Is China Censoring Art About Biotechnology? Last-Minute Cuts at the Guangzhou Triennial Suggest It Is

Authorities haven't given a reason for pulling the works, but all of them deal with the ethics of new scientific advances.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg's initial forensic DNA phenotype of Chelsea Manning, made leaving out the sex parameter, for PAPER magazine. Courtesy of the artist.

Government censorship is a fact of life in China, but authorities have clamped down on the upcoming Guangzhou Triennial for reasons you might not expect. The works banned from display from the exhibition in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong don’t deal with sensitive political issues such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or with corruption in the Communist party. Instead, they all deal with scientific breakthroughs like artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

That’s a big problem for curators Angelique Spaninks, Zhang Ga, and Philipp Ziegler, who developed the triennial’s theme around “the trajectories of technological advances and their reverberations throughout the social sphere over the past decades.” The exhibition, titled “As We May Think: Feedforward,” opens December 21 at the state-run Guangdong Museum of Art.

Several works were pulled from the show for reasons the curators say they don’t fully understand. Among them is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s video T3511, produced with cinematographer Toshiaki Ozawa, a fictional tale of a biohacker who becomes obsessed with tracking down the person who donated a saliva sample she purchased online. Other censored works include The Modular Body by Floris Kaayk, a sci-fi video inspired by the possibility of 3-D printing human organs, and the four-channel video im here to learn so :)))))) by Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman, which revived Microsoft’s artificial intelligence bot Tay, who the internet taught to be a racist in just 24 hours.

Curator Philipp Ziegler told Engadget that “the museum doesn’t know exactly the reasons” that the works were pulled from the show, but that “technology per se is a political issue.” The news coincides with reports of heavy censorship at China’s Lianzhou Foto festival.

Meanwhile, Huang Yaqun, the Guangdong Museum’s deputy director of academic affairs, told the New York Times that the works were removed from the exhibition due in part to their “incompatibility with the Guangdong people’s taste and cultural habits.”

Dewey-Hagborg, who was planning to fly to China for the show in a few days, didn’t expect her new work to provoke the Chinese censors. “The piece is of course political, but I really had no hint going into the show that there was any question of its inclusion,” she told artnet News in an email. She suspects that officials took issue with the piece because it “was simply striking too close to home. Simply put, they understood the work and its biopolitical implications.”

Issues of privacy and the commodification of biological samples are at the forefront of Dewey-Hagborg’s practice, which also includes a series of facial portraits created based on genetic analysis of strangers’ DNA samples. A 2017 show at New York’s Fridman Gallery featured a crowd of unique faces made from a single DNA sample from US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. She was inspired to make her new video because of how close she felt to her anonymous DNA subjects and due to her concerns about the nonchalant manner in which people provide their genetic information to companies like 23andMe.

“It shows actually how vulnerable this incredibly intimate and personal information is for all of us, not in a science fiction future, but today,” she said.

Bioethics, in particular, has become a hot-button topic in China, where the government has already expressed objections to new genetic technology. Last month, when Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have created the first genetically edited babies, government officials condemned the breakthrough as “abominable.” He has since gone missing.


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