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Artist Ai Weiwei makes rare U.S. appearance to talk about digital activism

March 15, 2010 |  7:07 pm

Aiweiwei

Outspoken, brusque and sometimes rude, Ai Weiwei doesn't sugarcoat his opinions. The visual artist, who has carved out a second career as a digital activist, is a prominent online voice against censorship and other forms of oppression in China. On Monday, he made a rare public appearance in the U.S. to talk about his campaigns on Twitter (@aiww), his blogging activity and his other forms of civil disobedience.

Ai spoke Monday evening at the Paley Center for Media in New York as part of a panel discussion that also included Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, and Richard MacManus, the founder of ReadWriteWeb. The conversation was moderated by journalist and author Emily Parker.

Speaking in English, Ai broadly described the current state of online censorship in China -- sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are mostly inaccessible by the public. He also explained how he is able to access Twitter through a procedure that allows him to bypass what is known as the "Great Firewall of China."

Ai described his evolution from an artist to an activist as "a very natural act" and said that social media are "like water and air, but in China we can’t even talk about it." 

When asked if he fears not being allowed to reenter the country, the artist replied: "Nothing can silence me as long as I’m alive. I don’t give any excuse. It isn’t going to change my beliefs." 

He later added, "It’s not a geographical question anymore. I can still Twitter and people can still follow me. So I never considered that to be a problem."

In past months, Ai has tweeted and blogged about the Chinese government's handling of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which young children were killed when their schools collapsed.

Ai has stated that he has been detained by Chinese police and that he was prevented from giving testimony at a hearing regarding the earthquake.

In September, the artist underwent surgery for a brain injury that he said was inflicted by Chinese authorities.

Though he maintained a calm demeanor for much of Monday's panel talk, Ai became visibly agitated when one audience member -- who identified herself as a Chinese-American businesswoman -- suggested that China wasn't necessarily ready for democracy yet. She also said that China's growing middle-class should be able to peacefully enjoy the fruits of its prosperity.

"How can you give excuses?" said Ai. "I don’t think you should give credit to a nation that deprives people of human rights. You say they’re happy? I’m sure, because they made money so easily."

Another audience member, who identified himself as a Tibetan, thanked the artist for his online activism and said that while China' middle class may be happy, there are millions of Tibetans who are not because of the current one-party dictatorship.

During the panel discussion, Dorsey, of Twitter, admitted that he hadn't known that Twitter was blocked in China until someone from the Paley Center had informed him a few weeks before.

When asked by an audience member if Twitter would ever give user information to the Chinese government, Dorsey replied: "It’s a question for the company, but I would hope that we could work with the [U.S.] government so that doesn’t have to happen."

Though Ai regularly exhibits his work in Asia and Europe, he has not made many art-related appearances in the U.S. in recent years. (Ai lived and studied in New York during the 1980s and is currently based in Beijing.)

The artist is often likened to Andy Warhol for his pop deconstructions of familiar images. One of his most well-known works is a photographic series of a middle finger pointed at various national monuments.

On Monday, Ai said he spends an average of eight hours a day on Twitter and even uses the social networking tool as his primary news resource.

"It's the people's tool -- the tool of people without any other resource," he said.

The video below provides selections from Monday's conversation with Ai at the Paley Center.

-- David Ng

Photo: Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio. Credit: Alexander F. Yuan / Associated Press.

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Comments () | Archives (6)

--"I can still Twitter and people can still follow me"?
Who follow you? 0.00000001% of hard working Chinese population? You are too self-confident, man, as your father who was hired to sing harol for Mao all his life.
You are just the most reactionary force to China's historical reform and a foot soldier for the West's geopoliical agenda. Pei!

just finish watching aiweiwei's interview in CNN.
something need to be corrected.
aiweiwei said No Youtube, No Facebook,No twitter,even No more Google in China, and then two interviewers showed shocked and stuck.

I think not too many NON CHINESE people actually know youku.com, qq space, mop.com, tianya.cn, which are the most popular web in China as the same function as youtube, facebook,twitter, or even more functional.
when QQ has occupied all most the Chinese users, do you think a normal person will post their emotion on qq space and copy/paste on twitter again. EXCEPT, he can get benefit from such copy/paste.

and what aiweiwei said No More Google, that is a big joke. the vanishing one is google.cn. is there anybody know how many users in China using google.cn

if Chinese want to search Chinese info, use Baidu.com as first priority.
if search English info, use google.com directly.
google.cn, who use that, so what influence if it goes away.

the biggest mistake aiweiwei made, and many others have the same wrong thoughts is, You forget

CHINA IS JUST A DEVELOPING COUNTRY.

PLEASE DO NOT COMPARE WITH ANY DEVELOPED COUNTRY.

WHEN CHINA BECOMES DEVELOPED, CHINA WILL BEHAVE BETTER.

Hello David,

In response to the comment about Ai Weiwei not making art-related appearances in the U.S. in recent years, I would like to mention that his iconoclastic ceramic work is currently the subject of a 15-piece traveling exhibition on view now at Arcadia University Art Gallery in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Entitled "Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works 5000 BCE - 2010 CE)", the exhibition remains open through April 18, 2010. [www.arcadia.edu/gallery] The show will will then travel to the Museum of Contemporary Craft (Portland, Oregon), where it will be on view from July 15 through October 30, 2010. Ai has not promised to visit either venue in relation to this traveling exhibition, but I thought it was important to let you know that these ceramic works, which play a critical role in shaping his overall practice, are in the U.S. now. Thought I should also mention that Ai was in Miami briefly for "Art Basel" during the first days December 2009. While he was there, he was interviewed by Beijing-based critic Philip Tinari as part of the fair's programming. (Tinari contributed one of four essays commissioned for the Arcadia exhibition catalog.)

Thank you,

Richard Torchia
exhibition co-curator (with Gregg Moore) and
Director, Arcadia University Art Gallery

Yes, Mr.Ai should be more self-confident.
At least I will follow him. My friends, my colleagues will follow him. Thousands of awaked Chinese youngman will follow him. Mr. Ai is just state the domestic fact of present China.
Don't lie to us anymore~~ We aren't deaf, damb, blind person anymore. And we have our own mind.

I just wanna say that the websites such as QQ and the mop...is just the toys for kids and petty ladies.

i think weiwei should spend his 8 hours doing something more productive than just looking at twitter feeds. is art productive? or is working a job and than coupling one's free time with art, productive? Some people just want to 'bitch' about other people's problems and stand as a totem to the obvious truth that people must 'work,' to feed themselves. Whether this is tending their own gardens or working an office job. The problem is in not people's access to information but how they may turn their garden or office job into something productive beyond themselves. If people cannot learn how to go beyond themselves for the greater good, then its a lost battle.

Ai Weiwei "Freedom" Ai Weiwei "Freedom" 自由, 艾未未http://www.flickr.com/photos/cainandtoddbenson/5240416160/


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