Content-Aware: Half-Arsed Aesthetics in the Age of the Sub-Amateur

Miao Ying: Content-Aware
MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai
03.06.16 – 16.07.16

As perhaps was inevitable, post-Internet discourse has buffered to a crawl. It turned out that there were only so many ways in which something so banally ubiquitous as contemporary corporate cyberspace could be revealed as such. The Chinese Internet, on the other hand, is ubiquitous but not ( yet ) banal. With over 700 million users, it is a pressure cooker of creativity and constraint. In short, it is still a contested cultural space.

Miao Ying’s solo exhibition at MadeIn Gallery, curated by Rhizome’s artistic director Michael Connor, is an ode of sorts, a wryly romantic tribute to the ‘half-arsed aesthetics’ of the ‘Chinternet’. Among the first generation of Web-based Chinese artists, Miao has been working with the Chinese Internet since her 2007 graduation piece in Blind Spot, for which she looked up every single word in the Chinese dictionary on, in order to document the ones which were blocked. As a performative critique of state censorship, the painstaking nature of Blind Spot also alluded to Miao’s sharply dry humour, an appreciation for the Sisyphean bathos of bashing one’s head against an actual dictionary in the era of online search engines. Such a disposition is apparent in Content-Aware, an exhibition which proposes to revel in the ‘Age of the Sub-Amateur’. The Chinese Internet has come a long way since 2007, not least due to the ubiquity of smartphones and the ubiquity of WeChat, the Chinese social media app which has, among other things, advanced the sassiest GIF-based ( Graphics Interchange Format ) vernacular on the planet. The ‘sub-amateur’ Miao presents is a native of this contemporary Chinese memespace, the ‘half-arsed’ counterpart of the ‘prosumer’. If the latter demographic is home of the professionalised creative ( a category from which contemporary artists are hardly exempt ), the ‘sub-amateur’ is the younger, scrappier sibling – the Prince Harry of digital cultural production. What unites them ( that is, us; everybody ) is their condition as users amid the technological hierarchy; paddling about in the superstructure, their livelihoods depend upon the interface, at the whim of the latest software update. Why not outsource production itself to an increasingly elaborate array of presets and macros? User-friendliness, then, is the sub-amateur’s condition of possibility: it’s all about the features.

Content-Aware comprises installations on conference-style exhibition stands, scrolling billboards screens and framed prints. All of these are arranged in the sort of ‘half-arsed’ haste of the kind in which Miao delights, as much as such carelessness can be presented without contrivance in a white cube gallery. #mybootleg, a heavily Photoshopped image of Justin Bieber on billboard canvas, barely clings to its frame, tenuously supported by cable ties. The image itself shows Bieber pulling his shirt up, revealing not washboard abs but a digitally scrawled belt of iPhone 6s, a casual reference to a widely publicised case of a foolhardy small-time smuggler, as well as a nod to Shanzhai advertising, in which distinctly homemade billboards for obscure smartphone brands often feature unexpected endorsements from the grinning faces of David Beckham or Barack Obama. The largest installation, Content-Aware, The Five Pillars of Awareness: Reclaiming Ownership of Your Mind, Body and Future, features bulbous conference-style exhibition stands wrapped in a computer rendering of green fields and blue skies, foregrounded by a basket of strawberries. As Miao notes, the image is reminiscent of the default desktop background of Windows XP, a saccharine nod to the blue-skies thinking of workaday institutional drudgery. ‘Content-Aware’, the eponymous Photoshop tool, which intelligently fills the gaps of an image based on an analysis of its existing contents, is liberally applied in Miao’s landscape, cloning glitched flowers and disfigured butterflies willy-nilly onto a rictus meadow.

While drawing specifically on the Chinese Internet, Content-Aware consciously trades on all the classic riffs of post-Internet-art-as-global-brand: the preponderance of superposed video screens, the corporate sheen of watermarked stock photos and, yes, fake marble surfaces. And yet, I find myself wondering, what exactly constitutes Chinese post-Internet art? Michael Connor writes that post-Internet discourse ( in the West ) emerged from a context in which ‘“Internet culture” is increasingly just “culture”’. The same could not be said for the Chinese Internet, whose identity is defined by the intense speed of its memespace, which offers an anarchic forum of exchange and discussion rarely afforded by the acceptable currents of official culture. Chinese Internet culture remains distinct from culture at large, and powerfully so.

Miao Ying is notable as one of a few young artists who have devoted their practices to exploring and researching the unique dynamics of the Chinese Internet. An incisive interloper with a dry wit, her subject is urgently fascinating, yet her role within it – anthropologist, appropriationist, romantic – is held always at a remove. The most concise and compelling work on show, Problematic GIFs – No Problem At All, is a six-screen altarpiece, a blank, unloaded image, around which dozens of WeChat ‘applause’ stickers are corralled. Cutout figures from Batman’s Joker to Kim Jong-un and Kanye West, clap in a parade of congratulation. Crystallised in Problematic GIFs is the extraordinary marriage of chaos and control that characterises the Chinese Internet, a proliferation of imagery caught in an endless cycle of affirmation, taking the cheapest means available for first response, maximum transmission. It’s the only piece which engages with sub-amateur aesthetics at its own level, operating with the gaudy production of its bricoleur pragmatism.

