Michelle: What is the meaning of the name Aspartime in relation to your artistic intentions together? Why did you choose to play off of the spelling of the better-known artificial sweetener called “Aspartame”?
Aspartime: We believe being artists is not a profession. Artists should be a kind of existence with the most freedom possible. “Part-time” is our attitude towards art – light-hearted, natural and without additives. We don’t wish to be confined by the mundane labels. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, how safe it actually is has always been a topic of argument, whether it is good or bad, positive or negative, it will always be a controversy. We find it fun, and it fits with our taste, and so we replaced a letter in Aspartame to Aspartime, which then became our name.
Michelle: Why did you choose to form Aspartime together instead of continuing to work separately as independent artists?
Aspartime: We hope Aspartime would be a way of substituting individual creation. We hope Aspartime could personalize a project, an event, a manifesto, a virtual reality, or even an existence without reason.
Michelle: What does your artistic process look like as a duo? Do you feel you are able to work seamlessly through a kind of linear process together, or do you have to continually compromise and shift your individual ideas to form the essence of what Aspartime is?
Aspartime: We have our own individual book of ideas, where we record some rough ideas and proposals. We discuss them, disagree with each other, but always come to some sort of conclusion. The final idea is always a result of conflict and compromise.
Michelle: In 2012 you were in a show at Star Gallery called “Nowhere to Live,” curated by Wei Guo. The curatorial idea behind the show was to explore visions of one’s place in the world—“conveying a sense that looking for a place to be and exist is a basic concern for all of us.” How do you think this topic relates to the two of you as contemporary Chinese artists today?
Aspartime: At the time we wanted to discuss the relationship between art works and the gallery space besides the fact that the works are being displayed in the space. There was a neon light piece that took apart the Chinese characters of Star Gallery – “星空间”; a piece that measured the temperature of the gallery spotlights; a sculpture made with the Nowhere to Live poster; and a piece using a dozen languages to describe the art works. These four pieces of work were all made specifically for Star Gallery. We deliberately made new works that targeted at this exhibition, also partly to avoid serious topics, at that time we were warming up for our Update and Taobao projects, slowly shaping our interests and direction.
Michelle: Do you work most of the year living in China or abroad? How do you choose to separate your time between places? Does this influence your artwork or process?
Aspartime: We have just started living between two places and it’s been quite an unusual experience. It will have great impact on our work, which is also something that we are excited about — traveling back and forth, recuperating and releasing energy, with our experiences and concepts washing like tidal waves.
Michelle: On May 16th, 2012, you began your first online network project called “Update”, where you used the popular Weibo microblogging website as a platform to display art. What was the turning point that drew you to see the Internet as a place for displaying art outside of traditional methods of exhibition usually found in China?
Aspartime: The Weibo project was our first net project. Weibo was something that we were all using a lot [in 2012], it’s a social platform where everyone could post images, or say something. At the time we were preparing to make some micro sculptures that were temporal, flimsy, and only existed in photographs. We can only post flat images on Weibo, which matched with how we imagined these works, and people could conveniently look at our works. We just felt it could be a good platform for displaying our works, so we posted one work everyday.
Michelle: Can you give me a few examples of art you were displaying on Weibo? Why were you choosing to show what you did?
Aspartime: We were posting works everyday back then, for 126 days straight. If people are interested to see today what we did in the beginning, they could still find them on our page. Weibo isn’t so hyped as before, but we still post some GIFs once in awhile. They are all images we find online that interest us, it’s a way of creating more traffic and gaining more fans.
Michelle: In which year and how did you first encounter the Internet in China? What did you think the Internet was and how it could affect your lives from that day forward?
Aspartime: It must’ve been quite early on, the Internet sort of just came into our lives unexpectedly, and now we really cannot do without it. It has become our bond with society. Staying away from the internet would mean hiding out, even the masters are lost in the sea of internet users.
Michelle: When first accessing the Internet, how did you use it in your day-to-day life? How were your peers also using the Internet at that time?
Aspartime: We cannot recall the time we started using the internet, it was probably to play games and buy things, also to use an early social media chatting tool called QQ.
Michelle: When did you start using a VPN in China and how did you find out that you needed one to bypass The Great Firewall? Did this change your impression of the Chinese Internet up to that point?
