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Miao Ying’s playful take on the Chinese internet

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Miao Ying’s “Hardcore Digital Detox” (2018) has a manifesto page. Chalk script font displays mantras like #otherpplsproblemscanbeursolution and #noalgorithm #nofilterbubble in front of a digital sunset, the waves calm and purple underneath. 

We didn’t close our laptops or put our phones on airplane mode to enter this digital detox retreat. Ying’s work is a website, and we’re only detoxing from the World Wide Web. We’ve entered the Chinese internet.

We scroll down further. Instead of Google Maps, the same chalk script urges us to use China’s Baidu Maps. Censorship has made it wholly unreliable, but the site satirically notes that getting lost with it will force us to ask strangers for directions and jump out of our comfort zone. 

Then a VR experience plays synth music that feels as if we’re in heaven at the end of a video game. The journey drops us off on an AstroTurf island. This must be part of the retreat. We look up and immediately realize the sky is made up of American tech company logos. 

As a terrifyingly muscular Twitter bird began pooping, I couldn’t help but think that maybe I should try Baidu Maps. Ying parodies Western detox culture, especially how we constantly search for ways to live authentically and connect with our immediate world. I eagerly denounce materialism while commodifying my own detoxes at the same time, way too tempted by juice cleanses and yoga retreats. 

In “Hardcore Digital Detox,” Ying questions how we’ve placed heavy value on autonomy and self-expression through the World Wide Web. While we don’t have censorship, our online worlds are personalized landscapes limited by Google and Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms. The VR walkthrough is titled, “Happily Contained.” Ying underlines the undemocratic internet use of both China and the Silicon Valley–dominated West.

Much of her work examines the quiet tension between these two internets. She pushes back against the view that, because of censorship, the Chinese internet has and will always lack most of what the World Wide Web has. According to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum, these censored items are like the blank white space in traditional Chinese paintings to Ying: “both are paradoxically productive negative spaces that stimulate imagination.”

Ying, who grew up in Shanghai, has described her relationship with the Chinese internet as Stockholm syndrome. She’s also said it’s like getting over an especially intense breakup. In her work, she often displays despairingly romanticized phrases like, “To be missed is another kind of beauty.”

For her graduation piece at the Chinese Academy of Art, she looked up every word in the Chinese dictionary on google.cn. “Blind Spot” (2007) is a compilation of all the words with a blocked result into an 1869-page dictionary.

Her stance on censorship has since become less outrightly antagonistic, looking instead at how it has influenced new forms of creativity.

“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,” she said in an interview with Rhizome. “You will be shocked by how creative netizens are. The limit of the Chinese internet is what sets it free.”

Ying’s work is playful and energetic and overflowing. She features looping GIFs of tacky text blocks, CGI fairies and bathroom mirror selfies with the flash on. It’s a late 90s fever dream that I just know would get so many likes in Post Aesthetics, that now-defunct Facebook group we had weird superiority complexes about being a part of. Over and over I revisited these images, somehow nostalgic for a time I barely remember.

And yet, the sloppy memes reminiscent of the lo-fi internet seem to be making a comeback now. They’re full of misspellings and ugly Photoshop jobs, pushing back against how sharp and perfect the internet has become. While China’s state-run media is stiff and formal, Ying honors the web users who haphazardly and speedily publish their own content. 

Ying has also been more overt in commenting on the internet’s influence in politics. Her project “Chinternet Plus” (2016) is a website that parodies Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s “Internet Plus” proposal of applying new tech to older industries. The name of Ying’s project is inspired by that proposal and a portmanteau of the words “Chinese” and “internet.” “Internet Plus” had no concrete plan, and Ying similarly marketed a substance-less policy like one would unveil a new Apple product.

We are so eager to believe that tech will save the world, and tech has become so salient for political branding. “Reality Should Not Hold You Back,” one slide reads. I think about rambling captions about self-actualization under Instagram photos of people standing, arms outstretched, on what might as well be an AstroTurf island. They suggest that, to enter a preferred reality, all we have to do is imagine it.

“LAN Love Poem .gifs” (2014) is a series of screenshots with “Page can’t be displayed” on the web browser — what users see when they try to access blocked sites in China. Sometimes the desktop background is desert, or blank sky interrupted by a lightning flash. It’s like a physical representation of how we view the Chinese internet as a barren and sterile place.

Ying challenges this by overlaying excerpts from angsty Internet poems, making known the vibrancy and creative expression there. The text looks like cuts of neon jello in what she calls “Taobao style,” referencing China’s largest e-commerce platform. 

“LAN Love Poem – To be Missed is Another Kind of Beauty” (2014) (Art: Miao Ying)

I’ve always heard Taobao described as China’s eBay, or WeChat as a combination of Twitter and Instagram, but now I feel this isn’t the case. Ying’s lo-fi Chinese internet aesthetic highlights that it was all born out of specific political pressures and cultural underpinnings. 

In her work, we see the creative workarounds to censorship on social apps that have survived only because they’re favorable for surveillance. We see the rise of multi-purpose digital services, like WeChat, where you can transfer money and hail a cab and order wine. These are the forces that make Taobao so different from eBay. 

There are currently over 900 million users on the Chinese internet, with its social networks and digital services evolving at breakneck speed. While it seems like all internets have adopted global capitalism in this borderline-dystopian way, the Chinese internet remains distinctly Chinese. Ying shows us how it’s deliberately moved away from Western standards and norms.

When I look at Ying’s work, I can’t help but feel like the images used are dug up from these deep recesses of my memory. The glassy fairies remind me of Gaia Online avatars, the Clip-art cookie of teachers’ Powerpoint presentations in fourth grade. It’s as if they’re from a time when the internet still felt new and exciting and ceremonious, when it was less professional and more democratic.

The internet has always faced corporate and political control. I get all my news from Twitter. Sometimes I see a meme so cynical it personally hurts my feelings. Ying, in turn, highlights the absurd parts of the Chinese internet that don’t take themselves too seriously. She condenses this unending landscape of GIFs and capitalist hell and bubbling social issues into something finally manageable enough to talk about.

Contact Emily Zhang at ezhang3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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