Prior to Ai Weiwei’s detention on April 3, 2011, my work was largely focused on the ways artists and cultural producers work autonomously in the public sphere. Following the detention of this international art star—a stranger to me in a Communist country some six thousand miles from my life—my interests have expanded to methods of activism on his behalf. At their cores, the languages of autonomy and activism overlap considerably. Both autonomy and activism are propelled by a fervent disavowal of perceived powerlessness. Those who participate, whether acting individually or collaboratively, are able to envision a paradigm shift that empowers the disenfranchised and recognizes the resources that can be leveraged within existing limitations. Sourcing agency through protest is the only autonomous option I perceive as an observer of Ai’s situation, and so the work feels urgent. I want to determine the resources available to effectively protest from a distance. Can the meme of protest constructively enact civil disobedience online and impact real life? If so, to what extent are we, the vast digital community of Ai’s supporters, able to give form to our objections?
“You have to remember that yours is not a primary role,” Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, a Boston nonprofit that promotes the use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world, gently advised me. “Yours is a secondary position. Real change has to come from within China.” History has shown that no amount of outside, or secondary, protest will force a government to rewrite its policies; in this case, the people of China must instigate change. Secondary protest, however, is critical and has the potential to impact Ai’s fate as an individual. Charlie Finch has noted on Artnet that until recently, economic crimes in China have been punishable by death, including those that Ai has been charged with as a means of silencing his opposition to China’s human rights violations.1 As Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, has noted, “only sustained international pressure can help Ai Weiwei now.”2
In effect, by utilizing the Internet as a personal platform for dissent, Ai has been an ideal movement entrepreneur, which is defined by R. Kelly Garrett as “an individual motivated to undertake social movement activity and rely on their skills to conduct these actions.”3 It follows that Ai’s situation would generate other movement entrepreneurs, such as myself, working alongside experienced advocates. By amplifying his voice through the Internet, he has empowered others to do so as well. For example, Platoon Berlin, an autonomous “cultural development organization” with additional headquarters in Seoul, was among the first movement entrepreneurs to mobilize on the artist’s behalf. Within days of Ai’s detention, Platoon Berlin offered a free poster download on its website for supporters to wheat paste in public spaces and encouraged participants to digitally document these interventions for presentation online.
The activist potential of social media reflects the new paradigm ushered in by technology in the broadest sense: a nonhierarchical network of collectively organized individuals working autonomously to impact the ideological landscape. As such, it facilitates a potential for secondary protest that never existed before. In an October 2010 New Yorker article, writer Malcolm Gladwell critically compared digital activism enacted through social networks with the civil rights movement—essentially concluding that the superficiality of networks will never have the peopled vitality of grassroots activism on the ground.4 This may be true, but it also assumes a Luddite’s disregard for the growth potential in new technologies. Activists use every available resource, and the tools of the Internet are simply those of communication. Less than six months after Gladwell’s article, images of the Arab Spring revolts were being disseminated online via cell phone uploads. This doesn’t suggest that the community-driven actions of grassroots activism are outmoded or somehow replaceable by digital activism; rather, the two are complementary. “People often say that I started to become well spoken after a certain period,” Ai remarked in a video interview with the Guardian in April 2010, “but it is all because of the Internet. If we didn’t have this technology, I would be the same as anybody else: I could not really amplify my voice.”
The challenge of secondary protest is to engage the tools of the Internet while avoiding the pitfalls of lax digital activism. As writer and activist Micah White has noted, “the obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.”5 White’s critique centers on the implementation of marketing strategies to elicit participation based on the effort of a few mouse clicks, specifically focusing on petitions and fundraising by organizers such as MoveOn.org. “Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds to enact social change,” White lamented in the Guardian last year, although he also concedes that “the challenge of sparking epiphanies is the new revolutionary priority. But this does not mean we shut our eyes entirely to the potential of technology.”6 Ai has been an unfailing experimenter with the potential uses of technology, from social networking and blogging to cell phone camera uploads and video streaming. Beyond signing a digital petition, which has its merits in recognizing a vast, unified community, he has demonstrated that there are innumerable other online tools that can be leveraged for activism.
In recent months, a pattern has begun to emerge that indicates a hybrid of digital activism and grassroots action. Social networks have played key roles in these actions, utilized as both organizational and promotional tools. In April, New York–based arts presenter Creative Time initiated 1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei, an internationally staged protest in front of Chinese embassies and consulates around the world. Information was disseminated online, and documentation aggregated on Facebook. Many participants in the San Francisco protest held posters they downloaded from the blog of Christine Wong Yap, an artist with long ties to the Bay Area who is now based in New York. This kind of mediated participation is evident in documentation from the other protests as well—through the digital dissemination of posters and other protest ephemera, geographic participation was unlimited. The entire event was spurred from a comment posted by curator Steven Holmes in response to an open
question posted on Facebook by Creative Time executive director Anne Pasternak asking what the arts community can do to support Ai’s safe release. In response to the query, Holmes suggested that people bring chairs and gather in front of embassies and consulates to reenact Fairytale: 1001 Qing Dynasty Wooden Chairs (2007), Ai's installation at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. In other words, because someone typed out a few lines—a simple idea—a protest was organized in multiple cities around the world and covered by international media outlets. The event continues to find traction in the media and, in turn, spurs other public actions for creative dissent.
