Michelle Proksell: When and how did you first hear about the Internet in China?
Ying Miao 苗颖: My parents bought me a computer when I was in middle school, which I think was the norm for many people from my generation. This was one of the big things to buy after microwaves and air conditioning units for Chinese families in Shanghai. I had a computer, but no Internet access until high school. At that time, the Internet was very expensive. I only used the computer to play games, like Tomb Raider. I don’t remember exactly how I heard about the Internet, but it gradually became a popular topic at school, and the Internet represented ‘cool’.
MP: What did you think the Internet was or what it could be for people in the future when you first heard about it?
YM: I thought it was powerful, something new and I was very curious about what it could be. It was mysterious; something that I didn’t know exactly what it did, but it seemed very interesting. I knew it wasn’t a microwave, but a method that would change the way we would do things.
MP: How did you first access the Internet and what were you most interested in finding on online at that time?
YM: I figured out how to get online behind my parent’s backs. We had dial-up Internet access at that time and there were news websites and the idea of ‘links’ would link one news topic to something else and it was infinite. That was my first impression of accessing information differently. The most popular thing Chinese people were using on the Internet was OICQ, aka Chinese ICQ, which later became QQ. Chatting with a stranger was not so overwhelming for me, but the fact that I could just leave the conversation at anytime was the other thing besides links that blew my mind. I could experience a type of surreal reality where it was so virtually real. But soon, I was pulled back to the real world after my mom received a 500 RMB ($80 USD) phone bill, which was a lot of money for a Chinese family 15 years ago– It was around half the price of a microwave.
MP: How exactly did microwaves change the average Chinese household?
YM: Start with a heavy ceramic-type cereal bowl and a dinner plate. Put your rice in the bottom of the bowl, and the rest of your food on top. If your rice is all clumped together in one mass, you’ll probably want to use a fork to gently break it into small pieces before putting the rest of the food on top. Once all the food is in the bowl, put the dinner plate upside-down on top of the bowl. Press the plate into the bowl and turn the whole thing over so the bowl is resting on the plate. Microwave on high for 1:30-2:30, depending on how much food you have. Let sit for several minutes to let cool down and to let the steam heat and rehydrate the rice. Pry the bowl up with your fork and set aside.
MP: What did your early art endeavors first include (pre-internet art)? And, when and how did the Internet first become a part of your art practice?
YM: I did what every art student had to do in China to get into a good art school—Russian realism and a lot of realism drawing and painting. Then my art got real enough to get into one of the best art schools in china, and I chose not to paint anymore. I did videos and was very interested in computer programming at the time. In 2007, I read an article on Boing Boing about how there was censorship in China and no one would have the time to figure out the whole list because no one would have that much time. I decided to check the whole dictionary word by word to see the list, and that was the first time the Internet had been involved in my work.
MP: How long did it take you to look up the whole list of censored words? And did you find you had to backtrack often since words were also being added to the list frequently?
YM: Three months. No I didn’t backtrack, the “list” is changing all the time and impossible to get it “right”. I had a program to run the words, but it still took 8 hours to get the results as a list. The list itself is a mystery, and using three months to look up the censored words is absurd. What was most interesting to me was how it pushed my limit to become a kind of machine by doing that for three months, 10 hours a day.
MP: Do you remember the shift from the pre-GFW Internet age to the present GFW Chinese Internet now? How did this censorship effect or influence your interaction on the Internet most?
YM: I do remember when Google, YouTube and Twitter were available in China, but that was not pre-GFW either. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen pre-GFW Chinese Internet. The GFW has been evolving since 1997 when Wire magazine first named it the Great Firewall. Before, when a word was censored on Google they would block your IP address for 20 mins at first, then later on they would just show you a statement of why there were some results not shown instead of blocking your service entirely.
MP: What was your feeling about the GFW years ago? Was it something you felt deeply restricted by or something that you had just grown up with – and you didn’t really realize what you were not gaining access to?
YM: Although there were ways to access the Web outside of the GFW, I still felt restricted. Even nowadays, people will always choose the easy way by finding substitutes to not deal with even trying to get outside of it, but that’s not their fault. The next generation will properly not even know there is a Google out there if they don’t try to get outside of the GFW.
MP: When you first encountered the Web outside the GFW, did it change the way you viewed the Internet up to that point? Did it influence your perspective of the limitations of the GFW?
YM: It wasn’t mind blowing because I was using TOR all along before I went abroad, but it is still quite impressive because it’s faster and has no boundaries, almost like walking on marshmallows or something. It also makes a huge difference for interacting with people around the world.
MP: Do you find it offensive to hear the Chinese Internet being called a term like, “Chinternet”? What was your first reaction hearing this word?
YM: No, I haven’t heard it before, but I don’t think it’s offensive at all. I don’t think words like Chinglish are insulting either. It’s a phenomena that’s real enough to come up with a name for. I think it’s an interesting topic.
