• Presence in the Mindfield: Curating New Media Art in China (Lisbon)

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    Curating New Media Art in China: A Creative Approach from Within

    Speech on Presence in the Mindfield: Art, Identity and the Technology of Transformation, Consciousness Reframed 2011 International Conference, Nov 30 – Dec.2, 2011, Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

    Part I           The definition of New Media Art in China

    The current article discusses the challenges and creative solutions for working as an independent curator in New Media Art, in China.

    Before we talk about the challenges, various understandings of the term of New Media Art in China are worth discussing as this is the key for independent curators to decide where to land and how far one should proceed in this field.

    In China, Video Art is considered the beginning of new media art history. This definition with all leading artists’ names are officially recognized by academies and museums, and registered in all art history documents, in all languages.

    A few years ago, the creative industries in China made animation the main trend in new media art. Animation has been regularly exhibited in museums, galleries, festivals and art fairs. Later, Second Life changed the focus of Chinese artists from the physical world to the online space; social network services also started offering new options for art creation and promotion. However, we had to wait until the global success of the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar” to finally unleash the Virtual Reality and the 3D technology explosions in the Chinese art world. By the end of 2009, several 3D virtual art museums have opened in Beijing and Shanghai. I will come back to this a bit later.

    The definition of the term of New Media Art is constantly evolving, in response to the needs of the art market, but more importantly, to Chinese governmental policies on the creative industries. In most of case, New Media Art is the best promotional tool for real estate project, innovative set design for a fashion show, theater performance or to showcase a luxury brand..

    Identifying the field is a starting point when working as independent curators in New Media Art, in China; Depending on how you define the term, which crowd you want to join, and what lifestyle you prefer to live.

    Part II          Challenges for working as an independent curator in New Media Art in China

    I started working as a curator in 2004.Tthe primary activities I’ve been involved include exhibitions, conferences and publications. I also developed some collaboration with stage art productions During the first two years; I developed a collaboration with stage art production companies with the ambition of becoming one of the pioneer producers for new media stage art in China. However, the constant conflict between artists and theatre set designers as to the role of New Media Art in stage projects made it impossible to continue. After producing two multimedia dance and theater plays, I decided to redirect my attention and had not since stepped into this field.

    As a researcher focusing on art, science and technology, the biggest difficulties I encounter in my curatorial work are:

    1/ The approved budget has been reduced or worse eliminated in the middle of the project’s production.

    2/ The technical support team wasn’t able to handle the equipment and at the same time team members kept working on other exhibitions, thereby not focusing on the current project.

    Among the collaborators that place me in these predicaments, museum deserves some attention. Currently in China, a large number of museum investors have roots in the real-estate business. The selection of the museum management is usually based on the investor’s personal network or the candidate’s reputation. As most of the investors do not have sufficient knowledge on art or running a museum, the communication between the investor and the museum management could, at times, be extremely awkward. Under estimating, the operating expenses and lack of knowledge on museum management usually are the main factors that cause a museum to fail in China. Today almost all Chinese museums end up renting their space for commercial purpose to cover their daily expenses. Such a vicious circle cannot provide a healthy environment to improve New Media Art’s education in China. In dealing with museums, curators need to secure sponsors well in advance of working on project proposals.

    The situation is even worse with festivals and galleries. E-ARTS in Shanghai has been the only international festival to support New Media Art’s development in China, but it was canceled at the end of two years by the Chinese government in 2010, with its budget diverted to Expo 2010. The annual New Media Art Exhibition and Symposium at the National Art Museum of China recently became a triennial event. Another New Media Art Festival initiated by Songzuang Art Center in a Beijing suburb needs to rely on curators to raise sufficient funding. Galleries in principal don’t work with curators. If, in the rare instance, they do, curators often act as sales agents in selling the artworks they curate in each show just to be paid.

    Part III        New strategies for curating New Media Art in China

    No matter how Chinese museums, festivals and galleries manage to survive, one thing is sure: the traditional platform has lost its influence in supporting the alliance of art, science and technology. The related discussion was raised a number of years ago by artists and curators not only in the west but China, as well. The following cases illustrate how a group of artists and curators explore online resources to support New Media Art in China.

