I learned about OnCurating in 2015 from a study tour organized by the late Leigh Markopoulos.1 The journey was immersed with famous art destinations and events such as the House of Electronic Arts Basel (HeK), Schaulager, Furka Pass, and Art Basel, far more influential than my year of studying from readings and slides in the curatorial program.
Since the early 20th century, Switzerland, this land called the “heart of Europe,” has nurtured phenomena and figures such as Dadaism, Helvetica, Le Corbusier, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim, Sonja Sekula, Heidi Bucher, Harald Szeemann, Bice Curiger, Pipilotti Rist, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Art Basel; therefore, it is a field for the investigation that contemporary art studies cannot bypass. Living on this cultural high ground seems to offer a quicker view of global trends.
At the Zurich University of the Arts, I met Dorothee Richter, the head of the postgraduate program in curating, and became a reader of the journal OnCurating, which she edited. Through its academic journal and practice space, OnCurating supports discourses and innovations on curating, art criticism, and cultural studies and organizes a series of avant-garde projects in pursuit of this mission. Their topics include cultural restitution and decolonization, feminism and queer culture, globalization and identity, and cases of curatorial practices in gender, technology, new media, environmentalism, and other issues.
The UNArt Art Center endeavors to connect art and technology. Based on the three-year international interdisciplinary journal UNArt 2020, it invited OnCurating to co-edit three joint journal issues, "UN-Curating," which can also be seen as the second three-year reflection for UNArt. This first issue focuses on the two journals’ overlapped interests and selected six articles from OnCurating's 45th issue, "Curating the Digital," published in 2020. From the perspectives of history, collections, digital communities, algorithms and memes, transforming curatorial roles, and the philosophy of "things and non-things," the articles unfold international scholars’ current research on digital art curation to Chinese readers. When reading this, readers may be curious and ask, as I did: then how did digital art curation develop in China’s context?
Before discussing digital art curation, let's take a look at the term "Digital Art." In different generations, regions, and among various scholars, it has at least three equivalents in Chinese: "shu-zi-yi-shu" (数字艺术), "shu-ma-yi-shu" (数码艺术), and "shu-wei-yi-shu" (数位艺术). The varying translations imply the dominance of the English language in the art ecology. Although the confusion in nomenclature is not unique to Chinese —— contemporary curatorial mechanisms started forming in the late 20th century. At that time, the global art circle was still sorting out theories. However, even today, very few materials are available in Chinese that elaborate on the history of digital art curation (even media art history) in China. To fill the gap in academic literature, we added two panels to this publication while revisiting the original issue.
In "Accessibility to Media and Technology: 30 Years of Digital Art Curation in China," three media art curators from different generations, Chen Xiaowen, Li Zhenhua, and Bi Xin, shared their unique experiences of digital art curation in China. In contrast to the institutional quality of the former, in the second interview, "Dialogue System, Game Making, and Data Circulation, Are These a Form of ‘Curating’?," three artists, game designers, and event organizers (with overlapping identities), Artist Y, Yang Jing, and Zhou Jiangshan, discussed the characteristics, approaches, and limitations of digital art and its curation from the perspective of "self-organized" creative practices. The topics discussed in the interview are intertextual with the translated articles, such as the preservation and display of digital media art, the class and community division driven by social platforms, the relationship between data power and algorithms, the identity change of curatorial teams, and so on.
From the 1940s to the 1950s, television became widely popular in the United States, followed by Europe as a mass media, and gradually became part of people's daily lives. The wave of technology reached China in the 1980s. By 1987, the production of television sets had reached nearly 20 million units. Television’s popularization in households signified the entertainmentalization of media as tools.2 Later, personal computers became popular in the 1990s. Chinese media artists from that era comparably were exploring well ahead of their time, with works such as Zhang Peili's Children Playground (1992) and Hu Jieming's Comparative Safety (1997), which keenly observed and criticized the domination of the body by mass media and their constructed ideologies long before “the Society of the Spectacle” described by Guy Debord emerged in China.
At the same time, the concept of emerging media art was not yet fully formed. In the interview, Li Zhenhua mentioned that there was little introduction of foreign concepts in media art exhibitions in the 1990s, as even in the West, the system was "particularly fragmented" at that time. Looking back at the terminologies, the positioning of digital art in China’s institutes also often changed. For example, the predecessor of the Digital Media Arts program at the China Academy of Art was the "Multimedia and Web Design" program established around 2001,3 but this major was set under the design category, while its corresponding fine arts major was "Intermedia Art." Other institutes used program names such as "Visual Communication," "New Media Art," and "Experimental Art," etc. This rapidly changing flow of terminology is very similar to the frequent emergence of terms such as Happening, Performance Art, Neo-Dada, Events, and Fluxus in the 1950s to 1970s. Inspired by conceptual art and the technological explosion, the dimensions of the medium rendered to the audience accelerated in both quantity and intensity.
