Bi Xin: a story of many stories, a world of many worlds

Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Kunst+

Hinweis: Dieser Beitrag ist nur auf Englisch verfügbar.

Bi Xin [China] has benefited from this research trip to reconnect with Swiss partners and further co-develop projects, for instance, curating an online exhibition with HeK. During this trip, she has exchanged diverse narratives, and mapped territories that transcended mere geography. Get inspired by her experience.

In the tapestry of time, 2023 is the chapter that marked my reawakening to reality. After three veiled years under the pandemic’s shadow, my existence underwent a profound metamorphosis, shifting not only from the digital to the tangible, but also from the bustling streets of Shanghai to the enchanting embrace of Manchester.

Welcome [back] to the Hybrid Reality

The excitement of finally meeting “internet friends” was palpable throughout my research trip; although I had previously collaborated with HeK (House of Electronic Arts) on occasions prior to this trip through the Chronus Art Center, where I serve, this was the first time I had ever stepped into their physical space. As I entered the venue, my eyes were drawn to the captivating artwork by Studer / van den Berg, A Band of Mushrooms, towering above the building. During the 2022 lockdown, collecting and sharing digital mushrooms had become a daily ritual and a source of connection with friends. This sculpture, akin to a timeless piece of amber, encapsulated a slice of our bizarre yet complicated moments, preserving both our memories and emotions. 

What added to my astonishment was the alignment of HeK’s research theme for the year with my own focus – blockchain and web3.0 culture. I hold a deep fascination for the digital cultural narratives that are intertwined with blockchain technology. This intrigue stems from the technology’s intricate and somewhat obscure logic, as well as its current absence of universally accessible and user-friendly applications. Paradoxically, it’s precisely these complexities that lend themselves to a rich dossier of imaginative possibilities. Within this realm, the emergence of diverse narratives is observable, from futuristic tales of cryptoeconomics and political-economic science-fiction to the formation of tribal cultures and subcultural spiritualities, and even the weaving of magical and incantations of the occult.

Such narrations can be found in the first themed exhibition under this direction, titled Collective Worldbuilding – Art in the Metaverse, which centred around the creation of virtual realms—whether fictional, technical, emotional, or epistemological. Artists harness decentralised technologies not merely as tools, but as infrastructures for developing non-institutional distribution models, communities for sharing emotions, and novel approaches for reimagining systems for art production and funding. The exhibition told a “story of many stories” and presented a heterogeneous pluriverse. The opening event, Metaverse Cha-Cha-Char Dance Party, delved into the concept of crafting diverse and encompassing metaverses in an inventive way: at the party, the guests danced “in-between” the virtual and reality, with their on-screen avatars mirroring their movements.

Omsk Social Club, Heart of an Avatar <3, 2023, exhibition view Collective Worldbuilding – Art in the Metaverse, 2023, HeK, photo by Franz Wamhof

In addition to the exhibition, HeK is further advancing the implementation of distributed network technologies within its institutional framework, for instance, the creation of a global network on Discord through ‚Friends of HeK‘ and a virtual space (virtual.hek.ch) that continues to focus on cyber and web 3.0 culture. Blockchain, web 3.0, the crypto market, NFTs, DAOs, and the metaverse are not merely subjects of research and presentation, but also serve as the mediums and means for cultural participation. In my view, this represents a bold and imaginative stride in the institution’s decision-making process. The second themed exhibition, Exploring the Decentralised Web – Art on the Blockchain, recently debuted in September, for which I had the privilege of curating an online exhibition in collaboration with virtual.hek.ch., titled There Is No Perfect Spell. This exhibition delves into occult knowledge, transformed ideologies, and the subzeitgeist of creations linked to blockchain.

Exhibition Vernissage, There Is No Perfect Spell, 2023, virtual.hek.ch, HeK 

Internet, Infrastructure, Influx, and Inferno

Jennifer Merlyn Scherler was the first artist with whom I paid a studio visit during my research trip. From the cottage-core subculture through social media filters to the recent queer appropriations of fandom narratives, from acts of mourning in games with humorist and ironic symbology to meme aesthetics, their use in art education, and their potential to unlock revolutionary commonality, Jennifer’s practices entangle and embody internet cultures/subcultures with considerations of gender and collective identities, self-presentation, and the influence of culturally dominant structures perpetuated by social media networks.

Jennifer Merlyn Scherler, I’ll Build A Garden For You, Anywhere, 2023, picture courtesy of the artist

During the opening at HeK, I also had an engaging dialogue with Dorota Gaweda and Egle Kulbokaite, whose work in the show, the third part in the Mouthless trilogy, simulated landscapes that interact and transform, exhibiting a characteristic viscosity akin to the aesthetics of GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks), as if in response to Haraway and Barad’s notions of „Entanglement“. The conversation between an Eastern European peasant and a land demon weaves a narrative where time and rural landscapes dissolve and shape-shift into alternative existences within the simulated realm. The statement that resonated most powerfully was that „machines (data centres, distribution warehouses) rather than a countryside inhabited by humans are currently the sites of the ’new sublime’“. Data centres become hosts of synthetic landscapes meticulously crafted by human culture, while algorithms conjure up simulations of a countryside that is haunted by its preconceived notions. In their work, elements of ecology, history, rituals, myths, the human body, and multispecies interactions coalesce into a fluid folklore, blurring and challenging the demarcations of established concepts.

Dorota Gaweda & Eglė Kulbokaitė, Mouthless Part IIIl, 2023, exhibition view «Collective Worldbuilding – Art in the Metaverse», 2023, HEK, photo by Franz Wamhof

Thanks to Annette Ambery’s introduction, I was able to meet Lena Maria Thüring in Zurich and delve deeper into her artistic practices. Lena is known for her video installations that offer profound reflections into nature-socio-political dynamics. We were surprised to find out that we were following the same writers and reading the same books, which were very clearly reflected in her works. Her story about life on earth, starting from bodies of water and the flow of river water, salt, cytoplasm, deep time, life cycles, and multispecies thinking, is discussed in dense and poetic expression. The video narrative in Liquid Connections incorporates texts from various earth science and environmental change studies, as well as literary narratives in science fiction from authors such as Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Donna Haraway, Astrida Neimanis, and others. Another video work on a subject that currently fascinates, Down the River, depicts natural and mystical rituals. In a historical context, the transfer of a witch’s ashes symbolizes the release of the soul. Simultaneously, we witness a pair of hands diligently at work in the Soglio-Produkte AG skincare research and development workshop, where the alchemical transformation of herbs takes place. This serves as a response to the gradual erosion of faith in technology that has manifested itself in the face of the environmental crisis and that becoming a radical explorer of knowledge may be endowed with new powers.

Lena Maria Thüring, Down the River, picture courtesy of the artist

The delicate equilibrium and intricate interplay between technological developments and ecological consequences have spurred numerous ethical deliberations on the trajectory of technology’s influence. Fragmentin, a collective comprised of Laura Niederer, David Colombini, and Marc Dubois, encapsulates this debate within their creative endeavours, making it the focal point of my final studio visit during this research trip. They engage in an exploration of the synergetic realms where technology, climate transformation, and ecological shifts converge. Though we began our casual conversation over lunch, discussing the inconspicuous concealment of antennas as trees, our conversation extended into their research focus on technological infrastructures and their possible impact, significance, and repercussions in future media archaeology. The core questions they tackle encompass integrating digital technology within the natural landscape, its pervasive infiltration into everyday life, digital technologies‘ distortions or influences on narratives surrounding weather, and how these narratives permeate into society and individual experiences, stimulating dialogues in a more expansive and visible society.

Transcending the Boundaries of Media

After conducting research on the Art, Science & Technology Directory, an information website developed by Pro Helvetia, I organised a day trip to Winterthur, where I established valuable connections with two organisations. The first was Coalmine – Raum für Fotografie, currently curated by Annette Amberg, which is an exhibition space for discursive formats around photography with solo and group exhibitions by Swiss and international artists.  It is located at the cultural institution Coalmine, which includes a café and a documentary film programme, and is run by the Volkart Stiftung in Winterthur, Switzerland. The second was Fotomuseum Winterthur, a prominent art institution specialising in photography and visual culture that is currently undergoing renovations with plans to reopen in 2025. The revamped Fotomuseum Winterthur plans to place a greater emphasis on its educational role and the laboratory’s support and advancement of photographic technologies.

Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński, You are awaited but never as equal, photo by Guadalupe Ruiz, © Coalmine, 2023

During my conversations with Coalmine’s Artistic Director, Annette Ambery, and the Curator of Fotomuseum Winterthur, Marco de Mutiis, I came to realise that both organisations‘ practices and visions extend beyond the confines of the definition of mediums. In addition to their focus on photography and moving image technologies and their respective histories, their projects explore how artificial intelligence, internet technologies, gaming, and other media intersect with and perform experiments within the realms of photography and moving image technologies. How does interdisciplinary research play a significant role in shaping the presentation of such technologies and their applications and cultural forms? Moreover, their projects pose some larger questions: how do individuals employ media with autonomy and creativity? And a question perpetually resurfaces, remaining both complex and perpetually fresh: what constitutes and how does one (re)define ’new media‘? How does the ever-evolving temporality and vibrancy of media transform and enrich its meaning within the flow of time?

Stone to Plate

As CAC’s 2023 research endeavours to focus on the vitality of geological substrates as well as the biophilic essence inherent in media and digital technologies, and to reimagine the entanglement and symbiosis with a myriad of entities. As such, I deliberately arranged visitings to organisations dedicated to exploring themes of agriculture, ecology, plant sciences, geology, and sustainable development.

Located in Vevey, the biennale Foodculture Days was certainly a surprise discovery. This edible material-focused cultural project explores the intersection of art and ecology through the medium of food. It summons an eclectic assembly of entities, drawn from the diverse realms of artistry, science, farming, gastronomy, philosophy, activism, and nature’s enigmatic denizens, both tangible and intangible. Gathering on the glistening shores of Lake Geneva, a current of energy, empathy, introspection, refinement, and sheer delight wove its enchanted patterns among those assembled. A captivating facet of this biennale lies in its profound fusion with the city’s architectural, cultural, and historical spots; Foodculture Days‘ exhibitions and programmes were scattered across Vevey’s eateries, markets, and verdant fields. Bearing the evocative theme, „Devouring the Soil’s Words,“ Foodculture Days unites the agency of the earth and the human mouth, interweaving their shared functions of breathing, swallowing, and the act of expression through culinary, playful and aesthetic forms.

Food – such poetic, metaphorical, and highly malleable mediums certainly create a magical experience: Hunger Tales, a board game crafted by the Bakudapan Food Study Group, delved into the complexities of the food crisis, the challenges posed by ecological diversity, and the manifestation of these ecological crises on the smallest of scales. Feeding Fields, Moving Meadows, an artistic local cereal and grass brunch provided by Suzanne Bernhardt and Philipp Kolmann, investigates issues of cultivation, ecology, supply chains, production, and the temporal aspects of food consumption through field walks, sensory exploration, and contemplative listening. Ana Núñez Rodríguez conducted a story exchange stall in marketplaces and collected intimate narratives focusing on the humble potato. Phoebe-Lin Elnan’s humorous and satirical video, Breaking News, artfully presents direct quotes from advertisements and media commentators in a masterful parody of neoliberal media that skillfully reveals the inherent absurdity that shrouds the portrayal of systemic injustices. 

In a matter of days, the connections forged between food and individuals took on a dual nature. On the one hand, there was a speculative dimension characterised by intense brainstorming and debates on topics such as food sovereignty, natural resilience, indigenous culture, climate/technology-related injustices, and inequalities, which ignited dynamic discussions. On the other hand, these connections also embraced a more sensory aspect, as they were imbued with sensuality, beauty, and the simplicity of emotions evoked by a slice of bread or a sliver of cheese.

Francesca Paola Beltrame, Pomo D’Orographies II: une contre-cartographie de Vevey, FOODCULTURE days, 2023, picture courtesy of the writer
Feeding Fields, Moving Meadows, an all-inclusive breakfast buffet by Suazanne Bernhardt and Philipp Kolmann, FOODCULTURE days, 2023, picture courtesy of the writer

With the memory of this enchanting experience still fresh in my mind, I embarked on the next leg of my journey to SAE Greenhouse LAB in Zurich, a space that seamlessly melds agriculture, teaching, experimentation, and exhibitions. This new adventure commenced with a vibrant introduction by Dr. Kenza Benabderrazik, accompanied by a crisp cucumber plucked fresh from the greenhouse.

SAE Greenhouse LAB is not merely a hub for agricultural technology, plant science, food safety, and agroecology; it also delves into the realms of culture and society, addressing issues such as decolonisation, circular economy, extractivist critique, sustainability, feminism, and more. These multifaceted themes find expression through exhibitions, literary discussions, and enlightening dialogues.

In our group discussions, curator and researcher Tara Lasrado shared arvae’s interdisciplinary approach, shedding light on their profound focus on the ecological dimensions of sustainability. She elucidated how practitioners from diverse backgrounds can engage in transparent collaboration, enriching their collective understanding and fostering synergies. This collaboration transcends individual experiences, evolving into tangible actions that resonate within both the ecological and industrial realms. Subsequently, curator Adriana Domingue introduced ALIMENTO, a tripartite series of exhibitions titled Earth is the Heaviest Element, which challenges us to de-construct and re-construct our relationship with the Earth, our fellow humans, and non-human entities.

I realised that an evolving awareness of confronting colonialism’s legacy and decolonial criticism entangled with ecological issues are significant perspectives in Swiss artists’/organisations‘ practices. Such focuses perhaps provide an angle to address historical injustices, amplify underrepresented voices, and contribute to a more diverse and socially conscious artistic landscape; I am, however, also very curious about how this social and political awareness works within the artistic imagination. If we try to reconceptualise a world of many worlds, how do we describe a story of many stories?

Studio visit to SAE Greenhouse LAB, picture courtesy of the writer

On this research trip, I delved into a scientific story and embarked on a learning journey about geology, stones, and time at focusTerra at ETH Zurich. As a curator, I am passionate about understanding the narratives behind different types of exhibitions. I dedicated several hours to exploring the focusTerra exhibition tower, where the exhibition offers an insightful journey into the Earth’s interior and exterior. It provides clear and engaging explanations of terrestrial phenomena of the Earth, from crystals, minerals, and meteorites to the volcanoes, fossils, and life on the ocean floor, from the epoch in geochronology, the birth of the sun, moon, and solar nebula, to the planet’s evolution, presentation, and storytelling striking a harmonious balance between precision and accessibility.

A visit to the permanent exhibition at focusTerra, picture courtesy of the writer

Interdisciplinary Nexus

La Grange at l’Université de Lausanne is a centre for research and experimentation that is constantly „in dynamic motion“: the barn-converted-theatre is not only a place for fluid art forms, but also serves as a vibrant nexus where diverse disciplines seamlessly converge into one another. La Grange strongly emphasises the organic and ever-evolving interplay between art and science, recognising them as mutually reinforcing forces. Under the guidance of Benoît Frachebourg and Nicolas Carrel, I learnt about La Grange’s research and practices while strolling through l’Université de Lausanne: encountering the stage, the reading area, the students, the sheep, the photographic exhibitions displayed outdoors, the centuries-old trees… It became apparent that here, knowledge extends beyond the academic; it embodies the philosophical understanding that every entity possesses a distinct subjectivity and simultaneously exists in a web of interdependence, fostering a sense of unity among diversity, an imaginative, liberating, and open space where these entities coexist reciprocally and beautifully.

Université de Lausanne (UNIL) campus tour, picture courtesy of the writer

As I strolled through La Grange, I reached the adjacent EPFL Pavilions. Guided by curator Dr. Giulia Bini, I had the opportunity to explore the exhibition Lighten Up! On Biology and Time. Coincidentally, two of my curatorial projects from last year also revolved around the redefinition of life and its compelling agency, as well as the intersection of machines, ecology, and temporality. During our visit to the exhibition, we engaged in a lively idea exchange, discovering our shared curatorial interests. In my conversation with Giulia, I sparked a deeper insight into the elasticity of „curatoriality“. The activities, subject position, and resulting product of artistic practices are dynamically interrelated in their articulation and function. In the multiple, interlocking stories, actors and actants – artists, artworks, audiences, curators, non-human participants (audience satisfaction evaluation machines, codes, and digital platforms) – shape mutual relationships and exert their influence on each other within a curatorial context, forming a dynamic assembly.

