Need an online break from the dominance of multi-billion dollar ‘unicorn’ businesses like Google and Facebook? Set your virtual private network (VPN) to mainland China, where these websites and apps are blocked, for a relaxing online retreat!
This is the satirical concept behind Shanghai– and New York–based artist Miao Ying’s Hardcore Digital Detox (2018), the first work in M+’s new online series of digital commissions. The browser-based work is a playful reflection on both the ‘Chinternet’ and World Wide Web, using the concept of a wellness retreat to comment on issues of global capitalism, online propaganda, and media democracy.
Below, we chat to Miao Ying about the inspiration behind the work, her relationship with censorship, and unicorn poop.
What inspired you to create an online retreat experience?
When I was traveling over the world, especially in Europe, I found that a lot of the bookstores, even those inside the museums, had books about digital detoxing. I started realising that digital detoxes are trending. That’s what inspired me. I think people are starting to become aware of how much we’re controlled by the filter bubble caused by algorithms. I think that’s the reason why, all of a sudden, people are starting to do digital detoxes.
When I looked into it, I discovered that most of those books and those digital detox programmes actually exist as websites, showcasing different retreats and programmes. There are different price ranges, usually from a couple of thousand dollars. You join the retreats, which are normally a week or longer, and they take your phone away. So that’s partly why Hardcore Digital Detox is a website: because all of those real digital detoxes actually exist online.
Where do the aesthetics and images you use in Hardcore Digital Detox come from, and what inspired them?
Overall, the Hardcore Digital Detox aesthetic is this raw, healthy, hipster detox aesthetic. That’s why the text font is a handwriting style, and many of the backgrounds look like MDF boards (medium-density fibreboards). These kinds of boards are often used to decorate kitchens, lifestyle stores, and similar. Without paint, the board looks natural and really raw. That’s part of the digital detox lifestyle.
The 3D animated imagery is from a virtual reality (VR) experience that I made, which is also included in video format on the website. The VR experience takes you on a narrative journey. You end up on an island, which is a metaphor for this filtered online bubble created by using the algorithms of the big tech unicorn companies, like Facebook and Google. Looking up, the ceiling is covered by sheets that have all logos of these unicorn companies on them. It’s actually a server room. You then get attacked by the unicorn companies, which are represented by fantasy animals—for example, a giant blue bird that represents Twitter, and cardboard boxes that represent Amazon.
The unicorn animals begin eating your cookie—an actual cookie representing your cookies, which is the data that you leak when you doing online behaviours. Then, the unicorn company animals begin pooping on you. It really looks very overwhelming, and it’s really disgusting. It ends with you floating around in a conference room with the unicorn animals and with all of the poop, in front of a board that says, ‘What is the perfect algorithm to be the next unicorn?’
How does Hardcore Digital Detox reflect your experiences with the ‘Chinternet’ (Chinese internet) versus with the World Wide Web?
I see Hardcore Digital Detox as a sister work to Chinternet Plus (2016), in terms of the relationship to the Great Firewall. Chinternet Plus stood inside of the wall, existing like a counterfeit ideology trying to promote the real life ideology of Internet Plus, in a half-state-owned, half-commercial kind of way. In China, there are state-owned companies that merge with foreign companies and reach this state of being half state-owned, half commercial. Because they’re still half state-owned, they still have to promote the ideology. For me, Hardcore Digital Detox also reflects the Chinese internet environment, but in a parallel way, standing outside of the firewall.
This is also reflected in my choice of the traditional Chinese saying that you can find on the Hardcore Digital Detox website: ‘stones from other hills may serve to polish the jade of this one’. In this regard, we’re metaphorically using stones from the hills of China to polish the jade from the Western hill.
You’ve previously described your relationship with censorship as ‘a really bad romantic relationship’. What role does Hardcore Digital Detox play in this relationship?
Hardcore Digital Detox actually kind of promotes the Chinese internet apps and the Chinese internet environment. Instead of going on a physical retreat and paying money to have someone take your phone and digital devices away, you do it online, and some of the activities involve real parts of the Chinese internet, such as Baidu Maps. This reflects my relationship with censorship as developing ‘Stockholm syndrome’, which is another way I’ve described it previously: a situation in which the hostage-taker becomes so powerful that you end up falling in love with them.
Hardcore Digital Detox was also exhibited at a gallery in Shanghai, consisting of a physical installation. How was it experienced differently in this exhibition?
The core of the work is the website, and the physical installation is more like an experience centre. In China, experience centers are spaces where brands are showcased, almost like a storefront or showcase. So the physical installation is trying to sell you this lifestyle, but the core of the ideology is actually the website.
So when you walk into this installation, the website itself is absent—there are no tablets or similar where you can access it—but the URL is printed on the wall and taking up the biggest space in the exhibition. The website is more like the ideology; a logo or a slogan. So in that way, the installation itself is the experience of the ideology.
Have you documented the results of any of the Hardcore Digital Detox instructions from people who have taken part?
No, I haven’t! I’d like to set up a mailbox or similar where people can send in the results so that I can see them.
The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.