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Digital Images and Civic Consciousness

[ 2006-03-04 00:12:54 | 作者Author: OUNING ]
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Digital Images and Civic Consciousness

Ou Ning

Argos Festival 2004, Brussels
Festival publication, ISBN 90-7685520-X

“Being afraid of the truth is the basis of the organization of society… Only very few people are fond of the truth, and are willing to take the risks of dangers it might entail; cinema is a horrible invention that is able to reveal the truth, if you want it to. It is a dangerous invention, it can reveal, shed light on everything that has been hidden, it can show one detail by enlarging a hundred-fold.”                          
Fernand Léger 1881-1955

China is currently among the countries in Asia that are undergoing a very intense process of urbanization. Boosted by a continually growing economy, large quantities of land have been requisitioned for commercial development. Light railways, highways, and the new buildings that go up along the way have combined different cities into an indivisible block of steel and concrete; the countryside that was previously squeezed in between them has now disappeared, with a big land-less agricultural population being turned into urban residents overnight. To boast of the sublimity and greatness of the state machine, the government has invited internationally prominent architects to design wildly imaginative landmark buildings in the heart of the city. Real estate developers have flocked to occupy commercially and financially strategic zones of the city and construct buildings. They try to satisfy the frenzied pursuit of private property of the “new rich” class with all sorts of commercial and residential buildings. Like grid-modeled computer disks, these new buildings isolate people into different closed spaces; although the entire city is vibrantly dynamic, public life is becoming empty.

In most of the urban planning and architecture design, public spaces are given space; nevertheless, they are principally designed for leisure, entertainment and consumer uses, with the sole aim of increasing the value of the buildings when they are sold. On the other hand, real public life--that is, a political life under the guidance of civic consciousness--is always absent from urban space. After a series of political movements such as “the Anti-rightist Campaign”, “the Cultural Revolution” and “June Fourth”, Chinese people became increasingly reluctant to talk about politics; furthermore, the material seduction brought about by new economic development has further diluted the little political passion that people had into nearly non-existence. Everyone works relentlessly in the pursuit of wealth and wants to enjoy life, they are very keen on “private property,” and are growing indifferent about public affairs. People believe that they have nothing to do with politics, and that politics is only the affair of politicians; civic consciousness has fallen to the lowest point ever. In the wave of urbanization, roads, buildings, infrastructure, and parks are constantly increasing, yet citizens living in modern communities have lost their spirit of being the masters of their own lives.

Surprisingly, the development of the Internet in China has radically changed all this. While traditional mainstream media such as television, newspapers, magazines and so on, still hail the myth of the new economy, or seek to stimulate people’s senses and incite consumerism with eye-catching advertising images, on the Internet, virtual communities have started to develop--a totally new and digitized public space has come into being. Large quantities of information are now able to break through the traditional system of information control; through optic fibers and cables, information is circulated and diffused instantaneously on the Internet, fulfilling to a great extent citizens’ right to know. When more and more truths are revealed in the virtual communities, people gradually gain consciousness; they start to think about their own life from a different viewpoint and try to shape their own opinions and ideas. Because people can sign on freely and anonymously, they are encouraged to express their opinions online, making the Internet the most genuine gauge of public opinion. The influence of the Internet was fully disclosed in the Sun Zhigang affair in 2003 (see note). Due to the vast number of comments posted by citizens on the Internet to take notice of this phenomenon of social injustice, the unreasonable “Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars” were abolished thanks to public pressure. This affair constitutes a landmark in the fight for civic rights in China, and marked a new beginning for the “political civilization” in the digital era.

Pockets of political consciousness have always been present in Chinese contemporary art; however, most artists’ political thinking is limited to a simple binary opposition between the “individual” and “society”, without ever developing into a civic consciousness with a sense of participation. Therefore, it cannot be raised to a universal value. On the contrary, encouraged by the West, the political consciousness that emerged in Chinese contemporary art in the early eighties was transformed into an illustration of the so-called “iron curtain country,” that artists with a sharp commercial sense converted into marketable and fashionable tokens. This is how the “political” aspect began to be a consumable commodity. After the “June Fourth” incident in 1989, China was entirely transformed into a consumer society. Consumer activities reduced the relationship between people into one of transactions, the direct consequence being the dissolution of the original political relationships. However, if we go a little further with this idea, consumption is not simply about buying and selling; as a social activity, it still has some political significance.

Around 1995, VCDs--a high-tech, but low-cost digital image product started to appear in China, and very quickly, it found fertile ground for vast development. The Chinese people’s huge consumption of VCDs and later, of DVDs, directly gave rise to a thriving industry that, up to now, can still not be held back: the pirate industry. This industry has not only shaken up contemporary image culture in China, but has also, to a certain degree, had an impact on Chinese politics, economy and society. Most of the production bases for pirated VCDs/DVDs are situated in remote areas, with the distribution centers located in the urban-rural fringe areas, or the so-called “villages-amidst-the-cities,” and the points of sale on pedestrian overpasses, in tunnels, on the streets near schools, and computer centers in the city--a peculiar public commercial space, a mutually-sustaining economic community that is grid-modeled into numberless small units and is overcrowded with digital products. Their mode of selling is mobile, guerrilla-like, having to be on the watch both for local cultural enforcement authorities and “anti-piracy” lawyers or inspectors from America or other countries. This kind of illegal production and selling is no different from the “post-planning” reality that has appeared in the urbanization process; its out-of-control development will cause serious damage to the Chinese and international media industries. As a result, the United States and other major patenting countries often insist on an aggressive enforcement and attack on the pirate industry as a political condition in their business deals with China. The daily cash-and-carry transactions between cinema enthusiasts and sellers of pirated films in reality conceal the conflicts of interests among countries.

