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Art Show “女 Nǚ: Other Half of the Sky” Exposes the Human Dimension of Bay Area Tech Culture

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The story of Chinese immigration to the United States begins with the San Francisco Bay Area. In Chinese, San Francisco is called Jiu Jin Shan (旧金山) or “Old Gold Mountain,” an homage to the mid-1800s Gold Rush that spawned the nation’s first influx of Chinese settlers. That same push and pull of change, disruption and opportunism are still present in the Bay Area today, though now in the form of tech.

A short walk around most neighborhoods in the city can feel like a caricature of the displacement tech money has caused, and Oakland Chinatown is no exception. Nestled between glassy apartment complexes and the 120-year-old Buddhist Church of Oakland sits B4BEL4B, a small, artist-run gallery and community space currently hosting 女 Nǚ: Other Half of the Sky, an exhibit highlighting the trans-Pacific flow of labor and culture between Asia and the Bay Area.

女 Nǚ: Other Half of the Sky was curated by Chinese-American software engineer, designer and writer Xiaowei Wang and Chinese artist and designer Qianqian Ye. The two women worked closely with Hawaiian-American multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker — and B4BEL4B founder — Tiare Ribeaux, who lent artistic direction and assisted in securing cultural funding from the city of Oakland.

“Silicon Valley is this epicenter of tech, building future and things like that,” says Wang. “But one of the things that is very much obscured by the shiny startups, the beautiful tech offices and all this magical technology is the fact that there is so much human labor involved — especially factory workers in Shenzhen, people who have been accused of copying or stealing. What we really wanted to do was put together a show that would emphasize peripheral labor, but also think through it in terms of identity, especially gender, nationality, and other things.”

“One thing that is obscured by the shiny startups, beautiful tech offices and all this magical technology is the fact that there is so much human labor involved — especially factory workers in Shenzhen, people who have been accused of copying or stealing” — Xiaowei Wang

As its name suggests, the exhibit features all womxn artists, referencing Mao Zedong’s famous assertion that “women hold up half the sky.” Its 11 works, including two from its curators, range in medium from VR to 3D animation, projection mapping, sculpture, and interactive mixed media. Some of the featured artists are American-born Chinese, while others come from mainland China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, with a balance of emerging artists and more established names.

There is a strong sense of continuity and camaraderie across the works — it’s unsurprising to learn that Wang and Ye, whose artist selections come mostly from personal relationships, are anything but curators from a distance. The two met serendipitously at a monthly artist critique hosted by Ribeaux at B4BEL4B and discovered that both, independent of one another, were wrestling with similar questions about labor and identity. Thus the idea for 女 Nǚ: Other Half of the Sky was born.

Qianqian Ye

Xiaowei Wang

LA-based interdisciplinary media artist Yuehao Jiang’s “Shanzhai Remix” features 3D animations projection-mapped across a wall-mounted sculpture depicting various motifs of consumerism: cars, cell phones, lipstick, shoes. The projections are colorful and dynamic and bring the figures to life, starting and ending with all-over text projections reading SHANZHAI (山寨) REMIX, placing emphasis on the Chinese term referring to counterfeit goods and “knockoffs.”

Jiang challenges the negative connotations of the term shanzhai — and, in turn, the notion that China can only imitate, not create — by highlighting the rapid ideation and “remixing” of ideas that shanzhai affords by ignoring Western intellectual property rights: a sort of open-source consumer capitalism.

At the same B4BEL4B critique where Wang and Ye met, the two also became acquainted with Hong Kong-born, Oakland-based multidisciplinary artist Ming Mur-Ray, whose work has been exhibited by the Guggenheim, and MOMA PS1. Mur-Ray’s “Troubled Waters 1996-2019” is a poignant and timely ode to Hong Kong’s changing tides, featuring digitized Hi8 video the artist shot herself on a 1996 ferry ride from Lantou Island back to the Hong Kong harbor. Looking upon her homeland for the last time before it would be returned by the British to China, the clips feature cityscapes, ocean surf and small islands with words like “abyss,” “hope,” “democracy,” and “contradiction” appearing in English and traditional Chinese script, read aloud by various women of Hong Kong.

Other works include the premiere of Hebei-born, NYC-based UX designer and creative technologist Siman Li’s “Quick Hand Gallery,” a VR gallery environment displaying bizarre and humorous videos of laborers from rural China’s popular TikTok-esque app, Kwai (快手). Though often considered lowbrow or kitschy by China’s first-tier-city dwellers, the app is used in Li’s piece to elevate the everyday to the level of performance art, which in turn questions its meaning.

Adjacent to this is curator Qianqian Ye’s “女: Radical 38,” a work unpacking the sexism embedded in Chinese language by showing the use of the radical 女 (), which means “woman,” in words such as 奴 (slave), 奸 (traitor) and  妒 (envy). Opposite Ye sits Harbin-born, NYC-based artist Fei Liu, whose “Build the Love You Deserve: Gabriel 2052” is an intimate robot partner whose emphasis on two-way communication and empathy are the inverse of the silent, inanimate sex dolls commonly marketed to men.

The work that most critically explores the human labor behind technology is Taipei-born, Oakland-based artist Angel Chen’s “Blue Hands.” The piece was inspired by the artist’s tenure at a Silicon Valley VR studio, an experience she acknowledges as quintessentially Bay Area.

“Blue Hands” consists of two screens: one depicting the type of 3D-rendered hands used in many VR programs to gesture in negative space, and the second, a montage of photos captured across four different continents, depicting public transit workers, custodians, grocers and laborers wearing gloves. A 60-second audio loop plays on headphones, with dialogue including such striking phrases as: “Keep out the world of the undesirable. Too wet, too sticky. Too slippery, too close. They excavate what’s inside the barrier, making all hands appear uniform to the outside world.”

Chen juxtaposes real human bodies performing tangible labor with the virtual blue gloves, which “create a non space around their users,” she says. “Hands are unique, but when you wear the gloves they’re universal.” The gloves, which represent technology and virtualization, signify the erasure of identity and peripheral human labor behind their making, care and maintenance. How many Shenzhen factory workers are behind the making of each iPhone? There is “a claim to be universal here in the Bay Area, [where] any startup is going to say ‘our user is global.’ The piece is also trying to question that,” Chen adds.

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Despite the influx of tech money to the Bay Area, everything from major institutions like the SF MOMA to small, artist-run spaces like B4BEL4B see little monetary support from Silicon Valley. B4BEL4B founder Ribeaux remarks that, “for years I was going to ‘art in tech’ talks, conferences and shows, and the whole lineup would be white male. I started this space to subvert that.” Modest non-profit budgets, including cultural funding from the city of Oakland, keep B4BEL4B afloat, alongside membership fees and independent donations.

The reception of 女 Nǚ: Other Half of the Sky so far has been overwhelmingly positive. As Wang notes: “[It’s been] so heartwarming to get all these emails about people who want to see the show, that there are all these communities of diaspora folks carving out this new community and definition of what it means to be Asian-American.”

“The more strained the relationship [between the US and China] is, the more crucial the exchange and conversation become” — Qianqian Ye

Ye, who moved to the Bay Area from China in 2015, at first felt discouraged by the lack of communities that she admired in other cities, such as NYC’s BUFU, an art collective promoting POC solidarity. “When I couldn’t find my community, [I thought] maybe it’s time for me to make one,” she says, and has since produced several exhibitions with Chinese artists at SF’s famed tech and art space Gray Area. In the wake of the US-China trade war, publicity around the Hong Kong protests, and, most recently, concern about spread of the novel coronavirus, Ye remains confident that “the more strained the relationship [between the two countries] is, the more crucial the exchange and conversation become.”

女 Nǚ: Other Half of the Sky will be on display at B4BEL4B through March 7, 2020. The curators hope to take the exhibit on the road soon, hitting cities across the US and mainland China. All photos by Yuehao Jiang

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Allyson Toy
    Allyson is a music industry professional, DJ (known as DJ TOY), and occasional writer now based in Shanghai. She’s worked at The FADER, booked shows at CAA and WME, done artist relations for Red Bull and 88rising, and above all, considers overeating to be her most cherished past time. You can find her on every platform @toywearsdapants.