Miao Ying: Savage winds, a land of stone, Forsaken intelligence, left alone

The artist Miao Ying has a lasting interest in cyber ecology & digital ethics and a standing on the crossing between technology, politics, and society. She tames the artificial intelligence in her artmaking, soberly, vigilantly, and seeks the vanishing boundary between technology, culture, and authority. In the realm of digital art where garish terms from finance are worn for sport, she makes visible the assimilation in the world between the digital and physical ends, carrying both robust gesture and imaginative humor, and experiments on synthesizing authorship, a rather challenging working method. Miao has been integrating sci-fi premises, AI, and isolated surveilled environments in her epic trilogy, Pilgrimage into Walden XII(2019–2023), and the serial works Technomancy (2023). Visually, these works significantly differentiate themselves from the appropriation of cyber symbols from online pop cultures as in Miao’s previous works. The aesthetics of video game engine modeling—in the former, this is exemplified by both series as the (stereotypical) medieval horror atmosphere, rendered by bloody-red fences and shadows of pitched-roof; in the latter, you can see the aesthetics in the juxtaposition of bright color blocks/special effects in orange, purple, green and so forth, or the elements of bamboo/stone in simplified ink painting style, sprinkled over the thick darkness. For viewers with little experience in video games, the works probably only present alienation and a strong temperament of digital savagery. This kind of digital landscapes and artifacts, working in conjunction with the acting-viewing atmosphere created by the AI narrator’s voice (here ‘acting’ refers to the never-repetitive frames that are constantly generated by the real-time simulation program), leave the viewers in a passive position for rituals, making hem lean towards questioning or meditating with/in the artwork, rather than clarifying and grasping the narrative and meaning thereof.

The premiere of Miao Ying’s full video-installation trilogy, Pilgrimage into Walden XII has marked this shortlisted artist’s nomination in the 2023 exhibition of the Sigg Prize, the award established by M+ Museum of visual culture from the West Kowloon District of Hong Kong. The prize is the evolved continuation of the formerly Chinese Contemporary Art Award (CCAA) that was founded in 1998 by the renowned collector of Chinese contemporary art, Dr. Uli Sigg. the Prize aims to encourage contemporary artists born or working in the Greater China region, by showcasing and promoting their works internationally.

Pilgrimage into Walden XII, Chapter I: The Honor of Shepherds (2019–2020) uses a group of  wooden structures as the presenting framework for vertically hung LED screens. Resembling those gothic, pointed-roofed towers but made of light-colored, unfinished, yet partially burned wood studs, they rise in an array of six. Red and black power cords, ropes, and supplies for dog-taming purposes entangle between them. The  screens are respectively playing live simulation videos, which are lively generated by artificial intelligence via deep learning. Each screen focuses on one “AI Social Shepherd” that is monitoring the citizens in “Walden XII,” a fictional medieval world. In the picture, you’ll see figures who act clumsy and choppy, flickering numbers informing nothing clear, and architectures and landscapes with no identical consistency in style yet jumbling in the virtual world. The personalities of these shepherds were designed to correspond to different social classes. For example, the worker was based on the archetype of “Shamate (杀马特)” migrant workers; the snitch refers to “Chaoyang da ma (朝阳大妈)” as well as the werewolf, the scholar, and so forth.

Pilgrimage into Walden XII Chapter Two: Surplus Intelligence (2021–2022) is an animated film commissioned by the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, Italy. It is written by GPT-3, the artificial intelligence textual-generative model, and directed by Miao Ying on a game engine. The protagonist here is a cockroach citizen living in Walden XII. She fell in love with the AI shepherd with the scholar persona, “the Sophisticated King of the Night, Brain L1t3rat1” who was imprisoned for stealing the power stone of Walden XII. Thus, out of her Stockholm-syndrome-like love (in the artist’s terms), the protagonist attempted to rescue him by mining Bitcoin. In front of the projection of this film, there are five wooden chairs for the viewers to seat. Whilst on the back of the chairs, there you read words, written in an English font commonly found in Medieval printed matters: The Five Joyful, The Five Sorrowful, The Five Glory Credits, One Our People (fifteen decades) and Ten Walden Dreams (fifteen decades).

