Laser Rain, is a project talking about “Tuwei”(土味). Directly translated as “dust taste”, Tuwei describes rural aesthetics which fails to meet the taste of the urban mainstream in China. The aesthetics are frequently used in video app Kuaishou(快手), a rural version of TikTok, which is especially popular among the young rural population.
Besides its raw visual quality, What interested me about Tuwei is its definition. Tuwei is a very vague word, it can describe forms that have no visual similarities: it can be a meme, a filter, a special effect, a dance move, a rap style, a short drama, etc. Then what makes a Tuwei video? Content makers from villages or rural background? I thought about this for a long time and my conclusion is that it is not just the rural environment that makes a Tuwei video because Tuwei is quite different from the common definition of rural aesthetics which evolves natural scenes and organic lifestyle, but the “rural imitation” and ”rural appropriation” of an urban lifestyle that create these unique aesthetics.
If you watch a lot of Tuwei videos, you may find some scenes that have clear pop culture references. Young boys dressing like gangster members and dancing on a square reminds you of Hong Kong gangster movies like Youth and Danger; A girl finding her boyfriend cheating on her and slapping him in the middle of the road reminds you of Korean soup operas; A swordsman fighting back some punks in the modern city is a mixture of time-travel drama and martial art movie; Children singing and using costume filters is inspired by some Chinese costume drama. All those imitations are on a low budget, and the rural scenes are often revealed in the background. I found this kind of imitation and appropriation of pop culture fascinating because I felt some ambiguous emotion in it. On one hand, the acting is exaggerated and scenes are cliche, which reveals content makers’ lack of skills and desire of getting attention, but on the other hand, the particular themes they imitated hint at their sincere emotional needs. The power of gang bosses and swordsmen is what they are longing for, while a relationship, even a failed one reflects the need for love —- Power and love are exactly what village teenagers are lack in real life. Such imitation of pop culture reflects Tuwei creators’ imagination of a fancy life, or more specifically, the imagination of urban life. So this is what Tuwei interested me most and this is how I define Tuwei: a rural version of urban life. And that’s why imitation and appropriation become the main theme of this project.
The other interesting thing is how the meaning of Tuwei transits from the rural population to the urban population. Tuwei maybe means an emotional expression for the rural population, but the word was initially a negative word invented by social media users in the cities which satirizes the poor taste of rural people. However, a bunch of urban teenagers (and artists like me) found such unique aesthetics and tried to turn the negative judgment around. Tuwei, the aesthetics which appropriates city culture has been reintroduced to the city and has become a new kind of grassroots subculture. From this perspective, I found it interesting to compare Tuwei with other grassroots culture such as Punk and HipHop (But I’m pessimistic about Tuwei becoming the Chinese version of Punk or HipHop).
Back to the visual work, I spent a lot of energy balancing “participation” and “analysis”. I want to keep the vitality of Tuwei culture, but don’t want my visual work to be too easy and obvious. The work is mainly composed of my own images participating in Tuwei aesthetics: trying a lot of filters, using special effects, and forming Chinese characters with my selfies. And I chose to hide my analysis in several parts: First, most importantly I categorize Tuwei appropriation into four genres: gangster movie, martial arts, soap operas, and costume drama. The second is comparing some movie clip references with the appropriated Tuwei ones. I also added more “rural” elements in the video by directly appropriating natural scenes Kuaishou users shot and by cutting out the still image of village buildings. What’s more, the sentences I showed in Chinese characters are mostly pop song lyrics, which express fragile sentiments.