How Asian Artists Are Leading The Internet Art Movement Towards New Heights
In 1994, Korean-American artist Nam June Paik had a dream. Sourcing 52 bulky Sony television monitors, he assembled the objects into a wall-like structure and set the screens to play electronically generated images and video clips. Like cells, these screens appear to respond to one another; some feature the same faces or objects, while others link up to create phantasmagoric bursts of colour. The effect is entirely overwhelming—and echoes the dense infotainment of YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and other apps and websites widely used today.
This is Paik’s Internet Dream, a work which prophesied our current hyper-connected world. The artist also predicted the phenomenon of an “electronic superhighway” in a 1974 essay, written 15 years before the World Wide Web was invented. Tellingly, he spoke not just of the practicality of such technological advancements, but also of the cultural renaissance that would inevitably occur, stating that this electronic network “will become our springboard for new and surprising human endeavours.”
Although Paik never fully interacted with the internet as we know it today—he passed away in 2006 due to complications from a stroke he suffered in 1996—he is widely considered one of the first practitioners of internet-based art, building on top of the intermedia experimentations of the experimental Fluxus movement. Immediately after the advent of the World Wide Web came the first generation of “net.art” practitioners in the 1990s, followed by the web 2.0 movement in the early 2000s, which has continued to evolve and integrate into contemporary art today.
While institutions and publications have traditionally focused on predominantly western net artists and those practising in North America and Europe, there is growing interest in artists who are part of the Asian diaspora or based in Asia, where much of the world’s hardware and software is developed. These artists, much like Paik, push the frontiers of not just cyberspace, but also human connectivity, probing the fundamental ways in which we transmit, disseminate and use information globally.
With the explosion of the internet came radical possibilities of social equality, community organisation and political resistance—themes that were explored by early hacktivists and net art practitioners.
Taiwan-born Shu Lea Cheang played both roles, harnessing and infiltrating the platform to raise awareness about identity issues in the US at the time, such as instances of violent transphobia and discrimination against queer communities. In 1998, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York commissioned Cheang to create the collaborative website project Brandon, which narrates the life story, rape and murder of transgender individual Brandon Teena using text and image animations, chatroom logs, clickthrough pop-up webpages and various other popular internet tools from the 1990s.
The highly interactive project also traces the history of LGBTQI rights in America, often displaying these items of information in cascading windows or as flashing animations, as if hacking the page to highlight the insidious discrimination the community faced.
The Guggenheim was ahead of the curve in commissioning Brandon—internet or web-based art was considered anti-institutional and uncollectable at the time. As these projects already exist in public, the role of the curator—who might traditionally be tasked to activate the piece, installing it in a show or space—becomes somewhat redundant. The focal relationship is instead on the work and its participant, who can anonymously click through and choose their own journey. Additionally, these sites were (and still are) free to anyone with the web address and access to the internet.
This approachability is the cornerstone of the work of artist collective Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI), which formed in 1999. Consisting of poet Marc Vogue and artist Young Hae-Chang, Seoul-based YHCHI have produced more than 100 web-based animations, all of which can be viewed on their website. “Free, way back when, was the ethos of the internet,” says YHCHI of their work, which has maintained a similar aesthetic since the 1990s and been translated into 20-plus languages.
YHCHI create animations featuring all-caps Monaco-font text synchronised to music, typically relaxed jazz—and through irony and scathing wit they critique and explore ideas of autonomy in politics, everyday life and personal relationships. This critique also extends to digital culture, as shown most clearly in the introduction to ARTIST’S STATEMENT NO. 45,730,944: THE PERFECT ARTISTIC WEB SITE.
Here, they state, deadpan, their thoughts on “the newest multimedium: the web. The biggest art space: the web. The greatest chance to say something or make something dumb. Or, better yet, boring.” There is a distance to this type of self-reflection that is itself a commentary on the ruthless judgement of the ever-changing internet. In the blink of an eye, or in the time that one takes to watch one of YHCHI’s videos, the new becomes the old; what was once thrilling becomes banal; and what was once a space of freedom can transform into one of hyper-surveillance and control.
Unreality is Reality is Unreality
“Once upon a time, the internet was supposed to be a place for ‘liberty.’ Nowadays it’s so uptight. So let’s turn off, log-out, and drop in, on the real world”—so begins the online mission statement for Internet Yami-Ichi, a physical flea market for internet paraphernalia organised by Japanese internet artist-duo exonemo. In the first edition, held in 2012 in New York, visitors could purchase items such as cookies stamped with memes; a now-obsolete invisible image file called a spacer GIF, used by web designers to create white space in websites; and a “real world re-tweet,” in which the vendor excitedly shouts out any text provided by the buyer.
These playful, physical manifestations of the digital contain a larger message of shifting realities. As we become more dependent on digital interactions, the once-distinct worlds of offline and online blur and collide, simultaneously birthing rich, virtual secondary lives and inviting possibilities for transgressions and restrictions. These developments fuelled Beijing-based Cao Fei’s best-known project, RMB City (2008-11), in which she built a fictional Chinese city within the popular online game Second Life.
For three years, she maintained the semi-apocalyptic society—iconic urban landmarks, such as Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, are envisioned as rusted or ruined—under the guise of her online avatar China Tracey, inviting others to participate. Those who played, such as collector Uli Sigg, who was governor of this digital world for three months, became part of the artist’s experiment in exploring the tensions between the physical and virtual realms, utopia and dystopia, fiction and reality, and the past and present.
