Decoding Culture on the Chinternet

Michelle Proksell
Example from the Chinternet Archive.


As a street photographer would capture public life lived around her, so too does independent curator, researcher and artist Michelle Proksell document the moments that she is witness to. Only her choice of medium is the humble, and wholly underrated, screenshot and the landscapes she navigates are online. More specifically, Chinese social media networks that have become thriving examples of resourcefulness and creativity in the face of restrictions and censorship. Here, the Meme takes no prisoners and information and LOLs are circulated at a mind-spinning pace. In China, online is IRL and Beijing-based Proksell explains her research as collecting (or preserving) online digital artefacts and re-purposing them thoughtfully within a context that reveals a bigger picture about China right now, in real time. Her considered collection has become known, affectionately, as the Chinternet Archive.  Simultaneously Proksell has founded, a platform for artists in mainland China to reflect upon the Internet as a platform for producing art in relation to the world inside the Great Firewall.


“Instead of Google there is Baidu. Instead of Facebook or Twitter, there is Weibo and QQ. Instead of eBay there is Taobao and Alibaba. Instead of Youtube there is Youku. Instead of WhatsApp there is WeChat.”


How does the internet in mainland China look different – or how is it experienced differently – to what the western world would be used to? What sites can’t be accessed? And alternatively what exists here that isn’t available elsewhere?

The Chinese internet exists as a kind of parallel world to the rest of the World Wide Web. What this means is that information and usage is specifically localised, emerging from the needs of its users, in this case culturally Chinese. I personally prefer to describe them as parallel worlds because it’s very easy for the western world to apply some kind of seemingly superior perspective on the Chinese internet, just because it exists within a spectrum of restrictions that, perhaps, not all westerners have experienced.  But such restrictions make neither internet landscape “better” than the other if viewed objectively and without the technical aspects of their infrastructure analysed too deeply. They are distinctly different paradigms sometimes serving the same purpose, and other times different ones. Depending on the platform, use and location, sometimes one is more efficient than the other.


Both networks have something they could learn from the other. Instead of Google there is Baidu. Instead of Facebook or Twitter, there is Weibo and QQ. Instead of eBay there is Taobao and Alibaba. Instead of Youtube there is Youku. Instead of WhatsApp there is WeChat. Some of the advantages of the localisation of the Chinese internet have driven the development of extremely efficient websites like Taobao or even more recently popular software, like WeChat, which is now beginning to emerge across the globe.  Anyone who wants to do business in China or who has family or friends residing here, primarily uses WeChat to connect and function. So even the borders that we understand to define the uniqueness of experiencing the Chinese internet are beginning to be globalised slowly in some ways because of the mobility of a Chinese social app like WeChat (or in Chinese, known as Weixin (微信) — “micro letter”).


“…creative play of the Chinese language became an early way to bypass censorship.”


What‚Äôs the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about ‘The Great Firewall’? And how has your own perception changed during your time in Beijing?

Contrary to some western perspectives, the Chinese internet is not a desolate landscape but in fact is full of insightful and culturally specific memes and trends that circulate expansively for the same reasons creative memes develop and spread in any other internet landscape. The mobility of apps from Weibo, QQ or WeChat also offers users an immediacy to sharing content by first documenting and broadcasting, then reflecting, creating and finally reacting to what is happening in the real world at a speed I have never seen in the west before. My experience in Beijing and other parts of China has influenced my understanding of this specifically because I also interact with these platforms and use them in similar ways to deal with the limitations.


How things are posted on certain platforms can bypass some aspects of the Great Firewall.  A Weibo posting of an image or meme is inherently more public than a WeChat “moment” because of the differences of the platforms. WeChat is a relatively closed network of friends and personal contacts, whereas Weibo is more open and searchable of its users and topics. This ultimately will determine the kind of content shared. For example, what might be posted openly in Weibo first will probably be a little more subversive and self-censored, whereas something posted initially in a WeChat group might be more explicit, regardless of what censorship might usually exist for the content. All of this contributes to a very vibrant digital culture here.


Example from the Chinternet Archive of users self-censoring their profile pictures.
Examples from the Chinternet Archive.


In what ways are people working around the restrictions? What creative practices have emerged in spite of, or because of, restrictions or censorship?