Slogans on the wall of the underpass near UNIL and EPFL, picture courtesy of the writer

I had one regret during my trip – I had a strong desire to visit the Institute Art Gender Nature (IAGN). Unfortunately, I could not attend the exhibition’s opening due to my research trip being scheduled a week before Art Basel. Many institutions and venues were holding their opening events until the following week to anticipate this grand occasion. Magic struck again, however, when an artist friend introduced me to Dr. Felipe Castelblanco, who, in turn, introduced me to their research project, known as Plant_Intelligence. This is a project that explores the concept of intelligence within the context of plants and intricate living organisms. This exploration occurs within a framework where non-anthropocentric forms of ontology and epistemology regarding intelligence are gaining increased attention, particularly as machines continue to play significant roles in our daily lives. Focusing on the South American Amazon, Felipe’s research delves into plant vision – how do plants recognize their surroundings in the darkness? In what ways do they perceive and understand the world around them? How do plants employ intelligence to defend their territories, especially as external environments face threats from illegal cultivation and extractive activities?

I found great inspiration in Felipe’s words – he crafted an aesthetic narrative that intertwined with the ethical dialogues arising from the synergy of art and science collaboration. What struck me most was his profound awareness of his role as an artist. He purposefully employed his artistic language to translate his collaborations with scientists, rather than treating art as mere supplementary notes or attempting to assume the role of a scientist.

These art institutions or museums in universities all play a crucial role in interdisciplinary practices, the transposition of knowledge between different fields. However, a question cannot help but arise: where are the grassroots and alternative spaces beyond the gatekeepers? And in what form are they responding to what questions?

The Forking Paths

After leaving Lausanne for Geneva, I toured the Digital Pool at Head Geneva with my former colleague, Vytas Jankauskas. Vytas, who served as the Head of CAC lab, has initiated various innovative projects in Shanghai, and now, in his new chapter in Switzerland, has joined as the Head of the Digital Pool. Here, a lab serves as an interdisciplinary creative space welcoming students and teachers from all departments to explore digital tools and technologies. Doing what Vytas does best, the Digital Pool offers technical assistance for individual or departmental projects, provides cross-curricular courses, and fosters knowledge networking and sharing. While this laboratory is located within a university, I observed that it goes beyond the meaning of teaching per se, providing a space for experimentation, imagination, and creativity with regard to the critique of the application of media technologies and its possible potential for artistic creation, knowledge production, and social practice.

Digital Tool, HEAD Geneva, picture by Vytas Jankauskas
Digital Tool, HEAD Geneva, picture by Vytas Jankauskas

Another hidden gem is Hackteria. Hackteria transcends the definition of a conventional maker or hacker space; it stands as a global open-source DIY bio-research network and community fostering collaboration among scientists, farmers, philosophers, hackers, and artists. This vibrant collective encourages the fusion of diverse fields of expertise to explore, develop, and experiment with a wide spectrum of bio-hacking and bio-art techniques beyond the confines of traditional institutional art and cultural environments. Guided by Maya, I entered the dynamic realm of the Zentralwascherei Space, a place brimming with energy, humor, and a delightful sense of positive chaos. From Nikola Tesla’s portrait to growing algae, Maya offered insights into the day-to-day workings of the Hackteria practice and shared her ongoing research endeavors. Her recent focus has been on alga, delving into topics ranging from photosynthesis to the temporality of evolution, from cooking, eating, and dining rituals to radical and visionary imaginative explorations of physiological transformation and evolution; Maya, like an alchemist, transforms the entanglement of eco-materials, ingredients, electronic arts, and citizen science into a multifaceted tale adorned with a myriad of tentacles.

A visit to Hackteria Lab, picture courtesy of the writer

This research trip was also a departure, a fork in the road, from the long-standing monotony of my life. I was on new journeys when I was writing this report, and there are still many snippets of memories and new feelings that I have yet to encompass into a single report. During a conversation with Vytas, he astutely observed that cultural workers are, in essence, travellers. I am grateful to Pro Helvetia for offering me the opportunity to become a traveller/wanderer again, moving between the strata of the global and the local, becoming a node, exchanging diverse narratives, and mapping territories that transcend mere geography.

Biography

Bi Xin (Milia) is a curator and researcher based in Manchester, UK/ Shanghai, China.

Xin’s curatorial practices work across the intersection of arts, decentralised technologies, and contemporary social culture/subculture. Her current research focuses on the multi-temporalities, manifold materiality, and occult narrative in internet technologies and their cultural and societal implications. She is also into spiritual relationship between non-human entities and humans. Xin is the Director of International Programs at Chronus Art Center (2023-, CAC). She is the winner of the Hyundai Blue Prize Art+Tech 2022.

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