According to Chen Xiaowen, the exhibition Mantic Ecstasy, presented in 2001 at ShanghART Gallery in Shanghai, was the first real digital media art exhibition in China. Around the turn of the millennium, such epoch-making projects emerged all over the world, such as the 010101 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the BITSTREAM exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, both of which opened in 2001. From this perspective, the various exhibitions that emerged in China in the 1990s were like rehearsals and previews for welcoming the new millennium.
In the first interview, the names of curators, such as Zhang Ga, Qiu Zhijie, and Wu Meichun, were repeatedly mentioned. Wu Meichun curated several important exhibitions in the 1990s, including the first video art exhibition in China, Phenomenon/Images in 1996, the Demonstration of Chinese Video Art 97 in 1997, and Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion in 1998. As we delve deeper, the presence of women in media art curatorial history gradually becomes clearer. In addition to the interviewees in this issue, Bi Xin and Yang Jing, we also see many important female curators, such as Lu Yinghua, Fang Lihua, Abby Chen, Yu Miao, Weng Xiaoyu, Wei Ying, Iris Long, Li Jia, and Zhang Hanlu. The "neglect of feminist approaches in the official history of digital media" mentioned by Richter in "Curating the Digital – A Historical Perspective" is a universal issue. To reform this situation, we must continue calling for more voices and representation for women.
The role of curators has also changed over the past 30 years. The primary curation method has transitioned from the early days, where artists spontaneously raised funds and curated exhibitions, to curators taking on a role similar to film directors or producers in large-scale exhibitions. They began seeking sponsorships around the turn of the millennium and then transitioned to a model in the 2010s where in-house or specially invited curators assume the role of executive directors or managers in institutions of various sizes. While the characteristics of media art allow for remote collaboration among artists, as Bi Xin mentioned, institutional staff consequently have to undertake some of the artists' work.
In addition, the strategy and themes of curating have also undergone iterations in the past thirty years. Initially, the first group of curators exposed to and studied the medium delved into the attributes and language of new materials. As curators with cross-border work experience climbed to higher lookout points, they collected theories and case studies from a broad perspective, and selected and transformed them into their own understanding of the trend of art history. When mining fields around the world had been enclosed, curators began to excavate reusable resources in detail, trying to combine local qualities with inspiration from other disciplines and continue to contemplate why they curate and for whom they curate. This evolution also corresponds to the "globalization-geopolitics" shift in the world.
Nowadays, a new generation of curators, aided by the power of digital information, is seeking "new exhibition spaces" such as AI dialogue systems, immersive experiences, and games, where, as Yang Jing put it, "the exhibition could happen by altogether abandoning the museum or gallery settings format." When reality is extended in multiple dimensions, it generates some incompatibilities, such as the followers’ “manipulation” from social media mentioned by Artist Y, and that platform builder Zhou Jiangshan also restrains his strong personal opinions to avoid the possibility of reducing the potential of the "on-screen works." Nevertheless, virtual communities have become an unstoppable carrier for organizing interactions in current digital art experiences.
As I edit this journal issue, an upheaval has happened in our world: the release of AIGC products such as ChatGPT, DALL-E, and Midjourney. With just a line of text typed on a computer, people can generate gorgeous images and lengthy paragraphs, even user interfaces and code. Many fear that AI will replace numerous creative jobs, but this could also be an opportunity, much like the emergence of photography raised debates about authorship, yet provided a medium for exploration by a new generation of artists. The introduction of these new tools has allowed many necessary but insignificant tasks to be omitted, such as the description of the work and the overview of the space that the curator needs to embed in their justification. I wrote on DALL-E, "In the center of the exhibition hall, there is Jeff Koons' balloon dog, with Takashi Murakami's sunflower hanging in the background." The generated images could not accurately convey my idea (such as the balloon dog's head being shaped into a sunflower), but I hope this will soon be possible. Then, curators can be freed from tedious administrative and operational tasks and return to their core work based on thoughts, studies, and narratives.
Li Ruixuan, an independent curator and writer based in New York State and Shenzhen. She curated YouXi DimSum (LIKELIKE) and G-topia: Game Site (TANK Shanghai). She contributed to and co-curated multiple exhibitions and public events for art organizations such as Wattis Institute for the Contemporary Arts and Kadist Art Foundation. Her articles also appear in The Art Newspaper China, Artco China, and @LOFT Magazine, etc. She is currently the Executive Editor of the bilingual joint journal “UN-Curating” between UNArt 2020 and OnCurating, as well as the Overseas Business Development & Marketing Strategist at indienova, an indie game media and publisher.
Her narrative-driven works were presented in the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (Shenzhen) , the Guan Shanyue Art Museum, OCAT Institute, and JIAZAZHI Library. She was a visiting critic of the 2022 Cornell Biennial and received the 2020 Cornell CCA Grant as a visiting artist, and her experimental game The Enigmas at Red Point received the 2020 NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship.
1 The study abroad program “Swiss Style” organized by Leigh Markopoulos and sponsored by California College of the Arts.
2 See Xu Peng, “A Brief History of Chinese New Media Arts,” Peking University Press, 2020.
3 “New Major: What to Learn in Digital Media,” The Paper, (March 26, 2020), https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_6697490.