Michelle Proksell: What is your relationship to the virtual world? How do you view your actions online versus what you do in real life, everyday or as an artist? Do you see a distinguishable difference, or are things more fluid in your mind, everything an extension or reflection of itself?
Weiyi Li: My standard personal statement is “Li Weiyi is an artist http://weiyi.li, designer http://weiyiandfriends.com, curator http://bigbadgallery.com, publisher http://re-publication.comand shop-owner http://currently-available.com. She lives and works, at the same time, in the five webpages linked above”. I have too much work, and life happens in a virtual world. Both online and offline, I’m the same person. But the current degree of technology of the contemporary virtual world, online world interaction leaves people more time for feedback: You can have more time to think how to reply to someone, using what kind appearance to face this virtual world.
MP: What do you think directly influenced your current fascination with the virtual world in relationship to the physical world? Do you think your upbringing in China may have influenced this in any way? Or do you feel like your influence is much more universal to most people’s upbringings in the world?
WYL: This reminds me of a letter I wrote to my American friend Laurel. I had just got back to China, and I told her I wanted to set up the first Chinese online art gallery in the world: “I know that it sounds very stupid, and that Internet art isn’t supposed to be limited by location, but it’s also very strange, because in China you don’t really see people do or discuss this stuff.” In fact, of course the Internet is related to location. Location brings about linguistic constraints that create a fundamental barrier for information dissemination. Information is a form of resource, and in the course of its circulation it can undergo loss or increase, and given the existence of all kinds of “walls” on the Internet, this essentially increases the asymmetry of information. The Chinese GFW (Great Firewall) is probably the most famous of theaw walls. So this is the role of location on the Internet, and this is also what I’m interested in. What once was the most famous wall in the world, the Berlin Wall, has already been demolished, and a lot of people happily brought back home a piece of its debris as a souvenir. What if the GFW is demolished? Would this be even possible? What would be there to take away as a souvenir? Maybe just a screenshot to remember?
MP: What is the first piece of technology you got your hands on?
WYL: The first one that I could hold in my hands? Definitely a Tamagotchi electronic pet egg.
MP: What is the first piece of technology you were truly addicted to or obsessed with? How did you obsess about it?
WYL: When I was a kid I lived in Japan with my mom for a while, and at the time my mom bought me a Hello Kitty jewelry box; you used an electronic magic wand to control it, if you pressed the button on the magic wand the box would open automatically and play some music. For a ten year old kid, technology is just magic. This happened in the late nineties, the most thriving period for Japanese shōjo manga series about transformation and magic. The entire Japanese children toy market was flooded with all kinds of electronic magic wands making lights and sounds. When I grew up, I saw a Japanese artist (I forgot her name) using all kinds of magic wands she collected to make a sound art installation; at the time I thought that it was really cool, and that I should also use my Hello Kitty wand to make something.
MP: What are your first memories of accessing the Internet in China?
WYL: I started going online when I was in primary school. At that time, my parents were both working in the university, so I got my hands on computers and on the Internet quite early in the context of China. My first online ID was Pocahontas (I’ve been raised on Disney cartoons, and also from when I was in primary school Chinese children entertainment companies began to introduce original Disney cartoons), and I used this name to chat on a BBS, but no one there would believe I was an elementary school student. When I got to middle school, OICQ was slowly starting to become popular, and the business of Internet cafes started booming.
MP: What are your first memories of accessing the Internet outside of China, without the Great Firewall?
WYL: The memory that comes to my mind right now is about when I was in New Haven and I tried to open Youku to watch a video, I forgot which one, and the Youku website informed me that “Because you are outside China’s territory, due to matters of copyright you cannot watch this video”, so the only way I could think of was to find a proxy server to “cross the wall” back into China. When you are in China you have to cross the wall to go out, and when you are out you have to cross back in. When will these walls disappear? Or will they never disappear? As of today, I can only say that fortunately we still have the opportunity to cross the wall.
MP: When were you first introduced to the concept of “Internet Art” and what was your first impression of it as a genre and methodology for producing art?
WYL: Just like many other people, the first Internet artist I came across was Rafaël Rozendaal. He’s also what got me into net art in general. Like any other vulgar person at the time I only wanted to know if there was anyone preserving his websites.
MP: What is your background in art? When did you start working with online network based artwork yourself?
WYL: I have done eight years of graphic design, and when I was doing my masters I attended some courses which were all closely related to the Internet, the earliest must have been in 2012; I attended a course by Daniel van der Velden, and the assignment was “create a kind of online currency”. Actually the stuff I made for this course had absolutely no relation with the topic, but it became the prototype for the TAOTFSO residency program I established a few years later.
MP: Who are your favourite artists producing works in China right now? Why?
WYL: Wen Ling. I think that walking the narrative path towards callousness and wisdom is really difficult, and he is the one that can reach them. The Doublefly art center is just like Chinese society at the moment.
