• ISEA2011 | Curating New Media Art in China: A Creative Approach from Within

  • ISEA 2011 @China, Virtually Speaking: A Virtual Roundtable Discussion on Emergent Practices in China

    Presentation by the Chair

    Working as an independent curator is a challenge in any country, yet in China, where institutions are government run and private galleries charge huge exhibition fees the stakes are even higher. Figure in the cost of exhibition materials and equipment needs for new media art and the prospects are even bleaker. Xiaoying Juliette Yuan who has been curating new media art in China since 2004, will discuss the challenges and creative solutions for working as an independent curator in China. – Stephanie Rothenberg

    Speech text by Xiaoying Juliette Yuan

    Good morning Istanbul and ISEA 2011 audience.

    Before I start my talk, I wish to thank our Chair, the New York based artist Stephanie Rotherberg for her special attention to China and her great initiative for ISEA 2011. In the following presentation, I will try to answer the questions that Stephanie raised for her panel: What are the challenges and creative solutions for working as an independent curator in New Media Art in China?    

    Part I           The definition of New Media Art in China

    Before we talk about the challenges, the various understandings on the term of New Media Art in China are worth to be discussed, as this is the key for independent curators to decide where to land and how far should go 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 the Animation the main trend in new media art. It’s been regularly exhibited in museums, galleries, festivals and art fairs. Later on, Second Life switched Chinese artists’ attention from physical world to online space, Social Network Service also started offering new option for art creation and promotion. But we have to wait until the global success of Hollywood production “Avatar” to finally hit the Virtual Reality and the 3D technology’s explosion in Chinese art world. At the end of 2009, several 3D virtual art museums have been produced in Beijing and in Shanghai. I will come back on this topic a bit later.

    The definition on the term of New Media Art is non-stop changing under the big turbulence, responding to the art market needs, but more importantly, to Chinese governmental policy on the Creative Industries. In most of case, New Media Art is the best promotional tool for real estate projects, the inventive set design for a fashion show, a theater performance or to show off a famous brand in luxury industry.

    In my opinion, identify the field is the first homework to do when we work as independent curators in New Media Art in China. All depends on how you define the term, which crowd you want to join, and what lifestyle you prefer to live in.

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

    In my own case: I started working as curator since 2004, the main activities I’ve been involved include exhibitions, conferences and publication. I’ve also tried to develop some collaboration with stage art people during the first two years, with the ambition to be one of the pioneer producers for new media stage art in China. However, the constant conflicts between artists and the theatre set design crew totally killed the excitement of these adventures. We all terribly suffered from each other’s huge “misunderstanding” on the role of New Media Art in stage projects. After produced two multimedia dance and theater plays, I decided to withdrew my ambition, never got inspired again to step in this filed afterwards.

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

    1/ The approved budget has been partially or entirely cut off in the middle of the project’s production.

    2/ The technique support team wasn’t able to handle the equipments; at the same time, it kept working on other exhibitions, trying to gain as much benefit as possible.

    Among the collaborators that put me in these disasters, museum deserves to be discussed a bit further here. In nowadays China, a big number of museum investors have their roots in real-estate business. The selection of the directive staff is usually based on the investor’s personal network or the candidate(s)’s reputation. As most of investors do not have enough knowledge on art neither on museuology, the communication between them and their directive staff could be sometimes extremely awkward. The false estimation on the investing funds and the lack of knowledge on museuology usually are the main factors that cause one museum’s failure in China. Today almost all Chinese museums end up renting their space for commercial purpose to cover their daily expanse. Such a vicious circle cannot provide a healthy environment to improve New Media Art’s education in China. Dealing with the museums, curators need to work on sponsors far before they work on 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 Chinese government in 2010, budget taken away by the Universal Expo. The annual New Media Art Exhibition and Symposium in National Art Museum Of China recently became a triennial event. Another New Media Art Festival initiated by Songzuang Art Center in suburb Beijing even needs curators’ help to get enough funding. Galleries in principal don’t work with curators. Even if they rarely do, curators still have to find their own way to get paid by sometimes helping the galleries selling the artworks they curate in each show.

    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 power in supporting the alliance of art, science and technology. The related discussion has been brought up long time ago in the West, a group of artists and curators in China also started seeking for new strategies a few years ago.

    The following cases will show how a group of artists and curators explore the online resources to support New Media Art in China.

    We need money not art

    This website created by Chinese artist XU Wenkai (Aaajiao) is known for long time by all professionals working in New Media Art field, both in China and abroad. [slide 17] 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 better adapt to local social context and spirit.

    Beside its main function as an e-magazine, the artist also developed some special columns for New Media Art research and projects showcase. These columns are arranged according to different themes such as “augmented reality”[slide 18], “bioart”, “DIY”, “life online”, “robots”… and 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 unconsciously managed his website under a curatorial mentality.

    Art Link Art

    Produced by Think Design in Shanghai, serves at the same time 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”’ names are following the alphabetic order, “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 a permanent way.

    SHAN Studio Real-time online workshops and sound performances

    Beijing based SHAN Studio (or SHANavLab) is launched by media artist SHENG Jie (aka. GogoJ), started running small scale free talks, workshops and lectures hosted by artists and curators since June 2010. The Studio is located in an 80sqm apartment of a residential building, cannot host large audience, the artist uses the live video platform Justin.tv [slide 25] 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 in July this year.

     Online conference / symposium

    The fist time I tried with online conference was in 2009, when one of my speakers couldn’t manage his travel to Beijing to physically attend my conference in series, “Uncertain Future, New Media Art & Games”. We therefore decided to deliver his speech through Skype. In my recent accomplished project, “Transcultural Tendencies | Transmedia Transactions”, 7 guest speakers delivered their speeches through Skype, and participated the open discussion with the audience afterwards. The current panel also is a good example for hosting conference through online platform.

    3D online museums

    We briefly mentioned the 3D virtual museums in China in the first part of my talk. Now I come back to this topic with more details. So far the most human and realistic virtual 3D museum I discovered is dsl Art Museum produced by DSL Collection.

    The project was initiated by the French collector Sylvain Levy, realized by Artwe.com in Shanghai in 2009. Every detail in the museum is well studied and designed, realized exactly in the way a real world museum could be. 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 produced by a private IT company also came out on Chinese market at the same time as dsl Art Museum, but more function as e-magazines or blog, both in low quality with numerous technique problems to be solved. Apparently, Chinese art crowd still needs to take longer time to figure out how to have a solid implementation in this online virtual world.


    There certainly are many other creative solutions for independent curators to curate New Media Art in China. Public outdoor space, shopping malls, scientific labs or electronic products interface (for instance, iPhone and iPad), all these could good to 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, no matter for curating New Media Art or for other purpose, means that you have to first work out two main obstacles: the censorship and the controlled bandwidth. There ARE solutions to enlarge the bandwidth and to succeed in Internet jailbreak, but they may not work all the time. The most efficient solution seems so far to rely on collective wisdom, stay with our community, continue exploring the potentialities of the constantly improving new technologies together.