Aspartime: We started using a VPN when we came back from the UK for the first time. We use it mainly to look up certain things that are happening in the West. China has been a strange place all along, and the Chinese internet is an internet with Chinese characteristics.
Michelle: What is the weirdest thing you have seen someone use the Internet for in China?
Aspartime: I guess we are quite used to all kinds of weird things. There are weird things happening everyday. The internet makes it easy for us to see these things, and the strangest things happening today would just be one out of many. The internet has the power to dissolve everything, no matter how shocking, grand, serious or meaningful they are.
Michelle: Since both of you have studied and lived abroad, you must be familiar with the major differences of the Internet inside of the Great Firewall and the rest of the World Wide Web. From your perspective of both sides of the Great Firewall, what are some differences between the two Webs that stand out most in how netizens interact with the Internet creatively or just pragmatically?
Aspartime: The establishment of the Great Firewall created different social platforms for the two sides of the wall. On the outside, people use Facebook and Twitter, while on the inside, people use Weibo and WeChat; eBay and Amazon on the outside, Taobao on the inside. For us, the Great Firewall just means that extra procedure of getting past that wall while we go online.
Michelle: In 2013 you began an Aspartime Taobao page. What things were you trying to sell on Taobao and why did you specifically choose to use this website in the production and selling of your artworks?
Aspartime: Taobao is an extremely interesting, open free market with a lot of possibilities. You could find all sorts of strange rarities on Taobao. It is the best place to kill time for a satisfying experience. We are loyal customers of Taobao ourselves, we buy all sorts of things there. Opening a Taobao store correlates with how Aspartime works creatively, with a non-professional, “part time job” sort of mentality to market our art. It’s casually structured, sometimes there are products, sometimes there are “new products”.
We sold our works in the store but they are not physical objects. It was divided into two parts – one was the digital “Update” photos. If a customer buys an “Update” piece, we would send him the digital print; the other is the “Ideas” series, where the customers would buy the performances we describe in words, and they would have to carry through the plans themselves.
Michelle: When and why did you start making GIFs as an art form in your practice?
Aspartime: Our work exhibited in a group show at Intelligentsia Gallery in 2014 and was our first GIF work. GIFs are little animations that we often see online. Nowadays on WeChat there is also a large amount of GIF emoticons as substitution for our expression through language. We really like these circulated animations. We post the fun ones we find online regularly on our own Weibo page, which has now become our gallery of collected GIFs. GIFs just seemed to be the most natural form of expression while we were preparing for the exhibition at Intelligentsia Gallery.
Michelle: Most people focus on censorship topics when it comes to talking about the Chinese Internet (aka humorously known as the Chinternet). However, obviously there is something special about the Chinese Internet that has drawn you to want to work with it.
Aspartime: All Chinese internet users feel the power of censorship, this has been an object of ridicule all a long. What is magical about the internet is its folksiness and its freedom. Wisdom of the mass is a strong force of mitigation in this kind of system.
Michelle: If you could write a traditional Chengyu [idiom/poem] to describe the Chinese Internet, what four characters would you choose to use to do this?
Aspartime: Xuánmiào mò cè [ 玄妙莫测 ] – Mysterious, you can’t imagine how deep it is. Difficult to guess or comprehend.
阿斯巴甜: 防火墙的设立使得墙里墙外不同的网络的平台，墙外大家用facebook用twitter, 墙内就用微博用微信，墙外用ebay用amazon, 墙内用淘宝用微店。对我来说，防火墙就是我上网时多了一道翻墙的过程。
阿斯巴甜: 淘宝是一个非常有意思，有开放性，有可能性的自由市场。在淘宝上可以买到各种希奇古怪的好玩的东西。淘宝是让人乐在其中打发时间的最佳去处。我们本身也是淘宝的忠实买家，无所不淘。在淘宝开店契合了我们aspartime的创作性质和工作方式，以一种非专业的，partime job的心态去经营自己的艺术，过程无所夹杂，随时有产物，随时添加“新产品”。在淘宝店中我们有卖自己的作品只不过作品不是实物的。它分成了几个部分，一个是电子版的Update的图片，顾客买了update的作品，我们发给他电子版的作品。一个是Ideas系列，顾客买了我们描述的行为，顾客自己去实施。
译本 / 陈秀炜
Translated by Ophelia S. Chan