In any culture, creativity usually becomes subversive in the face of imposed limitations. My research partner, digital anthropologist, Gabriele de Seta has written a lot more about how creative actions online are present especially in Chinese-specific memes. He was the first person to introduce me to the ways that something like the technical format itself can influence creativity. For example, he has written about the fact that when it comes to censoring content online, code is developed to crawl websites and snag sensitive words posted in relation to certain topics. Once found, the content is quickly taken down, preventing it from spreading too far. This was much of why creative play of the Chinese language became an early way to bypass censorship. But eventually even said online “slang” can be detected at a certain point after it’s been used enough times, and thereafter inevitably censored. But there is no code that has been written to be able to immediately censor specific text found in a .jpg or .png image. Therefore, Chinese netizens will often use text in an image format to openly share sensitive ideas, opinions, news or content, allowing it to cross platforms and effectively reach more people faster.


Within different platforms, the images of textual information can then be downloaded and re-uploaded or shared again and again. So it’s very apparent that limitations create a particular form of creative play on the Chinese internet, and Chinese users are very thoughtful in the ways they approach this.


“It‚Äôs as if we are all collectively in on the same joke‚Ķwhat the hell is really going on?”


You‚Äôve said in a previous interview with de Seta that your research asks the questions, “What is the online¬†culture here in China? How is that influencing artists? How are¬†artists using it in their artworks? How does that reflect on the¬†bigger picture of contemporary China?”

Through your archiving and analysis, have you come closer to answering these questions?

Because of the extreme speed at which everything is changing here, both in real life and online, I find that the questions I had initially posed are always evolving with every new update or meme that surfaces. The lifespan of online content here is much shorter than we see in the west. Memes come and go as fast as the sun sets sometimes. What this reveals to me about the bigger picture of contemporary China, is that we are all experiencing some uncertainty of what exactly is happening, as it’s happening. Perhaps this is why viral content becomes so enjoyable. It’s as if we are all collectively in on the same joke…what the hell is really going on?  It’s something we can all laugh at as we try to navigate the changes, because what else is there to do in the face of such acceleration?


One thing that is clear though, is that mobile technology has a prominent role in the lives of Chinese people, and that will only continue to increase more and more. Online life here is not separate from ‘real life’, it is merely an extension of every person who has a mobile device. The physical and emotional relationships that people have to the internet and mobile technology here only show me how much closer we are to socially accepting the internet eventually being implanted inside of our bodies someday in our lifetime.


Where language is an immediate barrier for a foreigner, how has the practice of studying imagery been significant in coming closer to understanding Chinese culture dynamics?

Though my initial attraction to any given picture or graphic is often based on its aesthetic quality, expressions and gestures of the people in them, and the details of the background, the advantage of the content I collect from WeChat is that it is also often accompanied by comments from the users themselves. With the development and advancement of accurate online translation tools, even language barriers are beginning to break down when it comes to encountering content online. The key is having the cultural understanding to reflect on what you are looking at. This is gained mostly by actually interacting in the real world of China first. I have enough Chinese language skills to be able to interpret most of what I read, and use translation tools or my Chinese friends to help me with the rest.  A combination of all of this is what really reveals the bigger picture about the trends and aesthetics, as well as gestures and motives found in the images.


Individual images are only a piece of what is happening. It’s the accumulation of the larger body of the archive that allows me to see patterns in what people are posting. If we break down what language basically is (including visual language), it’s really just a set of patterns in repetition to develop a collective sense of meaning. The archive as a whole reflects on the cultural phenomena that are evolving and spreading in real time; anything from fashion to cars, traditional Chinese apparel and culture to Chinese flags and propaganda, cultural specific beauty self-image and hook up culture, selfies of migrant workers, mothers, business people, the youth and the elderly, technological devices and how they are being used, Shanzhai products (counterfeit consumer goods) and Gucci to large piles of cash. All of this illustrates China’s fast paced growing economy influenced by privatisation and forms of  developing capitalism, whilst it tries to balance its own evolving cultural and national identity.


Michelle Proksell Chinternet Archive

Michelle Proksell Chinternet Archive

Michelle Proksell Chinternet Archive

Michelle Proksell Chinternet Archive

Michelle Proksell Chinternet Archive
Curated examples from the Chinternet Archive shared daily in Prokell’s WeChat moments as performative postings.


