Breaking the Silence of Suppressed Voices

, Image courtesy Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Photograph: Andrew Curtis

Can we unerase the erased? How does a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic influence the risk of forced silence? What role does Artificial Intelligence play when it comes to erasure and censorship? The work of Winnie Soon confronts us with questions of agency and control in the context of a regime using the digital infrastructure to exert censorship. The artist focusses specifically on Weibo, one of China’s largest social media platforms (similar to Twitter). With the help of the Weiboscope system, the timelines of microbloggers are analyzed and tweets censored by the regime are identified. This is how the Unerasable Characters Series comes into being, and Winnie Soon reveals more about its origins and background.

Unerasable Characters series, Winnie Soon (HK, UK); photo: Andrew Curtis

How did you approach the task of technically scrutinizing and poetically portraying censored tweets from Weibo, and what were some of the challenges you faced in capturing the essence of suppressed voices?

Winnie Soon: I sought to explore the temporality of suppressed voices rather than distilling an essence from the most censored texts or from data trends analysis. The dataset I work with contains both the timestamps of the creation and erasure, and I use them as the foundation of all the individual pieces in this art project. While considering various forms of expression such as sound or visual mediums, I found the pictorial form of Chinese characters to be particularly intriguing and unique. Can we see these data as graphics? I contemplated whether the data could be transformed into graphics, how to display them differently. Apart from the temporal aspect, I am also interested in spatiality of a sentence. For example, the tweet is deconstructed into character-by-character display occupying a flashing unit in Unerasable Characters II. I think it made sense to display Chinese in this way because each individual character has meaning, and is a word in itself. Another example would be the blurry text of Unerasable Characters III which shows the length of the text instead of the actual content/characters. So I am interested in how to express the “characteristics” of the (censored) characters, and ultimately I decided to focus on the scale and silence of suppressed voices. Through constant scrolling (Unerasable Characters III), incomprehensible projection (Unerasable Characters II), and a looming stack of papers (Unerasable Characters I), I wanted to convey the magnitude of censorship and create a durational space for contemplation. Importantly, I wanted the artwork to possess a poetic quality that could resonate with both Chinese speakers and those unfamiliar with the language who share similar concerns and struggles. As such, whether the work is readable or not, that’s less central to me. Perhaps this impossibility of reading is also re-enacting the politics of censorship and creating a sort of irony.

Unerasable Characters series, Winnie Soon (HK, UK); photo: Andrew Curtis

What role does the Weiboscope system play in the collection and visualization of the censored tweets?

Winnie Soon: The Unerasable Characters Series collects unheard voices in the form of censored/erased (permission denied) textual data. This is based on one of the biggest social media platforms in China – Weibo, and the system called Weiboscope, a data collection and visualization project developed by Dr. Fu King-wa from the University of Hong Kong. The system has been regularly sampling timelines of a set of selected Chinese microbloggers who have more than 1,000 followers or whose posts are frequently censored. As such, Weiboscope is a core backbone that has played a vital role behind the work that provides daily data and the dataset for Unerasable Characters III. I have developed a script to scape and parse the data daily, allowing me to visualise it in a poetic manner computationally. For further information on Weiboscope and related concepts like what it means by censored data in computation and the Weibo API with the returned status of permission denied, I recommend reading the article “Censorship on Microblogs” by King-wa Fu, Chung-hong Chan, and Michael Chau as well as the assessment report on Weiboscope.

Unerasable Characters series, Winnie Soon (HK, UK); photo: Andrew Curtis

In what ways do the three works in this project act as lyrical repositories for suppressed voices?

Winnie Soon: I would say the poetics lies in the (in)visibility of censored text, from a concrete post/tweet and collected data in Weiboscope to the further “repositories” that are vaguely made visible. The tension between visible and invisible, erasable and non-erasable is something I want to surface, in which suppressed voices can provide generative power.
All the voices come with the desire to be seen (otherwise they would not appear on social media in the first place). Although the subject matter is a bit heavy – or critical and politically charged – in the works, I want to present the suppressed voices in a poetic and generative way that can stimulate discussions and reflections on the normalisation of censorship in a broader context. I think of Yung Au’s quote who has nicely articulated how erasure can be related to everyday life: “All information infrastructures categorise, prioritise, moderate, frame, hide and erase. These processes occur across time and space, from unstable archives of the past, to the living documents of the present, and even into pages of futures that will never come to pass.” (see ref)

Unerasable Characters series, Winnie Soon (HK, UK); photo: Andrew Curtis

How do they challenge and raise awareness about state-enacted censorship and its impact on digital infrastructures?

Winnie Soon: Having the works displayed in various public exhibitions across geopolitical sites is already a way to gather people in thinking about censorship and erasure, not to mention scholars, researchers and curators who write about and engage with the work to foster critical thinking on these matters. I also integrate the artworks into my teaching, explicating the infrastructural processes of censorship and how art and technology can address social justice concerns. The artworks serve as reminders of the importance of upholding human rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and encouraging critical reflection on the complexities of censorship and erasure beyond mere deletion. It is crucial we resist becoming complacent with what is presented as normalcy through technological means. Instead we shall find ways to build solidarity and critically engage with technology and infrastructure.

The artworks of Winnie Soon are part of this year’s Ars Electronica Festival and can be viewed as part of the Prix Exhibition. The festival highlights can be found here.

Winnie Soon (HK/UK) is a Hong Kong-born artist coder and researcher interested in the cultural implications of digital infrastructure that addresses wider power asymmetries, engaging with themes such as Free and Open Source Culture, Coding Otherwise, artistic/technical manuals, digital censorship and minor technology. Their works appear in museums, galleries, festivals, distributed networks, papers and alternative written forms, including co-authored books Boundary Images (2023), Fix My Code (2021), and Aesthetic Programming (2020). They are Course Leader at the Creative Computing Institute, University of the Arts London, and also Associate Professor (on leave) at Aarhus University.

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