Miao Ying: Freedom through Limits

The original version of this interview was published on Rhizome.org on July 8, 2015, part of the Artist Profile series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.

Miao Ying is an artist born in Shanghai. Since graduating in 2007, she has been making net art based on the Chinese internet where, in her own words, she currently resides. Her work includes gifs, apps, videos, digital prints, artist books, and interactive installations, and was featured on NewHive in 2014 ahead of a solo show entitled “.gif Island” at V Art Center in Shanghai. The online exhibition “Holding a Kitchen Knife  to Cut the Internet Cable”, part  of a series hosted by Chronus  Art Center, featured ten net art- works which were shown  also in the Chinese pavilion at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale  in 2015.

Iona Whittaker: Your graduation show was the first time you involved the internet in your work. You made a new dictionary composed entirely of censored terms which you spent three months compiling, looking up every single word in the Chinese dictionary on google.cn, and recording all those that met with a blocked result. It was a hugely laborious piece which resulted in an actual book (“Blind Spot” 2007). More recently, “Is it me you are looking for?” (2014) also included censored content, combining Lionel Richie’s 1984 “Hello” music video with three images from the “LAN Love Poem.gif” series (2014), in which “website unavailable” pages from censored websites are overlaid with kitschy slogans from Chinese internet poetry. How would you describe your attitude to censored pages as source material?  The way you use it now, a blocked page is always the start of something else; the “website unavailable” notice has become a familiar backdrop used again and again. It comes across more lightheartedly, almost like the devil you know.

Miao Ying,
Miao Ying, “Is it me you are looking for?!”, video still, 2014.
苗颖,《你在找 吗?》,录像 屏,2014

Miao Ying: I guess that when I was younger, I saw censorship more like an enemy, with more limitations than possibilities. In 2007 when I made the first piece “Blind Spot” blogs were trending in China. Although blogger. com was blocked, there were some great local blog servers, and for the first time as someone from the post-eighties generation, I got to know a lot of public intellectuals from their blogs—that was enlightening for me. I was a senior in college, and very idealistic. I wanted to be more responsible for society. On the other hand, I was starting to love the internet because blogs, Google, and Wikipedia really changed the way I gathered information. When I was a kid, I never truly trusted the schoolbooks and the newspapers in the same way that I didn’t trust my English teacher’s accent. It was totally mean and cynical because I felt everything could be censored or manipulated here. Even when the internet came out in China, it was censored to begin with, but at least if knew a way to get past it, I could get past the “second hand information.”

The first internet piece I made was trying to address censorship with an end goal of bringing change to it. Over the years, I feel like censorship has changed me instead. I was sad, angry, and finally accepted it, like a phase of a breakup. Censorship is like a nasty boyfriend/girlfriend you cannot tame. It’s even worse than that; it’s actually more like developing Stockholm syndrome— a traumatic bonding. This kind of love takes place in an isolated environment where the hostage- taker—who makes the rules— becomes so powerful that you gradually fall in love with them.

For instance, when I first came back to China from the States, I realized that everybody was star ting to use the Chinese version of Twitter—Wei Bo.  I refused to use it at first because the only reason it was popular was because Twitter was blocked, and Wei Bo agreed to cooperate with the government. Later, I realized it was silly and pretentious to not use it, because the beauty of it is self-censorship. That’s when I became fascinated by the local Chinese internet and realized how rich and unique it is as a material. In the music video for “Hello”, Lionel Richie fell in love with a blind girl and in the end she made a sculpture of him from her observation; this double blindness is quite like the romantic relationship between me and the Great Firewall.

Iona Whittaker: You have used different physical installations to display your work. For the exhibition “Gif Island” at V Art Center in Shanghai last year, “Landscape. gif” (2013) was composed of deckchairs draped with emoji­ printed towels. Multiple touch­screen devices were angled closely over the chairs, displaying trembling GIF images—too many to watch at once. Wires and crumpled pieces of paper bearing the Chinese meme “Zan” (akin to the “Like” of Western social media) were strewn about the floor. Part of the same exhibition, “APP­nosis” (2013–14) suspended iPhones at the apex of open metal pyramids. On the floor below, real turf and printed cushions invited one to recline passively beneath the screen; the square background hue of an app was projected on the wall with a soundtrack of waves breaking. These installations convey subtly different atmospheres around interaction with smartphones; the setups are both intuitive and quite absurd. I wondered if you could talk about them, perhaps alongside your own experience, the moods you imagine when you build them, and how they come across to the viewer.

