My months-long Tumblr art project, Streethaiku in America, has just come to a close. Part of the Museum of Chinese in America’s America through a Chinese Lens exhibition, my project looked at photography in the context of social media and sharing sites. I quite enjoyed it. After a year of living in Asia and trying to understand how I saw China and the Philippines through an American lens, I had just returned to the United States. The project was very much a living photo diary of explorations and discoveries back in my home country, a sandwich of time between my year in Asia and what will soon be roughly a year in Africa (more on that to come).
Today was the last day of “America through a Chinese Lens” at Moca Nyc, marked by the last post of the online photo essay by An Xiao Mina that was its pulse. The work, consisting of nearly 90 photos and texts by an artist who looks at wherever she is with the profound awareness of a poet-anthropologist, is called ‘Streethaiku in America’.
No one’s ever called me “a poet-anthropologist” before, but I’ll take it! Herb is right that I’m a constant observer of the world, and I take multiple approaches, whether that be visual, poetic or ethnographic. The brilliance of 21st century cameras–simple, portable tools with automatic sharing functionality–is that they allow for a breadth and diversity of exploration. In a networked world, photos are not simply a form of documentation or expression: they are catalysts for conversation, reflection and connections. (cf. Tricia Wang’s brilliant use of Instagram for live ethnography)
The show received quite a bit of attention, including nods from The New Yorker, TIME LightBox, the Huffington Post, Time Out New York (a Critics’ Pick!), China Daily, Capital, WNYC (Must-See Arts!), and Robin Cembalest of ARTNews. I think this is a testament to the growing influence and importance of MOCA, and the incredible hard work of the curators and press team in bringing in solid artists and putting together truly thought provoking shows and events. I can’t wait to see what they’ll be unveiling in future exhibitions. It was a great honor to work with them, Herb Tam and Ryan Wong in particular.
“Because of the strictures on speech in China, memes tend to be a really effective way to spread a political message,” An Xiao Mina, artist, meme expert and 88 bar blogger, explained in an interview with TLN. “You can’t really talk about Internet censorship directly in China, but if you talk about, say, a Grass Mud Horse [a classic insult in Chinese Web slang]–if you use off-the-cuff, remixed humor, it’s a little easier to talk about such critical topics.”
Firstly, thanks to Jessica Levine at the great Tea Leaf Nation for taking the time to look at China’s memescape. I’ve been looking at China’s political and social memes for a little while now (check out my China Meme Report on 88 Bar) but haven’t come across too many others in the English speaking world who are also looking at the role of memes in internet freedom. While Levine covers the internet freedom benefits of memes, namely, that they’re hard to censor, she also looks at their social value as a barometer of culture.
I have a new essay out in The Atlantic looking at the remarkable parallels between the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme and the Chen Guangcheng sunglasses meme, which arose independently in their respective internets:
From the outset, the stories of Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng couldn’t have seemed more different. One, a young black man shot to death in central Florida while carrying a bag of Skittles. The other, a blind lawyer activist in rural Shandong held under illegal detention in his own home.
But in recent months, both men became sensations on their respective Internets, which are largely divided by linguistic and technical barriers. In the United States this past March, it was impossible to ignore the name of Trayvon Martin, or forget the hoodie he was wearing. And in China this past year, although Chen Guangcheng’s name was officially censored from search queries, his name and face were on the fingertips of web activists as they found ways to advocate for his release. In both cases, sustained internet activity kept the conversations about these two men in public discourse.
Living in China for the past year, I’d become increasingly aware of how memes could be quite effective in contexts where public speech is extremely limited. The memes slip by the usual censorship techniques and inspire others to co-create, thus propagating the message amongst an ad hoc community that’s not easy to shut down.
But it wasn’t until I saw the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme come together shortly after I returned to the US that I realized that memes have a vital role in any cultural context:
It’s more difficult to sort out the role of internet memes in the US, where opportunities for public expression are diverse. In an environment with the legal right to public speech and assembly, memes seem comically ineffectual. How could an image posted to Tumblr or Facebook possibly be helpful when there are so many other proven channels to try?
