By Wayne Adams on FIREWALL Internet Café NYC by Joyce Yu-Jean Lee
Critical art is an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation.
Lately I’ve been considering a few questions related to the theme of CIVA’s 2017 biennial conference theme, Making, and particularly the idea of criticality in art:
How do Christians (or anyone for that matter) make critical art?
What is effective critique, and who is making it?
Toward what should artists be turning a critical eye?
I don’t have concrete answers for these questions, but viewing a few recent exhibitions may provide some insight. A recent project by Joyce Yu-Jean Lee is a good place to start.
Google search: Beyoncé
Result: images of Beyoncé
Baidu search result: nearly identical images of Beyoncé
In mid-February of this year, I took the subway a couple of stops down from where I work in Manhattan, to the Lower East Side—one of the newest and most vibrant art neighborhoods in NYC—to spend some time at an internet cafe. This is not my regular practice, as my day job is in IT. I don’t need more internet access. What is a regular practice is viewing art in New York City because I’m also a practicing artist. The Lower East Side is a favorite destination, and this particular café is the creation of artist—and fellow CIVA board member—Joyce Yu-Jean Lee. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but what I encountered left me with many questions and sparked numerous conversations. It was, at first glance, exactly as advertised: an internet café.
It was also much more.
Google search: USA
Result: images of American flags, eagles, eagles with flags on them (à la Stephen Colbert), maps of the United States
Baidu search result: nearly identical images of American flags, eagles, eagles with flags on them (à la Stephen Colbert), maps of the United States
Walking into FIREWALL Internet Café, located in Chinatown Soup’s narrow space on Orchard Street, one’s assumptions are immediately called into question. The first impression is that of any typical internet café found around Chinatown. Yet, the description below the title at the entrance, while straightforward, clues visitors into the notion that this is more than just a place to surf the web:
“An interactive art installation researching images on Google in the U.S. versus Baidu in China”
Immediately on entering the space, guests are presented with two projections on opposite walls displaying images of familiar web browser windows—with Google on the right wall and, very similar but with Chinese characters, Baidu, on the left. These projectors are connected to a computer with two monitors attached. Behind this workstation, lining the walls along both sides, are rows of laptops and monitors, clearly set up and variously occupied by guests surfing the internet. On the wall and near each workstation is a list of instructions, along with a few sparse flyers dedicated to the story of imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, acknowledging “the privilege it is to dialogue openly about issues of internet freedom.”
Toward the back of the space are a barista and signs telling me that tea is available. I walk to the back and am asked if I’d like to search. When I respond affirmatively, the barista runs me through a basic set of instructions, including how to set up my account/user name, open a web browser (Google Chrome image search) and a basic summary of what happens: “Enter a search in the Google Images window on the left and watch the same search happen in Baidu, China’s version of Google, run from servers in China, on the right. You’ll see what people in China would see. Have fun!” I sit down and start typing search entries: Beyoncé, Kanye West, USA, freedom, feminism, Occupy Wallstreet, Christian, Jesus, Tiananmen Square…
Google search: feminism
Result: images of ‘feminist posters,’ famous women, Rosie the Riveter (We Can Do It!)
Baidu search result: images of famous women, topless women protesting and being arrested, Rosie the Riveter (We Can Do It!)
The longer I’m there and the more I search, the more interesting, subversive, and critical the experience becomes. I start noticing the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between the two searches, like how the word ‘freedom’ never appears in the Baidu image results of a search for ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ but it’s definitely present in the Google search, which lists an almost identical set of images. I start to wonder about what I’m actually experiencing and the implications of my investigations—that people can’t do this in China.
Is this Institutional Critique? It definitely feels like it, but Institutional Critique, as an art genre, is typically about questioning museums and art galleries and their power dynamics. FIREWALL is activating in me questions about China, the internet, Google, and my own understanding of all these things.
Beyond that, the tagline at the entrance clearly states that this is an interactive art installation. My natural tendency is to abstract my experience slightly from the ‘real world’—it’s art, not reality—but here, I don’t see the distinction. Where does the art end and the reality of the world begin? This is art participating in my real-world existence and exposing the ways censorship is used to direct the thinking of over a billion people in very specific ways. So far, none of the ways I’m noticing are positive, and many seem extremely detrimental. It also exposes my own assumptions about internet use, internet freedom, globalization, and much more.
Google search: Tiananmen Square
Result: images of Tiananmen Square, protesting Chinese students, the tank image, protestors
Baidu search result: happy Asian (Chinese?) young people, well-dressed, photo-shopped to perfection, no specific background recognizable
Questions continue filling my mind. What am I supposed to think? What does this search activity mean? What is the artist trying to say? How am I supposed to respond to this? What should I search next? How did THAT come up on the screen?! I begin to realize that this is a really subtle and profound experience and that I’m left to figure it out on my own, in real time—and how much this feels like being a Christian, living by faith, and discerning what I’m supposed to do about this [insert life-appropriate situation]?
Trust God. Have faith. Search again. Be aware. Act accordingly.
Joyce Yu-Jean Lee has switched on a light through her work, FIREWALL Internet Café. It’s up to me to figure out what to do with what I see.
Wayne Adams is a Brooklyn-based artist, husband, father of two amazing girls, and current President of CIVA’s Board of Directors.