Abstract: Over the past decade, video has become a dominant medium in the contemporary art system. Not only are artists’ practices touching on broader and more extensive topics than before, the language of video itself is also presenting extraordinary richness. This essay will center on six video artworks by the six artists Ma Qiusha, Yan Xing, Shen Xin, Chen Zhou, Wang Tuo and Miao Ying, approaching them through the three different, yet connected lenses of bodily exposition (monologue), traumatic memories and the moving image; fiction, non-fiction and reality; and the graphic/cinematic narrative, the vortex of the screen, and psychopolitics. Through these lenses, this essay will explore the complex web of relations between video art, individual life and contemporary society, and thus reappraise the “post-medium” or “media” properties of video art, and its mechanisms of “eco-formalism.”
Key words: post-medium, media, truth, ecology
Contemporary art had already entered into the “post-medium age” long ago in the mid-twentieth century, but we will still continue to employ the traditional classification methods in our discussion focused on the “medium” of video not only because the screen has permeated our everyday life, and many artists have unconsciously chosen video as their medium language, but more importantly, because video seems more suited to the expression of the complex reality and rich emotions of the present.[A fact which cannot be overlooked is that in comparison to other mediums (such as painting, sculpture and installation), video art is perhaps the least welcomed by the market, which has given video artists the badge of “independence.” Of course, for most video artists, this is a choice rooted in personal taste. Moreover, it is difficult these days to define an artist by a particular medium. For many artists, video is merely one of multiple mediums in their linguistic system.] Today, many artists, professional academies and institutions are devoted to the creation, research and collection of contemporary video art. The earliest Chinese experiments in video art date back to the late 1980s, due both to the influence of Western video art, and the spread of the television set. For a long time after, the common term “new media” was used to refer to video art—though in our discussion of video art, we are accustomed to describing it as a “medium.”
The terms “medium” and “media” are often used interchangeably, but there is actually a fundamental difference between the two. David Joselit long ago reminded us that “medium” is intertwined with the “essentialism” of the most conservative modernism, and entangled with the name of Clement Greenberg. Thus, we can say that this is a topic of art history. Media, on the other hand, is often connected to modes of communication, such as television, cinema, the Internet and smart phones. Strictly speaking, it belongs to the realm of visual culture and cultural industry.[David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, Guo Juan, trans., Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2017, p. 34.] The question is, in the post-medium age, are there still essentialized or self-sufficient mediums? According to Rosalind Krauss, video art was never a self-sufficient medium to begin with, but instead a semi-autonomous “post-medium” or “new media.” In her Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture, titled “Voyage On The North Sea: Art In The Age Of The Post Medium Condition,” Krauss defines “medium” as a recursive structure— “a structure, that is, some of the elements of which will produce the rules that generate the structure itself.” Krauss raises the example of Richard Serra, whose inner distinction between film and sculpture is consistent with her own—even though Serra viewed himself as a modernist. The properties of cinema and media are, in a sense, a revival of the modernist understanding of medium.
In 2011, the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum held the large scale exhibition The Moving Image in China: 1988–2011, which was divided into four sections according to time period: “Media Criticism and Deliberation of Bio-Politics” (1988–1993); “The Grammatical and Construction of Video Media” (1994–1999); “New Media Practice as Consciousness, Poetics and Sensibility” (2000–2005); and “Boundary: Diversified Moving Image” (2006–2011).[He Juxing, ed., Zhongguo Yingxiang Yishu: 1988–2011 (The Moving Image in China: 1988–2011) table of contents, Hong Kong: Shijie Yishu Publishing House, 2011.] This is evidently a narrative rooted in medium, and by 2006 or thereabouts, a “diversified moving image” had gradually come to replace “new media”—though to this day many art academies retain “new media” or “multi-media” departments. In fact, so called “new media” has long ago gone beyond being limited to mere video or the moving image, and come to cover a broader range of technologies (including electronic, sound, digital, internet, computation and biology), referring not only to new media technologies applied to art, but also those used in business, education and social dissemination, with their boundaries fluid in their usage.[Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media, Long Xingru, trans., Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2016, p. 3.] This implies that it is virtually impossible to analyze and interpret video practices since 2006 solely through the lens of video language, or perhaps artists no longer treat the language of medium as the focus of their practice, or at least as its sole end. The six video works by Ma Qiusha, Yan Qing, Shen Xin, Chen Zhou, Wang Tuo and Miao Ying that will be the center of this essay’s discussion were all created since 2006, and from them, we can see how several young artists are using the language of video to perceive and imagine the increasingly complex reality, as well as how they turn back to reflect the shifts in the language of video itself.