To build The Chinternet Archive, you use WeChat’s ‚ÄúPeople Nearby‚Äù option to collect images that users share publicly. The way you use screenshots to capture life around you in the digital space you operate in you’ve compared to documentary photography capturing people’s public behaviour in the physical world. Could you elaborate on this comparison with comment on the ownership of images in a public online space and the etiquette around republishing or repurposing imagery on the internet?

The ethics of collecting online content is always a tricky thing to tackle. If we think of the digital space as a landscape, you can imagine that what I am doing is merely walking down a public street of the Chinese internet and documenting what people choose to post and spread around to represent themselves online. The content I collect is very consciously posted. The people engaging in the “People Nearby” function choose to keep their profiles open and use location services to connect to strangers, knowing that other people can see their data. If there is anyone who understands what it means to be monitored in relationship to the internet, it’s Chinese people. Self-censorship is a second language and the majority of people are very conscious of it in a different way from many westerners because of their own unique Chinese internet history.


In the context of repurposing imagery for art, there are so many debates about the rights to use public content, but often the argument goes that if it is art, somehow it transcends those typical boundaries because it is about “culture”, maybe. Just look at the Instagram work Richard Prince has been doing, and more importantly what he was doing years ago appropriating magazine materials. What I am collecting is more similar to what a friend of mine, Thomas Sauvin, has done with analog Chinese photography through his Silvermine archive, where he rescued photographic negatives from Beijing between the years of 1985 to 2005 and appropriates them into his own artwork.  My version, however, is instead collecting (or preserving) online digital artefacts and re-purposing them thoughtfully within a context that reveals a bigger picture about China right now, in real time.


Example from the Chinternet Archive of users self-censoring their profile pictures.
Example from the Chinternet Archive of users self-censoring their profile pictures.


For the most part you choose to share this Archive on WeChat, the same platform that the images are sourced from, to avoid the likelihood of people unfamiliar with Chinese culture to experience the images out of context. Please tell us more about this decision:

My daily postings from the Archive on WeChat are actually an ongoing performance piece, wherein the closed network of people who are following it are a part of the audience. Because WeChat is the source for this archive, I felt it necessary to share it specifically with contacts who are connected to China personally, which allows them to understand and relate to the images in an informed way. This includes foreigners and Chinese people alike. When you start to observe this content as a whole in succession every day, you begin to see a reflection of what we are all actually experiencing and going through during a very uncertain and fast changing period in China’s history.


Some of the content is very serious, some less obvious and abstract, some of it ugly or beautiful, some of it confusing or disturbing, some of it mundane, some of it funny.  But really, the point is, it’s meant to give all those who encounter it a chance to think more deeply about what they are witnessing in China firsthand. If I were to post this stuff on a platform like Tumblr where the images can then be easily extracted from the context in which they were originally found, then a lot more ethical questions come into play. I don’t want this content to be sensationalised out of context in the same way the west has done so with other information coming out of China. Therefore, when I do choose to share some of this content more publicly with people outside of China, or outside of my WeChat network, it is meant to help culturally translate things so that they can begin to better understand the influence of China in their own respective countries.


“One of the most enjoyable trends are piles of Chinese cash laid out over tables, cars, beds, or folded into shapes and objects.”


Could you share some of the trends you’ve noticed developing online?¬†

Aesthetic trends are often influenced by Chinese specific photo editing apps that allow people to add stickers, animations or to paint over images. I also see that when users do want to censor images, they do so by using these apps to mask their own or other people’s faces, as well as the background sometimes.


My favourite trends are from the retailers who are trying to sell beauty products. They often find these silly and clever ways to use the products ridiculously just to attract attention, like putting face masks on their butt cheeks or using them to create makeshift “shower curtains”.


Selfies are also really fascinating to follow, especially when it comes to occupational ones, where I get to see inside people’s work environments.  Most of these include cooks, office workers, nurses at beauty clinics, hairdressers, restaurant workers or retailers. I have so many of these because if you think about the kind of jobs they have, they often have a lot of free time with their mobile devices just sitting or standing around, probably bored.  And with hairdressers specifically, they literally have mirrors in front of them all the time.


