And this is where things start to get tricky. Just as it has been more or less established that there are multiple modernities, the temporalities of the post-internet condition are, by nature, even more erratically stacked. The illusions of instant accessibility and simultaneity mask the elementary reality that time functions differently—radically so—across the web. The Chinese language alone, for instance, exhibits a remarkable range of temporalities in cyberspace. Antiquarian usages are still broadly employed—both earnestly and sarcastically—while new semiotic spaces and topic-specific discourses—evident in digital subcultures and nimble censorship-circumventing strategies—are being generated with exhilarating speed. Korean, Japanese, and English terms are swiftly and pragmatically borrowed without translation, absorbed, and put into wide circulation, mutating through lifecycles that span a matter of hours. This crucial significance of linguistic structure as an exogenous influence on internet discourse explains why even the most vigilant proponents of the “post-internet” discourse on art fail to grapple with any area of cyberspace mediated by languages other than major Western ones.
Consider the simultaneous and accumulating commentaries floating across online videos. These “bullet screens” enable real-time production of languages and syntax. The distortion of time-space that, according to the theory of relativity, occurs at very high speeds—a popular sci-fi trope seen in films such as Interstellar—may not be too far-fetched an analogy for the experience of different linguistically- and culturally-specific cyberspaces. The post-internet condition only accelerates relativity and differentiation. It is a fundamentally linguistic condition—not simply in the sense of language, but also because it concerns what is in circulation and how specific forms of circulation mediate meaning, including that of visual materials (especially those not conspicuously characterized by internet fashionableness).
This is why, when dealing with cultural production informed by these new temporal and semantic algorithms, translation has never been less effective. It can’t keep up. There is guaranteed semiotic breakage at every interpretive turn. Speaking the language isn’t enough; one has to speak the meme in order to meaningfully participate, even as a spectator. The Englishness (English in the linguistic sense) and Britishness (British in the cultural and ideological sense) of Boaty McBoatface, for instance, can never be meaningfully translated. Fluency is no guarantee of comprehension when memes become ever more culturally, politically, and linguistically specific. Such an intricate set of specificities creates different kinds of representational politics which are too often reduced to postcolonial thought and American racial dynamics, both widely mistaken as universal. Curatorial or academic efforts to find digestible, local manifestations of the dominant “post-internet” rhetoric usually end up finding no more than preconceived spectacles. Of course, anyone can try to understand Chinese cyberspace without speaking the language, but it would be nearly impossible to fathom its quirks and glitches to say nothing of its heart of darkness.
The obligation towards translation is sinister. The “other” has gained a voice, but only to continuously explain, qualify, and make sense of itself. The dense hermeneutics of context-explaining takes up much of the space necessary for the real dialogue required by any ambitiously speculative and interdisciplinary artistic practices operating outside the Euro-American epistemological comfort zone. More insidious is the continued prevalence of self-exoticizing art practices with built-in, bite-size, self-explanatory mechanisms. From the perspective of contemporary China, many have begun to realize the absurdity of a patronizing, well-intentioned, supposedly self-critical postcolonial gaze cast upon a cultural entity that never had an internalized colonial history (not to mention the colonial legacy of China); that gaze in turn attracts artistic and curatorial practices that cater and subscribe—consciously or otherwise—to the seductive charm of a fake intellectual consensus, albeit one with very real power at its disposal. The international curatorial circuit is permeated by such smug moral grandstanding. Experimental capacity within new forms of knowledge and aesthetic production is crippled or foreclosed in advance by the handsome rewards awaiting superficial engagements that turn a blind eye to the full, uncomfortable potency of their subjects.