Miao’s pop-cultural quotations of contemporary China ( Jack Ma, air pollution, Shanzhai ) exhibit a nostalgic exacerbation of the ‘half-arsed’, a genuine romance with the depthless sincerity of whitened smiles and misspelt self-help slogans. Such post-ironic glee is apparent in God, Goddess and the Godfather, a billboard depicting Jack Ma shooting plasma rays behind howling wolves on iPad screens. Overall, Miao’s exploration of the Chinese Internet is a playful mixture of performance and participation, but works such as these play their cards complacently, cashing in the tokens of an easy aesthetic – moreover, one which feels out of place in the context of the Chinese Internet. Fresh Images, a digital print series which uses a feature on the popular retouching app MeituPic to ‘fix’ sallow, polluted Chinese skies with blue-tinted ones. The punchline: a photograph so smoggy that almost no feature is discernible, for which the app achieves – nothing. Miao’s deadpan delivery seeps through, but Fresh Images is a sharp one-liner, repeated many times too often. The before-and-after photographs are then superimposed over generic ‘science’ stock images; the works end up succumbing to a sense of post-Internet autopilot, as if DIS Magazine had made a ‘content-aware’ app of their own – though that, I suppose, would be the sub-amateur gesture par excellence.


2016年6月3日 – 2016年7月16日

正如其或许不可避免的那样,后网络的相关话语一直在缓冲着匍匐前进。事实证明,像当代的共享的网络空间这种如此平淡无奇而又无处不在的事物,在被展示的时候却只有那么几种方式。不过另一方面,中国的互联网尽管无处不在,但并不是平淡无奇的( 至少尚未如此 )。中国的互联网有超过7亿用户,是一个创造力与约束力共存的空间。简而言之,它仍然是一个颇受争议的文化空间。

苗颖在没顶画廊的个展,由《根茎》杂志的艺术总监麦克康纳( Michael Connor )策划,它是对不同形式所进行的一次颂歌,是对“中联网”中的“半吊子美学”所进行的一次带有挖苦的浪漫致敬。苗颖是第一代基于网络进行创作的中国艺术家,她从2007年自己的毕业作品《盲区》开始,就一直针对中国的互联网来创作,在当时那件作品中,她用谷歌中国的网站检索了中文词典中的每一个字,以记录哪些是受到屏蔽的字符。作为一次对于政府审查的表演式的批判,《盲区》作品中极为刻苦勤奋的特质也同时暗示着苗颖敏锐的冷面幽默,身处这个在线搜索引擎的时代之中,她像西西弗斯那样埋首于一本词典之中反复地推敲。这样的处理在“内容觉醒”这个陶醉于“超级素人时代”的展览中也是显而易见的。中国的互联网自2007年以来已经走过了一条漫长的道路,尤其因为智能手机和微信的广泛普及,中国的社交软件有力地将GIF格式提升为这个星球上最时髦的用语。苗颖所呈现的“超级素人”是这一当代中国迷因空间( memespace )中的原生者,是“产销合一”的一种“半吊子美学”式的对应。如果说“产销合一”的人群是职业化的创意产业者( 当代艺术家也没法被排除在这个门类之外 ),那么“超级素人”则是前者的一群更为年轻且斗志旺盛的兄弟姊妹金数码文化产品的哈里王子。将他们( 其实也就是我们,每一个人 )集合在一起的,是在技术层级中作为用户的这一条件;他们在上层建筑中划桨前行,他们的生计有赖于每一次软件更新之后的界面。何不就将生产本身外包给日渐复杂详尽的出厂设置和计算机宏指令呢?这样,用户友好的设计就会成为“超级素人”产生可能性的条件了:所有的一切都事关软件功能。