For example, one activity comprised searching for the late scholar Wang Guowei, who drowned himself in 1927 but who was rumoured to have been sighted in RMB City as the avatar “Wangguowei Wasp.” In this way, Cao suggests that cyberspace is not just a facsimile of society, but a portal to all worlds that exist in and outside our imagination.
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What is our position in such a space; how do we navigate it and how does it change us? Shanghai-and-Berlin-based Xu Wenkai, who has been operating online and as an artist under the moniker aaajiao since 2006, uses his art to tackle these questions and our relationship with the internet, which he considers inextricable from our day-to-day lives.
“The internet has long been our daily life, and like the air, we are always breathing it,” he says. In his early work, he highlighted the gap between us and the internet by pairing the humanistic with the technological, but later in his career he began to focus more on the closure of this gap as we experience the world via internet culture. This is seen in Bot. (2017-18) a dreamlike website-video set to familiar music—such as Auld Lang Syne or the soundtrack to Super Mario—that shows a stroll through a Chinese city, Google Earth images, the feeds of various apps, a github webpage and Pacman aesthetics via a first-person player perspective, indicating the interchangeability and fusing of the corporeal and the intangible.
While there are many neutral or even positive aspects arising from the internet, there are also drawbacks. As Cao Fei wrote in her manifesto for RMB City: “New orders are born, so are new, strange wisdom[s].” Cutting-edge technology makes online censorship possible, and massive corporations can collect digital data and profiteer from people’s use of various platforms. In exploring the rise of internet culture and art, one also is reminded of cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s warning that
“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck... Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” Aaajiao confirmed these concerns: “In 2006, I seemed to enjoy the possibility of the internet, but today, we are facing more difficulties caused by it.”
Jumping into the Firewall
Uber, Yelp, Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Apple—the distinctive logos of these corporations, printed on a simulated fabric, float elegantly in the breeze. As a camera pans out, the words blur, harder to read but still recognisable—we see digitally rendered trees, unicorn spirals, more of the same branded tents, all pinned to a patch of grass, which bobs lazily on the surface of the sea.
Much like the landing page of a five-star resort, Miao Ying’s website Hardcore Digital Detox (2018) teases viewers with a landscape; except instead of wide-sweeping scans of bucolic hills, it presents the view of a digital island, one overpopulated with problematic corporations accused of voter manipulation, data leakages, distortion of reality and other moral complications. HDD promises retreat from this landscape—not by logging off, but by accessing an entirely different cyberspace, the Chinternet.
In Miao’s Chinternet, there are colourful animations of unicorns—who appear because their name is now given to billion-dollar startups, often involving tech—and computer-simulated drawings of cookies and stone sculptures. With these images and others, Miao suggests that there are lessons to be learned from those operating within the restricted chambers of the Great Firewall of China.
“It’s very easy for internet users outside Mainland China to frame China’s digital landscape as oppressive,” says Ulanda Blair, curator of moving image at M+ museum, which commissioned the work. “For Miao, the Chinese internet is much more rich and complex than many give it credit for, but only because of the creative workarounds implemented by billions of Chinese internet users. The images and ideas that are blocked by the Great Firewall of China are akin to liu bai (negative space) in traditional Chinese ink painting, as both are paradoxically productive spaces.”
Along with Miao’s work, M+ has recently been expanding its collection to include the works of many other digital practitioners, including the video-game-influenced animations of Lu Yang and the full back and future catalogue of YHCHI.
For these artists, the online world is now primary and the physical secondary. As Miao says: “The website is the core of each project. It represents the ideology, whereas the physical installation works as advertisement of the ideology.” Blair adds: “As technology evolves and the lines between the virtual and physical become less defined, then I think there’s great potential for artists to speak back to digital culture in its native tongue, using augmented reality, virtual reality and other digital technologies that we don’t even know about yet.”
And as artists invest more heavily in these alternative digital technologies, so do the cogs of the art ecological system. Other institutions have also been exploring the importance of the genre, electing curators in non-traditional disciplines and developing software to assist these projects—as in the case of Rhizome, which commissions and supports digital art and is a key resident at the New Museum’s incubator in New York. Online residencies and galleries, such as artist Timur Si-Qin’s Chrystal Gallery, are also continually popping up.
Technology and human society have undergone an unprecedented transformation since the 1980s. Studying the impact and consequences of cutting-edge science in her most recent work, 3x3x6, which was shown last year at the Venice Biennale, Shu Lea Cheang explored how new technologies such as artificial intelligence, 3D facial recognition and internet surveillance are all contemporary forms of imprisonment.
Exonemo’s recently ended web program 0 to 1 / 1 to 0 (2019), activated a transformation within the Whitney Museum of American Art’s website—each sunrise and sunset, any Whitney webpage that a visitor was looking at would be slowly minimised, settling into the screen of a virtual laptop positioned in front of the New York City skyline.
Wherever the visitor is, whether Hong Kong, Sydney or London, they could experience the natural sunrise and sunset of Manhattan as if right there on the water, watching the sky transform through the screen, our ever-present digital companion. As Paik said: “Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality. Technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence.