NEW ART: A screenshot of a work by Chinese Internet art duo Aspartime (COURTESY OF MICHELLE PROKSELL)
"Shake your head with the cat." It may take a moment to realize what the words mean. The cat in question is frozen on the screen. Then the Internet catches up and the white feline begins waving its head back and forth. The way its whiskers bounce is endearing, but after five bounces it has lost its entertainment value.
"Maintain eye contact please." This time the screen is filled with what appears to be a .gif taken from the 1973 movie Enter the Dragon. Martial arts star Bruce Lee is staring through the computer screen while hundreds of black and white ninjas fight around him. His eyes never move, not even when two ninjas locked in a grapple go hurtling past. The eyes are captivating, but then so is the background. The battle on screen quickly becomes a real life battle to retain focus. Too late, the ninjas have won. Well, it's the trying that counts.
This bizarre series of .gifs is titled Nine Computer Exercises for the 21st Century Online Digital Interactive Era, an online exhibition created by Chinese art duo, Aspartime. The work was released on January 29 and is the second piece to be commissioned by the online archive Netize.net in collaboration with multimedia publishing platform NewHive. In their statement, Aspartime described the idea behind their collection as "very simple." They said asking their audience to engage in arbitrary activities is all an exercise in killing time through "these simple silly interactions with the online world."
Michelle Proksell is a Beijing-based artist, researcher and the founding curator of Netize.net. She believes Aspartime's piece has a deeper level that transcends its simplistic form. "It is very lighthearted and simplistic," she said, "but it is easier to see how profound it really is when you contextualize it."
Proksell is in a Beijing café talking about her work over the top of her laptop. It is the kind of café where people wear hats indoors and the drinks have names like Mandy. Proksell, however, looks right at home and is talking confidently about her early influences.
Proksell was born in Saudi Arabia to American expatriate parents. Following the outbreak of the First Gulf War (1990-91), she moved along with her family to the United States, but Proksell insists that her short time abroad has had a huge influence on the course of her career. "I grew up traveling the world in airplanes," she said. "It did define my perspective of the world and I wonder if that is somehow linked to my interest in China."
Proksell's first encounter with the Internet was making cyber-friends with a girl her age who lived in Trinidad. She described the experience as a "liberating" one that crystallized her understanding of the contrasts that existed between different online spaces. Take one look at Proksell's work, and it isn't hard to see how formative those days tapping away to far-off friends really were.
From assisting the curation of a new-media gallery space in Texas to managing five Tumblrs that collect data and images off the Web, Proksell's career rests squarely within the cyber world. At one point, she was even at large as Shelly Pro, her "e-dentity" which she inhabited for four months as part of an online reality show that took place on Facebook.
Since moving to China in 2012, Proksell has been an active researcher, artist and curator. In November last year, Proksell collaborated with Redscale Studios to bring the collective art DIY initiative BYOB (Bring Your Own Beamer) to Shanghai, the project's second location on the Chinese mainland after Proksell co-founded BYOB Beijing in June earlier that year. The project was originally conceived of by artists in Berlin and later trended on the blogging platform Tumblr. It aims to encourage artists to free themselves from institutions and work independently and collectively. What Proksell found the most surprising during BYOB Shanghai was that artists who had heard of the project were traveling some considerable distances to be involved. "What this showed me was that actually there was a thirst for this," said Proksell, "but unfortunately no one knows how to do it."