Artist Ai Weiwei on Ingredients for Effective Activism
In 2003, artist and activist Ai Weiwei landed a plum commission from the Chinese government: designing the Beijing National Stadium (the “Bird’s Nest”), which became a symbol for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The government’s decision was in part due to Ai’s unique vision, honed by a decade of living and working in New York’s art scene, but it also might have been an attempt to mend fences. Ai’s father, poet Ai Qing, was a dissident who spent roughly 20 years in exile until he was reinstated following the death of Mao Zedong. Ai was raised in the dire conditions of a refugee before finally moving to Beijing in the late 1970s to study art. Although jailed by the Chinese government in 2011 for his political activism, this experience hasn’t stopped him from speaking out for human rights.
In a recent interview in Beverly Hills, Ai discussed a number of subjects, including his new documentary, “Human Flow,” an intimate and epic look at the refugee crisis spanning four continents. His current refugee-themed art installation, titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” went up in New York City on Friday to coincide with the movie’s opening. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday.
Here, Ai tells us why “America First” represents the worst of America, and offers a peek at the ingredients of effective activism.
Jordan Riefe: The biggest political problem facing refugees isn’t just leadership in Europe and North America, but emboldened racist and nationalistic sentiments among populations.
Ai Weiwei: I think it’s become so obvious. People are not hiding their shameful ideas. They’re even proud to show them. The idea, “America First,” that openly [boasts of] the superiority of the United States. All of those ideas are so out of date. It means you discriminate and dissociate yourself from the rest of the world. You have the wrong image and the wrong approach to the human condition.
JR: There’s a growing segment of people who support this type of rhetoric, not just here but in Europe as well.
AW: You can always come out with the barest policies that will attract the attention of those equally narrow-minded and shallow political practitioners. But as a result it pulls back our society to hurt the very fundamental values that everyone is created equal and there’s equal rights for women, to protect the people that are the minority.
JR: Are they exercising their right to free speech and/or are they a threat to free speech?
AW: Those ideas are very dangerous for a democratic establishment. It’s much more dangerous than what we call the “terror list,” because this is a true spiritual terror list attacking the definition of a democratic society. And these attacks are happening almost every day and everywhere.
JR: How important has social media and technology like smartphones been in generating activism?
AW: I think we’re lucky given the state where information can be flowing and transmitted through social media in almost real time. You almost can really rally against power. Think about Black Lives Matter: If we don’t see the shooting or the brutality of police and the rough footage by outside viewers, you could never really argue with the powers that be, because they will always have a reason for their shooting. Even if they shoot a person 70 times, they still have an argument. And basically the court has a judicial system always skewered on the side of power. It’s their nature to sacrifice those without a voice. So now we have a very different situation, because many things have been caught on tape, and it’s evident to anybody watching those tapes that this is unacceptable.
JR: But even with photo evidence most homicidal cops walk.
AW: But recordings are only one part. It doesn’t make a social movement. It takes a whole lot of other skills like how to organize, how to get your voice to the political level where it will affect decision makers and change our understanding of a structure in terms of defending basic human rights. That is established by gathering the evidence of the tools of direct response.
JR: Is that a system you honed in China?
AW: I did a lot this kind of preparation in China. We put a lot of activist videos directly on the internet, which had a tremendous impact, and made me, on one hand, very powerful. On the other hand, I’m the most dangerous person because I’m so skillful with social media and can generate a riot every day. So that’s why I’ve been treated very badly.
JR: You were released from prison in October 2011, and you moved to Germany.
AW: I’ve been in Berlin two years. I’m less focused on China because I believe it’s like out of sight, out of mind. If I’m there it’s more honest because I’m in direct danger for my actions. It’s a greater responsibility if I’m not there [China]. I don’t like to throw stones over the wall while I’m protected.
JR: Some might say the [government] succeeded in stifling you.
AW: But I’m still strongly critical about Chinese policies. What I can directly reflect now is the European condition. I always believe that with human rights, you go anywhere and protect anybody. It’s the whole of humanity. It doesn’t matter if it’s China, India or the U.S.—we all have to defend those rights. If you see what’s happened in the United States, it’s not any better than some countries. They’re sending [away] 800,000 young people [under President Trump’s action against the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals plan]; this is an unthinkable violation of human rights.
JR: President Xi Jinping has cracked down on free speech since taking office. What gives you confidence going forward?
AW: I have no confidence in whoever or whatever powers that be. You have to examine it by policy. If China [gets] more freedom of speech or less, a more independent judicial system or less, [becomes] more sensitive to human rights issues or less, those things measure a society.