Chinese challenges

May 2013

Computer Art Image of the Month

  Miss Puff

Click the image to enlarge

Credit: Wang Ho / Hutoon Studio, Miss Puff, 2011.

Copyright the artist. Reproduced with permission.

With an estimated 500 million internet users, the web has been called the most creative space for self-expression in China. In particular social networking and blogging on the internet is hugely prominent. What are the challenges facing Chinese artists who use this technology within the free market / communist state contradiction that is China?

Rapid economic growth has come at an environmental and social cost including rising discontent among the population. Chinese internet controls are notoriously tight. Free information and communication, particularly of sensitive topics, is largely forbidden in China; a so-called ‘great fire wall’ blocks some of the major international internet servers. And internet police seek to block or delete information.

However, as Duncan Hewitt (BBC Correspondent in Shanghai) argues, ‘The impact of the internet on society in China is greater than in any other country on earth. Not only does it give people channels to express themselves - something which for political reasons has previously been almost impossible - but the increase of micro-blogging has amplified the Internet’s impact still further.’

Sina Weibo is a micro-blogging website akin to a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook and one of the most popular sites in China, in use by well over 30 per cent of internet users; about 100 million messages are posted on it each day.

The conceptual artist and activist Ai Weiwei (famous in Britain for his show Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010) is an active blogger. In particular he used Sina Weibo to appeal publicly for information on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (as the authorities weren’t releasing any).

This ‘citizen’s investigation’ resulted in his comments being deleted and his account closed by the website’s administrator. Attempts to register accounts with usernames alluding to Ai Weiwei were blocked.

This was just the beginning of several run-ins Mr Ai has had with the authorities, ultimately involving the demolition of his Shanghai studio that he suggests is politically motivated because of his reputation as an activist. The artist’s subversive enquiries into the earthquake and the subsequent information gleaned led to a very striking art work involving 9,000 children’s backpacks called Remembering exhibited in Munich.

Although he is now confined to Beijing, Weiwei recently said, ‘I will continue using the internet and, as an artist, I think that this platform holds incredible potential and expressive features; it’s also bestowed on me some quite unimaginable memories.’

Social media offers all artists an opportunity to spread their work quickly and nowhere is this more crucial than in China, where artists can gain greater audiences than ever would have been possible without it. Due to the accessibility of cheap smart phones, users of Sina Weibo can also post images and videos (YouTube is blocked in China).

Each week the government issues a list of banned key words; if any are detected the message is deleted. Ironically the authorities promote the net for economic growth and entrepreneurism whilst heavily controlling it via a silent army of human censors and software filters.

Our image this month is by Wang Bo, an animator based in Beijing whose satirical cartoons are heavily promoted on Sina Weibo, under the pseudonym PiSan. Wang Bo, a generation younger than Weiwei, originally trained as a painter before turning to Flash animation.

He became famous internationally when an allegorical cartoon he produced as a greeting card to friends to mark Year of the Rabbit in January 2011 went viral. The video includes episodes based on actual events. (Although it is now on YouTube with a disclaimer stating otherwise)

Wang Bo devised a brutal storyline that includes baby bunnies drinking toxic milk causing their heads to explode, endure forced demolition of their environment, burn to death in a fire and other tragedies which are thinly veiled comments on topical human rights issues. It also contains puns on words such as ‘harmonious’ which is used by the government as a term to promote the official stance / maintain the status quo of society.

Speaking about this violent cartoon the artist said ‘I wanted to express myself and made it for fun.’ His friends posted it online and it was re-posted and seen by thousands over the course of a weekend before being censored by the authorities. He says, ‘I’m not surprised it was “harmonised”.’

For Wang Bo humorous satire cloaked in animation offered a degree of protection, allowing more freedom than in Ai WeiWei’s case. Wang Bo says ‘I think the government still looks at what I do as just cartoons, child’s play.’ However he does think that ‘animated cartoons may be the most realistic way to capture the absurdity of our country.’

In response to the sudden detention of his friend, Weiwei in 2011, Wang Bo produced another animation that subtly skewered Mr Ai’s arrest and the corrosive influence of censorship on language and society in China.

Within hours of being posted online, Crack Sunflower Seeds received more than a million hits before the video disappeared from Chinese websites - itself a victim of censorship. Wang Bo wondered if he might be next and grew frightened for his family. It wasn’t until Ai was released after 81 days in secret detention that he began to breathe more easily, ‘I just want the freedom to think independently, why shouldn’t we be able to express ourselves creatively?’

Although he produces more mainstream animation work for corporate clients, Wang Bo is quoted as saying he returns to satire, ‘when my emotions are running high’. His company also make the animated web series Miss Puff staring a stylish girl-about-town Pi, whose company,

Hutoon, produces more refined animations for corporate clients, says he returns to Kuang Kuang when “my emotions are running high.”who puffs on a cigarette. Our image this month is a poster advertisement for this series, which has been described as a Chinese Sex and the City.

The apolitical cartoon mixes digital animation with video footage and still photography and is now running as a popular series on Youku.com, a Chinese internet television channel. Wang Bo: ‘I think in this society and era, because of the internet, everyone can use what they are good at to voice their opinions. This, at least, is a self-awakening. We can speak our own ideas, not like before, when everyone watched and listened to the same stuff.’

Blogging and social networking offers a certain kind of freedom the nation never experienced before, in particular the ability of people to comment on current events as they happen and to hold discussions. This is already changing the political landscape. It seems that internet technology can lead to more freedom everywhere including authoritarian societies like China.

How long can government maintain this kind of control? Ultimately it is not possible to censor everything so the internet has the potential to effect real change. It is not surprising that artists with their ability to creatively challenge the establishment are leading the way, enabled by new technology.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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