Media Anthropologist, Gabriele de Seta (Hong Kong) interviews Netize.net curator, researcher and artist, Michelle Proksell (Beijing) about her NewHive collection, the popular Chinese app WeChat, her 10,000+ image Chinternet archive, selfies and surveillance. June 2015.
Gabriele de Seta: So, starting right on topic: how is your relationship to self-portraiture? Do you remember the first time you took a picture of yourself?
Michelle Proksell: Well, I was originally self-taught in photography and later studied it further at University – working a lot with portraiture at that time. But to be honest, I can’t really remember when I first took a self-portrait of myself, except that I know it was definitely not a digital image because I was using film in the beginning – so there was no deleting option. The images had to be very well-thought out before using the camera’s self-timer. This action is so much different from what selfies have become in our culture now.
When I was a young teenager experimenting with photography, I remember being mostly fascinated with the objects in spaces and how that defined people’s lives. I felt like these “things” and “surroundings” were insightful representations of a person’s life and times, maybe even more telling than just an image of them. So in the beginning, before I ever took self-portraits, I was photographing things around me in my life, objects in my room and spaces around my house. I suppose they’d just be considered documented still-life or something, but to me, at the time, I saw them as an extension of myself – something closer to a kind of self-portraiture, without the body present. So in fact, maybe closer to what it really feels like to consider what remains after we pass. Because ultimately, selfies, as we know them now, have become about the living and sharing in real time, but portraiture and self-portraiture in the beginning, historically, is much closer to being about the dead – a documentation of a life once lived – singular images physically left behind, not data collecting on our hard drives, social media sites or in the cloud online. But don’t get me wrong… I’m a bit of a selfie whore myself now…. I have no problem adapting to the times. But my roots are originally analog when it comes to this stuff.
GS: What is this NETIZE.NET series about? The pages show a clear artistic intervention on your part, but where do the graphic elements come from? Is there a larger narrative or historical context behind them?
MP: This Netize.net series is made from content I’ve collected in WeChat （Weixin 微信） over the past year or so (since April 2014) when you and I started doing research together. WeChat is basically China’s homegrown OS and now most of the country uses it to conduct business and social affairs. I use a function within the app called “People Nearby”, which uses the device’s location-based services to collect content from people around me, within a 1,000 meters radius. At this point I have been able to amass around 10,000 plus images so far, exploring the public posted moments and profile pictures of strangers nearby me in a couple of major cities in China.
Initially, the focus was just collecting selfies, but as I was collecting them, I discovered this whole other universe within WeChat, so I quickly expanded the content I was collecting to anything and everything I could find relating to memes, digital graphics, trends, fashion, photography, texts and other artifacts of contemporary Chinese online culture. The act of collecting this, often through screenshots, is keener to documentary photography than anything else though. It’s me, on the network, documenting what’s happening around me in real time – a kind of collection of localized small data. This kind of imagery not only helps give me a clearer picture of the culture here, but also reinforces my understanding of the localization of the Internet and networks and how physical it is to all of us.
My artistic intervention is trying to contextualize this content in a new way on NewHive for Netize.net, which basically just functions as a platform for the content to exist outside of the archive and outside of WeChat. It allows me to share this content thoughtfully with audiences outside of China, within a more relatable context. Which is where the research for Netize.net becomes so vital to understanding all of this. 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? My research of Chinese artists and net culture for Netize.net is just an extension of my practice as an artist, using and collecting content for my Chinternet archive. This particular collection for Netize.net has just become one of many forms the archive is taking on.
GS: This series of pieces you put together for NETIZENET is clearly concerned with self-representation online – not only selfies but generally visual elements from Chinese social media platforms. What have you learned about China through the lens of is this ongoing collection of vernacular content for your daily relationship with China?
MP: The Chinternet archive itself is ever expanding and diverse, changing with the times, as quickly as culture is morphing around me, which I can actually see reflected in the content I find in real time. You can’t go anywhere in this country without running into people glued to their mobile devices. Most of people’s lives here are dealt through WeChat – business, family stuff, dating, friendships, hook ups, retail, online bill pay, sending people money, sharing contacts, phone calls, video chats, news, networking, sharing art, making art, getting a taxi, etc. – all within the confines of one app.
And with this kind of centralization of content and usage, the relationship to the mobile device, and thus the Network, feels much more extreme here than in parts of Euro-American online culture(s). I find that juxtaposition of the physical world around me and how, where and what people are posting to be most interesting because it’s unlike any other social network I have seen before.
