The Shadow of Cocoons
By Cao Fei
The prolonged pandemic has made us gradually realize the limitation of the white-box exhibition at art museum. With the inauguration of the New Century Art Foundation’s first online project, “Cloud Room,” we can explore and discuss a new artistic language, between the aesthetics of the virtual and the real, on this alternative online space. As a result, I took on the courage to organize an online exhibition. This program invites a few young artists to participate, who do not have extensive resumes, and some have just left school, namely Xu Zhengyue, Hu Xin, Zhao Hua, Jiang Keqi, and Wei Xiankun. They projected the “shadows” of their ideas onto a world of “cocoons.”1 through moving images. The pandemic, the most prominent footnote of our time, has thickened and intensified the cocoons, whether it is the embodiment of isolation or consequential to the isolating effect of information technology. All of these realities have informed the creative practice of these promising young moving image artists.
The Future is Here
Xu Zhengyue’s Migrate to the Cloud (2022) focuses on Guizhou’s big data cloud system, which embraces the new infrastructure windfall. As a model for developing China’s big data industry, Guizhou, like the state of Colorado in the U.S., has many data centers for large companies. The state of Colorado had established a military-industrial base in the deep mountains and forests during the Cold War, whereas Guizhou initiated a vast construction of the Third Line2 in 1964, regional combat reserve construction included steel, chemicals, electronics, aerospace industries, etc. Colorado and Guizhou, characterized by initiatives that emerged from the Cold War mentality and their stable climate and geology, provide favorable conditions for establishing big data bases later. Today’s Guizhou’s digital strategy around the resourcing, assetization, and capitalization of data elements (including blockchain, 5G base stations, artificial intelligence, industrial internet, data centers, and other new infrastructures), leveraged by the local government with the support of national policies, has allowed the most prominent project migrating Chinese users’ data on the Cloud by Apple iCloud (China) to Guizhou in 2018. It is against this backdrop of “date migration”3 that Xu Zhengyue’s Migrate to the Cloud focuses on how the digital economic dividend has gradually replaced the demographic dividend of the previous era, bringing intriguing changes to the landscape and the life of the young generation in this impoverished mountainous region.The camera slowly gazes at the expressionless young data annotators in the workshop, whose daily work involves training samples based on image annotation to provide data sets for machine learning and ultimately to form algorithmic models for artificial intelligence. The annotators are working day and night to train the machines to master the inaccessible computing power of humans, but the slogan “The future is here,” like a curse, has long been hanging above the empty data company next door. Perhaps, their current futile effort is to feed a nightmarish “cloud” that will devour the future of humanity.
Skyworms spitting silk
In the 1970s, China launched a satellite navigation system called “Lighthouse.”4 (It was later cancelled). The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) entered its initial development phase in the 1990s. After 2000, deployment of the BeiDou Global Navigation Service (GNSS) began to accelerate, of which BeiDou III was deployed in 2018 to cover the countries along China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and Huawei Glory mobile phones were the first to access BDS’ 5G communication technology. The BeiDou satellite program, now known as China’s version of the “Starlink,” will integrate multiple data into a new space-time infrastructure – a one-stop space information platform for transportation, agriculture, and emergency response. The protagonists of Hu Xin’s work Above the Rut (2022) are truck drivers, the users of Beidou vehicle-mounted terminals which is a downstream industry that relies on the BeiDou satellite positioning system. Since 2012, transportation authorities have required 12-ton trucks to be equipped with Beidou vehicle-mounted terminals, establishing real-time monitoring and navigation of vehicles through chips and control centers, surveying the drivers’ abnormal behaviors like fatigue driving, phone calls, smoking, and distraction.
Hu Xin conducted extensive field research on the trucking industry in Sichuan, the location of Beidou’s satellite’s “home port,” and then produced a three-channel video that combined actual footage with virtual reality. The footage on both sides is in black and white, which “monitors” the truck driver’s driving process and the road conditions in front of the Beidou road section, while the middle screen is the ever-changing VR scene beyond the driverless warehouse. Under Beidou navigation, the driver constantly traveled to and from the multi-story interchanges, factory buildings, urban and rural areas, in smog and mist, endlessly, in a closed-loop. The film’s main narrative is driven by a dialogue between the Sichuanese driver and the programmer of the control center, which reminds one of Bi Gan’s film Roadside Picnic, with dreamy murmurs and questions not answered. It is also interspersed with visions reflected from the satellite in outer space: golden rice field, afternoon nostalgia, eyes in the dark, ruins and desolation in the countryside, those traditional, laboring bodies being stripped away from the driving cabins, and weightless flying beasts in the low orbit unfurl their enormous solar wings …… Who has silently sketched a tight cocoon on earth for us?
“Distribution, a customer-centric social performance,” written in People Magazine’s September 2020 issue. According to the “Meituan Rider Employment Report for 2019 and 2020 during the Pandemic Period” released by Meituan Research Institute, the number of newly registered riders on the Meituan platform reached 336,000 during the pandemic, with the majority of new riders coming from factories. The most significant issue revolves around the labor protection system for riders. Since the platform contracts the delivery business to outsourcing companies, the direct employment relationship (with workers) becomes invalid, so many riders cannot successfully obtain compensation after traffic accidents, which denotes a clever transfer of responsibility away from the current takeaway platform. In addition, the consumer’s act of placing orders also indirectly legitimizes the injustice of the algorithm and tacitly allows the non-neutrality of the technology. The workers’ subjectivity is controlled and deprived by the auxiliary technical tools, and the skills and techniques that the traditional workers had mastered in the industry are gradually becoming useless.
