Meet the 'mother of internet art in China'

Gif-happy internet art project Netizenet pushes boundaries

Michelle Proksell’s first encounter with internet art was while working as a curatorial assistant at and/or gallery in Dallas, Texas, in 2007.

‘I was in a room with [pioneering internet artists] Paul Slocum, Cory Arcangel, Olia Lialina and Dragan [Espenschied], and we were all sitting around talking about how we first encountered the internet,’ says Proksell. ‘Olia’s, hers was my favourite. She was in Russia at the time, and she said she was in a bar or café and she’d overheard someone talking about it, and just thinking: What is this thing? She knew from that moment forward that this was something really culturally powerful, and that it was going to change things.’

Proksell is the curator of Netizenet – an online portal that ponders the perplexing absurdities of Chinese internet culture through the often equally inscrutable medium of what is called internet art. A cursory internet search (oh the irony) reveals that in October last year, the first public auction to prominently include internet art was organised in New York. But, at the risk of betraying our ignorance, what is internet art? Is it simply art that exists on the internet?


‘It’s art which looks at how we behave socially on the internet, how we interact on it, and how that influences our real-world interactions and vice versa,’ Proksell explains. ‘We get it!’ we exclaim. Until Proksell adds offhandedly: ‘Whether it exists on the internet or not.’ Oh – perhaps not.

To give us an example of something that could be considered internet art, but does not exist on the internet, Proksell describes a piece created by one of the other artists she worked with at and/or gallery, Kristin Lucas.

‘She did this piece where she had her name legally changed in the Californian registry system from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas,’ says Proksell. ‘Her argument was that it was like hitting the refresh button on a web page.’

‘The whole exhibition is based around these transcripts with the judge, because the judge thinks she’s mocking the system, and she’s trying to explain to him why she’s feeling this way.’ Lucas’ argument, if we read between the lines, was that the internet had become inseparable from our lives, constructing a reality that is removed from how we had imagined reality to be at any earlier point in history. By mimicking the behaviour of the internet, she was hoping to reconcile these realities.

Launched last month on multimedia platform NewHive, Netizenet is an online space for internet art that interrogates, with a mischievous sense of abandon, the in-between realities of Chinese internet culture as it has developed within the limitations and restrictions of the internet in China.

The name Netizenet is at once a wry acknowledgement of the irony of the term ‘netizen’ (a portmanteau of ‘internet’ and ‘citizen’ that conceives of the internet as an arcadia in which access to information and the right to expression are universally ensured) in the context of the internet in China, and a declaration of intent: to, through the works it purveys, broaden the limitations of the internet in China from within those limitations. The aspiration of Netizenet, to borrow a term from French cultural theorist Guy Debord, is to perform a détournement – an inversion of the inversion. To take the sullied meaning of ‘netizen’ in China and turn it against itself in such a way that might restore it to the spirit of its original meaning.

The first artist to contribute to Netizenet’s subversive antics is Ying Miao, who graduated from the New Media Arts department at the China Academy of Fine Arts around the same time as Proksell was at and/or gallery in Texas.

‘I like to call her the mother of internet art in China,’ says Proksell. In 2007, Ying embarked on a project called The Blind Spot in which she painstakingly erased every word that was censored from searches on from a dictionary.

‘She basically took a Chinese dictionary and the list of banned words and went through and started crossing them all out,’ Proksell enthuses. ‘It took her three months, ten hours a day to do this, and she did this in 2007, which is a really early [example] of taking the limitations of the Chinese internet and applying it to [art].’


Ying’s debut exhibition on Netizenet, So in love, will never feel tiered again, is a kaleidoscope of kitsch; a bombardment of schizophrenic GIFs, scrolling textboxes and pop-up advertising imploring the netizen to ‘buy, buy, buy’, that is instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent any amount of time perusing popular Chinese websites. These are interspersed with somewhat more sober images of blocked pages, signifying frustrated desires for things that money can’t buy. It is an alarming vision of an authoritarian society in which the fetishisation of commodity has usurped every other value except the power of the state – a reality that, given the ubiquity of the internet in our daily lives, seems difficult to escape. It is exactly what makes Netizenet’s act of détournement so necessary.

‘In some ways, [the internet] is like what TV was in its beginning – like the Roman Coliseum, which was built to distract the common man from politics,’ says Proksell. ‘It can be a distraction depending on your interests and the directions in which you allow yourself to surf the web, but it’s also a place where you can find information, you can connect to people, and you can find common ground in those connections.’

So in love, will never feel tiered again is at Netizenet.

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