It’s a much smaller network of internal contacts than the traditional Web or social media sites we think of in the U.S., or even in the rest of the Chinese Web for that matter, which are typically accessed through big sites like Weibo, Youku or Baidu. WeChat is not a search engine; its people’s real lives posted in real time. The “People Nearby” function I use to collect this content is what opens up that network. It allows me to see what some people do want to share publicly, even to strangers online. And that allows me to understand what is happening culturally and economically within the physical context of China.
In the beginning…. when I started collecting this content, it didn’t take long before my daily subway rides in Beijing became even more interesting. I had sifted through and collected so much content just within the first month of starting this archive that I was able to sit on the train, look at the strangers around me and pretty accurately guess where they might live, what they might do for work, what kind of selfies they would take, etc. – just based off of hours and hours of looking through people’s public posts. The objects in the pictures, the viral graphics, the promotional materials, the beauty products, the news articles, comments of their daily lives, the ways they posed in their selfies, the clothes they were wearing, pictures inside their houses – these details were discoveries that became clues to understanding better who was around me on the train. That really changed my perspective of China in a new and fascinating way. I suddenly felt closer to everything somehow, even as a foreigner. I have been able to see the intimate reality of a part of China I would not be able to see otherwise. It’s very hard to relate what exactly that means on a personal level though. Because it’s more of a feeling than a defined understanding—I have begun to realize better what the differences and similarities between cultures really mean and how that applies to the real world. It’s made it easier for me to adapt to China and to get closer to my Chinese friends and the artists I work with. The images I have collected are merely artifacts of the contemporary culture here, happening in real time.
GS: Before talking about the relationship of your WeChat collection with local artists, I’d like to hear more about what you think about Chinese Internet culture. Do you notice any major trends among these images, or any local specificity that clearly separates Chinese online culture from the American one?
MP: I would say the most striking difference is the speed at which information trends and circulates, mostly because of an app like WeChat and the role of the smartphone. My understanding from the last three years of observation here, is that at this point in China’s digital online history, the internet really exists in people’s hands. Chinese branded smartphones like Xiaomi and Huawei, plus reasonably priced phone networks have made accessibility that much more affordable. I have images in the archive of migrant workers, farmers, rural city life, urban life, retailers, business men, fancy cars, elaborate home interiors, piles of money, young teenagers, old people, mothers… basically revealing the demographic diversity of users online – for many of who the first access point to the web was probably through their smartphone, not a computer. This is very different from what we are used to think about the Internet: in the U.S. and Europe, most people first accessed the Web through a computer, which was incredibly expensive and meant you had to be of a certain demographic to afford to access and use it in the beginning. Even today smartphones and data plans are still relatively pricey in America. Whereas here, migrant workers or poorer people, as well as the wealthy and growing middle class, all have similar ability to access the web through affordable networks and devices.
This means easy access all the time. You can still make phone calls and get online even on the underground subway here. So at any given point that something starts trending, the ability for it to circulate through Weibo, QQ and WeChat apps is unstoppable. It’s like a wild fire… I think the recent Uniqlo x-rated video madness is a perfect example of this: I would say, according to my experience, that it was probably the fastest trending thing I’ve ever seen circulate on the Chinese web so far. It gained momentum in less than 10 hours of its upload and the height of its circulation existed mostly within the first 24 hours. I’ve never seen something explode on the web that fast and be able to witness its lifespan in real time the entire duration, moment by moment. And even more recently on August 3rd, 2015, the rainbow phenomenon, or happening, which consisted of a flood of sunset and rainbow photos feeding through people’s moments in WeChat, mostly through Beijing networks, only lasted as long as the sun was setting. That made that meme particularly fascinating because it was so localized and time specific to a physical phenomenon happening outside. We hadn’t seen the sun in quite some time at that point… so we were all sharing in this glorious moment of rainbows and sunset. It was fantastic. What shocked me more though, was by the time the sun had actually set (maybe within two hours max), a commemorative gif animation of Mao with shooting rainbows out of his eyes and into the sky was already circulating in chat groups – somehow officially marking the phenomenon as a meme.
I think the constant access most people have in China just allows this to happen in way I have never seen happen in the West. When American artist, Ben Aqua, made that popular T-shirt some years ago that said “Never Log-Off”, well, I think that concept really applies more to China now. It often feels like no one ever logs off here. To me that seems almost futuristic. As if we are embarking on something we could call Web 3.0 – total integration of the web into our life, body and soul.