Because the images involve individuals’ faces, I’ve opted not to include a screenshot, but I recommend you try it out for yourself. Load up these two pages side by side:
The thing that fascinates me most about the life of political memes isn’t necessarily the spread (they’re fairly easy to map) but the “anti-memes” that will occasionally pop up to try and counter and stop the original meme from spreading.
Cheese talks more about the anti-Trayvon messages that were floating around the internet (and that were eventually drowned out by the hoodie meme). Again, in a completely different context and for completely different reasons, anti-Chen Guangcheng messages were being propagated online, most likely by the 50 Cent Party. In this case, it’s not clear who drowned out who, as it’s difficult to gauge broader public sentiment in China. But certainly in activist circles Chen’s name and face became synonymous with “light and truth” (the literal definition of “Guangcheng”), and it was that image of Chen that spread to the West. Here’s more from artist Crazy Crab, who started the sunglasses meme:
To do this type of activity in China, you first need to consider the safety of participants and protect the security of their messages. You also need to consider how to eliminate message interference. When broadcasting a message on the social web, it’s very easy to receive malicious interference. The first message can be lost or altered. This is my own experience. I believe that when beginning an [internet] activity, you need to consider these two points.
Are you aware of memes used in other political and cultural contexts for social ends? The universality and parallels of the above memes, which came about independently of each other, suggests to me that the idiosyncrasies of internet culture are starting to bleed over more and more into the “real world”. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this.
Political memes have been on my mind as of late. It started with ROFLCon at MIT and moved on to more discussions, Skype chats and journal entries. And I’ve just returned from the Personal Democracy Forum at NYU. Been a bit of a whirlwind as I travel around the country but seeing as I’ve lived on the east coast for so long, it was really nice to catch up with friends and see that side of the country again.
But in reality, both two-day conferences shared a deep concern with safeguarding and securing the future of the free internet, a concern that I think has come more and more to the fore in the past year. After living in China, I saw firsthand the consequences of a not-free internet. My co-panelist at the Personal Democracy Forum, Michael Anti, became famous after his blog was deleted. And blog deletion is just one technique to keep the internet under control.
I’ve obviously discussed China’s internet quite a bit these past few months, and I blog about it regularly, but during a lunch with the Tumblr Fellows at the Personal Democracy Forum, I was asked something new: Now that I’ve been observing meme culture in both China and the US, what’s the memescape like stateside? And that’s when I started to realized what it is about memes that makes them important.
But what Villemard, that Victorian artist, didn’t predict was the noble LOLCat. How could he? Certainly, America’s Funniest Home Videos presaged the rise of YouTube’s mockery and self-mockery, and I often call memes the street of the censored web. The idea of a meme isn’t a new one, either. But who could honestly have predicted, before the internet took root, that a llama would stand as a symbol for internet freedom, or that a wacky video of a man raving about two rainbows could get over 30 million views?
And so it seems fitting to me that meme culture has become one of the most powerful tools against internet censorship in China (and, as I’m starting to note, around the world). Meme culture is the least understood by those who don’t use the internet. But culture is the right word here–like any cultural practice, the practice of sharing, remixing and laughing at memes seems completely odd to outsiders but totally natural to insiders.
And as that culture is threatened, so do its proponents fight to preserve it. I think about that scene from Agora, about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. And then there’s the famous calligraphy scene from Hero, about Emperor Qin’s takeover of the rest of China. These scenes were no doubt dramatized, but part of what made them effective beyond simple depictions of destruction is that they show how people strive desperately to preserve their culture.
The good news? While scrolls and calligraphy can hardly do battle with knives and arrows, memes pack a little more punch. The relentlessness and breadth of China’s internet censorship techniques is well known. But so is the relentlessness and breadth of meme culture. The stickiness of memes, the way they inspire remixes and co-creation, their utter refusal to die–that’s a powerful tool against censorship. As I’ve witnessed in China, once a political meme sets hold in netizens’ minds, it just won’t go away. It will surface and resurface and resurface again, with dark humor that makes the serious issues a little easier to discuss.
I wish I had the prescience of that Victorian artist. I’m not good at predicting the future, but I suspect that the freedom fighters of cyberspace will come galloping in on LOLCats and grass mud horses, ready to defend our right to share silly pictures online.
I have to thank ROFLCon III for inviting me to join the panel on “Global Lulzes”, where I was joined by Anas Qtiesh (representing Syrian memes), Bia Granja (talking up Brazilian memes) and moderator Ethan Zuckerman. I learned so much from that conference about internet meme culture, theory and research, and I also got to meet so many of the memes themselves, like Antoine Dodson and Bear “Double Rainbow Guy”. It was an incredible experience,
I also have to thank Ethan Zuckerman and Chris Csikzentmihalyi for taking the time to help me refine my thinking on this subject, my 88 Bar colleagues and co-researchers, Chris Wong, and Sean, Brosnan, and Alex for spending countless hours helping me perfect my presentation.
About a month ago, I finally published my long essay on Caochangdi in Places Journal/Design Observer. It’s my longest published work to date, some 6000 words blending research and interviews with my own personal experience of the arts village and migrant community on the outskirts of Beijing. I’ve since received a number of kind comments and notes about the piece, which made me happy, as the piece was months in the making.
The story starts with how the village was threatened with demolition, and I hone in on the experience of Rong Rong, who runs Three Shadows, one of China’s most prestigious and influential galleries of contemporary photography. And so it goes:
The warning arrived early on an April morning in 2010: a sheet of paper emblazoned with the red seal of the local party. “Notice,” it said, in big, bold Chinese characters. “Due to the rapid development of our cities, our village belongs to a demolition area. The date for demolition is uncertain.” The village secretary personally delivered the notice, one of hundreds issued that day in Caochangdi Art Village, on the outskirts of Beijing.
RongRong was busy when the message arrived. He and his wife, inri — founders and co-directors of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre — were planning to launch Caochangdi’s first annual art festival, PhotoSpring, the next day.  In the decade since the influential artist Ai Weiwei had moved to this sleepy district just off the Airport Expressway, Caochangdi had grown into an international center of contemporary art. Three Shadows played a major role in that transformation. Founded in 2007, the sprawling 4,600-square-meter gallery complex, designed by Ai, was the first contemporary art space dedicated exclusively to Chinese photography. RongRong hoped that PhotoSpring would further unify the district’s galleries through a couple of months of exhibitions.
One of the funny things about Beijing is that it helped me understand my own city of Los Angeles a lot better. Both are sprawling, balkanized metropolises, unified by messy highways and indistinct skylines beneath smoggy skies. Both have ethnic, class and regional tensions. But it was reading LA historian Norman Klein’s terrific The History of Forgetting that really brought it home for me. It opens with this:
Just west of downtown Los Angeles, over fifty thousand housing units were torn down in the period 1933 to 1980, leaving an empty zone as noticeable as a meteor’s impact. Only some of the lots have since been filled. Many look the same as the day the buildings went down, twenty or thirty years ago. High-rises stand directly beside barren hills, near weedy patches of old foundations. Along Sunset Boulevard, the stone staircases of former Victorian houses now lead to nothing at all.
It’s amazing to think of all the families and homes and neighborhoods displaced during that time in LA, and the parallels now in China. Beijing, not to mention China overall, is undergoing a historic transformation, as neighborhoods come down and new building rise up. Los Angeles’s changes remain a memory often forgotten. Living in Caochangdi the year I did–2011–was an amazing experience, and I’m honored to have had a chance to write a small slice of my experience there.
In a move to exert greater control on citizen speech online, the government is requiring that Sina Weibo and China’s other microblogs register the real names and identification cards of users in several cities. Those who do not register this week in many major cities like Beijing will not be allowed to share or forward posts; after a period of testing, the policy will go into effect nationwide.
Translation: Real Name Registration
As Ethan Zuckerman blogged earlier (my response here), Sina Weibo and other Chinese social media are scarcely studied in English-language academia. He conjectures that part of this is likely an assumption that the spaces are censored to the point of lacking character. I certainly had that assumption before diving into the Chinese social media sphere.