I. The Body, Moving Image and Trauma
In the summer of 2007, Ma Qiusha looked into the camera and calmly yet laboriously recounted her coming-of-age experience. At the final moment, the camera zoomed in, and she removed a double-edged razor from her mouth. A faintly visible line of blood could be seen on her tongue, and a touch of indignation and confusion appeared in her gaze. This video work, titled From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiao Beili, seems to recount the shifts in the Chinese family, education and society since the 1970s through a private lens.
When she executed this performance, Ma Qiusha had just returned from studying in America. Perhaps what she saw and perceived there sparked her recollection and reflection on her own experience growing up. Rather than private, what she recounted was the collective memory and traumatic experience of thousands upon thousands of Chinese children of the same era.
“Trauma” is a term used freely in popular literature and academic discourse today, referring not only to the formative process of the subjective structure, but also to the formative process of related historical structures.[Hal Foster, This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse, see Foster, Design and Crime: And Other Diatribes, Bai Shun, trans., Jinan: Shandong Pictorial Publishing House, 2013, p. 175.] In the West, we can see, through the paintings of Gerhard Richter and the works of many other European artists, the impact of the Second World War on their generation. Likewise, in the works of many black artists, we can glimpse the traumatic memories of racism. For the most typical example in China, we need look no further than the “Scar Art” wave, touched off in the late 1970s and early 80s by Gao Xiaohua’s Why? (1978), Cheng Conglin’s Snow on X Day, X Month, 1968 (1979), and He Duoling’s Spring is Awake (1984). Rooted in the individual narrative perspective, Scar Art intended to escape the clutches of collectivism and realism, but in fact it was itself rooted in collectivist and realist tones, even hints of nostalgia. The “Cruel Youth Painting” that was popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s was likewise an experience of trauma. The “‘cruelty’ here, however, mainly rested in visual sentiments themselves, and lacked the nostalgic connotations. There is no society in the picture, just unhappy faces and consciously unconventional actions in a virtual, allegorical setting… On this path, change is not effected through changes in society and symbols of society, but instead by treating oneself as the other and thus gaining the freedom of self-grieving, appreciation and frenzy.”[Zhu Qi, “Qingchun Canku Huihua” (Cruel Youth Painting), Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan Weekly, 2002, vol. 4.] This clearly differs from the Scar Art of a few decades previous, but both draw from a certain object (the painting or what it conveys is not necessarily the object of the self) to convey the artist’s spiritual trauma and inner perplexity. For Ma Qiusha, however, the artist herself (or the body of the self) has become this object.
The medium here is not purely video, but is instead an organic composite of video and the body. It carries on in linguistic structures and aesthetic traditions that go back to early video art. From here, we can trace it back to Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci from the 1970s and 70s, as well as the early Chinese video artists they influenced (such as Zhu Jia’s Forever , Qiu Zhijie’s Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times [1990–1995], Zhang Peili’s Uncertain Pleasure  and Xu Zhen’s Rainbow , among others). Here, they all have something in common, which is that the videos present banal actions of the body with the intent being to dispel all meaning, and effectively embed themselves within the likewise meaningless medium of video. We can see that this is a dual “dematerializing” practice. One cannot say that this self-liberation and nihilization is without any ideological background;[See Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Miao Zijin et. al., trans., Beijing: China Nationality Photography Art Publishing House, 2018, p. liii.] perhaps they are all directed at a larger invisible mechanism of meaning and politics of the body. It is worth noting that in Rainbow, Xu Zhen edited out the hand that was doing the slapping in the video, leaving only the sound of the slaps and the increasingly red back. The emptiness of the video medium is manifest here, which also heightens the traumatic aspect. Rainbow was created in 1999, just as “Cruel Youth Painting” was in vogue. Just in terms of its “harm” of the body, this work bears traces of the “Cruel Youth,” and even shares some of its nihilistic tones.
