Miao Jiaxin

Aimee Lin looks at recent evolutions in the work of the New York-based performance artist, from the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia

By Aimee Lin

‚Jail’s Seeking Prisoners, 2014. Courtesy the artist Blind Meeting in Bushwick – A Tribute to Barbara DeGenevieve, 2014. ‚Courtesy the artist ‚Jail’s Seeking Prisoners, 2014. Courtesy the artist ‚Tuition Laundering, 2011, in collaboration with Heeran Lee, performance, 19,909 $1 bills, bathtub, clotheslines, ironing board. Courtesy the artist Collaboration #4, 2010, live webfeed stills, in collaboration with Ei Jane Janet Lin. Courtesy the artist

Towards the end of November 2014, having announced the conclusion of his Jail’s Seeking Prisoners project, Miao Jiaxin described himself as physically and mentally exhausted. Then he announced the launch of two new projects during the following two weeks: Blind Meeting in Bushwick and We Share Possible. The odd English expression of the second of these floods onto the Miao Jiaxin Studio Facebook page, is ‘liked’ by people connected to him and ‘shared’ to even more. Originally from Shanghai, Miao has lived in the United States for the past ten years. And in case you hadn’t guessed, he believes that the future of art is online. Having performed at several art fairs and gallery openings, and in the wake of a solo gallery project that died on the vine last year, Miao decided to initiate a new practice that would operate outside the conventional gallery and institutional systems.

Jail’s Seeking Prisoners was announced on Miao’s newly created studio Facebook page on 30 June 2014. Adopting the business model of short-term rental on the online platform Airbnb, the artist converted a small room in the hipster Bushwick neighbourhood in Brooklyn into a jail, complete with a 1.83 by 2.44 by 1.83m cage, advertised it for rent at a rate of $1 per night, but in exchange required the lessees to be ‘prisoners’ in his jail: they must remain in the cage for three hours a day and be monitored by a camera in the room, with the footage broadcast online in real time. The plan was first published on Airbnb (where Miao had a very good reputation as an apartment host), but the site excluded the room, and Miao shifted to Facebook.

The notice was widely circulated via social media, eventually gaining the attention of the mass media, and the ‘jail’ was almost instantly booked for three months solid. It was listed on a local lifestyle website, and became a ‘New York or Brooklyn experience’ for tourists. But this was not the first time that Miao used social media and live broadcasting as part of an artwork. While studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and working on his Collaboration series (2010–11), he opened a live channel on an interactive amateurpornographic website in order to achieve a wider audience for his work. In Collaboration #3 (2010), Miao and his collaborator Ei Jane Janet Lin conducted each other (baton in hand) ‘singing’ sex moans. The audience knew that the performance was a fabrication – the noise was live but the video, a facial closeup of Lin, was recorded.

The idea of the ‘cage’ came because when he first left China for United States, he felt as if he had left a cage. However, he moved to New York, where he now holds down three jobs simultaneously, and in that respect he’s still confined to a cage, this time an existential one

Jail’s Seeking Prisoners opened with a performance by Miao – his ‘suggestion’ to future ‘prisoners’ of what they might want to do in his jail. It lasted three hours, every ten minutes of which the artist repeated the boring routine of daily life: getting up, washing and dressing, going around in circles and going back to bed. The idea of the ‘cage’, he explained later, came because when he first left China for United States, he felt as if he had left a cage. However, in the US, after completing his MFA in Chicago, he moved to New York, where he now holds down three jobs simultaneously: a fulltime job as a commercial photographer at a furniture company, running a short-term apartment-rental business through Airbnb and being an artist. In fact, all three are fulltime occupations for Miao, and in that respect he’s still confined to a cage (he can never take a vacation, for example), this time an existential cage: perhaps life itself is a cage.

When the first photograph of Miao’s cage was circulated, people immediately compared Jail’s Seeking Prisoners to Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978– 1979 (Cage Piece), in which the Taiwan-born, New York-based artist locked himself in a 3.5 by 2.7 by 2.4m wooden cage for a whole year with nothing more than the essential furnishings. During that time he was not allowed to talk, to read, to write, or to listen to radio or watch TV. Once a day a friend would come to photograph the artist, take away his waste and deposit his food, while a lawyer notarised the entire performance. There are a few similarities between the works, among them the use of a legal tool (in Miao’s case, the contract signed by the participants), and the use of photographic documentary. And of course, the design of Miao’s cage is a tribute by a fellow artist to his ‘master’ (a word that Marina Abramovic also uses when talking about Hsieh). But there is an important difference between the two works.