But as Tricia and try to show in our essay, this assumption just isn’t right:
Despite these challenges [of censorship], many still make efforts to post critical messages, which are scattered amidst the plethora of apolitical posts. Clever users rely on code words, pictures, image-based text and viral memes that evade the keyword algorithms and pass undetected under the watchful eyes of censors.
It’s incredibly lively out there, and there’s plenty of political and social critique. But there’s also regular fun, like sharing pictures of cute cats and spreading memes about celebrities. All of this is threatened by real name registration going into effect–it’s just not as fun to share without anonymity. And for those engaging in political critique, it can also be dangerous.
This meme, which I found floating around Sina Weibo, explains the realities of real name registration. The figure up top shows what's possible with a registered ID: forwarding, commenting and private messages. The bottom basically says you can only see what everyone's saying. But you can't speak.
For the sake of brevity, Tricia and I left out a number of compelling examples of how users are engaging in critical issues each day. Here are some fantastic examples of how social and political critique happens online:
Dalian Protests: The summer protests against a chemical plant in the northeastern city of Dalian were sparked by fears that a storm could cause the plant to leak toxic chemicals. Some 12,000 city residents used Weibo and other social media to organize the march and post pictures from the actions.
Save the Child Beggars: Take the common practice of posting “instant photos,” which Tricia wrote about previously in the context of dating. These instant photos have been turned into a digital Amber Alert of sorts. A popular Sina Weibo account, called “Instant Photos to Save the Child Beggars”, posts and forwards user-submitted pictures to more than 200,000 followers. The images show children begging on the streets, and the account aims to tap into Weibo’s broad network to unite them with their parents.
Free Lunch Movement: Crowdfunders familiar with Donors Choose and Kickstarter will understand actions like the free lunch movement, launched by hundreds of Chinese journalists. Leveraging Weibo, the group raised a reported 20 million yuan, or 3.79 million dollars, to provide free lunches for school children in China’s lowest-income areas.
Many of those posters became memes in themselves–remixed and redistributed and even crowdsourced (albeit on a smaller scale). I keep collecting images I come across on Sina Weibo and maybe one day could turn them into some kind of exhibition. There’s a certain craft, if not an art, to developing an effective political meme, and Chinese netizens certainly have it down. (I’ll be discussing this more at ROFLCon in a few months, but in the mean time, you can view my Chinese Meme Report on 88 Bar for more.)
One of my favorite images from the "Beijing Fashion Week" meme, which panned officials at China's annual political summit who were wearing luxury fashion. This image of Xu Jiayin and his Hermes belt went viral. Xu is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
What has the effect of real name registration been so far? I chatted with a friend of mine in China who said that it’s becoming like LinkedIn, which is to say that the liveliness and color of the space is rendered dry, professional and harmless. I’ve certainly seen evidence of that myself.
But I also know China’s netizens aren’t going to back down so easily. They’ve found a number of creative ways around the already stringent censorship techniques, and they’ll eventually find a way around this one. There are already a number of strategies floating around online. It will be very interesting to see how netizens sidestep this latest effort in controlling digital media. But their efforts will no doubt be limited, and the amazing conversations and creativity on Weibo that emerged in 2011 could be just a blip in China’s social media history as everything is placed under tighter control.
I’ll end this post with words from Yu Guoming, deputy dean of the School of Journalism at Renmin University in Beijing (one of China’s most prestigious universities). In the party-owned Global Times, he wrote the following:
It is true that the coming of microblog has posted tough challenges to traditional governance. A competent government could learn how to deal with it while improving its own capability along the way. Simply installing a compulsory real-name system in a bid to dodge the learning curve is just lazy ethics and poor governance.
The real-name system will inevitably add an extra layer of caution in people’s online communication. They can no longer talk freely as they used to, and this will weaken the power of public criticism of government officials and other people who hold power, as netizens will have to watch their mouths. We shouldn’t forget that the freedom to criticize power is one critical characteristic of a modern democratic society.