The difference is that Ma Qiusha employs exposition or narration, rather than cathartic release, in order to convey her sentiments and traumatic experience. She has not turned toward nihilism, but instead carries on with reflection and criticism. In the video, she recounts her experience with an air of indifference. Aside from subtle, growing hints of physical discomfort, she maintains a steady tone and pace, showing no emotional reaction to the changing content of her account. For most people her age, there is nothing special about her experiences or her account of them. For this reason, though there is a performative aspect to the telling, this performance is not the release of emotions, but more like a triviality, an “indifferent” recollection and recounting. Up to the very end, when the razor has cut her mouth in several places, making it hard to go on, she remains calm, and finishes in a rather “natural” manner. The strained endurance of her exposition echoes her own experiences of repression and suffering. In the short seven minutes and 54 seconds of her speech or monologue, the artist continually faces the camera, as if directing and starring in her own biopic. At the time of filming, Ma Qiusha had just turned 25. Four years later, Yan Xing, also 25 years old, told another personal growth story in his performance Daddy Project (2011), but he was facing a white wall instead of a camera. Behind Ma Qiusha’s lens is the “viewer,” while Yan Xing’s wall-facing monologue is more like a “confession.”
At the exhibition site, Yan Xing stood facing a white wall, and spent over an hour telling of his experience growing up under the care of his single mother, revealing to the audience his experiences of domestic violence, the absence of fatherly love, and the turmoil of his life. In his telling, Yan Xing placed the focus on his father, a father figure he never truly had, but constantly awaited. This is an individual history interwoven with familial love and pain, loneliness and fear, inhibition and anxiety. Yan Xing’s recounting is clearly more performative, or could even be seen as a one-time cathartic release. Just as he has never shied from his own sexual orientation, during his recounting, he completely ignored the presence of the audience as he aired out the private secrets and sufferings that had been concealed beneath traditional mores. Ma Qiusha was attempting to speak of the trauma of an era through the experiences of the individual, while Yan Xing’s performance seemed more resolute, appearing like a ritual to bid farewell to his past self.
Ma Qiusha was born in 1982, and Yan Xing was born in 1986. They were born and raised in the same era. They differ in that one grew up strong and resilient within the discriminatory, planned and brutal competition of the family, while the other drew from their rebelliousness, tenacity and diligence to make it through violence and abuse. A shadow of the era is cast over Ma Qiusha’s account. As she said, “What I am talking about is my own individual experience, but it covers the shared perceptions of my peers.”[80 Hou Nuhai, Gua She Zishu: Women shi Zui Shou Yapo de Yi Dai (A Tongue-Cutting Personal Statement from a Post-80s Girl: We are the Most Repressed Generation), “Yitiao” Social Media Account,http://www.sohu.com/a/254781238_157906.] It would appear that Yan Xing has not put as much thought into this. His speech is the pain of individual experience, with no connection to his peers in the era. Even so, it still touches on such universal yet complex issues of social morality as single parent families and sexual identity. At root, these traumas are not just individual, but also collective. To this day, they remain in the depths of their hearts, like nightmares.
If video is itself a form of narrative, then the subject here is not the video, but the artist’s recounting. Unlike early video experiments, perhaps even completely opposite, the video here has not gained its own self-sufficient meaning. It is merely a documenter, a disseminator. And for the artist as speaker, it is perhaps also a “healer.” In his essay Video Confessions, Michael Renov views confessional video monologues as a form of “therapy of self-examination,” and the camera as the instrument of the “confession.”[Michael Renov, Video Confessions, Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds., Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, Zhong Xiaowen et. al., trans., Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016, pp. 99–123.] With Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing, the act is not a “confession” in the strictest sense, but it shares the monologue form, and perhaps a concealed resonance, with what Renov describes as “video confessions,” and as it is a release of long repressed emotions, it does have a certain therapeutic effect for them. As a social medium, video no longer dispels meaning, but instead intends to bring us back to reality, or as one artist described it, “a closed world that is open to the world.” By glossing over the opposition between internal and external, it helps us to restore a certain realm of memory.[Hal Foster, This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse, see Foster, Design and Crime, p. 174.] Its essence is not illusory, but substantive; it is not exploitation, but propagation.
Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing’s practices are not isolated. Since the 1990s, a variety of TV talk shows, most notably Tell it Like it Is, A Date with Lu Yu: Tell Your Story and Artistic Life, have grown into a major trend, attracting broad audiences. Their guests are generally movie and TV stars, social figures, and quite a few common people. The content of their discussion is often not much different from that of Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing, generally about their experiences growing up and rising to fame (as well as privacy), sometimes touching on changes in family and society. The goal of these programs is naturally to satisfy the viewer’s curiosity and desire to consume, alongside hopes of awakening more empathy and thinking among the masses. Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing’s identities as artists differ from those celebrities often invited to the talk shows, but all are public figures in different circles, and so in a sense, they are all products of the media age. The difference is that the accounts in these talk show programs are subject to control from the guidance of the host, while Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing’s monologues are completely under their own control. This is not to say that the latter have presupposed some special audience—though the dissemination of these artworks is in fact limited to the contemporary art scene—to the contrary, they are not opposed to the artworks reaching a broader audience. For this reason, whether in terms of the content being recounted, or the method of the recounting, and even their emotions and attitudes, they seem like overlooked outtakes from the former, while also forming a silent skepticism, disregard and provocation of the former. On September 19, 2019, the famous online media portal “Yitiao” published a story on Ma Qiusha, titled “A Tongue-Cutting Personal Statement from a Post-80s Girl: We are the Most Repressed Generation.” It quickly reached over 100,000 clicks. From the many comments made in response to the article, we can see how different forms of public media shape and exploit, as well as how they liberate and restore our memories, desires and perceptions.
II. True Fiction and Non-Fiction
In From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiao Beili and Daddy Project, videos record Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing painfully recounting the traumatic experiences of an individual, a family and an era. Meanwhile, in the practices of artists Shen Xin and Chen Zhou, video is no longer the documentation of a narrative; instead, it itself has become narrative.
Fluidity and uncertainty form the media properties of Shen Xin’s video art. Correspondingly, her narrative mixes performance, text and video archives, and is clearly marked by fictional tones. Provocation of the Nightingale (2017) is a four channel video installation. The first screen presents a dialogue on faith, work and spiritual trauma between a female Buddhist and her student, a manager at a DNA testing company. In the second screen, she transforms the faces of people presenting their DNA test results on YouTube into animations sharing their experiences in a theater. The third screen shows the bodies of two dancers gradually atrophying. The fourth screen comprises a series of archival video reels, including the scene of a woman being beaten to death by an angry mob for burning the Quran.[Exhibition Digest: The New Normal,http://www.moderno2.com/?p=43014.]
Such a video narrative structure naturally presents a challenge in our viewing and interpretation, because we cannot find a clear, stable thread within. Both the narrative form and narrative method are constantly shifting and wavering, drawing in the viewer like a vortex, but leaving no traces to follow. We can view this as a “meta-video” strategy, but Shen Xin’s aim does not end here. The “nightingale” often appears in the names and logos of international charitable organizations as a symbol of compassion, goodness and purity, referencing the redemption of oppressed groups. But just as the bizarre title “provocation of the nightingale” suggests, the artist does not have a clear referential aim. Instead, she is opening a space between vulgarity and faith, science and the spiritual, temptation and restraint. The video was filmed in the theater of the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, Korea. Between the theater and the fictional documentary scene nested within, there forms a “distancing effect,” and this “distancing effect” touches on the dislocation between vulgarity and faith, science and spirituality.