MP: When you first hear 网友 wǎngyǒu nowadays, what does it make you think of?
YM: Depends on the context. It could remind you of free speech, laid-back attitude, or irresponsibility.
MP: Why exactly does 网友 wǎngyǒu also make you think of irresponsibility?
YM: Because my first impression of the word is booty call.
MP: In the early days of 网友 wǎngyǒu’s, what did these online friendships really mean to your generation? Who was your first long term online friend 网友? Did you eventually ever meet in person?
YM: It really means booty call to my generation. What is interesting is that those booty calls later became serious relationships and I have a couple of friends who met online and now are happily married. I think this is a common way for people to find love in my generation. I have some long term online friends in Second Life who are builders but we have never met in real life.
MP: Does the Chinese Web aesthetic influence your own personal aesthetic?
YM: Totally, the way that the Chinese Internet is so low-tech and kitchy are very touching to me.
MP: Why did you choose to come back to China to produce art?
YM: It’s hard to find another place that is so raw but also so limited.
MP: Since Internet Art doesn’t have a deeper place quite yet in the history of Chinese contemporary art, do you think there is a potential for younger more experimental artists to eventually consider using the Chinternet as a place for art production?
YM: I think it needs to be developed more in China. Things that are contemporary in the West will be copied in China at a later time, so I think there is a bright future for Chinese Internet art. Not to say that the internet in China is almost simultaneously involved with the rest of the world’s, but the beauty is in it’s limitation and also the great potential of the next generation of artists who grew up with the Internet and Angry Birds.
MP: Are there universities or programs within Mainland China that are introducing this medium to their students? Do you know of any other artists based in Mainland China who are also exploring the Chinternet and applying it to their art practice?
YM: I think my college (China Academy of Art) now has programs that are open to Internet Art. I heard there are also Hong Kong artists who are doing this kind of work, which would be very interesting to see more of. I also think Mainland China based foreign artists, Thea Baumann and Kim Laughton are doing a great job.
MP: How important are “objects” and Art Institutions to Chinese artists today?
YM: Very important.
MP: How does the “object” now play a part in your own art practice, compared to your early years before working with the Web?
YM: I am not against objects. I think that in a way it’s nice to link back to the physical world. The problem is that it has to be a new object.
MP: What constitutes a “new object” in your opinion?
YM: A new form of expression, new physical materiel, like fabric, nails, cell phone cases, etc.
MP: Would you consider yourself one of the pioneers of Internet Art in China? What significance does that make in the ways you approach producing and sharing your work in China and abroad?
YM: I do consider myself a pioneer of Internet Art in China. I have been educated in both China and the US, which conflicts with finding my own voice. It also offers different perspectives on my responsibility to explore the Internet as a medium here.
MP: When you’re surfing the web, do you surf most often with or without your VPN on?
YM: I use a VPN all the time unless I want to watch American TV shows for free.
*This interview was conducted via email between Sept and Oct 2014.
苗颖: 我记得在国内还能浏览谷歌、YouTube和Twitter的日子，但是那也并不是前GFW时代。其实我觉得我并没有经历过前GFW时代的中国互联网。中国互联网自从1997年被Wire杂志命名为The Great Firewall开始就一直在进化。在那之前，如果在谷歌上有个被审查的字，他们首先会屏蔽你的IP地址二十分钟，后来就会有一个解释为什么会看不见部分的搜索结果的声明，而不会直接把你的服务完全屏蔽。
苗颖: 在我这一代真的是约炮的意思。有意思的是这些关系很多时候会进化成情侣关系，我有两个朋友，他们是在网上认识的，而现在还结婚了。我觉得这是我这一代寻找爱情的一种方式。我在《Second Life》里有过一些长期的网友，他们是装修工人，但是我们从来没有见过面。
苗颖 : 当然，低科技感和媚俗对我有很大的感触。
苗颖 : 很难找到别的地方会这么原始，同时也有这么大的局限性。
苗颖: 我的母校（中国美术学院）现在好像有些课程也会包容网络艺术的实践。我听说也有一些香港艺术家在做这种创作，我自己也想多看到。也有外国的网络艺术家正在中国大陆实践，Thea Baumann 和 Kim Laughton就做得很好。
苗颖 : 非常重要吧。
媚潇： “实体”现在比你运用网络之前的艺术实践里扮演的角色有何区别 ？
苗颖 : 我并不反对“实体”。我觉得，在某一方面其实能够与物质世界有关联也是好事。问题在于它必须是一个新的物体。
苗颖 : 一种新的表现方式、新的物质，比如布料、指甲、手提电话等。
苗颖 : 我觉得我是中国网络艺术的先锋。我在中国和美国接受过教育，这与我寻找自己的声音有些矛盾。另外它也令我更多方面地考虑到在我运用互联网的时候的相关责任。
苗颖 : 我长期开着VPN，除非我想免费看美国的电视节目
Chinese translations by Ophelia S. Chan