The Chinese Dream

 

Together with Tatiana Bazzichelli and Francesco Palmieri I am organizing several panels for the forthcoming Transmediale Festival in Berlin from 29 january till 2 february in Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt whose theme this year is “afterglow.” One of the panels deals with artistic-sexual rebellion and censorship in the Chinese netsphere. The speakers for this panel are Dr. Sufeng Song who is an outspoken academic and activist at Sun Yat Sen university, Guanzhou, and Didi-Kirsten Tatlow who is a correspondent for the New York Times in Beijing with a focus on art, democracy, feminism and technology. Besides these two speakers I have interviewed two well known dissident artists/intellectuals who are currently banned from international travel–the pioneering sex activist and investigative documentarian Ai Xiaoming (sometimes called “Ai of the South”)and the world famous artist and social media commentator Ai Wei Wei (“Ai of the North”).

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Both Ai Xiaoming and Ai Wei Wei have had their passports removed and are undergoing constant surveillance by the state while all information about their work is censored.While the contents of their statements can only be revealed at the festival, here are some snapshots of the famous cat of Ai Wei Wei, who made an appearance during the interview. The cat walked in fifteen minutes before the interview took place and jumped on the “celebrity chair.” When Ai Wei Wei himself walked in a bit later and was ready to sit down, she refused to move at all, so Ai Wei Wei then gently dragged the chair with the cat on it away and took another chair. Then we talked  about about the state of Chinese art, political provocation, the importance of the imagination and social debate within the neo-liberal authoritarian state. Ai Wei Wei’s statements were overall quite pessimistic and it was difficult for me to ask more personal questions or to lift the mood.

We sensed and acknowledged a total rift between China and the West in how he is treated as a public celebrity figure–while we can find an overload of information about him outside China, his compatriots who share his cultural background cannot not find any information at all. It is as if he is officially deleted from the networks and could well be replaced by his cat. But of course Ai Wei Wei continues to make art internationally and does have a local support system. If you want to read an account of how Ai Wei Wei feels affected and deals artistically with his post-prison condition read Didi-Kirsten Tatlow’s recent interview in the New York Times.  Here you can read how he engages in  small protest on a daily basis, how he feels that art and intellectual life in China is sick and needs healing, and where he would like to go if he could travel again.

 

The Cabinet of Miss Ma

 

A few days ago I managed to meet with Miss Ma. She is a tailor who makes costumes for the costume players who live around Communication University of Beijing. We were hoarded into a dark alley by one of her young mates and customers, named Woody. The smell upon entering the cabinet was fantastic and I could only imagine what Miss Ma had been up to.  There was a huge tree growing through her tiny shop where she also housed her morobike and various machineries for sewing together immensely complex outfits.  We started a conversation and I noticed that she likes to talk. She told me that she was happy with her line of work but just wanted more business–as the cosplay fad has dimmed a little. We were all glued to her lips during our short visit, at the end of which Miss Ma pulled out her magical scroll.  Hundreds of drawings and photos of people’s favorite animation characters which she had tied together with a string.  People had brought her all these drawings and sketches, knowing that Miss Ma would turn them into a great outfit. We talked about our common friend Atom who likes to do male characters. She showed Atom’s golden brown kimono waiting to picked up. The visit to Miss Ma was short and sweet. I will surely remember it as an unusual afternoon–when time slows down and we feel teary stepping out of the grind.  

Schizoid with Vocaloid

I continue   my search for people’s virtual characters and end up following cosplay photographer Francesca. We meet at the old communist factory-turned-art-district “798” where they have also preserved one of the old Chinese coal trains. Francesca uses this setting to take photos of her good friend Phoenix.  Phoenix here is doing the  girl character of the virtual singers from the voice synthizer software Vocaloid.  People can submit their DIY songs to the Vocaloid site which are then interpreted and sung by a family of virtual singers.  Phoenix was inspired by a song about a cute girl who is a train conductor from the Japanese war era. To her the girl with green ponytails and green uniform represents an element of nostalgia and fantasy in times of darkness.

Beware:::Belgian New World Coffee

 Nee, Nonkel Jos–Nobody around here knows how to brew your coffee.  This strange faux antique ‘Belgian New World Coffee’ machine keeps popping up in restaurants near Renmin  University. It is bogus and pricey and takes one hour to brew. It makes a small quantity of coffee but will give you a good laugh for sure (which is what Belgians are for after all).

Earthy and Dirty

I just arrived in Beijing at Renmin University where I will give a talk about animation fans and how they use alter egos and virtual siblings, or even entire imagined clans and families. I want to find out how and why they fantasize about alternative families and how they deal with pressures of the bio-family.

But what are the first impressions of Beijing coming from Hong Kong? Beijing is earthy and dirty. Hong Kong seems to have lost its sweat glands and body odors. Maybe it is just a cliche that in Beijing one smells wafts of urine everywhere (comparable to those in Paris and Brussels.) But certainly it is true and brings relief to see that people look more relaxed and “healthy”, grubby and chubby, moist and tanned.