Shen Xin has discussed the significance of fiction on many occasions. For her, fiction is perhaps the true weapon in the fight against “post-truth politics.” The fiction here, however, does not conceal the truth, nor does it reveal the facts. Instead, it makes the real real again. As Hal Foster said, “The fiction in question does not express a ‘reality hunger,’ as proclaimed by David Shields—that is, it does not conscript real experience to reanimate novel writing in an attempt to overcome the old binary of life versus art. Rather, it too deploys great artifice, not to demystify or to disrupt the real but to make the real real again, which is to say, effective again, felt again, as such.”[Hal Foster, Real Fictions: Alternatives to Alternative Facts, Zhang Hanlu, trans., Artforum Chinese Online Edition, April 22, 2017, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/kx2SZY1eeuciRLFJjg9aVA] Shen Xin’s videos do not point to any one specific person or thing. The only things we find familiar in the transitions and flows of images are the repeating emotions, including anxiety, numbness and hesitation, as well as momentary distraction For us, however, whether it is the chaos and distancing conveyed by the video, or the relief and anxiety we gain in the watching, they are all nothing more than the dark shadows of this era. At this moment, video is no longer a facet. The different information mediums, video structures and their subjects form a “chaotic” field, atmosphere or state. We can view it as a form of writing, but for the artist, it is more like a solitary exploration. It maintains an exclusionary opacity, and perhaps it is precisely this stacking of transparent information that it is resisting against.[Byung-Chul Han, Among the Crowd: Mass Psychology in the Age of Digital Media, Cheng Wei, trans., Beijing: CITIC Press, 2019, p. 31.]
For Hal Foster, this is a “real fiction.” This also implies that it is very difficult for us to determine the boundary between “fiction” and “non-fiction.” In Life Imitation (2017), Chen Zhou’s first feature-length film, the artist uses parallel juxtaposition or intertextual structure between games and reality to create a non-fiction video. In the virtual game, sirens blaze as a female killer stalks the streets of Los Angeles at night. Meanwhile, in the real world, a young woman explains over the phone how she plays different roles in life, and recounts the spiritual traumas of the repression and falsehoods in her emotional life. Though Chen Zhou has distinguished between the two, there is not a clear line drawn between the game footage and reality footage. They are woven and overlaid, and often tug at and vie against each other. The game here is not virtual, but truth itself, while the reality here seems to be within a dream or virtual realm. The game is life and life is a game. There is no boundary. Chen Zhou employed large amounts of montage sequences to highlight the video’s sense of emptiness. Rather than “life imitation,” it would be more apt to describe it as real life itself, or Faust’s “alternate reality.” For the artist, non-fiction video is a prismatic reflection of reality. He hopes that through this, more people can “enter into their own real inner world, in which they can gain a form of release, consolation, and new confusion…”[Chen Zhou, Life Imitation, Douban Website, https://movie.douban.com/subject/26942859/] Of course, this does not rule out the reflection being, for some people, a break, interruption or gap that reveals a glimpse of another reality.
In the mid-twentieth century, Gabriel García Márquez’s “Magic Realism” and Alejo Carpentier’s “Real Maravilloso” opened up perceptions and imaginings of reality. Marquez’s “Magic Realism” tells of fantastic events within a warped objective world. Carpentier’s “Real Maravilloso” is a poetic distortion of the objective world. Neither of them are realism tinted with magical tones. Instead, their magic or fantasies already exist within reality.[Fredric Jameson, On Magic Realism in Film, Wu Jian, trans., in Li Yang, ed., Dianying de Mohuan Xianshizhuyi: Ying Mei Dianying Wenxuan (On Magic Realism in Film: Selected Essays from Britain and America), Zhengzhou: Henan University Press, 2017, pp. 49, 50, 69.] Life Imitation is like a tribute to Marquez and Carpentier. He has made the protagonist a young artist, but the goal here is apparently not to construct a mirror structure or empathy field. Instead, he sees everyone involved, whether it is the artist or the audience (themselves mostly part of the art scene), as characters in the drama. In other words, the video narrative itself is part of the “magic reality” or “real maravilloso.” Here, the insertion of the game is not so much aimed at establishing an intertextual narrative structure, as it is a “Magic Realist” self-reference, which is to say that the magic here is not only rooted in the external gaze, but also in the mirroring, intersection and fusion of the video’s inner narrative.
