I’m Watching You, Now On Video: Tech and Partying in Shanghai in the Age of Surveillance

Step into Shanghai’s ALL Club and be greeted by the sight of bleached mullets galore, avant-garde deconstructed designer pants featuring tongue-in-cheek graphic design, and hypermodern accessories straddling the aesthetic subcultures of techwear, kitsch, and what can only be described as a spacey it’s-so-ugly-it’s-hot sentimentality. ALL Club is the hub of Shanghai’s new alternative youth clubbing culture, with an “underground” following of chic digital creators and high-tech neo-modern style gurus pushing the boundaries of what’s cool, what’s weird, and what’s aesthetically displeasing and thus stimulating. Weekends feature D.J.s veering steeply into niche experimental genres — next wave U.K. bass offshoots, darker techno — paired with a big screen playing video art of deepfake simulations (falsified videos and other media using artificial intelligence) and kitschy three-dimensional graphics ranging from cyborgs copulating to bondage-clad aliens tattooed with traditional Chinese characters crawling through negative space. As one review puts it: “It’s some austere, art-damaged shit.” What ALL demonstrates is that technology, fashion, and art are not untangling anytime soon.

Every summer, I visit Shanghai, the city of my mother’s family, to take classes, meet up with art school classmates, and pay respects to my grandparents’ graves. Each trip leaves me with a deep impression of Shanghai’s incredibly rich urban landscape, newly budding art scene, and fast-changing socio-political zeitgeist. Growing up as a queer woman of East Asian descent in an economically downtrodden and politically corrupt country like Hungary has equipped me with a deep-seated interest in the marginal narratives often ignored by dominant groups positioned in power. 

In Shanghai, youth subcultures supported by places like ALL are deemed alternative because they demonstrate an increasing interest in the hedonistic, nihilistic, and even fetishistic artistic spaces denied young people by mainstream Chinese culture. Alternative subcultures have always occupied a marginal space within any cultural ethnography: they appeal to their participants by offering an escapist way of life via unfamiliar aesthetic pleasures and cultural codes, inhabiting a delicious gray space between established mainstream taboos and a self-defined cultural language of freedom. Frequenters of places like ALL accessorize in unconventional and perhaps jarring ways, bop to music that is essentially “un-danceable”, share themselves on social media apps outside the reach of mainland Chinese censorship, and communicate an alternative way of expressing their body and beauty. In doing so, club-goers offer a glib response to the increasing pressures of an outside world that seeks to control them both in taste and in self-expression: take yourself less seriously and please, have a look.

As of 2018, the People’s Republic of China has equipped nearly 200 million surveillance cameras around the country, amounting to a one-to-seven camera-to-civilian ratio, with Comparitech reporting Shanghai to be the world’s third most surveilled city per capita (nearly three million CCTV cameras for twenty-six million people) following Chongqing and Shenzhen. Consequently, the Chinese public serves as a prime example of Foucauldian self-surveillance, where the knowledge of being watched and therefore policed underscores day-to-day life. A would-be scenic walk down tourist-thronged Nanjing East Road towards The Bund is accompanied by a dozen policemen, traffic lights, and surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology. Anybody who jaywalks is captured on screen and displayed with a message in red lettering warning against disorder. A surveilled public body is a body encouraged to mold into the image of the collective and reject the very individuality that Shanghai’s alternative youths display, both in appearance and comportment. To pierce an unusual orifice, dye one’s hair, or resuscitate a hairstyle long deemed too ugly to keep around requires a certain exhibitionist streak — a desire to be looked at and a pleasure in being viewed, whether the attention is positive or not. Though it may not be intentional on the part of alt-Shanghai, to take pleasure in being looked at in a state which encourages public modesty and social collectivity — to revel in one’s individual exposure — is a form of rebellion.

This flamboyant exhibitionism is highlighted in the video art reels playing on loop behind the elevated D.J. platform on the laser-streaked dance floor. The videos embrace wacky and arrhythmic jump cut editing, eyeball-bleaching neon colors, and flashy A.I. dance moves that come off a tinge unpredictable, combining elements of horror, experimental, and video game genres. A sardonic kind of humor thrives within these videos: they’re over-the-top, visually compelling in unconventional ways, and self-consciously embracing a technology that is increasingly omnipresent in quotidian Chinese life. D.J.s, filmmakers, and visual artists with aliases such as “BurgerSuicideClub”, “Iglooghost”, and “nyoROBOtics” generate art in a manner that is light-hearted and unapologetically self-indulgent; they seem to say: You want to watch? So watch.

Art, in this way, has always resonated with me as a means of self-invention and regenerative production; through the labor of creating original work, we may create our untold truths and add dimension to an otherwise monolithic understanding of shared human experience. To that end, at an academically-oriented college like Swarthmore, where pockets of little artistic hubs exist in their own small orbits, any person partaking in creative generation is subject to a kind of marginalization that renders their practice radical solely because it exists. To Swarthmore: support and fund the creative arts!

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