An individual who makes an effort can make an impact
(Ai Weiwei giving a TED talk, speaking about the link between his creative work and social activism)
Aaron & I worked together on this project. The original inspiration came from thinking about the potential for sound as a medium suited to small acts of protest that can take place in contested, controlled public spaces. We started thinking about politically or culturally sensitive spaces such as the National (‘Bird’s Nest’) Stadium in Beijing, where any form of physical, visual or amplified sound protest would be quickly spotted and not tolerated by the police – so, the motivating idea behind this project is to place sounds that encourage the ‘performance’ of listening to banned speech in such spaces, as a means of drawing attention to and protesting state censorship.
We decided that appropriating and re-using the recorded speech of Chinese artist / political dissident / social media activist Ai Weiwei would be an interesting way to explore this further. His career is a fascinating one in which his diverse artistic practice, political activism and public communications (especially using social media such as Twitter) are interconnected and often reference each other. A famous case is his response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which thousands of schoolchildren died as a result of shoddy ‘tofu’ construction of their school buildings due to corruption. When his request for the authorities to publish the names of those children who died was denied, he led an investigation and published the thousands of names on his (subsequently blocked) blogs and then created the piece below called Remembering (part of the So Sorry exhibition at the Haus der Kunst Museum), that is made up of 9000 children’s backpacks that spell out the words ‘She lived happily in this world for seven years” in Chinese characters (words spoken by one of the bereaved mothers and quoted by Ai Weiwei in one of the clips).
His popularity inside and outside China has combined with his practice and activism to make him a very dangerous and disruptive figure in the eyes of the Chinese authorities. The state has made numerous attempts to censor and/or discredit him, which have themselves resulted in a number of critical creative responses. In April 2011 Ai Weiwei was arrested and held for several months on tax evasion charges – his release in June 2011 was conditional upon his acceptance of bail restrictions that include banning him from using Twitter for a year.
Our project makes use of a publicly available social media tool (website + mobile app called broadcastr) that enables sound clips to be mapped to particular locations – the choice of broadcastr is not significant, although as far as I can tell it is not blocked by China’s ‘Great Firewall’.
The project uses found sounds, mainly extracts we have edited from interviews with or talks given by Ai Weiwei. After generating individual clips across a wide range of topics, we uploaded and attached them to different locations within China – sometimes the choice of location is relevant, either because it relates to the subject of the clip (e.g. a clip discussing his piece Dropping the Urn is located in Jingdezhen, a traditional pottery center) or because it is a place in which speech is tightly controlled and any form of public protest would not be tolerated. Other sounds that do not relate to specific locations have been arranged in such a way as to write out across the map of China a massive version of his Twitter username:
Go to http://www.broadcastr.com/ to view & listen on web and/or download app (for iphone & android)
A few links if you want to find out more: