What: ‘Thunderclap’ is a steganographic zine, that piggybacks on fashion accessories to publicly distribute the erased writings of Chinese anarcho-feminist, He-Yin Zhen (1886-1920).
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 disguising hidden information within public information. At the centre of this practice is the instrumentalisation of the innocent to reach new audiences and evade surveillance, censorship and control. Thunderclap employs steganography to publicly redistribute the suppressed work of Chinese anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen (1886–1920) through the medium of clothing accessories. The work I made was designed to camouflage into the streets of Beijing by co-opting shanzhai fashion, the Chinese phenomenon that features nonsense English together with a QR code, as a covert system to publish sensitive knowledge that is designed for a Chinese context.
He-Yin was a theorist who figured prominently in the birth of Chinese feminism in the early twentieth century. The ribbons and embroidered patches contain translated English quotes taken from He-Yin’s essays and are nested around the QR code. When passersby scan the code, they can download her original Chinese writing. Through the use of these ‘politically harmless’ accessories, knowledge of He-Yin – considered too radical in her lifetime – can circulate and her work can resist further erasure from historical records. He-Yin’s writings remind us that feminism is not only a contemporary concept or a Western movement but also one that was articulated in imperial China. By embedding these contemporary accessories with quotes from largely forgotten feminist texts, this act of embodied publishing attempts to reinstate He-Yin’s writing back into the public arena.
Central to the Thunderclap project is the practice of using one thing to achieve another. Firstly, clothing was my medium of choice because it instrumentalises and subverts mainstream beliefs that clothing and fashion are superficial. Fashion scholar Sophie Woodward points out how popular and academic discourse treats clothing and fashion as unimportant because it is linked with how the philosophy of the body in the West divides the inner intangible ‘self’ from the frivolity of the surface. Thus fashion and clothing as material objects worn on the body are considered less significant pieces of culture.
Secondly, I wanted to piggyback on fashion to create a ‘walking zine’. The idea here is that fashion accessories act as an alternative pub- lishing medium. They bring the public and the private together – worn on the body, the ribbons and patches are intimate, but worn in the streets their message is distributed to the masses.
Thirdly, shanzhai fashion is ripe for steganographic instrumentalisation. Its English characters are not designed to be read but rather to function as an ornament and value signifier of Western culture, embodying ‘high culture’, ‘edginess’ and ‘coolness’. However, for English readers, texts may appear as Dada poetry, accidental wisdom or absurd word salads. An inverted equivalent is Asian-looking tattoos in the West, where Asian characters are often hilariously misspelled. In this case, the tattoos’ connotation is usually the ‘exotic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘spiritual’. Thunderclap takes advantage of the illegibility of English in the context of its use as ornamentation, reclaiming the aestheticisation of foreign language as a steganographic cover. Meanwhile the popularity of the English-language trend helps to further the products’ distribution and circulation.
Another tactical site for steganography is the QR code, a technology made massively popular in China thanks to the QR scanner built into WeChat, the nation’s most widely used app. Just to give you an idea of its level of ubiquity – informal street vendors and beggars use QR codes as modes of transaction. In light of QR’s pervasive visual presence, it inadvertently provides guileless disguise for sensitive knowledge to travel.
Finally, Thunderclap exploits fashion’s popularity, so that trends become a sort of ‘safety measure’ for people distributing He-Yin Zhen’s words on their bodies. My decision to use English instead of Chinese was also because it masks statements that may otherwise attract unwanted physical contact. In this way, the work negotiates and balances visibility and invisibility, exclusion and inclusion, online and offline environments, and subversion and innocence.
For the final event, I turned my studio into a DIY sewing space and shop. Visitors could customise their own clothes with ‘Thunderclap’ patches & ribbons and transform themselves into walking steganographic fashion zines. 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