Dan S. Wang’s business card collection is a treasure trove of different design schemes.
In a recent essay for Core77, I looked at a discussion brewing about QR codes on business cards, and whether they make sense. I also pointed to tools that allow you to scan a card that doesn’t have a QR code.
The overall point I tried to make is that, even as our professional lives and contacts move more and more into the digital realm, we’re still figuring out ways to get business cards to interface with our digital lives. In other words, business cards are relevant, and in the most wired country on earth (Korea) they’re practically a staple of one’s work life.
I posted the article to my Facebook, and my friend Dan S. Wang, an artist and educator, commented on the enduring value of business cards (something I’ve written about previously). These cards, these physical representations of ourselves, are still relevant and necessary in so many ways. But that’s especially true for the creative set:
Dan S. Wang: The persistence of the business card can be attributed not only to the ritual exchange, but also has something to do with the collecting of cards. I have several shoeboxes of cards now and when I come back from trips with new ones to add, it is sometimes fun to sort through them.
An Xiao Mina: That’s a great point – even though Rolodexes have fallen out of favor, it’s still fun to sort through business cards. I think that’s especially true for those of us in creative professions, as people have so many different ways they choose to represent themselves on paper.
Dan S. Wang: The spectrum of quality in design is astounding. The card should represent the person, but oftentimes falls far short. Great artist, lame card-or the other way around. Because they are exchanged at the molecular, person-to-person scale, with that scale’s built in limits no matter how formal or informal the occasion or setting, it seems that the field of business cards is still a level one, allowing for tremendous diversity. All this talk, I think I might have to thumb through my cards today just to enjoy them again.
I gave a talk at the College Art Association conference, the primary conference for arts professionals in academia. In a panel organized by Sharon Butler and Micol Hebron, I joined a discussion on artist collectives and collaboratives. I talked about “hashtag collectives”, the idea of a more open, loose network of artist collaborators. I’ve not yet written a reflection on the panel but I have written a few reports on the conference and the different events I attended.
I’ve started the China Meme Report, a look at different internet memes in China. This is part of my writing for 88 Bar, the China group blog I joined recently. This series of posts will culminate in a talk at ROFLCon at MIT in May (more on that soon).
I’ve pushed out a lot of content this week. These were some of my favorite pieces:
Oh! And I’ve quietly soft launched my Knowledge Sharing Wiki. It’s been a long time coming, as I’ve been meaning to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in working with various digital media environments. I’ll be expanding on this over time but right now am building out the skeleton for using Tumblr to translate the tweets of Ai Weiwei.
It’s been a relatively quiet month for me, as I’ve been working behind the scenes on a few projects that aren’t ready to go out yet but will be soon. I’m super grateful for the opportunity to write about interesting things I’ve been encountering along the way.
I was recently honored with an invitation to join the advisory board for Prix Ars Electronica 2012, focusing on the Digital Communities section. Prix Ars Electronica, part of the larger Ars Electronica umbrella, is the prestigious award ceremony for new media based in Linz, Austria.
The “Digital Communities” category focuses on the wide-ranging social and artistic impact of the Internet technology as well as on the latest developments in social software, user generated content, mobile communications, mash-ups and location based services. Digital Communities” focuses on innovation in relation to human coexistence.
Its main goals lie in first, bridging the geographical as well as the genderbased digital divide and second, bridging across cultural conflicts and third, supporting cultural diversity and freedom of artistic expression. Consideration is also given to projects that advance the practice of sharing and the formation of a “Cloud Intelligence”, and that facilitate access to technological-social infrastructure.
Digital Communities sheds light on the political and artistic potential of digital and networked systems. As such, “Digital Communities” selects a broad range of projects, applications, artworks, initiatives and phenomena around which social and artistic innovation is taking place, as it were, in real time.