Pilgrimage into Walden XII Chapter Three: Battle for Glorious Magic (2023) is a multi-layered commissioned work by M+ Museum. Its contents include Battle for Glorious Magic, Glorious Magic – Trained NO.1-NO.3, and Spiritual guide of Walden XII. It has combined various formal fabrications such as folding-screen installations and ready-made products for dog taming. When visiting the show, viewers will find that in the mural—a colored, suspected map of Walden XII that writes “www.pilgrimageintowaldentwelve.com,” there is a QR code they can scan and access the same website address. According to the exhibition label, this project also contains interactive Apps that run on AI’s deep learning in real-time, for both smartphones and browsers.

The making of the trilogy began in 2019 and then spanned for four years, encompassing the pandemic of COVID when strict regulation on citizen behavior was globally enforced. Miao Ying drew her inspiration from the utopian novel, Walden II (1948), written by the honored behavioral psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904–1990) and published to shock the world with its much controversial envision of a regulated social structure. The scientific guideline of Skinner’s ideas came from the close connection between behavior and environment, which was revealed in Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s studies on conditioned reflexes. Starting from Pavlov’s Dog, moving on to Skinner’s “Motivate behaviors, so you can modify them,” the behavioral psychology theory that has been widely, long applied in all management scenarios like familial, governmental, and corporative, then to the National credit investigation system which is omnipresent in a Chinese citizen’s daily life, the wandering thoughts might help the audience realize, the utilities for domesticating dogs throughout the installations, likewise the characters of dog, roach citizen, or even the shepherd in deep learning, are all but similes for social subjects. They are situated in brutally controlled environments today. A viewer may further arrive at the contemplation of this assimilated digital world and the fundamental operating power mechanism in the real world.

In Chinese, the title Walden Two has been translated into two versions. One is “Taoyuan Er Cun” , meaning “Peachland Village 2,” the other version is “Wa’er’deng Hu Di’er,” meaning “Walden II,” which directly suggests that Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden was the inspiration, template even, of Skinner’s writing. While Thoreau’s, which delicately describes how natural beauty comforted him and delivers his diligently speculations on inequality and everyday misery of the lower class in his cloistered and humble living, Skinner’s book feels drastically different. Tuned so dry and worded so dull, Skinner’s Walden Pond is rather far away from that supposed synonym of a spiritual retreat—the very reasoning behind “Peachland Village,” the paraphrasing title in the first place. For Chinese readers, Peachland Village immediately recalls the renowned fable, The Peach Blossom Land (tao hua yuan ji) written by Chinese poet and politician, Tao Yuanming in 421 CE.

It was precisely Skinner’s book that Miao Ying picked and used to tame AI. Some of the other “feeds” include the bossy-core, S&M, romantic online novels (translated from Chinese into English), prayer books, and Chinese & American ideological texts. “[This film, Surplus Intelligence] is almost like a simulation, like if Walden Two ran for many, many versions,” said the artist. [1] Through its delivery, this film neatly reveals that the utopia depicted by Skinner is in fact a dystopia. In an interview with WIRED Magazine, Miao introduced her collaboration process with GPT-3 on the film script: “GPT-3 generated a short story at first. Computer science graduate students Michael Barron and Benjamin Hwang worked with me to break it down into parts and fed it back to GPT-3 to develop more from it, which later became the chapters in the film, and we selected what made the most sense from each variation. Once we had the script, I made the visuals. […] I think GPT-3 is developing really fast. When I started working with GPT-3’s predecessor GPT-2 in 2019, it couldn’t write a coherent story. Just a year or two later, it’s much more advanced.”[2] 

“Conundrums” presented at the gallery space of M+ has provided us with the resulting cooperation, which is not easy to accomplish. Miao Ying once said: “An artist should adjust the method in new relationships.”[3]  Now looking back at her creative career, we can see she did complete her demonstration of it, by always staying keen on the constantly emerging phenomena online. In the 2014 solo show, “gif. ISLAND” (V Art Centre, Shanghai), Miao used imagery of everyday technology such as .gifs, memes, selfie perfecting Apps for smartphones, and the visual of iPhone screen. This exhibition marked her deliberation on the Chinese Internet, and its netizens’ astonishing creativity and humor though under harsh surveillance, as well as the first establishment of her term, “Chinternet”. The 2016 solo show, “Content Aware” (MadeIn Gallery M50, Shanghai) extended the aesthetics of graphic editing and established “Practical/Half-Assed Aesthetics” for an era of “super-amateurism,” riding on the wind of post-internet art sweeping across the globe and attention economics boosting. Then in the succeeding Chinternet Plus in the same year and Hardcore Digital Detox in 2018, the compilation of found images from the Internet were joined by other elements like default special effects in PowerPoint, scrolling webpage, or VR 3D modeling videos, whereby, the artist was compared to an “editor” of the webs, resourcefully making use of any cyber materials to explore how ideology had been oriented, publicized and implemented on a state level, and how both the cyber environments and individual consciousness had been shaped, under the manipulative language of grandiose companies and major platforms on the Internet out of branding/marketing purposes.