Chen Zhou’s non-fiction narrative may be filled with magical tones, but this magic is weighted more toward experiments in video language, with even a touch of modernism. Another Magic Realist work, Cao Fei’s Haze and Fog (2013), is even more modernist in its leanings. The scammer, the cleaner, the delivery guy, the lonely pregnant woman, the urban management crew, the real estate agent, the security guard, the harmonica-playing beggar, the office girl… The character descriptions alone give us a sense of the class consciousness and critical tones. Cao Fei frankly states that the film depicts an “alien reality,”[Cao Fei, Mai (Haze and Fog), Douban website: https://movie.douban.com/subject/25889481/] the fates of those small grassroots figures on the bottom of the chain of existence. The performances of the actors have a clear sense of drama and an air of the magical, but those “chance” occurrences and the “haze” that serves as the backdrop are realist in tone. This base tone, when packaged in a “violent aesthetic” akin to The Walking Dead and Silent Hill, enhances the themes of class conflict and uncertainty of destiny the film aims to convey. The Walking Dead and Silent Hill are both part of mass culture, while the characters in this film make frequent appearances on Chinese social media and international mainstream media, which gives the film certain public media properties and a “reportage” effect. It is perhaps this aspect that has garnered the artist quite a bit of international acclaim.
III. The Vortex of the Screen and Psychopolitics
In early 2018, Wang Tuo won the tenth Three Shadows Photography Award for his work The Interrogation. The Interrogation is not a photographic work, but an 18 minute video created by compiling many still images together with a voiceover. Before this, Wang Tuo’s video works often touched on such mediums as painting, performance and film history, but his focus has always been on the structure of video language, and his practice has always retained the basic narrative traits of cinema. Gilles Deleuze said, “We can consider the objects or parts of a set as immobile sections, but movement is established between these sections, and relates the objects or parts to the duration of a whole which changes, and thus expresses the changing of the whole in relation to the objects and is itself a mobile section of duration.”[Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, Xie Qiang and Ma Yue, trans., Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2016, p. 19.] For Wang Tuo, the true challenge is how to transform this set of immobile sections into a moving, dynamic whole with duration. The high level of agreement between the text and images ensures the sense of narrative flow. Of course, this is not just the adding of dimensions and motion to images. We must not overlook this as a relationship between video generation mechanisms and video narrative.
The narrative consists of two interwoven threads: the first is the artist’s interview of an official at a local-level discipline inspection bureau, in which the official recounts the psychological tricks he used during the interview to first get the job, and gradually turns to the psychological methods he often employs in his interrogation work; the second thread is a short story the artist wrote inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film classic Persona. In the story, an actor (patient) who refuses to speak, and a nurse trying to get that person to speak, gradually become each other and exchange identities. From job interview to interrogation, the disciplinary official undergoes a power reversal between object and subject; the actor (patient) and nurse likewise go through a reversal. The two threads are deftly inlaid or fused into one to form a whole, fluid narrative. This method shows us the function of editing, while also constructing different distances and times of reality into a synchronous structure. Beyond this, something else worth asking is if there also exists such a reversal between screen and viewer. Is the screen interrogating the viewer, or is the viewer interrogating the screen? Is the screen healing the viewer, or is the viewer healing the screen?
This is perhaps a more fundamental, real issue. According to a report by the China Internet Society, by the end of 2017, China’s population of internet users had grown to 772 million, covering 55.8% of the total population, with each person spending 27 hours a week, or 16% of their time, online.[2017 Nian Zhongguoren Pingjun Meizhou Shangwang Shichang wei 27 Xiaoshi, Ni Meizhou Shangwang Duojiu? (In 2017, Chinese People Spent an Average of 27 Hours a Week Online, How About You?), Beijing Evening News New Vision Website, July 12, 2018, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1605786116170420858&wfr=spider&for=pc.] We cannot do without the internet or without our phones. The internet has utterly transformed our way of life, but it has also given rise to crime and illness. This is the deeper allegorical meaning in Wang Tuo’s The Interrogation, the question of how to face the predicament of relativity brought about by the internet itself. Even this generative mechanism of compiling photographs into a non-fiction video itself carries this predicament, or perhaps points back to it. From the perspective of viewing, the frame-by-frame broadcasting of video is itself determined by internet technology. When the transmission speed cannot match the requirements, the video either skips, or it plays like the discussion between the interrogator (the healer) and the interrogated (the healed), one frame and one sentence at a time. This is not so much a technology as it is politics, or technological politics.
