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