Talking about social media art in China

Talking about social media art in China

Talking about social media art in China
Two social media-related events these past few weeks in Beijing. I’ve spoken about social media art and done social media art in a few countries now, but China always presents the most potent site for exploration. I gave a talk at the Maker’s Carnival, a festival of…

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Two social media-related events these past few weeks in Beijing.

I’ve spoken about social media art and done social media art in a few countries now, but China always presents the most potent site for exploration. I gave a talk at the Maker’s Carnival, a festival of making in partnership with UNESCO, Qinghua University, Shanghai University, CAFA and others. Paris-based MakeSense invited me to talk about social media art to the students involved in the project, and we set up a presentation space on the grounds of the Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technologies (a misleading name, as it’s more interdisciplinary and akin to what we would call in America an Institute of Technology).

I also led an experimental art piece, called Caochangdi 404. It looked at how we can connect the world. For Portal, curated by Janis Ferberg and Stephen Truax, I looked at how we access the Internet, the conversations we can have and can’t have, and how something as simple as a video conference between Beijing and Sydney can be complex and strained, because of the hurdles involved. I wrote a bit more about it for Hyperallergic, where I noted:

In Caochangdi, many residents don’t own their own computer and therefore rely on the local internet cafe for access. Those in China who do have personal Internet face additional technical challenges, like the Great Firewall and a faulty internet connection on the edges of the city. Caochangdi 404 was a performative experiment that used linguistic, cultural and technological barriers as a medium to question the role of technology in connecting the world.

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How do we talk about social media in China? What is the social media environment like? So many people in other countries ask me this question, as they’ve heard stories about the Internet here but aren’t quite sure what to believe. Visitors are often surprised to see that, in fact, it is difficult if not impossible to access certain sites. When I spent a month in Korea and returned to China, I felt the same way. It just doesn’t seem real or possible. But it is.

One Chinese person I spoke to said that, often, when trying to access social media outside the country, the Internet is not very shunli. Shunli is a euphemism that means “smooth”, “without a hitch”. The Internet here can be mafan, or troublesome, at times. And at the same time, it can be a rich, potent space for social media. Witness the rise of hundreds of millions of people on Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo and Douban and Renren and so many other social media sites. You don’t just hop on the Internet here; the Internet is a portal to a new way of life, a new pool of information outside state-controlled media.

I recently met the writer Brian Keith Jackson, who moved from New York to Beijing, where he currently lives. He’s one of the few New Yorkers I’ve met who made the decision to live in China’s capital and is happy about it for reasons similar to my own. In a recent interview, he very thoughtfully explained the way the Internet works:

People really read here. The amount of readers is amazing. As a writer that is just amazing to see, particularly in a culture that really depends on the internet. The internet is such a powerhouse here – much more than in the United States – because it’s how people have a sense of freedom and communicate with each other.

What’s the Internet like here in China? What’s social media like? After a year here, I better understand where Jackson is coming from, and where local Chinese are coming from. I see the space differently now, a mixture of shunli and mafan, a world of all information at your fingertips and no information at your fingertips. It’s yin and yang all in one, and perhaps that’s what makes it a fascinating social media space to work within.

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an xiao studio: the virtual studio of an xiao mina » social media art

Talking about social media art in China

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