Design Via Skype: Ai Weiwei and New Media Tactics

Ai Weiwei in the shadows on site at the building of Beijing's Olympic Stadium in 2008.
Following a twitter link this morning, I read with interest a Village Voice article that presents a debate between three art critics about art and politics in the age of Occupy.  While the article itself seemed a bit behind the ball in terms of obvious sentiments that raise the importance of a topic very much in public discourse (perhaps one by-product of living and working in the elite world of New York art institutions) I was struck by the concise summary that critic Martha Schwendener made about artist Ai Weiwei’s role within contemporary social and political movements that question repressive power structures. In her estimation, Ai’s approach centers on the use of traditional social media practices reconceptualised through new media platforms:  “The principal thing to consider with Ai Weiwei is his blog. In the Western world, we think artist and activist. Over in China, they think: What's the difference? If you're an artist, you're an activist. It has been that way for hundreds of years. Ai Weiwei has pushed his activism to the limit. When his blog got shut down, he went to Twitter and critiqued the government in 140-character messages, which is how long most of Mao's pronouncements were.”

Jacques Herzog, Ai Weiwei, and Pierre de Meuron.
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Even now, despite being barred from leaving China, Ai Weiwei has continued to push his activism to the limit and find innovative ways to continue producing and disseminating his art projects through the use of new media communication. This past week, the BBC reported that Ai will unite forces again with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron to design the Serpentine pavilion for the 2012 Olympics in London. Ai had famously collaborated with the duo to create the design for the now iconic “Bird’s Nest” stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but then later fell into disfavour with the Chinese government when he criticized aspects of how the games were being used to cover up human rights abuses within the country. Since then, Ai has been the target of increasing government surveillance and now faces charges stemming from alleged “economic crimes” tied to his 81 day detainment in a Chinese prison last spring (a subject I have blogged about a great deal).  

As a condition of his current situation in China, Ai explains in the BBC interview that he is restricted from speaking with foreigners and cannot leave the country freely. Yet, as the video also reveals— itself evidence of his continued communication beyond these restrictions—the collaboration he is undertaking will be conducted via Skype. As a software application allowing users to make voice calls over the Internet, Skype is just the latest new media technology that the artist is deploying in his attempts to reach a broad global audience. As Ai explains in the interview “I [am] always interested in communication, so architecture, so media, so Internet or art activities.. if there is right content and right moment. When they offered me this opportunity, I feel very happy.” At this point it is doubtful that Ai will ever physically see the finished building, but it is also very clear that the means through which the design reaches the Olympic games is of primary importance to the form of art activism Ai is now deploying. It is also interesting to note that the design for the Serpentine pavilion itself is rooted in an attempt to get audiences to look beneath the surface of the building. Returning to the Village Voice article, it is the kind of art making that those in North America are watching closely. As critic R.C. Baker suggests at the conclusion of the debate, “Art should ring in new directions in the culture.”