From the perspective of production, the entire creative process of The Interrogation, from still images to a moving video, relied on digital editing technology. To use the phrasing of Hito Steyerl, this is a form of “postproduction.” So called “postproduction” is a means and method for understanding the world, as well as for changing it. “One cannot understand reality without understanding cinema, photography, 3D modeling, animation, or other forms of moving or still image.” Specifically speaking, “The tools of postproduction: editing, color correction, filtering, cutting, and so on are not aimed at achieving representation. They have become means of creation, not only of images but also of the world in their wake.”[ Hito Steyerl, Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?, Zhang Jie, trans., in Wang Min’an, ed., Zhezi (Folds), vol. 1, Zhengzhou: Henan University Press, 2018, p. 223.] This “interrogation” is not unique. What it alludes to—and what it really cares about—is cinematic mechanisms in the post-truth era. For example, in this day, we have no need for rushing to the scene. With just a few images and some private information, we can fabricate a “complete” scene of the news. Beyond just words and images, even “documentary” videos can be created through editing. Whether subject and object can be subverted, and whether the plot can be reversed, all depend on our editing technology. Here, we can view still photography and moving images as two forms of reality. Whether or not the transformation between the two is rooted in one particular logic, it is certain that they have created a reversible, dynamic new world with duration. The screen here is like a vortex; those embroiled within are unable to discern whether this is form of self-delusion or self-healing, self-banishment or self-regulation. Who is the real subject in the “interrogation”? And who is the “interrogated”? Though Wang Tuo consciously obscured or even canceled out this boundary, the “interrogation” itself reminds us that he did not consciously suspend or extract its inner logic of power. Though his narrative continues to follow the logic of dividing between subject and object, the reversal of power implies that the power does not come from an external source, but is the self, the self dominating the self. According to Byung-Chul Han, this self-enslavement and domination points to the psychopolitics of the digital era—the power here is no longer about making people submissive, but about making them dependent on themselves.[Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, Guan Yuhong, trans., Beijing: Citic Press, 2019, p.21.] This aspect has particularly manifested in the livestreaming that has risen on the internet in recent years. Undoubtedly, this is a more magical and frenzied world. Miao Ying’s video installation Post Commentary, Money Likes and Morgan Freeman’s Advice on Reality (2016) brings the livestreaming scene right into the exhibition hall.
This is a participatory project. When sitting in the streaming chair, the viewer is at once the consumer (fan) and the streamer (broadcaster). They have two identities at once, and can switch at any time. As a consumer, you can freely change the channel in search of a streamer you like, and experience the joy, stimulation, comfort and satisfaction they provide. They can give you a goth performance, or tell you a funny story. You can interact and chat with them, give them gifts of “fishballs” worth 1 RMB, or “missiles” worth 500 RMB. As the streamer, you can broadcast your own secrets, or broadcast the scene of a crime… Of course, you can also receive gifts (money/likes) sent by fans or consumers at any time. This has become something of a new religion, with “likes” serving as digital “Amens.” As we are “liking,” we are also submitting to the power of the context.[ibid., p. 17.] There is no distinction here between professional and amateur, and most of the streamers are actually amateurs, making it an open platform in which anyone can take part. There is no distinction here between public and private. It seems more like an alternate space and world somewhere between the two. There are no real names here either, and many of the streamers have even filtered their appearance… There is nothing preventing offline trades or exchanges, but the more “brutal” fact is that some of the streamers are making millions, and some of the fans are spending hundreds of thousands a year, leaving their families in ruin. Just as someone says, “The commercial logic of these streaming platforms actually embodies the desires people have not met in real life.”[Pan Junwen, Jinqian, Qinggan yu Yuwang, Liangwei Shenjia Qianwan Wangluo Zhubo de Shikong Rensheng (Money, Emotion and Desire: the Out-of-Control Lives of Two Livestreamers worth Tens of Millions), The Paper, January 24, 2019, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2892559.] This is without a doubt a realer, more virtual, naked capitalist world.
Over half a century ago, Andy Warhol prophesied, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Today, with the rise of online streaming, Warhol’s prophecy has come true. Miao Ying returns to Morgan Freeman’s exhortation, “What is real?”[Artist Statement.] Is it human desire, or medium (or media) itself? This seems like a false question, because the two go hand in hand, and cannot be divided: desire catalyzed improvements and updates in media technology, while technology further liberated human desire.
