, social-media and gaming company Tencent 腾讯 and search specialists Baidu 百度. Many of these websites make appearances throughout Miao’s work and she integrates aspects of their design to accentuate the distinct nature of commercial platforms such as Taobao 淘宝, which is often erroneously compared to Amazon or Ebay, but has in fact developed social characteristics quite distinct from its non-Chinese counterparts.
In a marked departure from the Western model of single-purpose online providers, Chinese web giants have prioritized hybrid development, enabling features of social media to be embedded within them and thus facilitating expansion into a vast array of interlinked digital services. Tencent, for example, has significant interests in e-commerce, online and social gaming, online ads, news and entertainment portals, and dozens of mobile apps. This diversification has also been facilitated by the development of online payment services, (often referred to as “digital wallets”), which has resulted in a more effective monetization of social-media platforms.
Rejecting the digital ecosystems of the “global Internet,” with its Silicon Valley–dominated companies, Chinese netizens and mobile users are offered sufficient—and sufficiently mature—choices by local companies to ensure that they rarely venture beyond China’s digital frontiers, a situation that enables the Chinese government to effectively herd its Internet users toward methods of communication that it can more reliably monitor. This has resulted in an Internet “that has global features yet has assumed distinctly Chinese characteristics.”(Guobin Yang, “A Chinese Internet? History, Practice, and Globalization,” Chinese Journal of Communication 5, no. 1 (March 2012): 49–54.) These characteristics encompass the cultural and linguistic features of Chinese websites, but also extend to the more pernicious aspects of online censorship, Internet surveillance, and the contingencies of political control. Viewed collectively, these sinicizations illustrate how the Internet in China “has become domesticated to the extent that it is now possible, even necessary, to talk about the Chinese Internet, as opposed to the Internet in China.”Yang, (“A Chinese Internet?,” 49.)
iPhone Garbage (2014)
Like LAN Love Poem, iPhone Garbage is composed of videos, GIFs, and still images. The video component is appropriated from the Chinese website Bilibili and is a remix of an original video made to promote the Chinese smartphone brand Jin Li 金立.
Bilibili is a video-sharing website, themed around anime, manga, and game fandom, that uses Adobe Flash video and HTML5 technology to display user-submitted videos hosted by third-party sources. Beyond hosting the video content, Bilibili’s core feature is a real-time commentary subtitle system that displays user comments as streams of moving subtitles overlaid on the video playback screen, visually resembling a Danmaku shooter game. These subtitles are called Danmu [bullets], since they are simultaneously broadcast to all viewers in real time and disappear seconds after their appearance, thus encouraging rapid-fire ideas and conversational volleys. As Miao Ying has noted, Bilibili’s popularity can be attributed to its status as a repository of the ugly and the unprofessional, in which entertainment is derived from Tucao 吐槽 [ridiculing or mocking] badly edited or amateur videos.
The Bilibili video that Miao appropriated for iPhone Garbage depicts two men dressed in police uniforms aggressively promoting their domestic Jin Li custom-made smartphone while live comments stream continuously across the screen, obscuring the two figures and the background of the original video in a palimpsest of overlapping text and imagery. The ersatz police officers continually denounce the iPhone 6 as part of their advertising strategy, labeling it Laji 垃圾 [a piece of garbage] and fulminating against the consumers who would spend so much money on a phone that they insist is easily damaged, tacky, and badly designed.
iPhone Garbage can thus be interpreted as both commentary and critique of the saturation of the Chinese market with new forms of communication technology, precipitating the insatiable desire to own the latest model of smartphone. By fusing Apple’s sleek professional ad, whose production costs were no doubt considerable, with Jin Li’s ironic, homemade parody, iPhone Garbage demonstrates the Internet’s facilitation of an alternative visual economy in which content can carry multiple possession statuses at once. Miao thus succinctly illustrates that online terrain, like any other, is ripe for colonization both by the corporate mechanics that pilot Western society and by more local players who insert themselves (and their products) into the interstices of global consumer culture.
To learn more about these works and to read the full article, please visit https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/ARTM_a_00199.