Teaching Computer Arts to Chinese students using Emoji

How emoticons helped us to overcome the language gap.

In November 2013, together with Giovanni Fredi, I held a Computer Art course at the LABA international Academy of Arts, based in Ningbo, China.
Here you can read some thoughts about this great experience that really changed my point of view about design, education and aesthetic.

Teaching to a chinese class could be very hard,
if you don’t speak a word of Chinese

The first problem in teaching was the need to talk through an interpreter. Most young Chinese people can’t speak english at all, so we realized we couldn’t establish a direct relationship with them. As a teacher, you don’t have any authority if you can’t talk directly to students and you can’t scold or gratify them.

Ugly is the new beautiful?

As soon as we started the course we understood that students were very bored by the Computer Art program, which contained a huge part of theoretical lessons. Understanding subjects as Net.art implies that you are confident with the history of western contemporary art and with the conceptual works of the nineteenth century.
Often, computer artists make an extreme uses of new technologies, sometimes pushing the digital aesthetic to its boundaries.


Due to their very different cultural conception of art and beauty, the students were wary of the artworks discussed during class, sometimes judging them as ugly or stupid, sometimes misunderstanding (or missing) the social activism hidden behind the works of many net.artists.
During the lessons we realized that the concept of beauty is different in Asia, and the same is true for the concepts of elegance, order or creativity.

In western society one of the main goal of a creative person is to reach originality, to be different, to make something new. But in our chinese classroom it seems this wasn’t so appealing. The school programs, the tradition of copying, the cultural environment and the government laws work together to annihilate every personal initiative (except for the business one, of course).

Since the firsts years of school, students learn to copy the work of the masters, developing great skills such as precision, speed and ability. What they are not asked to do is to use their own creativity, to find their way to work and find new ideas.

Breaking the great firewall

Internet in China is very different from the one we know. Imagine if you didn’t have access YouTube or Wikipedia. Imagine if every time you search for something your search engine gives you no useful results. For a western lecturer this is a huge limit during the lessons. We downloaded all the materials for our speeches beforehand, without being able to wander freely during our lessons.

It seems that censorship does not represent a problem for the locals and sometimes I wondered if they realize that they are growing up remaining unaware of a global consciousness. They know that they cannot access to some websites, but they don’t know how huge the impact is on their overall education and behavior. For us, as western people, it has been hard to accept this situation and we tried to change this system, just giving to the students more possible clues to bypass the firewall using VPN software. Hey, there’s a world outside!

Only one of the sixty students, at the end, used a VPN software and subscribed to Facebook, adding us as a friend.

Students with mobile phones (Ph. Giovanni Fredi)

How we engaged a non-motivated class thanks to their mobile phones

We noticed that most of the students were using their phones during the lessons, even if it was forbidden by the school rules, and as long as we started the mobile phone art workshop we saw a great engagement.
No more sleeping guys in the classroom and a great attention during the tutorials. Excited about this enthusiasm we asked students to sign up to Instagram (yep! it works in China too), to start using it to publish their homework, to interact with their classmates and to build their own online personal identity. This way, we planned a serie of Instagram based workshop with regular revisions.

Tell me a story, without using a single word!

One of the first exercises was to tell us a story, using Emoji and unicode characters only:

❤☀ ☆ ☂ ☻ ♞☯ ☭ ☢ € → ☎ ❄ ♫ ✂ ▷ ✇ ♎ ⇧ ☮ ♻ ⌘◢◢ ◣▩▨▦▣■■◀◆◍◍ ◌▿◩

Emoji helped us to overcome interaction barriers due to the language gap, allowing students in producing works ready to be shared and discussed with the classmates and the teachers.
All the works produced during this workshop were immediately published by the students on Instagram under the hastag #labaemoji.

The life cycle by @vuhan_fan
Don’t be afraid, I will find you! by @vuhan_fan
The sea by @gzsuk
Street Flag by @greencolaa
My cat by @cdtxx
Graphic Artwork by @greencolaa
Moon pattern by @ttwater23
A textile texture made of symbols by @zzzzxyy
A smiling face by @bibibibibi_z

Become a contemporary artist on Instagram

Another exercise was to produce a reportage or an artwork to be published online. We explained students the value of their daily life, asked them to document their personal spaces to make them public. Something we do everyday in western society, in China could be very special and unusual. They accepted, so we collected a huge quantity of pictures of school dormitories, food and free time.

When we showed some artists social profiles such as the ones of David Guttenfelder, Raphael Rozendaal or Notendo they immediately understood the importance of following an artists, directly through the apps of their smartphone. This way they could get updates from the contemporary artists day by day, seeing firsthand the evolution of contemporary art.

Create an artwork starting from the worst bug

We asked students to search for some mobile applications to be used for producing visual artworks. Applications hide great potentials for artists because they can find inspiration in their bugs or in their limits. We asked students to find a personal way to use the mobile camera phone and the panoramic function. Also the Vine application gave them great tools in working with video and loops.

Taking a panoramic picture with subjects in motion results in this multiple shot effect. (Ph. Giorgio Mininno)

Why smartphones are a great didactic tools

We understood the benefits of working with mobile phones during this experiment. Day by day we had been building an online relationship between us and our students. We could follow them outside the walls of the classroom, taking trace of their progress, helping them to improve their works, gratifying them just with a double tap or with a simple comment. At the same time we were able to get a feeling for them, by making available our profiles with the pictures of our private life. We became something like friend, in a country where students use to feel a strong hierarchical gap with the teachers.

Giorgio Mininno

Giorgio is currently Art Director of Gummy Industries. Expert in web design, photography and visual identity.

Giovanni Fredi

Giovanni is an artist focused on new media anthropology, new aesthetic and videogames. He’s currently lecurer of Digital Video at the Ningbo Polytechnic, Zejiang, China. You can see his last work here.

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