Kiri Lluch Dalena – Time and Place of Incident Dalena recently addressed the Maguindanao Massacre, the worst massacre of journalists since the Committee to Protect Journalists began keeping track. Her video installation at the University of the Philippines was very courageous and powerful in its simplicity. Part of what makes her work so impactful is the way she relies on the Filipino community to help her document much of her subject matter. To prepare for Time and Place of Incident, she used social networks like Facebook and blogs to develop contacts. And for certain hard-to-reach areas, she relied on volunteers to film for her. It was a true community effort with an extraordinary message.
Ma Yongfeng/Forget Art – Youth Apartment Exchange Project (青年公寓交换)
Ma Yongfeng’s Forget Art collective has developed this great web site, Youth Apartment Exchange Project, that is like airbnb but better: it’s a community aimed at exchanging items, apartments, etc. The idea is to create a dialogue amongst young people, who often silo themselves into their friend circles. By exchanging personal possessions, participants learn about others’ lives and experience them in a unique way. YAEP is part of Ma Yongfeng’s philosophy of “micropractice”, the idea that small changes and practices can lead to larger societal shifts over time.
The Wenzhou Train Collision Meme
This is a more diverse, diffuse group, but the folks who protested against the response to the Wenzhou train collision deserve special mention. It was a major tipping point in China, showing the immense power of microblogs even within the censored medium of Sina Weibo. While the discourse continued and served to pressure the government to make some real changes in the administration and even issue a public investigation, the artists who created the visual language of the online protest deserve special mention. The level of creativity reflected the best intersection of Photoshop with political cartoons with public assembly, and they showed that politically-themed Internet memes can lead to real world change.
Nominations are just the beginning. Nominees are then invited to apply for the formal selection process. In the case of the Wenzhou train collision meme, I believe folks familiar with the Chinese Internet are asked to contribute their expertise. In any case, I wish my nominees good luck!
Marvin helps me out at the coworking jelly run by CC:me, a freelance collective based in Atwater Village. Marvin and I participated in this year’s worldwide #jellyweek.
As the year of the dragon begins, I thought it would be a good practice to write a monthly review of what I’ve been up to, the articles I’ve written, and the new projects I’ve worked on. At the beginning of the month, I went on a great art world road trip with my friend Orianna, as we checked out different art spaces across the Southwest (something I still need to write about).
The rest of the month has been quite busy! Here are a few highlights:
Okay, this isn’t January, but it happened close enough to the end of the month to warrant mention, especially as it’s so darn cool. Alice Rawsthorn at the New York Times listed our show–Unnamed Design, part of the Gwangju Design Biennale–as a best contemporary show for 2011 in their Design Honors List. My proverbial hat goes off to curator Brendan McGetrick and director Ai Weiwei, who headed up the project. Be sure to check out Brendan’s essay on the ins and outs of making it happen.
With Tumblr and therefore Bird’s Nest (Ai Weiwei in English) blocked in China, it’s been harder for our main editor to access our site and review translations. At the same time, we’ve been growing. There are now nearly 9000 followers to @aiwwenglish, and we’re regularly sought out by media for translations on what Mr. Ai has been saying. Which is why I’m excited we were able to welcome André Holthe to the team as associate editor. In the next month, we’ll be growing our translator base and making the project more open source. So stay tuned.
I contributed an essay to the Design-Altruism-Project, an initiative of Designers Without Borders, the Uganda-based NGO spearheaded by David Stairs. The essay looks at JeepneED, an open hardware mobile science lab based in the Philippines.
This isn’t happening until April, but they’re already Tumbling. Curator Herb Tam at the Museum of Chinese in America has invited me to join their exhibition America through a Chinese Lens, which looks at photography by Chinese in America. I’ll be Tumbling for them for the duration of the show, "offering a live visual essay about her America on our tumblr page", something I’m really excited about. I’ll blog more about this later, but I did want to draw attention to their Tumblr account, which has been featuring some very touching personal stories of the Museum’s staff and their experiences growing up in the US.
It’s been a good month as I’ve returned to Los Angeles and re-figured my way out around this city, and I’m feeling good about February. There are a lot of cool projects in the pipeline that I’m not ready to talk about just yet, but I will soon! And in the mean time, you can always find me on Twitter and Sina Weibo. See you there!