In her artist statement, Miao Ying notes that a fundamental shift took place from the video sharing and commenting website Bilibili to the Douyu streaming site is that it allowed people to pop up their own livestream screens, which meant that the audience was no longer just a watcher of commentary, but could now become a provider of commentary. The viewer is now a consumer as a fan, as well as a product as a broadcaster. As information metaphor, the popup screen and comments have become the static of this era—it is not coherent, so it cannot form into a voice. The more information is released, the more chaotic and furtive the world will become.[Byung-Chul Han, Among the Crowd: Mass Psychology in the Age of Digital Media, pp. 17–18.] In this regard, we may as well boil it down to the relationship between people and screens. Just like Wang Tuo’s The Interrogation, Miao Ying’s practice points back at changes in medium. The difference is that while Wang Tuo’s The Interrogation was limited to the interactive relationship between people and screens, in Miao Ying’s work, the internet “suspends” the screen, and turns it into a hidden “ruler.” This “ruler” is not so much a screen as it is a mutant hybrid of capital and technology. From another perspective, we could say that it forms its own ruler. Steyerl takes it further: “Imaged people, imaged structures, and image objects are embedded into networked matter. Networked space is itself a medium, or whatever one might call a medium’s promiscuous, posthumous state today”… This “is not an interface but an environment.”[ Hito Steyerl, Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?, Zhang Jie, trans., in Wang Min’an, ed., Zhezi (Folds), vol. 1, p. 221.] The livestream platform is a product of this environment, or perhaps it is such an environment. This is a highly transparent environment, with no distance between people. Everyone is their own subject, and their own object. At this time, the readymade is doubtless the most fitting choice. We must keep in mind that Marcel Duchamp’s readymade was viral from the beginning.[David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, p. 54.] Thus, if Nam June Paik created the “virus” of the television era,[ibid., pp. 47–51.]then Miao Ying has produced a virus of the internet era. She has precisely recreated the inner logic of online streaming, and used this to create a form of “feedback interference”[ibid., p. 108.]—limited as it may be.
Long ago in the late 19th century, the contradiction in art history arose between the autonomy implied by the term “art,” and the imbrication implied by the term “history.” Later, in the term “visual culture,” the virtualness of “visual” and the materiality implied by “culture” formed a similar contradiction. Though the two are quite consistent in this regard, there is no shortage of contradiction and conflict between them. Some have gone as far as to say that visual culture has replaced art history, even “ended” it. The facts have shown that visual culture stands as a great challenge to art history, but it cannot be denied that it has also inspired many new dimensions in art history. This, however, goes beyond the scope of this essay, and I will not digress further. This essay is more concerned with the relationships between art history and visual culture, and between medium and media.
On this point, Pamela M. Lee has noted that what straddles the boundary between business and art is not the contention between art history and visual culture, but instead the parallel (yet slightly different) relationship between medium and media, with the former often connected to art, and the latter often connected to modes of communication, such as television and film (or the internet and telephones).[ Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2006, p.69.] Accordingly, the videos of the artists mentioned above can all be placed within the scope of media practice. Ma Qiusha and Yan Xing’s bodily accounts and traumatic memories gain sustained proliferation through the repetition of video, but also turn around to point back at the substance of video itself. Shen Xin and Chen Zhou’s fiction and non-fiction attempt to produce “alternative facts” to penetrate the magical reality. Wang Tuo and Miao Ying’s media practices are reflections and microcosms of reality, as well as a form of “feedback interference,” which also reveal the reality and inner logic of psychopolitics. There is no shortage of differences between them, but their practices are constantly opening toward society. They all maintain the “semi-autonomy” of media, and maneuver between fiction and reality, turning back to point at video itself within the many levels of interconnectedness between text, psychology and instruments.
“Stop pretending to subvert commodification by demonstrating what everyone knows—that capital is everywhere.” Joselit tells us to make noise, to create a virus, to practice eco-formalism, to seize the world as a readymade and break open its circuits.[David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, pp. 180–181.] His manifesto at the end of Feedback: Television Against Democracy, written twelve years ago—the same year Ma Qiusha created From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiao Beili—remains just as relevant and resounding today. The crisis, however, goes beyond eco-politics. Psychopolitics is perhaps the true disaster of this er