Zhao Hua has always been concerned about labor injustice and undertakes the creative means of behavioral intervention and video recording. Instead of elaborate images and music, Hello World, Please Betray Me (2022), produced with Jiang Keqi, employs a mixture of documentary, performance, and fiction to present the unequal digital labor relationship between the system algorithm represented by the programmer and the rider in five sets of dynamic “social sculptures”: A motorcycle spins in place until its tires burn; a silent relay between riders on the city streets conveys a kind of rebellious whisper; an epitaph of capital games carved out of granite is cut into specimens of human chronology; a murder as a fear and repercussion of technology; the riders spin and bang in the bumper pool with a long-lost relaxation and simple joy on their faces at that moment. Are they already obsessed with this game of Möbius Ring? Paradoxically, in addition to the system making the riders go faster, the riders themselves are trapped in the systemic folds; by the same token, perhaps the programmers, us, and that invisible hand.
A Sense of the World
“Slime” is a non-plasticized clay toy formed by mixing glue, water, and borax, which is jelly-like or semi-liquid, opaque, or translucent and allows people to obtain tactile pleasure during the process of kneading, tearing, and stirring actions. With its soft touch, smooth color, elasticity, and other “cute” features, Slime has quickly become a popular “stress relief” product online. The Taobao store “Egg Slime,” which has a 99.8% approval rating, made 20 million in sales, while the Little Red Book platform has over 440,000 notes on topics related to “playing with mud” (playing with Slime mud).
Wei Xiankun’s Slime (2022) addresses the supernatural horror of Cthulhu literature, horror movies based on Slime, video games, ACG culture, short Internet videos, and digital virtual interactive images. She introduces many YouTube clips related to how people play with Slimes in a passive-aggressive and even slightly sexually suggestive manner, including rubbing, poking, pinching, squeezing, and cutting actions. The media-scape that produces sensibility identifies with and reinforces what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard refers to as the dilemma of “the evil demon of images” – people became lost in the appearance of pleasure without content. These manifest in we gazing at a video of a hand ravaging a slime, or people swallowing thousands of strange food, blindly opening boxes of delicately wrapped toys, machine tools crushing objects of various materials, and torturing small, unknown creatures, etc. The media field that multiplies and creates unease while giving healing, dull stimulation constructs a safe, anti-narrative, and endless void of “whirlpool” for post-humans. The externalization, dematerialization, and de-mediation of the senses reduce the gazer’s subjectivity and the object’s existence to ghosts on and off the screen. Merleau-Ponty, the founder of French perceptual phenomenology, is concerned with how the technological age has joined hands with capitalism to reshape this “sense of the world” of human beings – the mutuality of the world and the body – and has unsurprisingly fallen into the “super-smooth” Slime swamp.
Although Xu Zhengyue, Hu Xin, Zhao Hua and Jiang Keqi, and Wei Xiankun have adopted various perspectives for these four video works, they share a position of standing on the turning point of the times consisting of new infrastructure, the politics of technology, the laboring body, control and resistance, and the media dilemma. Xu Zhengyue and Hu Xin transform the documentary into an allegorical form, Zhao Hua assigns actual laborers to a performance, and Wei Xiankun revolves around the production mechanism of desire, where the image serves as a hungry noise, unspecific disturbance, and some ignorant doubts. As lonely writers, resourceful hunters, and genuine killers hedge against this overly noisy and magical reality, an insane and unfathomable world, they are nothing but the dark shadows under this digital cocoon.
Finally, I would like to thank the New Century Art Foundation for setting up this “Cloud Room,” which embraces new creators, new events, new media, and new ideas, and I look forward to seeing more moving images triggered here in the future.
1. The concept of the “cocoon effect” comes from the book Intopia (2006) by the American scholar Cass, R.Sunstein. He argues that because the public only focuses on the areas of their own choice and pleasure in information communication, partial rather than all-round information reception over time led people to be trapped in these “information cocoons.”
2.The construction of the “Third Line” areas was grounded on the principle of selecting “decentralized, hidden, and mountainous” regions for national defense purposes, scattered in 13 provinces and autonomous territories in central and western China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Shaanxi, and Gansu, from 1964 to the 1980s. Large-scale construction of the national defense, science and technology, industry, electricity, and transportation infrastructure to prepare for war and drought began.
3.The “Date migration” project was launched in February 2022 by China’s national strategy, technology development, energy policy, and other aspects of a national project. It serves the computing needs of the eastern region by dispatching the optimal computing resources in the western area of China in order to reduce power consumption and computing costs, stimulate economic development in the west, and promote synergy between the east and west.
4.In 1967, the Chinese Navy proposed the development of navigation satellites; in 1968, the Lighthouse-1 (DT-1) navigation satellite entered the project demonstration stage; in 1970, the development of Lighthouse-1 officially began; from 1972 to 1979, Lighthouse-1 completed model assembly, testing, and base development. 1980, the Lighthouse program was fully terminated.
Written in Chaoyang, Beijing, on June 18th, 2022