Located in a basement in New York City was Shanghai-based artist and writer Li Shuang’s interactive piece, If Only The Cloud Knows(2018), an on-site installation accompanied by a website to which Li had uploaded all the text messages and photos on her phone from 2005–15, deleting all other copies. Anyone could then permanently delete anything on the website, whether from the computer at the gallery or elsewhere.
This was not the first time Li had put herself in what most people would consider to be an uncomfortable position in public. Three years ago, she wandered around Times Square for six hours on Valentines Day wearing a big sign that read “MARRY ME FORCHINESE CITIZENSHIP.”
Li has never stopped questioning what technology and globalization mean for individuals in her art. I grabbed a drink with Li on the occasion of her first solo show in New York to discuss the works on view and what it’s like to grow up with the Internet.
Let’s start with the centerpiece, If Only The Cloud Knows (2005–18), which is also the title of your show. What is this project about and how did it begin?The main reason is to discuss digital media and our reliance on external memory. I’ve had a growing feeling that I’ve uploaded my memories to the cloud. When I browse the photos and texts on my phone, the whole momentum of a certain moment is recreated. Since I lose my phones and computers quite often, I have found a lot of missing files on the cloud, as if “only the cloud knows.”
I started to wonder how it compares to our parents’ generation; when they look at old photos, do they feel such strong flashbacks? Some of the earliest research on photography was about physicality, about weight. A piece of photo paper was light enough, but now a digital image literally weighs nothing, except the storage space it takes up.
How do you conceive of the relationship between tangible and digital materials?
It’s the screens. The gesture of printing a photograph on paper still embodies a sense of ritual. But nowadays, we look at screens, work on screens, and daily events all happen on screens. This erases the boundaries between physical life and virtual life, and therefore increases our reliance on external memory, which partially explains why a digital image can recall a past moment so vividly.
The website is designed to look like a bedroom from a voyeur’s perspective, and the homepage says “Welcome to the Glass Room,” like it might be referring to a hotel with glass walls. The on-site installation also recreates the room; viewers need to peek through a sheer layer of curtain to see the work. Why this setting?
When I was a kid, my bedroom was next to the living room, and my parents took down half of the wall and replaced it with a big glass pane so that they could watch me 24/7. It was literally a “glass room.” I am used to being watched and I always know that somebody is watching me. This concept was realized thanks to Dre Romero, the web designer, and Prodit, the web developer.
There is a concept in philosophy, “non-place,” meaning a space where everyone is in transit and loses their identity. I think every place could be a non-place—an airport, restaurant, bar, and now Airbnb, which promotes a homogenized aesthetic across the world like Ikea. Once, I went to a city for the first time and received an email from my Airbnb host that said, “Welcome Home.” It was too absurd.
Do you think your website is a non-place too?
Now that I think about it, I think it is! Yes, it’s a place that you can enter and exit anytime, anywhere, and remain anonymous. It’s not permanent though. It will close when the show is over but will reopen again when there’s a chance—until everything is deleted. Then the performance part of this project will be over and it will turn into another installation.
Your work has a fragile spontaneity. It strikes me that you are willing to put yourself in such a vulnerable position, allowing people to intrude into your private domain.
I didn’t intentionally do that, but thinking back, I might have been influenced by artists like Yoko Ono or Marina Abramović. Also, I want a restart in my life. Growing up as a gamer, I wanted to bring the delete-and-restart system from games to real life. But I have to admit that I never dared to look at people deleting my photos or messages except once.
On my website, you must leave a message before deleting anything. Eventually I want to use these messages to make a new installation. To continue the feeling of peeking into someone’s privacy, I want to recreate the bedroom setting where those messages cover up the entire wall.
Another work on view, T (2017–18), explores shattered and mixed identities in cyberspace. In the 15-min animation, a male online shopping customer service representative, who must act like a woman at his job, talks about his transforming gender experience at work and his observations on gender stereotypes. Yet, the narration is voiced by a woman, and in the end, this is replaced by a computerized female voice that says, “Now you have no gender.” How did you come up with this concept?