Activism by nature is experimental— an uncertain outcome is the only consistent element to each initiative. This should be freeing, but most would admit to feeling restrained by uncertainty. “Don’t take notes to write an article,” Steve Lambert chided as I took notes. “Start sending seeds. Something always happens when you start to do something.” Lambert, with Stephen Duncombe, founded the Center for Artistic Activism (CAA), an itinerant school to encourage the use of creativity in social activism. The goal, Lambert says, is failure; in other words, CAA encourages experimentation through trial. Students are advised to document their work online and to pursue every opportunity to reiterate their cause in the press, including legal snares. I called on him to consult about Seed the Embassy, an idea I had for an experimental protest to encourage people to send sunflower seeds to Chinese embassies in support of Ai.7 Ultimately, Seed the Embassy went live; in May, as a result of its ongoing viral trajectory, the Toronto Committee to Free Ai Weiwei implemented the idea at the Museum for Contemporary Canadian Art.
In May, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego organized a twenty-four-hour sit-in; participants signed up via Facebook.8 The event was documented via a time-lapse video and archived on YouTube as a document of dissent.9 It is also of note that many participants wore T-shirts printed with the “Free Ai Weiwei” graphic by Playtype, an online type foundry created by Copenhagen-based design agency e-Types, that was recently featured in the New York Times style magazine blog as a free download. A nonhierarchical interplay between individuals and organizations is apparent in these events. Facilitated by the Internet, these demonstrations embody some of the potential for activism in social networking: open participation organized across geographic distances with various forms of documentation.
The discursive buzz surrounding many of these actions in support of Ai has garnered press attention—once recognized by the media, the message has the potential to occupy a viral Mobius strip, alternating as a published news item and then appearing as a subsequent link in posts that feed back into news items. This essentially results in sustained international attention. The process by which digi-sphere actions become news items reflects an unusual form of democracy—as in American Idol, anyone can vote and they can vote more than once—and the strength of the action is measured in posts, shares, likes, reposts, links, and so on. How many “hits” a video on YouTube has, for example, becomes a news item in itself, drawing attention not only to the video—more people watch it because so many people are watching it—but also to the amount of attention the video has generated. The nature of the hype extends beyond the integrity of the action to its popularity—this could be interpreted as a seemingly superficial impact, except that it encourages others to take up actions of their own, causing further ripples of other actions. The value of these demonstrations isn’t to be found in any one advocate, event or image, but rather in the accumulation of everyone’s efforts. Every documented public action, every post, every T-shirt, every article, and yes, even every sunflower seed: every imperfect gesture of protest matters in the larger scheme.
“Identify your power potential—where can you have power—and how the power can be mobilized in a way that your opponent needs to pay attention,” Dr. Gene Sharp advised me. Sharp is the Nobel Peace Prize–nominated political theorist and author of extensive writings on protest and resistance, including 198 Methods of Non-Violent Action, the two-page list of strategies for peaceful resistance that was photocopied and widely distributed as an informal field manual during the Egyptian revolution this year. Much of Sharp’s writing is available for free download and has been translated to more than forty languages. When asked about protesting from a secondary position, he replied, “It is much more difficult because you have very little leverage. You can protest, but it is symbolic. You have to become self-reliant and be creative in developing your capacities on your own initiative.” He paused before emphasizing, “It is possible to impact world opinion.”
The power potential of social networks is evidenced by the response from oppressive regimes during the Arab Spring. Why else would it have been necessary for Facebook to place the Egyptian Protest Page under special protection in April during the height of protests?10 Or for Sudan’s National Congress Party to threaten potential dissenters with the wrath of “cyber jihadists?”11 For those who, as Americans, take freedom of speech for granted, it should be noted that the forces at work in China can be found here, too: since April, San Francisco–based Change.org has been the target of a cyber-attack linked to an ongoing petition in support of Ai. From their homepage: “Change.org is experiencing intermittent downtime due to a cyber-attack originating in China, which the FBI is investigating and the State Department has condemned. The attack appears to be in response to a Change.org petition signed by more than 140,000 people worldwide, who are standing against the detention of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Despite this attack, we will continue to stand with the supporters of Ai Weiwei to defend free speech and the freedom to organize for people everywhere.”
These threats are the acts of totalitarian regimes that recognize that their dominion is threatened by the body politic of an increasingly creative, transnational digital community. Throughout these investigations into autonomy and activism, creativity has emerged as an astonishingly simple strength with the power to mobilize people and activate change. “Creativity is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential,” quotes one of four posters in support of Ai available as a free download on Facebook from Lisson Gallery, Ai’s London representation.
The arts community is uniquely equipped with the resources to cultivate secondary protest strategies: we possess production and writing skills, and operate from extensive, diffused networks that we can access to launch ideas such as these into the digi-sphere. We don’t need to wait for larger organizations to lead the way—we can, as individuals, launch our ideas into the ether autonomously via the Internet. As already demonstrated, it doesn’t matter if the efforts are small—the potential for impact is unprecedented. In February of this year, following the destruction of his studio by the Chinese government, Ai “spoke” via a secretly recorded video made in Beijing for a TED presentation in Long Beach, California. He described at length the interconnectedness of his work and his activism, saying, “An individual who makes an effort can make an impact.” This was not Ai Weiwei’s conclusion, but his invitation.