GS: You mention how the ongoing collection of content posted on WeChat allowed you to get much closer to everyday lives of Chinese people and changed your perspective of China. This practice seems very close to street photography or even voyeuristic photography, since you prove the public profiles of people in your vicinity without engaging with them directly, and save their personal expressions into a larger body of material. How does this approach relate to your own artistic practice, and what kinds of understandings did it bring you closer to? Is it also a commentary on how much voyeurism and social surveillance are deeply embedded in our use and the success of social media?
MP: This may sound strange, but my relationship to China now is really influenced by my early youth in Saudi Arabia. I was a foreigner there too – as a young American child in the 80’s before social media or even reliable overseas phone calls… so you can imagine the kind of stares you grow up getting used to, and even the level of acceptance you gain for surveillance – because that’s all you know. My parents have stories about our phone calls being monitored and they even taught us kids at an early age what could be said or done in public spaces, and what couldn’t. This extended to our travels throughout Asia too. So my early childhood was full of a kind of paranoia for being monitored as the foreigner. Strangers all over Asia were taking photos of me and staring at me when I was young. So, now as an adult, I expect to be observed, especially in a place like China where public space is the most common space to engage in. In fact, I think someone is quite ignorant, no matter where they live in the world, if they don’t think they are being monitored to some degree. The most obvious tangible examples of this are surveillance cameras nearly everywhere in modern cities, not to mention the uncannily tailored suggested pages and ads in Facebook.
That being said, when you play the role of a foreigner in any situation there is a certain degree of sensitivity you have to always keep in your constant awareness. Self-censorship should be a part of everyone’s consciousness now, because voyeurism, just like surveillance is commonplace and expected. It’s not going away either. The careful balance is to not let paranoia overwhelm you. And that’s where my relationship to the Chinese web and people is so vital to my experience here.
I really enjoy being in China right now and there is a special kind of energy in the way things are so quickly and interestingly developing. With the intense speed at which things are changing here, it actually feels more open in some ways – like the Wild West must have felt at one point, which I think people who have never been here really can’t understand. My role as an artist is that it lets me get close to the underground and get to know how the culture is developing side-by-side with the technological devices we are all so dependent on. In the beginning of collecting for this archive, I did try to engage with people around me, but found that men only wanted to talk about how beautiful I am and women would only talk to me if they were selling me things, or some people just wanted to practice their English once they found out I was an American. I’ve tried recently to attempt to start conversations again, and the same thing happens. So most of the conversations I have about the trends are with Chinese friends and artists I already have relationships and collaborations with.
And to be very clear, with this project I am not commenting on the deeper darker aspects of voyeurism or surveillance, I am looking at the exciting development of the social network and how everyday people are engaging with that. I am curious to see how the network influences the real world around me and vice versa, especially in how trends and memes circulate. This body of work, with the archive, is collected so that I can genuinely begin to connect and understand this contemporary China around me, which fascinates and inspires me everyday. Western media really loves to dwell in the “weirdness” of Chinese culture, whereas I am more interested in sincerely connecting to it and trying to understand the roots of its differences. Because ultimately, “why” we are using these online tools are very similar across cultures, the major differences are in “how” we are using them. I’m interested in the “how” part of things more.
Therefore, the active documentary style collecting of content from WeChat has made me feel closer to China because I have been able to see where the content is coming from first hand. I get to attach real people to the trends. I get to visually connect the dots and begin to see how things are emerging. Comments people make in their own postings also put things in their words, not mine. And so, the “why” part of things is something my Chinese friends are so vital for me to understanding all of this better. And because of this, I rely on their confirmation and explanation to my questions, and therefore my relationship to the language and to Chinese people gets stronger too. I can’t begin to understand this content without also having in depth conversations with Chinese friends and artists to reveal what, where and why things are as they are. I look at this project as a bridge between cultures, because on one end I am able to help document Chinese digital culture as its emerging in real time for China’s longer term online history, and on the other end, Chinese people can help me (and my Western background) begin to connect better to China, in hopes of sharing that experience with others.
媒体人类学家胡子哥Gabriele de Seta（香港）采访网友网馆长、研究者、艺术家媚潇 Michelle Proksell (北京)关于她的新NewHive系列、微信、她的一万多图片中国互联网档案、自拍和监视。2015年6月。