MP: So far, you are the first Chinese artist I have found (correct me if I’m wrong) curating online art in China, who is also demonstrating and investigating a collective approach to the network based medium the Internet can provide artists, by starting your online gallery, Bigbadgallery.com. As a foreign artist, researcher and curator myself in China, I have been slightly surprised to see how artists here aren’t engaged more with the potential of the Internet as a place for collectively producing work and creating dialogue with each other. For the most part, what I’ve seen produced online by Chinese artists here, is singularly, without a collective interest or mentality. Thus far, there is no history of “online surf clubs”or the like, in Chinese Contemporary Art. I have my own theories about why this is, but I would love to hear your own reflection, from artist/curator to artist/curator, on why there aren’t more collective dialogues, projects or galleries online amongst young Chinese artists, especially when the “virtual world” does play a large part in Chinese people’s every day lives here.
WYL: Actually Chinese people have a very strong sense of herd-like nationalism. The many crazy things that happen in the online world inside the GFW are the proof of this, for example the extremely powerful renrou sousuo(online vigilantism, doxxing) spontaneously launched by Internet users. But regarding the question about why there hasn’t been a lot of collaboration between young Chinese artist, I can only guess that it is because Chinese artists have inherited another nationality’s tradition. The essence of this sort of tradition is going against collectivism. If you read some materials about Chinese artists in ancient times, intractable character and many other kinds of antisocial personality were often a way of describing them positively and praising them. There is also another reason and it’s because the number of people doing net art in China is still very small: if there was a large population base, then there would be more exchanges. But I think that in the last two years, this term is already very popular in China, when I had just came back and I was preparing to launch the Big Bad Gallery, basically I couldn’t find anyone discussing the term “hulianwang yishu” (Internet art, net art), all of my friends all thought I wanted to sell paintings online.
MP: With your online gallery, Bigbadgallery.com, you started an “online residency”to allow other artists to explore the extent of our virtual lives and how it can mimic our real lives. What inspired you to give this project the title “TOTAL ARTWORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER”(TAOTFSO)? What is the Future Social Order to you?
WYL: This “online residence” is still ongoing, but I’m not sure if everyone involved is uploading the blogs. I don’t check it regularly, this is not an enforced assignment, if it was enforced then it wouldn’t have a point anymore. If a person doesn’t upload anything for one year, it’s also an honest state of things. In fact, this project doesn’t emphasize if the participants are artists or not. “Total Artwork of the Future Social Order” comes from a sentence by Beuys. I can’t define the future of social order, but I can explain why I used it as a name for this project. Over these years of running the Big Bad Gallery, the research topic I am becoming increasingly interested in are the interpersonal social relationships generated by rapid information dissemination on the Internet, rather than whatever kind of visual phenomena emerging from the Internet.
MP: In 2013, you said you started playing the Nintendo video game, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which you mentioned was famous for gamers being able to collect virtual objects in the game. You said you were especially fascinated by the way gamers would talk about the objects they collected and the kind of collections they were creating. Can you tell me more about how the concept of the “virtual collection” influences the second show of your virtual gallery called Miao Miao Contemporary Set in the World of Animal Crossing: New Leaf? What are your thoughts on the reasons why and the ways users in the game are so fascinated by collecting non-physical objects in the virtual world? How do you see this as a reflection of our physical, non-virtual lives as well?
WYL: There are two reasons why I started project “Miao Miao Contemporary Set in the World of Animal Crossing: New Leaf” [CHECK ENGLISH NAME: In chinese is “Miao Miao Contemporary Art Project”): first of all it’s because I am really fascinated by Nintendo’s logic of object design; in this game, if you want to live in a tattered and leaky hut, you can’t pierce a hole in your own hut, but you can go buy a bucket, and put it inside your house, and small drops of water would appear dropping from the ceiling and falling in the bucket. No matter if it rains or if the sun shines, your hut will always be leaky. The logic and structure of objects in this world are the opposite of real life, it’s extremely interesting. The second reason, as you said, is that In this game there is a group of crazy collectors, for example there are some players that search everywhere for all the chairs that make the sound of farting when you sit on them. “Why do people collect” is a big question. No matter if it is collecting actual or virtual things, collecting can always bring order. The best example are the treasure cabinets that became popular in Europe in the sixteenth century: people would present their collected treasures arranged on little strips of cloth in a small closet – this was probably the prototype of the museum. But “virtual collector” and “virtual property” still have a strange poetic quality: it seems like you possess them, but in fact you don’t. You don’t get anything, but you exchanged money for bitcoins.
MP: How would you feel about the internet being directly attached to your brain some day?
WYL: This would mean that all people in the world would be able to connect to the Internet. At that point everyone would already have become a Buddha.