Returning to the current domestic situation in China from the macro view of international relations, the existence and growth of the pirated VCD/DVD industry generated by the digital technology revolution has another level of political significance. As a flexible mode of production and consumption, the pirated VCD/DVD industry, although driven purely by the pursuit of commercial interests, has--to put it objectively-- disrupted the decades-long cultural isolation and information void of China, and broken the cultural monopoly and the intellectual bureaucracy of the academic circle. It has helped popularize education in image cultures in China, and created an unprecedented “image democracy”. The way it has brought about the awakening of civic consciousness, human liberation, and freedom of choice, is very much in tune with the Internet. Previously, when people wanted to see cinema classics, they had to go to the cinema academy or the film library. Now, regardless of which region around the world a film comes from, whether it’s a new release or an old film, whether it’s an artistic experiment or a commercial production, whether it’s a general release or an X-rated film, with only 6 RMB, you can get a copy in high-definition DVD.

This opening of information resources generated by market principles has led to the development of a large number of film groups. They have tried to get off the beaten track of the usual venues such as commercial cinemas, public art centers and museums, and have created alternative spaces in many different cities to organize collective viewings, discussions and study of films. This public life that has developed around films has attracted many young people, bringing them out of the virtual community online and into a real life community. The gathering together of these forces has enabled digital images to create another order in society; it has undermined the rules of the game dictated by the mainstream film industry, and has furthered the process of the democratization of images. Because of the decades-long isolation of information, the consumers of digital images in China can be said to be the most enthusiastic and frenzied in the world. It’s not that they don’t respect intellectual property rights; rather, they have no other choice. They believe that pirating VCDs and DVDs is the essential “labor process” in the development of the film industry in China, that the wound will close over in a natural way that follows the laws of supply and demand and market principles, and that the situation will get back onto the right track from the present out-of-hand chaos through automatic adjustments.

The rise and proliferation of pirated digital films has not only enabled a great diversity of trends and styles of film works to become part of the film-viewing experiences of people, but has also provided a broad and vast spectrum of sources of inspiration for contemporary Chinese artists, who have gradually turned to digital images as a means of expression. Around 1999, a new type of DV camera using state-of-the-art digital technology started to appear in China; this small, user-friendly, low-cost camera soon became the favorite medium of artists for making art. In addition to this, the popularization of the editing software for personal computers gave rise to thriving independent cinema and video art in China. Many artists developed personal perceptions and understanding of things through watching pirated VCDs and DVDs; they threw away conventional, old-fashioned academic practices to invent their own image art. The rise of individual video works and zero-budget films started to break the professional monopoly of image culture, and shook up the mainstream film industry. The audacious amateurish spirit expressed in this wave of independent film making, made possible by the digital image technology, reminds us a lot of the era of unsophisticated silent movies; the pioneers in the early days of Chinese cinema, being highly enthusiastic about the new technology of the time, embodied by the cinema, and creating with completely unrestrained freedom, are very similar to the independent filmmakers and image artists of today.

In this wave of independent film making, the most socially influential films are the documentaries that confront social reality and document the changes of the times. With the mobility and flexibility of individual shooting, the scope of these independent documentaries extends across the entire spectrum of customs and daily social life in China: from the decline of state-run heavy industry to the harsh life of prostitutes, from the protest of urban residents against the forced demolition and eviction from their homes to the democratic elections held in the countryside, from the elders getting together and chatting on the street to the drop-out children begging along the railway, from liberal intellectuals remaining “outside” the institution to migrant laborers working hard in factories… These documentaries are not only the mirror images of the time, but also address with complex and sophisticated arguments more profound issues of power structure, and are thus under a more strict control than the censorship system for cinema. Like the waves of democracy that have developed across the Internet, the independent film making movement, involving the participation of many people, has, despite a lack of strict organization, fostered a civic consciousness. Its “collective speaking out” can unveil the social injustices and the dark side of reality, and prevent the inflation of power and political corruption. To a certain degree, the independent film making community has exercised influence as a pressure group.

Looking back at the history of Chinese cinema, in the 1930s and 1940s, due to the turbulent political situation in the country, the cinema actively took up the tasks of both educating and rescuing the country, giving rise to the Chinese left-wing cinema movement, which became a tradition with far-reaching implications regarding the interaction of the cinema with politics. In the rapid and massive urbanization process now underway in China, and faced with the complex reality of globalization, History has again shown its paradox--in repeating history, film is, once more, being chosen as a means to express public opinion and to convey the political allusions of the new era. There is nothing new under the sun; politics will affect you and me forever.

Guangzhou, July 20 2004
Translated from Chinese by Yu Hsiao-Hwei

Note: On March 17, 2003, Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old university graduate, was transferred to a Custody and Repatriation Center after detention at a police station in Guangzhou. There, he was badly beaten to death on March 20. Sun’s story was first revealed in the “Southern Metropolitan Daily” on April 25, more than a month after his tragic death. On the same day, the news was widely diffused across the Internet and immediately provoked strong reactions. Hotly debated on the Internet, the case of Sun Zhigang did, on the one hand, force the authorities to investigate the affair and send the officials responsible for it to court, and on the other, incited widespread public criticism over the “custody and repatriation” system. On June 18, the State Council adopted the new “Measures for the Assistance and Administration of Persons Without Assured Living Sources in Cities (draft)” and abolished the “Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars” promulgated in May 1982.
[最后修改由 OUNING, 于 2009-01-18 20:29:21]
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