One month ago I happened to drop by Basement6 right on time for the opening of a solo exhibition by Shangainese artist 许聪 Xu Cong called Technological Spectacle and curated by Katy Roseland. The installation formats were standard fare for a media art show – a flat screen TV, projection mapping, augmented reality, etched silicon wafers – but the real surprise was in the content of the artworks, rather far from the tongue-in-cheek technological criticism or self-satisfied abstraction of most contemporary trends: the large flat screen displayed a morphing arrangement of design elements from Buddhist websites; the projection mapping emphasized the cartographic shapes outlined by the flaked paint of the Basement6 walls; the augmented reality markers made precariously rendered plums of smoke or flames appear in the live-streamed hands of passing audiences; the skulls etched on silicon wafers were a declared reference to the famous Dream of the Red Chamber episode “Jia Rui Looks into the Wrong Side of the Precious Mirror of Love”. Xu Cong put technological infrastructure and digital techniques at the service of all too human concerns: religion, magic, death. He was also kind enough to walk me through the artworks and answer a few questions about spirituality and the Internet in China.
Let’s talk about “isbuddhaonline.com”, the first artwork one encounters when walking into Technological Spectacle: could you introduce its content and the thinking you wanted to convey through this work?
I have already prepared a detailed soliloquy about this work:
The first time I heard of online shaoxiang [burning incense], I almost didn’t trust my ears. I always thought that something so clearly offline as shaoxiang was a good example of a weak point of the Internet, because as a practice it relies on the spiritual power of religion, on the intensity of ritual feelings. But after finding and experiencing several shaoxiang websites, I was still quite surprised and perplexed: why would people use websites so simple and poorly made? Some of these websites clearly had malicious scamming purposes, did users really believe in them? Is Buddha really online? Why can’t Buddha be online?
Moreover, when I discussed online shaoxiang with my friends, asking them about their opinion, I found that people weren’t happy to debate this topic, and nearly everyone unanimously expressed their disdain, sometimes to the point of getting red in the face and questioning my problematic position. This sort of overwhelming reaction bordering on extremism created a striking contrast with the thousands of repetitive “烧香” (shaoxiang) messages left by users of these websites: there seemingly wasn’t an intermediate zone between these two positions that people could inhabit. This phenomenon is really fascinating. The same sort of splitting works similarly on my own person. On the one hand, I laugh at the superficiality and utilitarianism of these practices; on the other, when I choose to make this “scene” come together in front of me, seeing a picture of the Buddha through the smoke curling up in the air makes me feel a kind of truthfulness.
The Internet is the hottest industry at the moment, and it has dramatically enriched China’s present-day material standards; the “xuqiu+hulianwang” [“demand+Internet”] creative thinking does really put our Internet technology and our understanding of it in a globally leading position. It’s a site of experimentation, and we don’t even talk about “online” and “offline” anymore, because we have been getting used to living online for many years now. Add to this the protection of the Great Firewall, a huge userbase, a low-cost workforce, all kinds of information monitoring systems and so on… occasion after occasion, the Chinese Internet precognizes things that could happen in other countries in the future. China has become a country that exports Internet thinking.
The combination of “shaoxiang+Internet” does perhaps feel really weird for a lot of people, but isn’t this precisely the “direction” our society is moving towards? Here there is no absolute good or bad – on the contrary, it all depends on people’s choices. We all confront choices, and the future is the result of our common choices.
How did you come in contact with these shaoxiang websites?
At first I vaguely heard someone mentioning them, then I searched on Baidu and got a lot of results, finding shaoxiang websites of any kind, and I found them really interesting.
As an artist, how do you approach this peculiar kind of Chinese website? Do you think the Chinese Internet is a peculiar environment overall?
To be honest, I think that these websites aren’t peculiar at all. In our everyday life online we already see some peculiar pieces of Internet culture that already have ten or more years of history. The Chinese Internet environment isn’t peculiar, but it’s “magnified”: it is an enlarged version of small details of the Internet in other countries, an enlargement of desires, of productiveness, of commerce, and of control. In this sort of environment, a lot of Internet companies have accomplished astonishing feats; in a way, for example, the goals pursued by a huge company like Facebook have in fact already been realized in China.
