Educational technology as a cultural bridge

Today’s CALRG event was a talk by Tim Coughlan, entitled: ‘Co-creating technologies to structure interpretation with museum and gallery collections.’ In the talk, he discussed a few projects that integrated technology with viewing cultural or historical artifacts (think: art, sculptures, museums). The aim of his research was to encourage the viewer’s engagement with and understanding of such artifacts.

His talk got me thinking about a recent visit to the Royal Academy of Arts in London for the Ai Weiwei exhibit. The experience included a touchscreen audioguide for each visitor, which used audio commentary, videos, and photos to explain the significance of each piece.

Ai Weiwei’s art is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, politics and history, so it’s a bit difficult to grasp the weight of the messages behind his works without a fairly nuanced understanding of China or the Chinese language. So when these pieces are brought outside of the context in which they are made, such as this exhibit in London, one risk is that the experiences of many Western viewers will be diminished and that they will be unable to engage very deeply with it.

Maybe the best example is his piece ‘He Xie’. To understand the significance of ‘He Xie,’ you first have to understand that Ai Weiwei built a massive (and expensive) studio near Shanghai in 2010, only to have the finished product demolished by the Chinese government (more info about that here). The government cited Ai had not applied for a project planning licence, but Ai argued the demolition was actually in response to his recent human rights activism. In the London gallery, ‘He Xie’ was placed in a room with a few art pieces that Ai made out of the rubble of his destroyed studio. Upon first look at the piece, it doesn’t seem to immediately fit:

Source: personal photograph

But if you had an understanding of modern Chinese netizen culture and Chinese language, the message is striking. You see (bear with me here), the use of he xie is a play on words. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning the same word in a different tone has a (sometimes drastically) different meaning. At the same time, a word has different written characters for each verbal tone.  Using one set of tones, he xie (河蟹) means ‘river crab,’ but using different tones, it means ‘harmonious’ (和谐). Taking it one step further, the ‘harmonious society’ (和谐社会) is a key ideology of the Communist Party of China, which was often touted by former President Hu Jintao.

What is the connection here, you might be wondering? The Chinese government has argued that censorship leads to this harmonious society. So when the world ‘censorship’ itself was censored online, Chinese netizen culture started using the ‘river crab’ meaning of he xie (using in writing: 河蟹) in place of the word ‘censorship.’ This way, they could in bypass having their political posts censored or deleted by automatic word detection software. Long story short: the river crab has become a symbol of censorship in modern Chinese online lingo.

Now that you know that, the message Ai Weiwei is sending in this exhibit is a little more clear. His pile of crabs in the corner of the room is drawing attention to the censorship he felt when his studio was demolished (he even served a massive crab feast in protest the night before the demolition). But without having that technology incorporated into this exhibit, you might have just thought, ‘Hey cool crabs,’ and admired their handiwork.

In this situation, technology helped bridge cultural gaps to allow for a deeper understanding and interaction with art.  You no longer needed a background in Chinese language or politics to appreciate what Ai had made. Further, you could probably argue that by using the audioguide, visitors were more engaged with and learned more about modern China through the eyes of the artists. ‘He Xie’ was no longer just a pile of crabs on the floor.

It’s not a far jump to apply this idea more generally to education. When used correctly, incorporating educational technology can help make culturally symbolic objects relevant in a vastly different context. Just as technology has helped rapidly usher in globalization, it can be used as a tool to make sense of all of the ‘new-ness’ associated with increased interaction between cultures. And that, in my opinion, is pretty cool.


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