Unerasable Characters I / 刪不了的符號 I

Image courtesy Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Photograph: Andrew Curtis

Description:

The unerasable series explores the politics of erasure and the temporality of voices within the context of digital authoritarianism. It presents the sheer scale of unheard voices by technically examining and culturally reflecting the endlessness, and its wider consequences, of censorship that is implemented through technological platforms and infrastructure.

See the artworks in the unerasable series: Unerasable Images, Unerasable Characters I, Unerasable Characters II, and Unerasable Characters III.

The series of Unerasable Characters collects unheard voices in the form of censored/erased (permission denied) textual data. This is based on one of the biggest social media platforms in China – Weibo via the system called “Weiboscope“, a data collection and visualization project developed by Dr. Fu King-wa from The University of Hong Kong. The system has been regularly sampling timelines of a set of selected Chinese microbloggers who have more than 1,000 followers or whose posts are frequently censored.


Unerasable Characters I presents two components in relation to Machine Learning: First is the input data that was collected between 30 June 2021 and 30 June 2022, containing 54064 sample censored posts and presented in a stack of papers with more than 6000 pages. Second is the predictive/output data from each iteration of machine learning training processes, based on the censored input text, in the form of a DIY book with customized binding tools. Inspired by the community movements especially white paper protest and blank paper revolution, the book is meant to be generative yet unreadable to circumvent censorship. This also challenges the common use of machine learning with precise accuracy and effective production. The project asks: is this a forbidden book?

This version also considers the notion of piracy that scrapes and organises erased textual materials. By using free and open source software and libraries, DIY book binding tools (developed and supported by rojal.se) and computational publishing (html to print), the project explores the commons: infrastructure of (generative) erasure, creating its own form of DO It Yourself approach as a way to rethink erasure beyond deletion, especially building solidary and generating allliances. When text is no longer fixed and restricted but generative and malleable like water, what forms of meanings, relations, marks and traces have been altered and emerged?

Info:

  • Year of Production: 2022
  • Medium: Installation: DIY Book (81x25cm, 14.2 kg, 2652pp), Paper Stack (6564 pp)
  • Technical Production:
    • Python, HTML, CSS, Paged.js
    • The project source code here
  • Acknowledgements:
    • Dr. King-wa FU, Weiboscope research project
    • Greg Surma, Text Predictor
    • Olle Essvik and Joel Nordqvist from Rojal
    • Miriam Kelly, Shelly McSpedden and Samantha Vawdrey
    • Commissioned by Australian Centre for Contemporary Art

Review/Press:

The work of Winnie Soon confronts us with questions of agency and control in the context of a regime using the digital infrastructure to exert censorship. - Interview with Ars Electronica (2023)

Although Soon’s work serves as stern commentary on the increased role of pervasive, automated digital surveillance infrastructure in the control and erasure of dissenting voices, it also highlights the opportunity created through the combination of digital “breadcrumbs” and algorithmic techniques. - Statement of the Ars Electronica's Jury (2023)

Winnie Soon’s Unerasable characters series of 2020-22 presents another fold in these processes. Laid across a web browser, a stretched out screen, and in physical pages, each art piece evokes different poetics and temporalities of erasure. Across the series are also reminders that erasure is not unidirectional but instead, shaped by many interactions where each piece draws the audience in as part of its landscape of un/erasing. The characters shown in the Unerasable characters series—while placed on centre stage—is in a way, meaningless. They are lifted from their sensitive context and abstracted, where the sum of the extensive labour of censorship become nonsensical. We are left guessing the answers to unseen parts of the equations: Who do these words belong to? Why were they condemned to erasure? How do they fit in the larger machinery of remembering and forgetting? As the individual characters that house these complexities disappear in one form, do they cease to exist, or do they persist in other forms? - Yung (2023)

Exhibition/Publishing Record(s):

  • 2024, Hello Human, MoCA, Taipei
  • 2023, Matsudo International Art Science Festival 2023, Japan
  • 2023, Ars Electronica, Austria (Received the Golden Nica in the Artificial Intelligence and Life Art Category)
  • 2022-2023, Data Relations, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Australia