What relationship do the ‘digital’ and the ‘material’ have in your artworks?
I think I wouldn’t differentiate between digital and material. But the way of working I’m more used to consists in reproducing the exhibition setting digitally to the best of my ability, then adjusting the artwork in its virtual form, and lastly installing it on site. Maybe the digital and the material are both tools. I’ve just started doing art, so I’m still searching for a direction.
Are you interested in the relationship between media and religion?
I have read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, in which he examines how changes in communication media lead to changes in different aspects of our lives – among these, he specifically talks about televised preaching in the US. The author was following the leads of McLuhan, and in their times television was a new medium, so it was natural to discuss the changes brought by it. In our times, examining thoroughly the Internet from a media theory angle attracts me a lot, so this is one point of view I’d like to work from.
Lastly, how do you define your artistic domain? Is it digital art, new media art, or what? How did you come in contact with this form of art practice?
I would say that my work belongs to “media art”, because the so-called “new media art” doesn’t fit our times anymore. The first time I encountered this art practice was in university, when I read some materials about the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe) and about media art in general; it quite interested me, so I kept researching about it by myself. In Shanghai there is a lot of artists working in this direction, so I also go check out their exhibitions and performances.
– Postman, N. (1986). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.
“Redundant information, calculated as, say, the number of stickers in corners, on walls, on lampposts that it takes to build cognizance of this information in one subject, may immediately be understood as informational by another subject.” (Fuller 2005, p. 36)
As a general rule, I try to post on this website only original pieces put together from scraps of unused notes or jotted down as drafts for eternally forthcoming articles. The following text is a semi-exception, since it’s something I wrote more than a year ago on commission for a book sprint held at Shanghai’s One Space in October 2014 in conjunction with the Junkware workshop, and which resulted in the publication of The Junk Venture Book. The whole Junkware project was an art experience wonderfully orchestrated by Qu Hongyuan, Julien Maudet, Catherine Lenoble, Sophia Lin, Clément Renaud and Merryl Messaoudi in occasion of the 2014 Shanghai Maker Carnival, and revolved around an exhilarating combination of DNA sequencing, generative design, 3D printing and Taobao binge-shopping. The starting point of the workshop was Thierry Bardini’s 2011 book Junkware, and the goal of the book sprint was updating or forking its theses under the conditions of contemporary computational landscapes. I condensed my responses to Bardini’s book under six points, augmented here with some photos for mildly speculative ambience.
Shanghai mediations on Thierry Bardini’s Junkware
废物 (feiwu, garbage)
“There is the rubbish we keep, which is junk, and the rubbish we throw away, which is garbage”, Sydney Brenner reportedly explains on page 49, inspiring Thierry Bardini’s call for a semantics of discard. Of the many questions elicited by the signature of *junk* – what is junk? Everything / when is junk? Now, and more to come / where is junk? Everywhere / who is junk? Us, and them / how is junk? Good and bad and useful and useless, it depends, yet it’s 98.5% of everything – perhaps the most sensible question to ask today remains so what?, or, why does it matter?, or, why does junk matter? and why does matter junk?
无用的 (wuyong de, useless)
A materialist approach to junk and a junkist approach to matter seem the most useful moves to derive from Bardini’s portmanteau *junk*ware*: stuff that is the Other of stuff, in time and place and ownership and use, things that are temporarily thrown in a limbo of less-thingness and uncertainty, accumulating in heaps of problematic matter, losing the boundaries which segment them in individual objects, rewinding back the process of individuation by piling up upon other junk. The next step leads into speculative junkonomics: a recuperated copy of Marx’s writings encoded in the wrong character set postulates the W-J-W and J-W-J cycles, from ware to junk to ware, and from junk to ware to junk, the accumulation of capital sustained by use value superseded by the self-sustaining accretion of use-less value circulating across stacks of 品 pin, ‘ware’.