One day, I was browsing on Zhihu (a Chinese question-and-answer website) and saw a post by a customer service representative for Taobao, the biggest online shopping platform in China. In the post, he explained that he is a man, but he has to talk like a woman when online-chatting with customers. He claimed that the job requires him to “have no gender.” This inspired me to do a piece about gender performance.
I was raised to be like a boy, or, to be more accurate, genderless. But when I turned 15 or 16, my parents suddenly thought I wasn’t “girl” enough and put me on estrogen. Maybe it was my biological condition, but I still felt very confused. As an adult, I read Testo Junkie (2013) by Paul B. Preciado, in which he records his experience of wearing testosterone patches and discusses what testosterone, or “maleness,” means biologically and socially, and how hormonal changes would affect the gender roles inscribed on the body. These all piqued my desire to discuss these topics, as well as the confusing parts of my own identity.
In T, the protagonist is a straight guy who has never been exposed to gender issues before, but to succeed at his job of selling women’s socks, he must look to his life and childhood and learn what women are like. He even needs to perform what he observes and thinks of as femininity.
I wanted to discuss these issues outside of the Western framework of gender studies, since the protagonist’s story is already outside of the Western framework. The narration is sourced from history, literature and my childhood experience. The narrator was a girl who had never read the script beforehand, and the music was composed by my friend Eli Osheyack.
Multiple works on view reference early Internet culture, such as eating instant ramen at Internet cafe. Are you nostalgic about that time?
I grew up in Wuyi Mountain, which was quite boring. But I got connected to the Internet and found out about many American bands—I was quite into punk and emo culture. I was only allowed to use computer for an hour every week, so I spent most of the time downloading music and posters. I met some of my best friends online too.
It’s hard to say if I’m nostalgic. I can tell you that when I first came to New York, I felt the same way as I did in the early Internet world: Who am I? Where am I? What am I supposed to do? One of my favorite games was “Uncharted Waters”; I recently found out its English title, which is so beautiful, so romantic. The phrase “uncharted waters” pretty much sums up my impression of the early Internet age. In the game, at first, the map was all black except for my starting point, and then as I traveled to different continents, my boat lit up the black blocks on the map one by one.
Nowadays, I can still find a nice surprise around the corner in New York, even if the city can be difficult to live in. But on the Internet, everyone’s domain is getting smaller and smaller, regardless of firewalls.
Is that why you created GЯΔPΣҒRUIT (2015), in which you provide poetic instructions for coping with the Internet age today?
GЯΔPΣҒRUIT was inspired by Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit, a series of “Event Scores” or instructions for everyday actions. For me, it was a meditation book. Whenever I had a panic attack, I would soothe myself by practicing Yoko’s instructions, such as imagining a thousand suns melt. I also have a “thousand suns piece” in my version: “let a thousand suns melt your laptop screens.” For the installation, I picked a few lines that speak to other works on display and printed them on acrylic panels.
Let’s talk about your 2015 performance Marry Me For Chinese Citizenship, which stirred up a lot of discussion. What happened next?
Soon after the performance, I printed the slogan on tote bags and encouraged other people to wear it around. Some people took the message out of context. Some people used it as a meme.
Since moving back to China, my perspectives have changed a lot. You can say that I’m at the center of this work now, like I’m standing in the calm eye of the storm. There are also changes in the bigger political environment. In 2015, this work seemed absurd. Now, it seems to make more sense. For example, within one hour after Donald Trump was elected president, I sold over 500 tote bags on my Taobao shop. I didn’t even have that many!
Currently I am working on an independent publication about how to get Chinese citizenship. We always see booklets or instructions on how to get a US Green Card, whereas China has a more opaque system. I collaborated with a lawyer friend and we picked immigration and citizenship-related items from existing Chinese laws. I want to propose a different perspective on globalization or refugee problems outside of Western frameworks.
Li Shuang’s “If Only The Cloud Knows,” co-curated by Qiu Yun and Qiao Feifan, was on view from June 24 to July 8, 2018, at Basement, 9 Monroe Street, New York.