While Hsieh arrived in New York as an illegal immigrant in 1974, was granted amnesty and eventually obtained his US citizenship in 1988, Miao got his green card, then his US passport, just a few years after he began working and studying in the country. Moreover Miao’s project is fundamentally based on social media (Airbnb and Facebook) and the economic and broadcasting opportunities that it offers – viewing (live streaming) and propagation (‘shares’ and ‘likes’, as well as more conventional interviews on television, newspaper and online media) – while Hsieh’s work is an extreme representation of the confinement that was a feature of daily life during the period of martial law in Taiwan (1948–87). In Miao’s case, the artist builds up the structure by establishing a regulation that he is not required to follow (after the project finished, Miao claimed that the time he spent in the cage marked the only time it was used as a venue rather than as a ‘jail’). It’s the participants who follow the rules and thus provide the content of the work. These days, performance art is normally interpreted as a form of autobiography, which is something Miao sought to distance himself from last year, when he started crediting projects as being authored by his studio rather than himself.

It was precisely these moments of boredom that distinguished the project from the average TV reality show. There were times when the live stream looked like a still image in which the clock in the background was the only thing moving

In 110 days, 42 people from a variety of backgrounds participated in Jail’s Seeking Prisoners. Among them were artists who wanted to use it as a stage to conduct their own performances, art critics and journalists conducting fieldwork for articles, an anonymous New Yorker who wished to fulfil his prison fantasy and tourists wanting to add it to their New York experience. But the majority of people stayed in the cage, sitting still – which partially explains why only one third of the dozen or so interviews that Miao did for television were ever broadcast: the scene was just too boring. However it was precisely these moments of boredom that distinguished the project from the average TV reality show. There were times when the live stream looked like a still image in which the clock in the background was the only thing moving. To Miao, this kind of moment allowed online viewers to project their own imagination into the scene, to imagine themselves in the jail. If Hsieh’s Cage Piece reveals the human body’s confined and mute status under martial law, then Miao’s live-streaming videos show the antiperformativity (or deadness) of the human body in the era of media, image, exposure, voyeurism and instant fame.

Jail’s Seeking Prisoners was originally planned to last one year, but soon after it started, Miao switched to a conceptual position, telling himself that the project was actually realised at the moment the idea was announced. His addiction to regulations, or in his own word, ‘rules’, is ironically a strategy by which he seeks to replace the numerous written and unwritten rules of everyday life with a few simple rules – rules that unburden rather than burden participants in a work such as Jail’s Seeking Prisoners. As an existentialist, though maintaining a positive attitude towards Internet technology and mobilisation via social media, Miao believes life itself is art and, crucially, that art is action rather than presentation. Therefore, to perform is to take action to reveal the individual being and to test social relations, rather than to practise performative activities. All this foretells antiperformativity, a genetic mutation in his performance artist’s body. From the view of ‘participatory art’, the participants called by Miao through social media are not ‘contributive receivers’, but the ‘subject of content making’. Therefore, what is created in Miao’s work is not the relation of performative art expression and its receiver, but the social relation that is established in real or imitative economic activities defined by regulations.

And so we come to Miao’s latest projects, again promoted via his advertising (which he studied in China) and commercial photography skills. In Blind Meeting in Bushwick: A Tribute to Barbara DeGenevieve, Miao promises to provide two strangers – who must only be known to each other through social media – three days of free accommodation in Bushwick, and in return they must spend 24 hours together in a single room. They can do anything in this room, but are not allowed to leave the room, or sleep, and not surprisingly, every minute will be broadcast in real time on livestream.com. (The project is a tribute to artist Barbara DeGenevieve, who during her cancer treatment invited Miao for a 24-hour nonsleep project, but sadly passed away before they could realise it.) We Share Possible, meanwhile, takes the form of contemporary consumer marketing campaigns, in which five street artists from around the world will receive sneaker sponsorship from Miao Jiaxin Studio for a year. Brooklyn artist Matthew Silver, a local street icon, is the first to get his white, no-brand, $25, amazon.com-bought sneakers. Miao has subsequently made a series of photography advertisements featuring Matthew Silver wearing the sneakers on the street, then rendered the images on street billboards, even investing in a banner ad on New York hipsters’ favourite art website hyperallergic.com.

At the time of writing, Blind Meeting in Bushwick and We Share Possible had just been announced and were in the process of starting up. A prudent art critic requires at least a few more months before commenting or coming to any conclusions about Miao’s antigallery, anti-institution practice, and his autonomous practice under the name of ‘Miao Jiaxin Studio’ and its mask of agency (apartment host and advertisement agent). For now, all we can do is to observe a moment of change, as Miao’s art practice aims at writing a personal art history on the scale of human life, in a contemporary context.  

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.