The Information AiWei(Wei)

0 Comments 13 July 2015

It’s 9:04 in the morning, and Ai Weiwei is surfing the internet.

On his desk sit several unfinished cups of coffee, alongside a stack of fuzzily detailed artworks – each of which could well be worth hundreds of thousands – that Ai has positioned under his elbow as an impromptu armrest. His perpetually arched brows lift even higher as he observes his screen, curiously analysing its ambiguous content. It seems unlikely that a man with such a gentle disposition is so feared that he should be imprisoned in this studio indefinitely.

I haven’t arranged to meet Ai, nor have we organised any kind of online interview. However – only mildly creepily – I’m watching his morning routine from my laptop in Australia. “Weiweicam,” a self-surveillance project consisting of fifteen cameras hooked up to an online database, has allowed the internationally acclaimed artist to transform his private life into an open arena. After going live in April 2012, Ai told The Guardian that the 15 cameras have defined his studio as the “most-watched spot in the city,” making it one of the most accessible political artworks in the world. Just 48 hours after the stream was originally initiated, Ai was instructed to take the site down by Chinese officials. It’s since received 5.2 million hits.

The piece probably hasn’t succeeded purely for its aesthetics, though the home does have a certain charisma to it. Ai’s house-come-studio is oddly charming, opening into a small, bonsai-ornamented courtyard enclosed by four concrete walls. The area is evidently furnished for the visitors (of the physical kind) that frequent his studio, usually taking the form of intellectual, artistic types, alongside several ambiguously pixelated pets that follow him about his building. By making his home on this online stadium, Ai has made a sort of enterprise through his self-inflicted surveillance, including several hashtags coined by his fans and a live Instagram feed for spectators to participate in.

But WeiweiCam is a lot more interesting than a live feed. This quirky experimental art piece is, in fact, a carefully designed instrument of rebellion against the invasive restrictions inflicted on him by the Chinese Communist Party.

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The 57-year-old is a quietly spoken father of one, a contemporary artist, an architect, and a part-time political dissident. Placed under official house arrest, Ai is constantly accompanied by the observation of several police cameras – each ornamented by red lanterns that symbolise Chinese patriotism – that have generated this project of democratic rebellion. The installation of Weiweicam is only one of many demonstrations against the Chinese Communist Party CCP, most of which are fuelled by frustration with its frequent exploitations of its citizens and uncompromising lack of transparency. Through various works of unusual art that amplify the plight of his people under the oppressive regime of the CCP, Ai has constructed a powerful persona for himself on the world stage. The activist’s passionately defiant identity has caused him to become a somewhat unintentional representative of a Chinese revolution, inextricably tied to the country’s fight for free speech.

Ai has been quickly adopted by the West as some kind of a cultural commentator for the abuses of his government, an identity founded on a variety of works that protest despotism. Non-conformism seems to run in his family, with his father – Chinese poet Ai Qing – denounced at the rise of the ‘Anti-Rightist movement,’ and the family sent to a Beidahuang labour camp for their political dissidence when Ai was one year old. They were subsequently exiled to Xinjiang, a fiercely secessionist region of the country’s north-west, where the family remained for sixteen years until the end of the Cultural Revolution. After growing up excommunicated from Beijing’s political affairs, Ai went on to study animation at the capital city’s film academy, where his artistic identity was founded, and his art found its niche in the largely suppressed left-wing arena of Chinese political critics. He’s since gained some of his international fame through his part in designing the Beijing Olympic Stadium, as well as through an assortment of somewhat contradictory images of the architect flipping off important governmental buildings. These photos have drawn him an international audience through their spread across Western social media outlets, enhancing his prevalence in the global art culture. As Ai told Open Democracy in January of 2013, “Once the internet age arrived, we had a very different kind of politics… an individual can bear much more responsibility, and be much more powerful.” Ai demonstrates exactly how this notion plays out, channelling his rebellious artwork through the international gallery of the internet to enhance his message’s global significance.

Ai’s home privately hosts hundreds of unfinished yet (definitely) profound artistic oddities and is perpetually buzzing with human activity. However, Ai’s dissatisfaction with his confinement is not totally unreasonable. The wayward artist-turned-dissident has faced severe repercussions for his outspoken liberal attitude – namely in his compulsion to alert Chinese authorities should he ever wish to leave this studio, and epitomised by his 2011 arrest en route to Hong Kong. Following this initial seizure, Ai was held in a secret location for 81 days, and interrogated at least 50 times while his studio was raided and hard drives containing artwork destroyed. The artist’s renowned blog was deleted. His global exchanges have since been limited to his constantly active Twitter account, where his outspoken political dissidence is condensed into 140 characters or less, as other forms of online demonstrations are routinely censored and manipulated

These trivial consequences barring Ai Weiwei’s global exchange are a demonstration of the CCP’s determination to sustain its national objective of a so-called ‘socialist harmonious society’ through attempting to suppress the democratic sentiment that thrives in the political art scene. By inflicting severe consequences on popularly acknowledged dissidents, the CCP has endeavoured to discourage upheaval by demonstrating the repercussions of vocalising hate, and tried to block the artist’s provocative opinions from reaching a wider Chinese audience. This is all indicative of the government’s overarching fear of social unrest that could eventually topple its autocracy – however, these extensive efforts may instead be further inciting support for left-wing values.

Restricting Ai’s spread of ‘unfavourable’ information about the CCP through superfluous utilisation of legislative power has done little more than assist in generating a reorientation of global attention towards his art. With governmental brutality epitomised by the notorious Tiananmen Square massacre, Ai Weiwei’s determination to expose its inexorable abuses is in no way unfounded. The CCP has a twisted history of abusing the rights of its citizens and withholding details of its injustices, and this is evidently an area authorities would like to remain undiscussed. While their strategies of censorship and legal restrictions have proved successful for many years, the 21st century has facilitated a sharp increase in the accessibility of information to everybody, and opened a forum for Chinese citizens to question and criticise the actions of their government.

It’s now 12 o’clock in the afternoon, and the scruffy contentment of a large, white feline obscures the screen. Ai Weiwei chuckles, before lifting the creature from his desk and embracing it in his lap. While the indefinite confinement of the Chinese authorities seems an inexorable plight, one could only admire the resilience of Ai in his position. Through boundless positivity and steadfast determination, Ai is quietly constructing a very personal rebellion of pure, unwavering contentment.

Perhaps it’s impossible for a state to sustain a mass ignorance of its people in order to support its own dictatorship, especially with the availability of political criticism through the internet. No matter how desperately a government tries to censor the information available for its citizens to consume, it seems social unrest will only persist wherever political injustice occurs.

Maybe Ai will continue to spearhead this artistic uprising until he is free from detention, or until transparency exists around the decisions and actions of his government. Maybe the CCP will continue to restrict information until there is nobody left to expose them. Regardless of his restrictions, it seems Ai Weiwei’s determination to connect art with issues of social and political necessity is unshakeable.

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