Miao Ying,
Miao Ying, “landscape.gif”, .gifs, reclining chairs, touchpad devices mounts, iPad, Tpad,Shanzhai ipad, welcome mat, sheets, crumpled paper, 2014.
苗颖,《景观.gif》,gif格式动图、倾斜的椅子、触摸屏装置、iPad、山寨iPad、迎宾垫、床单和弄皱的 张,2014

Miao Ying: Both of them come from daily experience; I wanted to build something that is familiar— extremely daily, yet ceremonial. People are looking at their apps all the time, but they are not really looking at them. I don’t know if people fully realize how technology is changing or controlling our lives. The work deals with the integration of technology and the human spirit. Technology is the “fifth element” on the meditation pyramid.  By staring at the giant, non-functional, color-changing app  icon and sitting inside the pyramid, the participant connects  to the universe through the smart- phone; the smartphone amplifies the essences of the universe, which travels back to people’s bodies, then to their souls.

“Landscape.gif” is inspired by best-selling items on Taobao  (the Chinese equivalent of eBay); iPad holders for people to use when they are lying on the bed. The way you look up at it has  the psychological implication of you looking up towards a  higher power. Is it your iPad or God that is watching over  and looking after you? I wanted to make a blanket for the people who are busy staring at the screen while enacting this daily ceremony—I don’t want them to get cold, you know? I wanted  to make a local internet blanket. This “Zan” (“Like”) blanket  is covered in original emojis inspired by Chinese New  Year door decorations, only these emoji themes wish for  “Eat Well,” “Get Rich,” “Have iPhone6+,” and “Emigrate to  the USA.” At Chinese New Year, along with wishing for wealth, people wish for more “likes” on social media.

Miao Ying,
Miao Ying, “A Healthy Fear”, webpage screen shot, 2015.

Iona Whittaker: Your work has a deliberate “Chinese internet” aesthetic; you use this as a medium, for example by including Bilibili videos  and the Jackie Chan shampoo ad in the new piece you showed  in Venice, “A Healthy Fear” (2015). How much of a boundary is  there between what you make and what you look at for research? Do you see your work as part of it all, or hope that it will eventually be seen by the same users who watch Bilibili etc.?

Miao Ying: I call those “video player works,” not video works, as I have no interest in video art. The videos in my works are always appropriated media, and they are part of a bigger piece to add con text to it. You are not just watching the video, you are watching it being watched. I like the idea of “video sharing” instead of  video. The ads and the quality of the video depend on your internet speed, and finally you can click on suggested videos YouTube provides for you, and you end up watching something else. In  “A Healthy Fear,” the background is a snapshot of an official  Google ad from the Google YouTube  channel about bringing Google apps and chrome books to classrooms in Malaysia, where  two Muslim kids with perfectly satisfied smiles on their faces hold Google laptops on their laps. Another video is also from the official Google channel, where in another Asian country, Japan, people are doing a calisthenics routine with Google letters.  What is funny is that there is neither Google nor YouTube  in China, but that doesn’t stop people from using Google.  The recording of the video is by  a Chinese netizen who used Google Translate to “sing”(read) the most unlikely viral internet song, “My Skate Shoes”, which is a voice for the internet  meme “diaosi” (self-deprecating loser). The GIF of Jackie Chan shaking his head is a WeChat GIF sticker. People are celebrating “Duang” as a viral meme that originates from a commercial featuring Jackie Chan in which he described his hair quality  as being “Duang” —an onomatopoeic word for bouncy y-ness.  This commercial was remixed by Chinese netizens eleven years later (when Jackie Chan’s son was arrested on drug charges) to the tune of “My Skate Shoes”. Together they create a new meme, “Duang,” to represent something disingenuous, but  in a humorous way. This remixed video was first uploaded to Bilibili, where it trended rapidly, then quickly the GIF of Jackie Chan shaking his head saying “Duang!” was all over  WeChat. GIFs of a meme have become humorous topics  to light up a conversation.

