Sex, censorship, and a sadomasochistic relationship with Shanghai
Untitled-Folder is a magazine based in Shanghai, China, made by the fashion stylist Edge Yang, and the artist known as Boihugo. It’s a purposefully niche title, with a tiny print run, but Untitled’s audience is global — Edge and Boihugo have over 30,000 combined followers on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) — and their focus is on ‘oriental’ (their intention is to reclaim that word) queers around the world. Images are explicit. When Tumblr announced late last year that it was banning any sexual content from the platform, Boihugo released an open call asking people to masturbate to their favourite pictures, and then send a picture of their cum to him as a “collective online orgasm carnival”. The resultant work, ‘Cum For Me One Last Time’, is unexpectedly beautiful, with no visible genitalia — a collage of socks and pants and naked belly buttons.
In conversation with the artist Tian Cai towards the end of the issue, Boihugo suggests that making a magazine in Shanghai might be a bit like being in the submissive role in an S&M relationship. Homosexuality was decriminalised in China in 1997, but in 2018 the novelist Tianyi was sentenced to a decade in prison for writing a gay erotic novel, under a law that makes it an ‘especially serious’ crime to sell more than 5,000 copies of a work classed as pornographic.
Edge and Boihugo tell me they move in open-minded art and fashion circles, and are able to be visibly queer, but that the authorities are getting more restrictive. As editors, they choose to look at queerness in Western contexts (the central feature in the issue is a series of interviews with different LGBTQ ‘oriental’ creatives living around the world) rather than focusing on human rights abuses perpetrated against the local Chinese gay community. Partly that’s a strategy, Boihugo tells me via email: “a way of keeping a safe distance from our homeland”.
But it’s interesting that much of the content here revolves around freedom of expression, both in and outside China. I first heard about Untitled because I was commissioned to do an interview about the Tumblr ban with the art director Ben Freeman, who argues that we’re “sleepwalking into a totalitarian information landscape”. The conversation between Boihugo and Tian Cai is particularly illuminating on this, and while the difficulty of making work in China is discussed, it’s by no means straightforward. Boihugo shares a story about having a London company refuse to print his explicit zine, while in contrast, “people in China may low-key judge you, [but] they’ll still print it as long as it brings in money”.
One of the most interesting things about this magazine is that is looks at the internet in a nuanced way. The anxiety of surveillance is strongly felt, but online life — in all its weirdness and mess — is examined as a thing of wonder. One highlight is a piece by Jade Barget about the artist Chai Kamrai, looking at the way memes can be used as a tool for the marginalised, a way of “slid[ing] into new kinships”.
As an object, Untitled Folder is very satisfying. It comes in a lovely thick plastic folder, and is comprised of six parts: the thick, white magazine-proper; a Chinese translation; a single essay printed on an enormous fold-out poster; plus three picture-only fashion books. There’s also a lovely sticker on the front of the non-binary model Xiaojie.