MP: How do you feel about the Chinese aesthetic often used and seen online inside the GFW?
WYL: This is a very interesting question, because the development of the Internet seems to have promoted a new kind of aesthetic. It’s really difficult to define what this aesthetic trend ultimately is about, and when we discuss it we often connect it to gaudy art (yansu yishu), animated GIFs, and pixel art. But inside the GFW, Taobao images and WeChat emoticons have become synonymous with this aesthetic. But again, actually this aesthetic is not new at all. If the pictures shot by Taobao shopkeepers were not put online, they would appear on the streets and alleys throughout China. Look at the pictures used on the signs of small restaurants. For example, take the topic I discussed today at lunch with my mom (she is an economist): Internet finance. This word is now extremely popular in China, and my mom’s opinion (if I understood it correctly), is that it’s actually not a new form of finance. Even if the Internet is a new tool, it hasn’t changed any of the rules and principles of operation of the financial sector. So, a lot of the discussions around the theme of Internet finance are useless. I think that this is quite similar to Internet aesthetics.
MP: What are the major differences between your generation in China and your parent’s generation in how technology and the Internet are used?
WYL: I think that the difference is actually very small. The Internet arrived in China in the nineties, and until today it has had merely twenty years of history. Me and my parents came in contact with the Internet at the same time, don’t you think this is great? It’s very uncommon for my generation and my parents’ generation to begin knowing this world and approaching this knowledge at the same time. The moment you come in contact with something new, everybody is like a kid. And in terms of the use of technology and the Internet, the differences between my generation and my parents’ generation are very similar to the differences in other domains. When it comes to exploring all the possibilities of technology, young people are always a little bit stronger. And this is a good thing, if it weren’t so the world would be over.
MP: If you could create your own virtual world to live in permanently, what would it be like? Who would be there with you? How would you see yourself spending your time in this kind of cyberspace permanently?
WYL: This depends on how we define “virtual world”. If building a virtual world only means that we can avoid using bricks to build a house, or avoid using a stove and still be able to cook, then there is a “virtual world” that we build in the brain of each of us. As Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Perhaps in the Internet age quoting Shakespeare is not suitable, then I could cite Harry Potter. At the end of the story, Harry Potter asks: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”, to which Dumbledore replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”. For me, this is a very Buddhist answer. Both “virtual” and “real” at the same time. The world of the Internet and the space opened by the thought and imagination in our brains, are both like this. If I had to give a more positive answer to this question: the “virtual world” I would build would be no different from the real world. I would live In it, and enter additional “virtual worlds” to pass the time.
This interview is from 2016.
李维伊: 我小时候和妈妈在日本生活过一会儿，那时候我妈给我买了一个Hello Kitty的珠宝盒，用一根电子仙女棒控制，按仙女棒上的按钮，珠宝盒就会一边放音乐一边自动打开。对于一个十岁的小孩来说，科技就是魔法。那是九十年代后期，日本的变身系／魔法少女漫画最兴盛的时候。整个日本儿童玩具市场都充斥各种声电光的魔法棒。长大以后我见过一个日本女性艺术家（我忘记名字了）用收集来的各种魔法棒做声音艺术装置，当时觉得她太酷了，我也应该用我的Hello Kitty仙女棒做点什么。
李维伊: 我知道的第一个网络艺术家，和很多人一样，是Rafaël Rozendaal。他也是我认识网络艺术的起点。同任何俗气的人一样，我当时只想知道到底有没有人收藏他的网站。
李维伊: 我当做了八年的平面设计师，在我念研究生的时候，我参加的几门课程都与网络密切相关，最开始应该是在2012年，我在上Daniel van der Velden的课，作业是要求“创造一种在线的货币”。我在这门课上做的东西，其实和主题并没有什么联系，倒是成为了几年后TAOTFSO驻留计划的雏形。
李维伊: 這取決於我們是如何定義“虛擬世界”，假若建造一個虛擬世界僅僅只意味著我們可以不用磚塊去建造一座房子，不使用爐子就能夠得到熟食，那麼我們每個人的腦中早就已經存在着一個我們建造出來的“虛擬世界”。如同哈姆雷特講“假使把我關在胡桃之中，我也是無限世界的君主。”或許在網絡時代並不適合引用莎士比亞，那麼引用《哈利波特》吧。在故事的最後，哈利波特問到，“這是真的嗎？還是只發生於我的頭腦之中？”鄧佈利多回到到：“這當然是發生在你的頭腦之中的事，哈利，但是為甚麼這就不可能是真的呢？”對我來說，這是個十分佛教的回答。既“虛擬” ，又“真實”。網絡世界和我們頭腦中被思考和想像力所打開的那個空間，都是這樣。正面地回答這個問題的話，我所建造的“虛擬世界”，和真實的世界並無二致。我生活在其中，靠進入另外的“虛擬世界”打發時間。