垃圾邮件 (laji youjian, junk mail)
The fabled Internet of Things is in fact merely the polished 1.5% portrayed by the aseptic photos of data centers and the colorful network diagrams appearing on sleek PowerPoint presentations at international industry talks. What about the non-signifying 98.5%, then? Where is The Internet of Junk? Who collects and sorts out *digital*junk*ware*? What other forms does junk take in our digital and already postdigital times, besides the obvious junk mail already made almost invisible by the perfected algorithms of our filters and the pop-ups preemptively killed off by our AdBlock plug-ins? How does this digital junk get repurposed into digital ware and when does digital ware goes back to being digital junk? Is even junk a fitting metaphor for the platitude that user-generated content is?
信息毒品 (xinxi dupin, information drug)
Bardini’s writing is irremediably double-helixed, knitted along the polymer bases of its own DNA, as it proceeds by a sort of augmented dialectics set in motion by hidden third terms – media. DNA is made of genes, but genes are 98.5% junk, and junk matters; culture is made of memes, and memes are just like genes, so 98.5% of culture is junk, and it matters too. The jump from these parallels into the hidden third of hypervirality is legitimized through the figure of the loop, which becomes the organizing aesthetic trope of our times after the deleuzian fold. In hyperviral culture, the augmented dialectic loop continues, memes are the genes of culture, and memes work like mind viruses, so that “a virus is essentially junk code, and our hyperviral culture is indeed a junk culture” (p. 189). The viral metaphor mediating between memetics and genetics pierces through half a century, from Burroughs and cybernetics to Derrida, Deleuze and Dawkins, and turns *digital*media*junk*ware* into an updated version of selfish cultural DNA – an information drug poisoning minds with alluring rumors and spreadable beliefs. But the non-signifying discard bites back: if meaningless genes cannot be selfish, how could meaningless memes be?
无用之用 (wuyong zhi yong, the use of the useless)
“How did this happen? How and when, exactly, did our culture turn to junk? Or, in other words, when did we actually last create some radically new cultural experiences? And when did we instead start to recycle culture with the appearance (the glitter) or the new?” (p. 169) – how many useless questions, Thierry! Let’s tear them apart and build a new toolbox of unusable concepts. If our entire culture turned to junk, it might be the right time to go back to folklore. Junk refuses to be yet another final statement in a series of grand narratives. Junk has to be found in opposition to use value and organic garbage. Junk has to be rummaged into for its discursive making, its affective collection, and its temporary autonomous phases of repurposing into non-junk. Let’s do away with both the myth of the original and the myth of the copycat: 山寨 shanzhai has gone all the way from junk into a culture into a product into an industry into a rhetoric into a narrative and its hermeneutics – junk for academics, the last rodents in line. Let’s stop searching for our next brand of culture when the last choice is as paradoxical as junk. Let’s drop our sampling devices and drift along the kula rings of useless discard that we traverse and traverse us at every corner of our mediated lives. Let’s accept the loss of authorship and preservation, of traceability and evolution, let’s just get high on information drug, let’s believe and preach and sing and dance in a carnival of *digital*media*junk*ware*lore*, a repertoire of noise not-yet-useful to anyone, rumors without referent, fractal jokes, non-human grotesques, post-linguistic vernaculars, unsuccessful memes, self-censoring 恶搞 egao. Makers: let’s “make do” rather than “make to”.
Sketched above are some mediations on a constellation of semantemes recuperated from the reeky dustbin of recent media theory, in the attempt of hacking together new hybrid concepts for a materialist anthropology of the contemporary under the sign of *digital*media*junk*ware*lore* or *数*媒*废*品*俗*. In this light, moving from Bardini’s bio-cultural parallels into speculative probing of the *digital*, *junk* is understood as the Other of *ware*, locked in J-W-J and W-J-W cycles of which we are the *media*, the silent hyphens articulating a *lore* through each change of phase. The best use to which we can put the signal-to-noise ratio of our genome is unmasking the cultures to which we subscribe as ordered and stylized collections of memes, a mere 1.5% of the webs of meaning we code without end. Praise the 98.5%.
– Bardini, T. (2011). Junkware. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
– Junkware. (2014). The junk venture book. Shanghai, China: Junkware.
– Fuller, M. (2005). Media ecologies: Materialist energies in art and technoculture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.