An Island of Grazing Unicorns
Curatorial Statement for Miao Ying's Hardcore Digital Detox
The mythical unicorn is typically represented as a majestic white beast with a pointed, spiralling horn projecting from its forehead. In recent years, however, the unicorn has been co-opted by the global financial and technology industries to refer to private start-up companies valued at more than one billion United States dollars. Numbering in the hundreds, many of these unicorn companies run websites and apps that dominate the international media landscape in a way that some, including the Chinese artist Miao Ying, find sinister. Miao’s new online project Hardcore Digital Detox (2018) represents a creative intervention into this digital space, playfully enabling a resistance to the unicorns’ online hegemony from within.
A companion to Miao’s well-known project Chinternet Plus (2016), Hardcore Digital Detox similarly occupies the negative space left by the restricted Chinese internet—popularly known as the ‘Chinternet’. For Miao, the images and ideas that are blocked by the Great Firewall of China are akin to liu bai (negative space) in traditional Chinese ink painting, as both are paradoxically productive negative spaces that stimulate imagination.
Miao considers herself a dual citizen of the Chinternet and the World Wide Web. Hardcore Digital Detox navigates these two spaces simultaneously, pitting mainstream internet users against Chinese censors by playfully instructing users to set their virtual private network (VPN) to mainland China, where popular unicorn websites and smartphone apps like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, eBay, WhatsApp, Vimeo, and Amazon are blocked. Far from seeing the restricted internet as a deficiency, Miao’s self-diagnosed Chinternet Stockholm syndrome celebrates the ingenuity, humour, and intelligence of Chinese internet users, and the rich visual culture they have cultivated behind the firewall. Miao’s Hardcore Digital Detox adopts many of these users’ creative workarounds, which are strategies she describes in positive terms as ‘self-censorship’.
Hardcore Digital Detox is a Strategic Lifestyle Advice tool with the seemingly illogical premise of offering an online retreat from the digital world. The work parodies the widespread commodification of ‘wellness’ in Western societies, as well as the growing demand among affluent consumers for post-materialist experiences rooted in authenticity and nature—the kind that make for perfect Instagram posts. Visitors to Miao’s website land on a seductive image of billowing white fabric, emblazoned with the instantly recognisable logos of Chinese and American unicorn companies. As the camera gradually pans up and out, we see that there are actually multiple pieces of fabric cloaking a cluster of computer servers, located on a remote AstroTurfed island. (Tellingly, ‘astroturfing’ is slang for the pervasive practice of political organisations masking their corporate sponsorship.) Miao’s faux-natural island is a visual representation of an internet filter bubble: a personalised and algorithmically designed information landscape, bordered by turret-like unicorn horns.
The phrase ‘Stones from other hills may serve to polish the jade of this one’ appears repeatedly throughout the website. An ancient Chinese proverb that articulates a simple message about finding value in others’ experiences, the expression is here refashioned into a self-help mantra and a series of hashtags, and users are further advised that ‘other people’s problems can be your solution’. The proverb becomes a metaphor for China’s online censorship, accompanied by stock images of stacked-stone sculptures that suggest ‘unplugged’ play. Significantly, in ancient China, stones were believed to reflect the hidden structures of the universe.
Other sections of Hardcore Digital Detox lead users to Baidu Maps, where the combination of censorship and poor technology has created blind spots that render the Chinese navigational tool essentially useless. Like a contemporary reworking of Yoko Ono’s instructional artwork Map Piece (1962), this action guides users towards their own internal Global Positioning System (GPS) to help them reconnect with their physical surroundings, offline. Taking the reverse approach, Hardcore Digital Detox also instructs users to ‘fight fire with fire’ by reflexively counteracting or ‘backfiring’ their computer’s cookie trail with erratic and unpredictable search histories.
Hardcore Digital Detox emphasises the fallacy of a global internet culture while simultaneously underscoring the undemocratic use of networked power in both China and the United States. More than any of Miao’s previous projects, Hardcore Digital Detox interrogates the dialectical relationship between the Chinternet and the World Wide Web, unspooling and parodying complex issues of global capitalism, online propaganda, and media democracy.
About Ulanda Blair
Ulanda Blair is Curator of Moving Image at M+