The Miaoist Virtual Universe is constructed by bright colors and blended styles, which are characteristics shared across figures, like the Muscular Shepherds in a Leizhenzi[4] look, or the cute dinosaur-rhino-pigeon chimera with 8 unicorn-corns in the website of Hardcore Digital Detox, or the reoccurring folding screens, symbolizing separation and exoticism in many of her shows. Throughout her works, the cheap-looking counterfeit landscapes and slightly mischievous fictional narratives were always there, just like those kitschy, yet, no less original “made-up terms” have been. That “look,” seen now as her aesthetic experiment on 3D modeling for games and taming of AI, had its old days “copying” the realistic qualities from cyber pop culture. A decade ago, the 2013–2014 piece, landscape.gif, staged an eccentric “dental clinic,” where numerous tablet devices and electronic albums in various sizes are mounted to each reclining chair, playing looping pixel videos as a fight/fix-fire-with-fire solution for internet addiction; cables and clamps entangled all around the seats, rendering the impression of some heathenish brainwashing ritual. Another piece from the same period, APP-nosis, set up three tent frames, in each lay a square of fake grass, and on top of that lay a pillow customized with snaps from .gifs, while on the wall were projections of blown-up color gradients in the rounded square shape, identical to those icons of iPhone App. Then, adding ocean wave sounds as its soundtrack, the artwork attempted to create a raw experience of immersion and a sublime meditation vibe. Jump to this year—shortly after the opening of Sigg Prize 2023 Exhibition at M+, we’d find Miao Ying’s Technomancy series, showcased at the solo exhibition “Savage winds, a land of stone, Forsaken intelligence, left alone” which opened at Kiang Malingue Tin Wan Studio, Hong Kong. This series is an iteration of the collaged spectacle of readymades 10 years ago, which has been evolving along her creative development into the real-time/duration infinite simulation programs in deep learning. The alternative, fantastic, virtual world created an anchorage-less sense of time and space within the physical gallery rooms, by building “sites” like Polarized Rift or Lava Pit with landscapes of abstracted forms, way too marvelous that they turned chaotic, and a narrating voice that was neither cheering nor recognizable, so as to guide the viewers to empty their thoughts and enter a serene, pondering state of mind; however, for viewers more experienced in video games and better at using controllers, they might enter the “isekai” [5]created by Miao on the screens, hence to identify the AI “alchemist” that “functioned as a black box beyond its creator—the artist,”[6] behind the ever-changing imagery on the front.

The scrolling webpage is carried on as a medium for artmaking in Pilgrimage into Walden XII (“www.pilgrimageintowaldentwelve.com). An interface rather easy to access, the website offers a gateway to those who cannot visit the exhibition in person: by simply browsing, you may learn all about Miao Ying’s works mentioned above. It is also commonly expected to be frequently updated, as a medium for branding/publicizing, while AI’s capacity of real-time digital simulation (RTDS) comes in handy to somehow help with meeting such expectations.

The term “Net Art”, at first referred to the artmaking that takes cyber contents, as well as the media and language particular to the Internet itself as its materials, whereas gradually, the role of artists could no longer be simply the spectator, who only learned and observed the cyberculture; instead, they inevitably threw themselves into it, acted, performed, and became participants in it.