I also have internet bar selfies for a similar reason, many of the guys taking them are spending hours in front of webcams while surfing the net or playing games online. I also find that Chinese women will sometimes take a very specific kind of “cute” or ÂèØÁà± “(Kƒõ‚Äô√†i)” pose in their images, which is really just influenced by Japanese‚Äôs ‚Äúkawaii‚Äù culture.¬† And of course I have tons of images with people giving the peace sign or using selfie-sticks – this seems to be the most stereotypical Asian behavior in the archive as of yet.¬† But some weirder trends I find are things like men posting portraits of themselves sitting behind their desks at work or people taking photos of random objects in their house.¬† Also I have a lot of images from people posting about their injuries or them being hooked up to the IV at a hospital. But one of the most enjoyable trends are piles of Chinese cash laid out over tables, cars, beds, or folded into shapes and objects, etc.¬† Chinese people love to show piles of cash and when I post images like this in WeChat from the archive, I definitely get the most responses from Chinese and foreigners alike.


Examples from Proksell’s Chinternet Archive of images masked or altered using photo editing tools from various Chinese apps. Many aesthetic trends from users are influenced by these kinds of photo apps.


How do you define internet art? 

Ones and zeroes, webpages and portals. But people would really argue now that what we are witnessing in relationship to art and the internet all over the world, has really just become post-internet art at this point. Post-internet has been defined as a movement referring to society and modes of interaction as a result of the widespread adoption of the internet. The uniqueness of the Chinese internet has created a particular deviation from the historical origins of internet art in relationship to the World Wide Web, which has since evolved into this post-internet experience.


In fact, the first comprehensive exhibition and catalogue of dialogs surrounding the post-internet topic was actually here in Beijing in 2014 at UCCA and was curated by Robin Peckham and a friend of mine, Karen Archey, who I was having early internet discussions with back in New York as early as 2009.  What is happening digitally and online from Chinese and western artists located in China, is unique to the landscape and internet history of the country, but, it is also inherently influenced by non-Chinese content as well, just because of the state of globalisation even in cyberspace. This is because, despite the Great Firewall, many digital artists here can still access all parts of the World Wide Web through VPNs (virtual private networks). Contemporary Chinese artists are globally conscious and pushing transcultural boundaries more than I think the west sometimes gives them credit for.  From my observations, many young Chinese artists really want to break from the “Chinese-ness” that the rest of the art market is continually pushing on them sometimes. The internet just happens to be a platform that allows them to re-image themselves for the rest of the world in their own way, if they want to.


“ hopes to fill a gap in the current scene, by helping to build an open dialogue and resource for people inside and outside of China to access, to better understand how the internet and technology are influencing creativity here.”


Example from the Chinternet Archive of users self-censoring their profile pictures.
From Proksell’s Chinternet Archive.


What do you hope to encourage through and why? (or it’s Chinese name 网友网  Wǎngyǒu wǎng, which humorously translates to “Internet Friend Network”) was born out of my genuine interest in connecting better to the Chinese artists I have been working with, who explore the same mediums of art that I do myself. I also wanted to understand the Chinese internet better, and the best way to do this is to engage with creatives who have interacted with it from the start. hopes to fill a gap in the current scene, by helping to build an open dialogue and resource for people inside and outside of China to access, to better understand how the internet and technology are influencing creativity here. This is why my focus is really on the interviews that I do with artists.  I feel that in the context of the history of Chinese contemporary art, the market often dictates the voice of these artists, whereas, I am more interested in giving them the ability to tell us their personal stories in their own words. To me, this is much more telling of what is evolving creatively, how and why. This is why some of the basic questions in all of the interviews include asking when they first encountered and accessed the internet, what they thought it was, what were the first forms of technology they used, and how the uniqueness of the Chinese internet has influenced (or not) their work and perception of the rest of the World Wide Web.


I also aim to include foreigners in this dialogue who are engaging online or digitally in China, because we cannot disregard the role they too have had in the context of a developing Chinese environment. The internet has always been a signifier of “crossing borders”, and in this case, there are foreign artists, like myself, who are actively engaging in this side of the Web.  We have become a part of the greater history and scene of contemporary Chinese art, which is often not acknowledged. To me, artists who are transcending these typical cultural boundaries and influencing alternative scenes, are engaging in a larger transcultural dialogue about the state of the world. Therefore, something like, that focuses on a unique internet and technological landscape, has the ability to discuss what this means on a larger scale, especially when we see how China is influencing many areas of life and industry across the world.


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