I would love to see comments flowing around my work. It  would be a work of art in the  age of social media.

Miao Ying,
Miao Ying, “Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile”, .gif animation still, 2015.
苗颖,《你嘴角三十度的微笑,百度搜索不到》,gif格式 图,2015

The background for “Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile” is a “website unavailable” notice for Instagram; across the bottom portion of the image is an  undulating line which reads “Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile”. This is taken from an online signature and contains particular references. Could you  explain the different elements which compose this GIF, and  why you chose this signature?

In Chinese, “bai” means hundred; “du” means degrees. This double entendre, “hundred degrees,” is the Chinese search engine Baidu, which became the main search engine back in 2010 when Google left China. Maybe years later, the younger Chinese generation might think Google copied Baidu. This poem I found online; it reads, “The thirty degrees of your smile can not be found on Baidu.” I pictured this poem as depicting a heartbroken guy looking for his former girlfriend’s picture on Instagram. Her perfect, charming, unique smile cannot  be found because Instagram is blocked in China. Therefore, he had to search for her smile  on Baidu, aka “hundred degrees,” and found nothing.

This series of works involved  a large amount of research,  reading and collecting online signatures. I usually picked  the ones that were the most “cheesily” creative, which  gave me a visual feeling about this poem. Then I found a GIF  that fit the mood of the poem and created the 3D wording, and imagined how the animation would look before I even started to  put everything together. In this one, “she” is hiding behind  the browser as if the smile cannot be found on Baidu.

Also, I think it is very important that those works are in GIF format. GIF is the format that was born for the internet. A GIF  comprises multiple still images that can be viewed in a browser, which plays the animation automatically. Only recently have computer operating systems made it possible to view GIFs without opening them in a browser. I think it’s an ironic use of GIFs to show the disconnection of the internet. To me, it’s an interesting paradox.

Miao Ying,
Miao Ying, “Flowers all fallen, Birds far gone”, .gif animation still, 2015.
苗颖,《花落尽,鸟飞绝》,gif动图 屏,2015

Blocking off parts of the internet is an unpleasant and manipulative action by the authorities which already has a long history in China. I feel that people outside the Chinese internet might see it purely as a restricted area that is generally negative  for its users, whose online experience is limited; those not engaged with the “Chinternet” are not in contact with or  experiencing the web as Chinese netizens do. Your work distills  a different sensation, however— a humble charm and a sort  of detached sympathy; to me, it radiates a certain pride about online culture and community in Mainland China. Inside those boundaries, there are netizens who are hugely responsive  and alert–perhaps much  more so than those who can  browse freely.

Things can change very fast in China; it can be a good and bad thing. Twenty years ago, personal computers were far from popular here. Today, China has the largest market of smartphone users  in the world. As far as I know, WeChat is the most entertaining application for instant communication, and the way Chinese people use GIF stickers in WeChat is mind-blowing.

I admire the internet for its infinite collective sense of humor,  which the Chinese usually lack. It seems that with the internet,  the Chinese are starting to show a sense of humor by being able  to laugh at themselves. The internet is still the closest thing to free speech in China.

When I first came to the United States to study, I was shocked by how much free speech Americans had. Does Jesus Christ bless America? I almost felt embarrassed… It was like walking  onto a nude beach by accident — wearing clothes is more awkward than no clothes. At this point in time, from an outsider’s perspective, looking inside the Great Firewall might be like showing up to Carnival in Brazil wearing a tuxedo and expecting  to ballroom dance.

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 1.21.12 PM copy

From one side of the wall, the Chinese internet appears to be  a barren wasteland, yet despite its limitations, it has been  evolving and growing—even faster than the net outside  the wall. New memes are created rapidly, depending on what underground culture decides to make pertaining to mainstream culture and internet with Chinese characteristics, which is self-censorship. If you know something will be censored, you can  go around it, using homophones, making up new words, etc., which all involve a sense of humor and intelligence. You will be shocked by how creative netizens are. The limit of the Chinese internet is what sets it free.

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