What: ‘Thunderclap’ is a steganographic fashion zine, that instrumentalizes fashion accessories to distribute the erased writings of Chinese anarcho-feminist, He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920), back into the public sphere.
Where: Project realised during artist-in-resident programme at I:projectspace, Beijing, China
When: March - May 2017
Steganography as form of secret writing, is the art and science of hiding information within public information. At the centre of this practice is the instrumentalization of the innocent to reach new audiences and evade surveillance, censorship and control. Fashion is generally regarded as ‘toothless’ or ‘politically harmless’. Can this apparent innocence be instrumentalized as a cover to spread alternative knowledge?
“Thunderclap” attempts to answer this provocation by steganographically distributing the work of He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920?), — an early female theorist who figured centrally in the birth of Chinese feminism — on fashion accessories such as patches and ribbons on clothing. These accessories contain quotes from He-Yin Zhen’s essay in English nested around a QR code that when scanned, downloads her original Chinese writing.
This action aims to reinsert He-Yin Zhen's writing back into Chinese history and public knowledge because her bold writings were considered radical and dangerous in her lifetime and gradually have been erased from the historical record in China. Furthermore, her writings reminds us that feminism is not only a contemporary (Western) consciousness but also one that was articulated in imperial China.
Central to the ‘Thunderclap’ project is the idea of instrumentalization, the practice of using one thing to achieve another. Firstly, utilising the medium of fashion as a ‘walking zine’ – an alternative and self-publishing medium that is simultaneously intimate (private) and broadcasted to the masses (public).
Secondly, taking advantage of decoration and ornamentations’ mass appeal as a covert vehicle to spread and distribute alternative knowledge and more specifically English text as an information lubricant and ‘scanbait’. The current Chinese fashion trend is to use English text on clothes as a value signifier. The aesthetics of Western culture is signified through latin based alphabet and literally becomes the embodiment of ‘high culture’. This popularity allows for further distribution and circulation. Similiarly, the QR code is used for its ubiquity in China – that it has become a ‘habitualised’ mode of information access and as a result it’s pervasive visual presence inadvertently provides an inconspicuous cover.
And thirdly, the weaponisation of decoration and ornamentation as an act of steganographic publishing that considers the safety of the people that distribute her writing. In this way, the instrumentalization of decoration negotiates and balances visibility and invisibility, exclusion and inclusion, online and offline, subversion and innocence.
For the final event, I turned my studio into a DIY space where visitors customised their clothes with ‘Thunderclap’ patches & ribbons, transforming them into a walking steganographic fashion zine. Sales of ribbons and patches are available from I:projectspace’s wechat shop within China. For sales outside China, please contact me.
Thunderclap is the first manifestation of the larger body of research called ‘The New Nüshu’ that investigates Chinese feminism, language politics, steganography and publishing in the context of China.
Photography: Jeff Yiu
Models: Zhuxin Wang, Tu Lang, Amelie Kahn-Ackermann