BEIJING — I moved to China almost a year ago now, into a country where I knew no one and where even the internet was foreign. I pulled away from my main social circle geographically, but did what I could do stay connected via the internet and phone.
And yet, just as I turned to the internet for social connection, I also realized it was increasingly difficult to rely on my usual circles. Timezones, the Great Firewall and the weak internet connection in my neighborhood all made me realize that the utopian ideal of global connection was far from being achieved.
I received the proposal for a new exhibition called Portal, curated by Janis Ferberg and Stephen Truax. It was billed an “international video, digital media and performance art festival” to be carried out in Sydney, New York, and, with my participation, Beijing. The basic idea was as follows:
Interactive digital technology has transformed human communication. As a result, it is no longer dependent on geographical proximity or physical presence. In the digital space, human interaction is immediate; its reach is global. We are now capable of accessing and sharing immeasurable amounts of content instantly.
Living in a completely different language environment, I find that the world, in many ways, feels bigger, rather than smaller. The internet has made the vast distances more clear while leaving them equally inaccessible.
The project I developed, called “Caochangdi 404,” was a simple set-up to look at this issue:
Drawing from the conceptual art tradition of Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono, Zhang Peili and Fluxus, I will provide a set of simple instructions in both Mandarin and English for a conversational exchange between participants in both locations, utilising Skype, Twitter and Sina Weibo.
In constructing this conceptual framework for exchange, I seek to address issues of connectivity in the 21st century by considering two barriers to contemporary communication: technological constraints and the basic, but ancient problem of language barrier.
On Saturday, September 24, in a small corner in Caochangdi, an arts village and migrant community just outside the Fifth Ring Road in Beijing, I set up a small computer and monitor, our portal to Sydney. The location I chose had no internet ports, so my project manager set us up with a wireless 3G connection. On the other side, in Sydney, curator Janis Ferberg created a similar setup, with a projection and cabled internet connection.
We invited members of our respective communities to participate in the conceptual conversation following basic instructions for one hour, and we had live tweet/Weibo updates posted on a web site, by Andrew Newman and Yang Jian, respectively. This juxtaposition proved useful as both an archive of the events and a visual illustration of the language barrier before us.
In doing so, we built a bridge between two very different communities. On the Sydney side, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is well established internationally. They have a fast, stable internet connection and cater to both Australians of all ethnic bakgrounds.
On the Beijing side, Caochangdi exists in a legal gray zone, one of many not-legal urban villages settled by rural migrants to the city. The specific building complex I chose had no wired internet access, and most people don’t even have their own bathroom.
And although Caochangdi itself has an international reputation as an arts center, there is little crossover interaction with the migrant residents, who have come from different parts of rural China to work in the city.
It was this latter group that I opted to work with.
Barriers and Connections: My Medium is Awkward
The artistic action was, first of all, awkward. On Saturdays, Beijingers log onto the internet with a passion after a long work week, and already-weak networks are often overwhelmed. With a shaky connection, audio came across relatively clearly but the video was garbled and unclear. At times, the audio also faded out, and for what felt like a very long two minutes, the connection dropped entirely.
The instructions helped guide the conversation but people on both sides were hesitant, either because the instructions weren’t clear or they were shy. As the artist, I had to play a very active role in encouraging them to ask questions of each other, or to try to translate between Chinese and English with my less-than-fluent Mandarin.
At one point, a large group of people joined us and were very curious about the proceedings. I was excited, but after much coercion from me and my project manager, none of them decided to sit down. They said they were shy, and that their English was not very good.
I expected many of these challenges. Having lived in China for almost a year, I’ve grown used to dropped Skype calls and messy connections. Sometimes I give up on the internet entirely. I had a backup plan for our performance, and a backup for the backup, but fortunately, we had no issues in Caochangdi that day.
I also expected a certain level of shyness and awkwardness in crossing the language barrier. Many Chinese I’ve met are eager to learn and practice English, but, as with any foreign language speaker, it can be difficult to engage in actual conversation with a native speaker.
Yet through this murkiness, I witnessed small moments of connection. After struggling to figure out how to describe a pomelo (one of the prompt questions was “What’s your favorite fruit?”), we eventually realized it was a youzi (柚子), which is indeed very popular in China. We realized the Happy Birthday song cuts across languages and cultures — only the words are different.
In one exchange, the Australia-side participant asked if her counterpart had Facebook to stay in touch and our China-side participant asked if her counterpart had QQ. Neither side had heard of the other’s social media platform, both of which sport hundreds of millions of users. But, happily, they figured out they could at least stay in touch via email.
Though expected, the awkwardness was messy, difficult. The multiple barriers of technology, language and culture made it challenging to create a flow in conversation. If I were to reperform the piece, I would tweak the instructions and prep the audience more to enable a smoother interaction.
On the Beijing side, participants were happy enough to have a chance to practice their English with native speakers. And the Sydney-side feedback I received eventually came from the curator that night: “Out for drinks with ppl from the performance and they are all happy and laughing and talking about their interactions.”
What More Can We Do With Social Media Art?
I developed this piece over the course of a year after dialogue with a number of artists, and most particularly with Ferberg and Truax. In my final proposal for this piece, I concluded with the following:
“Caochangdi 404” is ultimately about barriers. Even after crossing the wide internet divide from Beijing to Sydney, a question still remains: To what extent is the technical barrier the largest challenge? The questions I’ve constructed for the exchange reflect the many challenges I witness on a daily basis between Mandarin and non-Mandarin speakers in China, often resulting in a Dada-ist exercise in futility.
The future is here — portals can be made everyday thanks to communications technology — but how much can meaningful communication actually happen?
Over the past year, we’ve seen a growing interest in social media art, as more artists, galleries, museums and publications have paid more attention to the influence of technology in our lives. At the same time, we’ve also seen a growing interest in how social media moves beyond the mundane activity of sharing lunch and posting cat pictures and into the realm of social change. From the Arab Spring to the reaction against Ai Weiwei’s detention, from the riots in London to #OccupyWallStreet, we’ve seen social media play a key role in important social movements.
And yet I wanted to ask how much connection is actually happening, how valuable this internetworked bridge we’re building has become.
According to one report, the tweets about the Green Revolution in Iran were mostly circulated by English speakers for English speakers. Persian speakers in Iran weren’t as active on Twitter as originally thought. And that’s when you consider how can get online. Only two billion people (less than a third of the world) have access to the internet, whether due to lack of access or lack of literacy.
In Caochangdi, many residents don’t own their own computer and therefore rely on the local internet cafe for access. Those in China who do have personal Internet face additional technical challenges, like the Great Firewall and a faulty internet connection on the edges of the city.
Caochangdi 404 was a performative experiment that used linguistic, cultural and technological barriers as a medium to question the role of technology in connecting the world. With a budget of around $100 USD, I created a bridge between two vastly different worlds — a migrant, not-legal community on the fringe of Beijing and an established, prestigious art center in the heart of Sydney — and I invited people to cross.
The bridge was not so difficult to build. But it turns out crossing may be the hardest part.