“内容觉醒”中的装置以会议风格的展台为基础,还有滚动的广告屏幕和裱框的印刷品。所有这些都被置于苗颖所热衷的“半吊子”式的潦草风格中,在白盒子画廊里将诸如此类的不经意原原本本地呈现了出来。#mybootleg中,广告招贴式的油画布上是一幅Photoshop痕迹很重的贾斯汀比伯( Justin Bieber )的图像,它被电缆扎带松松散散地悬挂在外框上。图像中的比伯拉起自己的上衣,不过所展露的并不是搓板式的腹肌,而是一圈由iPhone 6手机的数码图片排布而成的腰带,这轻松地指涉了那些报章广泛宣传的小走私犯们所惯用的蛮干手段,同时也提及了山寨广告,也就是那些通常为不知名的智能手机品牌所作的自制招贴板,上面还会诡异地出现贝克汉姆或是奥巴马的笑脸。展览中最大型的一件装置作品《内容觉醒,意识的5根柱子:取回你思想,身体和未来的主权》中,球根状的会议风格展示立柱被计算机渲染的绿草蓝天图案所包裹,前景还有一篮草莓。正如苗颖所述,这幅图像让人联想到Windows XP系统默认的桌面背景图,人们一边思忖着工作日的苦差事,一边对着这样的蓝天甜甜地俯首点头。“内容觉醒”( Content-Aware )同名于Photoshop中的一个工具,这个功能可以非常智能地基于现有内容的分析而对图片中的空隙进行填充。苗颖创作的风景图像也运用到了这个工具,她把有瑕疵的花朵和破相了的蝴蝶图案乱七八糟地克隆到一片裂变的草地上。

尽管专门探讨特定的中国互联网,但是“内容觉醒”也非常清醒地应用了作为全球化品牌的后网络艺术当中所有那些经典的重复桥段:叠加的录像屏幕带来的压倒性效果,水印照片自带的机构或企业光环,以及当然还有那些假造的大理石表面。不过,我发现自己想要知道的是,究竟是什么构成了中国的后网络艺术?麦克康纳写道,( 在西方的 )后网络探讨是从“网络文化正在逐渐成为文化”这样的语境中生发出来的。但这却并非中国互联网的情形,后者的身份是由其迷因空间的密集速度所定义的,并且提供了一处官方文化认可的内容所没法提供的那种无政府主义式的交换与探讨的论坛。中国的互联网文化与总体上的文化仍然保持着距离,并且两者的差异极为强烈。

苗颖被认为是少数将实践致力于探索和研究中国互联网特有生态的年轻艺术家中的一个。作为一位有着干练智慧的敏锐的闯入者,她的主题迫切而迷人,而她在其中的角色金人类学者、挪用者、浪漫主义者金总是处于变动之中。展览中最为简洁并且引人注目的《困难的GIF金无困难》是一件祭坛画似的六屏幕作品,一幅空白的空载图像居于中心,周围则是几十个微信中“鼓掌”的表情包图案。从蝙蝠侠里的小丑到金正恩,还有肯伊威斯特,都好像身处同一个拍着双手欢庆游行的队伍当中。在这件作品中结晶成形的是混沌与控制之间一种不同寻常的联结,这也正是中国互联网的特征,图像以最便宜的方式在无限循环的确认中产生增殖扩散,以获取即刻的反应和最大的传播。这也是唯一一件以自己的方式与“超级素人”美学相洽的作品,它运用了实用派摆弄手头现成物件的人们( bricoleur )所惯常的那些花里胡哨的产物。

Installation view of Content-Aware, The Five Pillars of Awareness: Reclaiming Ownership of Your Mind, Body and Future “内容觉醒”现场装置图,意识的五根柱子:取回你思想,身体和未来的主权。

Installation view of Content-Aware, The Five Pillars of Awareness: Reclaiming Ownership of Your Mind, Body and Future. “内容觉醒”现场装置图,意识的五根柱子:取回你思想,身体和未来的主权。

GIF animation installation, 2016, TV monitor, light box GIF动画装置,2016,电视显示屏,灯箱

GIF animation installation, 2016, TV monitor, light box. GIF动画装置,2016,电视显示屏,灯箱.

苗颖对当代中国流行文化的引用( 马云、空气污染、山寨 )展现出一种怀旧而夸张的“半吊子”美学,就像那些表面诚挚的微笑和拼写错误的自助口号所示的真挚浪漫。诸如这样的“后讽刺性的”欢快基调,在作品《男神、女神和干爹》中也同样鲜明,作品中的广告板描绘了马云在iPad屏幕上狼嚎图像的后面发射出等粒子射线。总体来说,苗颖对于中国互联网的探索是表演和参与融合在一起的一种饶有趣味的混合体,但是这样的作品也同时带着沾沾自喜,它们兑现着一种简易美学的符号金此外,这也似乎脱离了中国互联网的语境。《清新的图像》是一组运用流行的app“美图秀秀”来制作的数码打印系列,这款对图像起到润饰作用的软件将中国灰黄的受到污染的天空“修复”成了蓝色。像是一个警句:一张照片如此的烟雾迷蒙以至于几乎没有任何可识别的特征,而修图软件则能达成金尽管达到的是一无所成。苗颖要传达的想法不动声色地渗透在作品中,但《清新的图像》是一次犀利但过于频繁的单线重复。前后对比的照片被叠加着置于一些泛泛的“科学”图像之上,这使得作品最终臣服于一种后网络式自动巡航的气质,就好像是DIS杂志要为自己制作一款“内容觉醒”的app那样金不过,我猜,那可能会是一种很超然的“超级素人”姿态。