Born in Shanghai in 1985, Miao Ying grew up with the proliferation of information technology. Her first exposure to the computer was in public school. The perfectly clean lab that must be entered with shoe covers worn, with computers still running on DOS before the graphic user interface. Showing talents and interest in painting at a young age, Miao entered the Department of New Media Art, a freshly opened program at China Academy of Art, Hangzhou in 2003 and joined the first class of the New Media major, taking courses on video, the Internet, animation, sound, interactive installation, photography, and so forth. In 2007, she completed the work, Blind Spot, which was a radical take on the censored terms on the domestic Internet, as her graduation piece and the first work directly relevant to the Chinternet in the long run. That was the same year that saw the advent of the iPhone and the pullout of Google from the Chinese market due to internet censorship. After earning her bachelor’s degree, Miao continued her studies abroad in the Department of Electronic Integrated Arts at the School of Art and Design, Alfred University, NY, USA. Her artistic path can also be found in the careers of many other artists of her generation: the one-child policy, financial improvement, art school training, studying abroad, and prosperity in the art world, which altogether led to abundant opportunities for exhibitions, collections, and commissions. Since the turn of the millennium, “new media” established in contrast to the “old media” quartet of traditional Chinese painting, oil painting, printmaking, and sculpture, has become an “old concept.” The once glaring notions of “Internet art” or “post-internet” have faded; terminology and methodology about AI, deep learning, natural language processing (NLP), or RTDS are the new hip. Artworks also transform from featuring objects as “items”—whether real entities or digital assets—to featuring analog “worlds” just like Walden XII did. Rather than fabricating her pink, four-pack, gag-toothed roaches into sculptures, Miao keeps the physical forms in her exhibition more of bare annotation to the digital narratives. In the film Surplus Intelligence, the cockroach protagonist sits on a stone at night in the coolness of forested wilderness, whimsically rocking her tiny legs with her red wings folded, making a vulnerable but life-loving, ultimately adorable individual that strives in the imprisoned life under the enclosed, controlled system. And this image has nothing to do with the disgusting, fearful impression of “xiao qiang (meaning ‘Lil Strong’),” the everyday slang of cockroach that has become a synonym for the filthy yet unkillable. Rather, in the realm of game engines, the authorship synthesized from the artist and the AI has allowed the protagonist to “live” forever.

“I feel like we’re just data, like cockroaches.”[7] The reasoning behind choosing cockroaches to be the figure was simple for Miao Ying, as the logic was rooted in her understanding and speculation on digital ethics. In the Sigg Prize 2023 Exhibition video, Miao used two words to describe Walden XII: “ominous” and “naïve”. “Ominousness” refers to the unknown danger cultivated in distrust towards the information environment and cutting-edge technologies. It is signified by the monopolistic authority of governments and corporations over big data, the new art finance model under the lead of blockchain and NFT, and obviously, the fierce impact in full speed that the prevailing, expanding AI exerts on cyberspaces. “On one hand, I am amazed by the fact that AI is really ‘good’ at generating texts and that it’s still a bit ‘off.’ On the other hand, it’s progressing so fast; having learned everything, all this big data from what existed on the internet, AI throws out its own versions, too. I find ‘history pixelation’ making a lot of sense, and it’s not an exaggeration at all. My concern is that our history is being rewritten so easily that future human generations won’t know what’s true anymore. That’d be a really hard future to imagine.”[8]

“People probably want to believe that they are using tools, instead of the other way around.” [9] This sounds familiar, and it also reveals Miao Ying’s vigilance for the morphing role of an artist: While taming the AI, how can artists avoid the scenario where they actually become the sheep that AI shepherds?

Ling Gu
An active writer, translator, and editor. She endeavours to explore the possibilities of writing on contemporary art.

Translated by Wang Zhuxin


[1] Jennifer Conrad, “How GPT-3 Wrote a Movie About a Cockroach-AI Love Story”, Wired, 5 Aug 2022; https://www.wired.com/story/ai-artist-miao-ying-qanda/ [accessed 5 Dec 2022].

[2]  Ibid.

[3] “Miao Ying on ‘Content Aware’”, published on 3 Jul 2016; https://www.artforum.com.cn/interviews/9680, [accessed 11 Dec 2023].

[4] A character in the classic Chinese novel Investiture of the Gods (fengsheng yanyi).

[5] Japanese pronunciation for “the other world”.

[6] https://kiangmalingue.com/exhibitions/miao-ying-savage-winds-a-land-of-stone-forsaken-intelligence-left-alone/ [Accessed 11 December 2023].

[7] Jennifer Conrad, “How GPT-3 Wrote a Movie About a Cockroach-AI Love Story”, Wired, 5 Aug 2022; https://www.wired.com/story/ai-artist-miao-ying-qanda/ [accessed 5 Dec 2022].

[8] “Miao Ying: Pixelated Pasts”, M+ website, published on 25 Sep 2023; https://www.mplus.org.hk/en/magazine/miao-ying-artist-interview-sigg-prize-2023/ [accessed 11 Dec 2023].

[9] Miao Ying on ‘Content Aware’”, published on 3 Jul 2016; https://www.artforum.com.cn/interviews/9680, [accessed 11 Dec 2023].