AI and Biotechnology Works Censored at 6th Guangzhou Triennial
By Julee WJ Chung
Artworks touching on the ethics and social implications of scientific and technological advances were bowdlerized by Chinese authorities in early December. Several works were abruptly pulled from the Guangzhou Triennial just days before its opening at the Guangdong Museum of Art on December 21. Titled “As We May Think: Feedforward,” the sixth edition of the event includes projects by 49 artists from 12 countries, all focusing on the “trajectories of technological advances and their reverberations throughout the social sphere over the past decades.”
Among the pieces that were pulled from display were new media works by conceptual artist Lawrence Lek, filmmaker Harun Farocki, and Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s T3511 (2018), a four-channel video produced with cinematographer Toshiaki Ozawa, which tells a fictional tale of a biohacker who tracks down an anonymous DNA donor. The work shines light on the dark side of biological commodification, privacy and bioethics—topics which have been at the center of Chinese media since late November, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he had successfully altered the DNA of twin human girls. Government officials and scientists both in China and abroad have condemned the breakthrough as unethical. The Modular Body (2016), an online science fiction video by digital artist Floris Kaayk, which entertains the potential for 3D printing human organs and designing a body from scratch, and the video i'm here to learn so :)))))) (2017) by Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman, based on Tay, an AI bot created and shut down by Microsoft in 2016 after users trained it to be a bigot, were also axed from the show.
Huang Yaqun, the Guangdong Museum of Art’s deputy director of academic affairs told the New York Times that the works were removed partially due to their “incompatibility with the Guangdong people’s taste and cultural habits.” The authorities, however, did not give an official reason for why the works were censored, but the common link between the works was clear. Angelique Spaninks, one of the three curators of the Triennial and the director of Eindhoven’s MU artspace, added that anything that creates discomfort “makes officials [in China] nervous.”
Many artists did not anticipate that the works would trigger censors, though some had altered their original works upon the request of the museum officials. Blas and Wyman had removed two lines—an obscenity and a reference to Adolf Hitler—from their video, before it was completely banned from display. Dewey-Hagborg, whose work largely probes the ethical gray zones of biotechnology and issues of privacy, told Artnet News that she believes her work was censored because it “was simply striking too close to home. Simply put, they understood the work and its bioplitical implications [. . .] It shows actually how vulnerable this incredibly intimate and personal information is for all of us, not in a science fiction future, but today.”
The censorship of the Triennial follows Chinese authorities’ heavy “edit” of the Lianzhou Foto Festival, which opened on December 1. Many works, including those highlighting environmentally damaging infrastructure projects and the impact of food production, were forbidden from the exhibition. Duan Yuting, the founder of the festival, commented that the screening of exhibits is a standard procedure, but it has tightened in recent years: “Since 2016, the rules have been more strictly applied [. . .] There is no issue with the majority of the work—and certainly improved communication with officials helps the process—but censorship is just something we have to accept.”
Julee WJ Chung is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.
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