Then I also brought with me my pale Hermina, who is is named after the sister of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  She came with an electric guitar and I also got her a skate board. The doll brand is named Pullip and is made in South Korea as a competitor to the much bigger Japanese companyVolks or SD (Superdollfie) The CEO of Volks  (A Japanese man taking on German features) launched the fad of ball-jointed dolls as virtual siblings about a decade ago. When assembling and buying a “daughter” from Volks, one can go pick her up in Kyoto and she will be handed over to you in a Christian-like ritual of baptism. Yes, these strange fashions are the spiritual and chaste version of the sex doll. Actually, one can see that many of those daughters live  out the fetish dreams of their owners but the adult here is supposed to shut up and play.

So here she she is … my mean little Hermina. Yes, she does have an esoteric personality and those piercing blue eyes–that would a swift Korean business ideal.

Love My Others

Eureka, Summer of Love, by Hybridre

Excerpt about love from my previous interview with Beijing costume player Francesa. Francesa’s photographs can be found at hybridre.deviantart.com/gallery

F=Francesca, or Hybridre, Cosplayer and Photographer

K=Katrien, Interviewer

C=Carol, Translator/Interviewer

C: Can I ask a question? Assuming that you and your lover are both cosplayers, when you cosplay two characters in love with each other, would you feel that you two are actually in love?

F: Actually I can’t completely split the real love from the love in fiction. Sometimes you feel that the character you are going to cosplay is so similar to yourself. And your partner is also cosplaying a character that is very similar to him. When you two are cosplaying, maybe you will feel that you are performing real life. It’s convincing.

K: If you and your partner can both accept the characters, it will be very powerful. For instance, when my current partner first met me, I was actually dressed up like the character Libidot (not  a cosplay character)  I was so worried that he would not like me as my real self, but it turned out to be ok. He just really liked me dressed up like that. If you two can accept each other’s characters and love each other, it can be very powerful.

F: I often wonder whether you like the person or you just like the character. It’s hard to say. The experience of playing roles is also influence by our relationship.

K: Maybe you start with cosplaying together, and then it moves into other things, and then everything. That’s life.

C: If your favorite character is cosplayed by someone that you don’t like, could you become very annoyed?

F: Of course. I can’t understand why you would cosplay that character if you are not so good. But we should at least respect them if they love the character too.


The Diarist & The Steamy Mob

I met with 15 students for a two-hour recorded session about Internet culture, social networks, pornography & censorship politics. We were probing and discussing ideas about the power of netizens and the government war on pornography. Many views and anecdotes were exchanged.  As much as Chinese people know how to cope wity with government surveillance, they also use the web to spy meticulously on each other’s sex lives or sexual mishaps. The urge to snoop around and publicize this kind of “dirt” is perhaps as deep as the desire for porn or romance. There is the recent case of tabacco chief Han Feng, whose sex diary was uploaded by the angry husband of one Han’s lovers. Later his diary was forwarded online and his political life and corruptions were scrutinized by a squad of online vigilantes, whose actions led his dismissal a party official. This chinese “human flesh search engine” is like a netizens’ mob who collaborate online to illegally investigate and stalk a person. They then take action against and harass this person in real life. which can have far-reaching consequences. Han has meanwhile sued the uploader of his diary and rumors now abound that it was one of his political rivals who hired a hacker to steak Han’s diary. This is an instance of netizens power and cyber bullying, but in many cases the steamy mob gropes for petty details about people’s sexuality–as if they area signs of larger problems. But maybe they are just what they are, and the mob might as well leave these details alone & and yes–get a sex life of their own!

Caution, Contract!

 

I had lunch with my high spirited translators Mu and Carol. I moved on from fried duck and crispy duck skin to duck tongue preserved in egg-shaped jello. The jello-eggs  looked very beautiful but the tongue inside tasted a bit bony, even though my friends called it very “smooth.”  I started my interviews and noticed that people are very cautious about my topics.  Dr. Li Yinhe answered my questions with short answers and reassured me that “there is no actual danger involved” in talking about sex and pornography in China.  But still I feel shadowed by a darker spirit–severity, seriousness and disconnect–when walking and talking about such topics. I have the feeling that 99% of what I care about is located elsewhere and  “underground.”  In the evening I talked to three cosplayers about their adoption of Japanese animation characters and gneder roles. They babbled and giggled a lot but also demanded money and brought along their own contracts. This had never happened to me in my long history of interviewing people.  It made me sad to meet this level of suspicion or absurd self-imposed bureaucracy. Tomorrow I will be interviewing about 15 university students and wonder how we will relate.

 

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Peking Duck and Firecrackers

As I arrive in Beijing for a week of interviews for my new book, the city welcomes me with its rough romantic edge. It is snowing outside and I am chilling in a very charming renovated courtyard hotel lit up with red lanterns and hidden way in one of the old hutong.  There is a major feast outside with home-lit firecrackers and loud blasts to honor the last day of the Chinese new year. I have a large bed with a tea-table tray on my left side and an even larger antique bed with red silk curtains and red lining on the right. I was told that it is the wedding suite and the room with the best feng shui. I  long for Peking duck but the hotel tells me that all the restaurants will be packed tonight–as it the end of the Chinese New Year and also Chinese Valentine’s day. They advised me to have Peking duck tomorrow.  But I just cracked open a beer and very soon I am heading outside. It is snowing more heavily now and I am going to find that duck.

Hotel Double Happiness in Dongcheng

Hotel Double Happiness in Dongcheng