    We need money not art

    This website created by Chinese artist XU Wenkai (Aaajiao) has been known for some time by professionals working in New Media Art field, both in China and abroad. Its original model, We make money not art was designed by three young artists located in Belgium, Germany and Japan. XU Wenkai’s Chinese version slightly modified the name of the website to adapt better to local social context and spirit.

    Besides its main function as an e-magazine, the artist also developed some special columns for New Media Art research and project showcases. These columns are arranged according to different themes such as “augmented reality”, “boat”, “DIY”, “life online”, “robots”, etcetera. Each gathers the related artists, artworks, research articles, interviews and reports on the on-going or achieved projects. Without any intention to curate, the artist somehow has unconsciously organized his website with a curatorial eye.

    Art Link Art

    Produced by Think Design in Shanghai, Art Link Art serves as an online database for Chinese contemporary art, an e-magazine for both Chinese and English readers, and an online platform for academic scholars and researchers to find the most valuable materials in Chinese contemporary art history.

    The main sections include “Artists”, “Exhibitions”, “Spaces”, “Articles”, “Publications”, “Works” and “Visuals”. “Artists and Curators”’ are alphabetized , “Works” are classified by genre or by year, “Spaces” are listed by cities, all information is daily updated. The website provides a great open source platform by offering all Chinese artists’ retrospectives in one location. .

    SHAN Studio Real-time online workshops and sound performances

    Beijing based SHAN Studio (or SHANavLab) launched by media artist SHENG Jie (aka. GogoJ) in June 2010organizes small scale free talks, workshops and lectures hosted by artists and curators. The studio is located in an 80sqm apartment of a residential building cannot host large audiences; to compensate, the artist uses a live video platform Justin.tv to broadcast each event in real-time, in order to reach a broader public out of the physical studio space. Recently, the artist started collaborating with some sound artists based in different cities and counties, giving regular online sound performances through soundcloud.com. Nearly 9000 followers over the world successfully shared their first online performance this past July.

    Online conference / symposium

    My first exposure to organizing an online conference was in 2009, when a speaker was unable to travel to Beijing attend my conference series, “Uncertain Future, New Media Art & Games”. We, therefore, decided to deliver his speech through Skype. In my recently accomplished project, “Transcultural Tendencies | Transmedia Transactions”, 7 guest speakers delivered their speeches through Skype, and thereafter participated in an open forum with the audience. The current panel also is a good example for hosting a conference through an online platform.

    3D online museums

    We briefly mentioned the 3D virtual museums in China in the first part of my talk. I’d like to return now to this topic in detail. So far the most human and realistic virtual 3D museum I’ve discovered is dsl Art Museum produced by DSL Collection.

    The project was initiated by the French collector Sylvain Levy and realized by Artwe.com in Shanghai, in 2009. Every detail in the museum is well studied and designed, replicating the real world museum. Without any plug in software download request, the visitors can surf with great ease in between different exhibitions within a series of wonderfully mounted spaces, accompanied by a perfectly designed audio system introducing each artwork you pass by.

    The “Digital Art Museum” produced by Today Art Museum and the Iskong virtual museum that was produced by a private IT company also launched in China at the same time as dsl Art Museum, function more as e-magazines or blogs. Unfortunately, both have numerous technique problems leading to poor quality productions which need to be resolved. Apparently, the Chinese art community needs time implement a solid online virtual world.


    There are certainly  many other creative solutions for independent curators to curate New Media Art in China. Public outdoor space, shopping mall, scientific lab or electronic product interface (for instance, iPhone and iPad), could host New Media Art exhibitions or workshops. Some artists are using SNS to create or showcase their artworks. Could it be another eventual online platform to curate New Media Art? I won’t say “No” so quickly. However, working online in China, whether for curating New Media Art or for other purposes, means that you have to first work out two main obstacles:  censorship and controlled bandwidth. Solutions such as expanding bandwidth and evading censors may not work all the time. The most efficient solution for us appears thus far to rely on the collective wisdom to continue exploring the potentialities of constantly improving new technologies together.